Étiquette : Louis-Philippe


« Mutual tuition »: historical curiosity or promise of a better future?

Bas-relief of Gutenberg statue in Strasbourg, by David d’Angers.

By Karel Vereycken, July 2023, PARIS.

1. Introduction
2. Learning and teaching at the same time, a precious joy
3. Precedents:
A. In India
B. In France
4. Gaspard Monge’s brigades
5. Andrew Bell
6. Joseph Lancaster
7. Mutual Tuition, how it works
A. The class room
B. Teachers and monitors
C. A day at a mutual school
D. Progress according to each pupil’s knowledge
E. Tools
F. Command
8. Bellists vs. Lancasterians
9. France adopting Mutual Tuition
10. Lazare Carnot takes the helm
11. Mutual tuition and choral music
12. The rue Saint-Jean-de-Beauvais pilot project
13. Jomard, Choron, Francœur and elementary knowledge
14. Going Nationwide
15. Critique
16. Mechanistic drift?
17. Death of mutual tuition in France
18. Conclusion
19. Short list of books and texts consulted

« Answer, my friends: it must be sweet for you
To have as your only mentors children like yourselves;
Their age, their mood, their pleasures are your own;
And these victors of one day, tomorrow vanquished by others,
Are, in turn, adorned with modest ribbons,
Your equals in your games, your masters on the benches.
Mute, eyes fixed on your happy emulators,
You are not distracted by the fear of ferulas;
Never an avenging whip, frightening your spirits,
Makes you forget what they taught you;
I listen badly to a fool who wants me to fear him,
And I know much better what a friend teaches me. »

Victor Hugo, Discours sur les avantages de l’Enseignement mutuel, 1817.

1. Introduction

Teaching reading and writing to 1,000 children in the same room, without a teacher, without school books, without paper and ink, is clearly impossible. And yet, it has been imagined and put into practice with great success!
Shh! we mustn’t talk about it, because it could give some people ideas, and not just in emerging countries!

That such a challenge could be taken up could only worry the oligarchy and its servants, who since the dawn of time have been mandated to train an « elite » (the high priests of knowledge, « experts » and other know-it-alls) who reproduce in a vacuum at the top, while ensuring that the great mass of people below are educated just enough to be able to deliver parcels, pay their taxes, abide by the rules defined by the top, and above all, not make (too) much of a mess.

And yet, as Hippolyte Carnot, Minister of Public Instruction in the Second Republic, understood long before us, without a republican education – in other words, without genuine citizen training from kindergarten onwards – universal suffrage often becomes a tragic farce capable of producing monsters.

In the early 19th century, « mutual tuition », (sometimes referred to as the English Monitorial System, also known as Madras System or Lancasterian System), spread like wildfire across Europe and then the rest of the world including the United States of America.

If the teacher addresses a single pupil, it’s the individual mode (as in the case of the preceptor); if he addresses an entire class, it’s the simultaneous mode; if he instructs some children to teach others, it’s the mutual mode. The combination of simultaneous and mutual modes is called mixed mode.

Mutual tuition quickly fell victim to personal quarrels and ideological, political and religious issues. In France, it was seen as an aggression by religious congregations who practiced « simultaneous teaching », codified as early as 1684 by Jean-Baptiste de La Salle : classes by age, division by level, fixed and individual places, strict discipline, repetitive and simultaneous work supervised by an inflexible master.

With the formation of small groups where pupils teach each other and move around the classroom, mutual teaching immediately gave rise, rather foolishly, to the fear of an ass-over-head world straight out of a Hieronymus Bosch painting. What kind of world are we in if the pupil teaches the teacher? the child the parent? the faithful the priest? the citizen the government ! Without a clear leader, aren’t we lost ?

In 1824, Pope Leo XII (not to be confused with the benevolent Leo XIII), the « Pope of the Holy Alliance », a fierce supporter of order and suspect of a vast Protestant plot against the Vatican, forbade such teaching, believing it to « weaken the authority » of both teachers and political and religious authorities.

In France, where in the years following the 1830 revolution over 2,000 mutual schools existed, mainly in towns, in competition with denominational schools, François Guizot, Louis-Philippe’s minister and initially a promoter of broad public education, had them closed down.

2. Learning and teaching at the same time,
a precious joy

Prince Charles Louis of the Palatinate with his Tutor Wolrad von Plessen in Historical Dress, painting of Jan Lievens.

Today, « tutoring » is enjoying a revival in the context of school and vocational training. It is a process of « assistance by more experienced subjects to less experienced subjects, likely to enrich the latter’s acquisitions ».

Tutoring between children, in particular between children of different ages, is encouraged from nursery school right through to university, with the institutionalization of methodological tutoring at undergraduate level. Since the 1980s, elementary and secondary schools in France and abroad have seen the development of numerous tutoring experiments.

In reality, tutoring is no more than the pale heir to the mutual tuition system developed in England and then France in the 19th century.

Hence, the future of humanity depends on an exclusively human faculty: the discovery of new universal physical principles, often totally beyond the limits of our sensory apparatus, enabling Man to increase his capacity to transform the universe to qualitatively improve his lot and that of his environment. A discovery is never the result of the sum or average of opinions, but of an individual, perfectly sovereign act. Are we able to organize our society so that this « sacred » creative principle is cherished, respected and cultivated in any newborn child?

Because, without the socialization of this discovery, it will be useless. The history of mankind is therefore, by its very nature, the history of « mutual tuition ».

Look what I discovered !

Is not the greatest pleasure of those who have just made a discovery – and this is natural for children – to share, with a view to a shared future, not only what he or she has just discovered, but the joy and beauty that every scientific breakthrough represents? And when those who discover teach and those that teach, discover, the pleasure is immense. So let’s give our professional teachers the time they need to make discoveries, for the quality of their teaching will be enhanced!


A. In India

In 1623, the Italian explorer Pietro Della Valle (1586-1652), after a trip to « Industan » (India), in a letter dispatched from Ikkeri (a town in south-west India), reports having seen boys teaching each other how to read and write using singing :

Pietro Della Valle

« In order to inculcate it perfectly in their memory, to repeat the previous lessons that had been prescribed to them, lest they forget them, one of them would sing in a certain musical tone a line from the lesson, such as two and two make four. After all, it’s easy to learn a song.

« While he sang this part of the lesson to learn it better, he wrote it down at the same time, not with a pen, nor on paper. But to spare him and not spoil it unnecessarily, they marked the characters with their fingers on the same floor where they were sitting in a circle, which they had covered for this purpose with very loose sand. After the first of these children had written in this way while singing, the others sang and wrote the same thing all together

« (…) When I asked them who (…) corrected them when they missed, given that they were all schoolboys, they answered me very reasonably, that it was impossible that a single difficulty should stop them all, four at the same time, without being able to overcome it and that for the subject they always practiced together so that if one missed, the others would be his teachers.« 

In Della Valla‘s report, we can already identify some of the basic principles of mutual tuition, notably the simultaneous learning of reading and writing, the use of sand for writing exercises to avoid wasting paper, which is scarce and very expensive, a group lesson given by a teacher, followed by work in sub-groups in which pupils learn to self-regulate, and finally, an integration of knowledge which, thanks to the use of song, will facilitate memorization.

B. In France

Charles Demia.

In Lyon, the priest Charles Démia, was one of the precursors of mutual tuition, which he put into practice in the « petites écoles » for poor children he founded and theorized as early as 1688. According to the Nouveau dictionnaire de pédagogie et de l’instruction primaire:

« Démia introduced what later came to be known as mutual tuition into the classroom: he recommended that a certain number of officers be chosen from among the most capable and studious pupils, some of whom, under the name of intendants and decurions, would be responsible for supervision, while the others would have to have the master’s lessons repeated, correct pupils when they made mistakes, guide the hesitant hand of ‘young writers’, etc. » In order to make simultaneous teaching possible, Démia’s idea of ‘mutual teaching’ was based on the principle of ‘teaching to one another’. To make simultaneous teaching possible, the author of the regulations divides the school into eight classes, to be taught in turn by the master; each of these classes can be subdivided into bands ».

In Paris, as early as 1747, mutual education was practiced with great success in a school of over 300 pupils, established by M. Herbault, at the Hospice de la Pitié, in favor of the children of the poor. Unfortunately, the experiment did not survive its founder.

In 1772, the ingenious charity of Chevalier Paulet conceived and carried out the project of applying a similar method to the education of a large number of children, left without support in society by the death of their parents.

4. Gaspard Monge’s « brigades »

Gaspard Monge.

Finally, as recounted in his biography of Gaspard Monge by his most brilliant pupil, the astronomer François Arago (1786-1853), himself a close friend of Alexander von Humboldt, it was at the École Polytechnique that Monge perfected his own system of mutual tuition and tutoring.

Finding it unacceptable to have to wait three years for the first engineers to graduate from the Ecole Polytechnique, Monge decided to speed up student training by organizing « revolutionary courses », an accelerated training program lasting three months for those in charge of teaching to the others. To achieve this, he perfected the concept of « chefs de brigades », a technique he had already successfully tested at the Mézières engineering school.

Elèves de l’Ecole Polytechnique, bas-relief du Panthéon par David d’Angers.
Graduates of the Ecole Polytechnique in front of Ecole du genie miltaire of Mézières.

François Arago:
« The brigade leaders, always working with small groups of students in separate rooms, were to have the extremely important task of ironing out difficulties as they arose. Never had a more skilful combination been devised to remove any excuse for mediocrity or laziness.

« This creation belonged to Monge. At Mézières, where the engineering students were divided into two groups of ten, and where, in fact, our colleague acted for some time as permanent brigade leader for both divisions, the presence in the classrooms of a person who was always in a position to overcome objections had produced results that were too fortunate for this former repetiteur, in drafting the developments attached to Fourcroy’s report, not to try to endow the new school with the same advantages.

« Monge did more; he wanted the 23 sections of 16 students each, of which the three divisions were to be composed, to have their brigade leader, as in ordinary times, following the revolutionary lessons, and at the opening of the courses of the three degrees. In a word, he wanted the School, at its beginning, to function as if it had already been in existence for three years.

« Here’s how our colleague achieved this seemingly unattainable goal. It was decided that 25 students, chosen by competitive examination from among the 50 candidates who had received the best marks from the admission examiners, would become brigade leaders of three divisions of the school, after receiving special instruction separately. In the mornings, the 50 young people, like all their classmates, attended revolutionary classes; in the evenings, they were brought together at the Hôtel Pommeuse, near the Palais-Bourbon, and various teachers prepared them for the functions they were destined to perform. Monge presided over this scientific initiation with infinite kindness, ardor and zeal. The memory of his lessons remains indelible in the minds of all those who benefited from them.

Arago then quotes Edme Augustin Sylvain Brissot (1786-1819), son of the famous abolitionist, , one of the 50 students, who reported : « It was there that we began to get to know Monge, this man so kind to youth, so devoted to the propagation of science. Almost always in our midst, he followed lessons in geometry, analysis and physics with private discussions where we found even more to gain. He became a friend to each and every one of the students at the Ecole provisoire, joining in the efforts he was constantly provoking, and applauding, with all the vivacity of his character, the successes of our young minds ».

While mutual teaching is fully practiced, the total dedication of a master as devoted as Monge completes what otherwise becomes nothing more than a « system ».

5. Andrew Bell

Andrew Bell in 1825.

It was a Scotsman, the Anglican clergyman Andrew Bell (1753-1832), who claimed the paternity of mutual tuition, which he theorized and practiced in India, at the head of the Egmore Military Asylum for Orphans (Eastern India), an institution created in 1789 to educate and instruct the orphans and destitute sons of the European officers and soldiers of the Madras army.

After 7 years there, Bell returned to London and, in 1797, wrote a report to the East India Company (his employer in Madras) on the incredible benefits of his invention.

Russian physician, naturalist and inventor Iosif Khristianovich (Joseph) Hamel (1788-1862), a member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, was commissioned by Alexander I, Emperor of Russia, to write a full report on this new type of education, which was then being discussed throughout Europe.

Madras School of Andrew Bell.

In Der Gegenseitige Unterricht (1818), he reports what Bell wrote in one of his writings: « It happened at this time, that one morning as I was taking my usual walk, I passed a school of young Malabar children, and saw them busy writing on the ground. The idea immediately occurred to me that perhaps the children at my school could be taught the letters of the alphabet by tracing on the sand. I immediately went home and ordered the teacher of the last class to carry out what I had just arranged. Fortunately, the order was very poorly received; for if the master had complied to my satisfaction, it is possible that all further development would have been stopped, and with it the very principle of mutual education… »

Mutual education was coldly received in England, but eventually won over Samuel Nichols, one of the school leaders at St. Botolph’s Aldgate, London’s oldest Anglican Protestant parish. Bell’s precepts were implemented with great success, and his method was taken up by Dr. Briggs when he opened an industrial school in Liverpool.

6. Joseph Lancaster

Joseph Lancaster.

In England, it was Joseph Lancaster (1778-1838), a twenty-year-old London schoolteacher, who seized upon the new way of teaching, perfected it and generalized it on a large scale. (See text of his 1810 booklet)

In 1798, he opened an elementary school for poor children in Borough Road, one of London’s poorest suburbs. Education was not yet totally free, but it was 40% cheaper than other schools in the capital. Lacking money, Lancaster did everything in his power to drive down the costs of what was becoming a veritable « system »: use of sand and slate instead of ink and paper (Erasmus of Rotterdam reported in 1528 that in his day, people wrote with a kind of awl on tables covered in fine dust); boards reproducing the pages of school books hung on the walls to avoid having to buy books; auxiliary teachers replaced by pupils to avoid paying salaries; increase in the number of pupils per class.

The Lancasterian School in Birmingham, founded in 1809

By 1804, his school had 700 pupils, and twelve months later, a thousand. Lancaster, getting deeper and deeper into debt, opened a school for 200 girls. To escape his creditors, Lancaster left London in 1806, and on his return was jailed for debt. Two of his friends, dentist Joseph Foxe and straw hat maker William Corston, repaid his debt and founded with him « The Society for the Promotion of the Lancasterian System for the Education of the Poor ».

Other Quakers stepped in with support, notably abolitionist William Wilberforce (1759-1833), whom the french sculptor David d’Angers depicted alongside Condorcet and Abbé Grégoire on his famous monument commemorating Gutenberg in Strasbourg.

From there, as Joseph Hamel recounts in his 1818 report, the new approach spread to the four corners of the world: England, Scotland, France, Prussia, Russia, Italy, Spain, Denmark, Sweden, Poland and Switzerland, not forgetting Senegal and several South American nations such as Brazil and Argentina and of course, the United States of America. Mutual Tuition was adopted as the official pedagogy in New York City (1805), Albany (1810), Georgetown (1811), Washington D.C. (1812), Philadelphia (1817), Boston (1824) and Baltimore (1829), and the Pennsylvania legislature considered statewide adoption.

First Mutual Tuition School in New York.

7. Mutual tuition, how does that works ?

The fundamental principle of « mutual tuition », particularly relevant to elementary school, is reciprocity of instruction between pupils, with the more able serving as teacher to the less able. From the outset, everyone progresses gradually, regardless of the number of pupils.

Bell and Lancaster, and their French disciples, postulated: the diversity of faculties, the inequality of progress, the rhythms of comprehension and acquisition. This led them to divide the school into different classes according to subjects and children’s level of knowledge, with age playing no part in this classification. Schoolchildren thus brought together take part in the same exercises. Their study program is identical in content and methods.

If the number of pupils in a division is too high in a particular subject – reading or arithmetic, for example – sub-groups are formed, which progress in parallel, while the teaching methods and materials remain identical.

So what does a school under the new system look like?

A. The classroom

Whatever the number of pupils – around a 100 in French villages, close to a 1000 in the Lancaster school in London, 200 in Parisian schools – they are grouped together in one single rectangular room with no partitions.

Jomard, who was extraordinarily active and prolific in the early years of the mutual education system, set desirable standards for class sizes ranging from 70 to 1,000 pupils.

For 350 pupils, for example, he indicated the need for a room 18 m long by 9 m wide (graphic).

In England and the French countryside, a barn was often used for the new school. In France, a large number of religious buildings have been disused since the revolutionary period, and meet the required standards perfectly. Many mutual schools were built in these buildings.

B. « Masters » and « monitors »

A day of mutual tuition, as proposed by a school in Alsace.

The mutual method divided responsibility for teaching between the « master » and students designated as « monitors », considered « the linchpin of the method ».

As Bally reminded us as early as 1819: « The basis of mutual teaching rests on the instruction communicated by the strongest pupils to those who are weaker. This principle, which is the merit of this method, required a very special organization to create a reasonable hierarchy, which could contribute in the most effective way to the success of all. »

Each day, in a dedicated « classroom » reserved for instructors, the master imparts knowledge and provides his assistants with technical advice on the proper application of the method. During the course of the day, he remains in charge of the 8th class, and as such is responsible for conducting their exercises. He conducts periodic, monthly or occasional examinations in the classes, and may decide to change classes. Finally, it is he who, at the final stage, distributes punishments and rewards.

C. A day at a mutual school

Thus, on a platform, the teacher’s desk with a large drawer where money, reward tickets, registers, writing templates, whistles and children’s notebooks are kept.

Behind the teacher, next to the clock – an essential instrument for organizing teaching life – is a blackboard on which are written sentences and writing models.

At the foot of the platform, benches are attached across the desks, of different sizes, in the middle of the room. The first tables, which are not inclined, have sand on which small children trace signs, while the other tables have slates; on the last of these there are lead inkwells and paper, and chopsticks to indicate words or letters to be read.

At the end of each table are « dictation tables » and telegraphic signals indicating the lesson’s moments, such as « COR » for « correction » or « EX » for « examination of work ». Semicircular table models were then proposed to facilitate the work of the instructors.

D. Progress according to each person’s knowledge

Mutual Tuition school of the rue Saint-Jean-de-Beauvais (Paris),1820, Marlet, lithograpy.

Initially, the mutual school program was limited to the 3 fundamental disciplines of reading, writing and arithmetic, and to the teaching of religion. Geography, grammar, writing, singing and linear drawing were soon added. The instrumental disciplines (music) are taught together, rather than in succession, as is customary in other schools. Pupil groupings are flexible, mobile and differentiated, depending on the nature of the subjects studied and the activities practised in the discipline.

Each subject matter taught in mutual schools is based on a precise, codified curriculum. This program is divided into 8 hierarchical levels, which must be covered in succession. Each degree is called a « class », and this is how we speak of the 8 classes of writing or arithmetic.

The term « class » refers only to acquisitions and knowledge, the 1st class being that of beginners and the 8th that of the completion of the school curriculum. The pace of learning and acquisition varies from student to student and from subject to subject.

Thus, after six months’ attendance, pupil « X » may find himself in 4th class reading, 5th class writing and 2nd class arithmetic. As we said, class assignment is decided on the basis of knowledge level, not age.

But this initial allocation is accompanied, within each class and in each subject, by the constitution of restricted groups established according to the activities to be practiced. In arithmetic, for example, written work is done on the slate. This takes place seated on benches reserved for this purpose, with a maximum of 16 to 18 students per bench, according to the standards established by Jomard.

Oral exercises, in reading or arithmetic, or with the aid of a blackboard, arithmetic or linear drawing, are done standing up, in groups of no more than 9, with pupils standing side by side, forming a semi-circle. Hence the name given to this kind of activity: « circle work ».

So, in a mutual school with 36 students in 3rd arithmetic class, bench work will be done in two groups with two monitors, and blackboard exercises with 4 groups and 4 monitors. Class sizes can therefore vary from school to school and throughout the year, the only limitation being the size of the premises.

D. Tools

Low costs are one of the preoccupations of the new teaching method. Furniture was therefore very basic.

  • Benches and desks are made of ordinary planks, fastened with heavy nails. The benches have no backrests: a superfluous luxury!
  • The platform is clearly elevated: about 0.65 m. Several steps lead up to the teacher’s desk. The master reigns over the children’s community as much by his material position as by his personal ascendancy.
  • The clock is noted as « indispensable », as teaching and maneuvers are strictly timed.
  • Half-circles, also known as reading circles, give mutual schools a typical and original appearance. These are usually semi-circular iron hangers that can be raised or lowered at will. Sometimes, the materialization is simply applied to the floor: grooves, large nails or arched strips.
  • Blackboards were systematically used for linear drawing and arithmetic. They are 1 m long and 0.70 m wide, with a movable meter at the top. They are placed inside each semicircle.
  • Telegraphs. When work takes place at the tables, such as writing, signals are used to link and communicate between the general monitor and the individual monitors: these are the telegraphs. A planchette, attached to the upper end of a round stick 1.70 m high, is installed at the first table of each class, thanks to two holes drilled at the top and bottom of the desk. On one side is the class number (1 to 8); on the other, EX (examen), replaced around 1830 by COR (correction). These telegraphs are portable. They could be moved if the number of students increased or decreased. In this way, the master and the general monitor have the exact composition of each class and the number of tables occupied by each. As soon as an exercise is completed, the class monitor turns the telegraph and presents the EX side to the desk. All monitors do the same. The general monitor gives the order to proceed with inspection and any corrections. Once these have been completed, the class number is presented again. And the exercises resume. Next to the telegraphs are the occasional board stands.
  • Monitor rods. These are used to indicate on tables the letters or words to be read, the details of operations to be carried out, and the lines to be reproduced. In rural schools, these are generally only available thanks to the good will and ingenuity of the teachers, who obtain them from nearby woods.
  • Sand (for writing) and then slates are constantly used in all subjects. This was an essential innovation in the mutual mode, as other schools did not use them.
  • Boards instead of books. The first reason is financial, as a single board is sufficient for up to nine pupils. But the pedagogical reasons are no less important. The format makes them easy to read and store. The concern for presentation and highlighting certain characters is accompanied by a different layout from that of the textbooks.
  • Books are reserved for the eighth grade, as are nibs, ink and paper.
  • Registers, currently in use, ensure sound management of the schools. One in particular deserves special mention: « Le grand livre de l’école » (the school’s ledger), which is first and foremost a registration book. It records the child’s surname, first name and age, as well as the parents’ occupation and address. The teacher enters the precise date of entry and exit of each child, in each class, including music and linear drawing.

E. Communication

To ensure that dozens or hundreds of pupils are led and developed correctly, and to avoid wasting time, those in charge of mutual education have planned precise, rapid, immediately comprehensible orders:

  • The voice is rarely used. Injunctions transmitted in this way are generally addressed to the instructors, sometimes to a specific class;
  • The bell attracts attention. It precedes information or a movement to be executed;
  • The whistle has a dual function. It is used to intervene in the general order of the school, « to impose silence », for example, and to signal the start or end of certain exercises during the lesson, « to have the pupils say by heart, to spell, to stop reading ». Only the teacher is authorized to use them.
  • As for hand signals, they have been used extensively. Intended to evoke the act or movement to be accomplished, they attract the eye and should bring calm to the community.

« Bellists » versus « Lancasterians »

While the two schools, Bell’s and Lancaster’s, were very close to each other in terms of content, methods and organization, they clashed violently over the role and place of religious education. All other program-related differences are a matter of taste, habit or local circumstance.

As Sylvian Tinembert and Edward Pahud point out in « Une innovation pédagogique, le cas de l’enseignement mutuel au XIXe siècle » (Editions Livreo-Alphil, 2019), Lancaster, as a follower of the dissident Quaker movement,

« recognized Christianity but professed that belief belonged to the professional sphere and that each person was free in his or her convictions. He also advocates egalitarianism, tolerance and the idea that, in this country, there is such a variety of religions and sects that it is impossible to teach all doctrines. Consequently, it is necessary to remain neutral, to limit teaching to the reading of the Bible, avoiding any interpretation, and to leave fundamental religious instruction to the various churches, ensuring that pupils follow the services and teachings of the denomination to which they belong ».

Nevertheless, Bellists and Lancasterians had their differences. For the Lancasterians, Bell had invented nothing and was merely describing what he had seen in India. For the Bellists, furious that Lancaster found a positive response from certain members of the Royal family, Lancaster was portrayed as the devil, an « enemy » of the official Anglican religion, who admitted children of all origins and denominations to his schools !

9. France adopting mutuel tuition

In London, the Lancaster association was joined by a number of high-ranking personalities, both English and foreign. These included Geneva physicist Marc Auguste Pictet de Rochemont (1752-1825), French paleontologist Georges Cuvier (1769-1832) and his compatriots, agronomist Charles Philibert de Lasteyrie (1759-1849) and Lancaster’s future translator into French, archaeologist Alexandre de Laborde (1773-1842).

After the peace of 1814, many countries – notably England, Prussia, France and Russia – bled dry by the Napoleonic wars, which had resulted in the loss of thousands of young teachers and qualified executives on the battlefields, made education their top priority, not least to keep up with the industrial revolution that was coming to shake them to their foundations.

Added to this is the fact that the number of orphans in Europe has become a major problem for all states, especially as the coffers are empty. To keep street children occupied, schools were needed, many of them to be built with very little money and many teachers… nonexistent. Learning of the resounding success of mutual education, several Frenchmen travelled to England to discover the new method.

Laborde brought back his « Plan d’éducation pour les enfants pauvres, d’après les deux méthodes (du docteur Bell et de M. Lancaster) », and Lasteyrie his « Nouveau système d’éducation pour les écoles primaires ». In 1815, the Duc de la Rochefoucauld-Liancourt (1747-1827) published his book on Joseph Lancaster’s « Système anglais d’instruction ».

Since 1802, Paris had been home to the « Société d’encouragement pour l’industrie nationale », whose Secretary General was linguist Joseph-Marie de Gérando (1772-1842), and of whom Laborde was a founder together with Jean-Antoine Chaptal (1752-1832). Unsurprisingly, Gérando had been raised by the Oratorians and was initially destined for the Church.

On March 1, 1815, Lasteyrie, Laborde and Gérando proposed to the Société d’Encouragement the creation of a new association whose purpose would be « to gather and spread enlightenment likely to provide the lower classes of the people with the kind of intellectual and moral education most suited to their needs ».


In his report presented to the Société d’Encouragement on March 20, 1815, Gérando proposed that the newly-appointed Minister of the Interior, Lazare Carnot (During les Cents-Jour, i.e. between March 20-June 22, 1815), be asked to promote « the adoption of procedures likely to regenerate primary education in France », i.e. the system of mutual tuition.

Political and social interests were not the only ones at stake. The French economy, too, was much to benefit from the development of education. « What can we expect, » said Carnot in 1815, « if the man who drives the plough is as stupid as the horses that pull it?« 

Gérando also proposed the creation of an association dedicated specifically to its propagation, underlining the advantages of the new approach: economic advantage first, since it involves « employing the children themselves, in relation to each other, as teaching aids », and that a single teacher is sufficient for 1,000 pupils; educational advantage second, since it is possible « to teach, in two years, everything that children of inferior conditions need to know, and much more than they learn today by much longer processes »; a moral and social advantage, insofar as children « are imbued from an early age with a sense of duty, a feeling that will one day guarantee their obedience to the law and their respect for the social order ».

The engineer-geographer and polytechnician Edeme-François Jomard (1777-1862), for whom the education of the people is an obligation of society towards itself, said nothing else: « How can we demand that unfortunate people, devoid of all enlightenment, know the social pact and submit to it? Or how can we, without being foolish, count on their invariable and blind submission?« 

The Société d’Encouragement then validated the conclusions of its report by subscribing the sum of 500 francs in favor of the new association, and by deciding that, in addition to its moral influence, it would place at the latter’s disposal the various means of execution that might belong to it.

10. Lazare Carnot at the helm

Statue of Carnot.

Following the Concordat between Napoleon and the Vatican, the Emperor issued a decree on education on August 15, 1808, requiring schools to follow the « principles of the Catholic Church ».

The Frères des Ecoles Chrétiennes (Institute of the Brothers of the Christian Schools), unconditional advocates of the « simultaneous education » theorized by their founder Jean-Baptiste de La Salle (1651-1719), were to take charge of all primary education and train teachers.

Disbanded during the Revolution, the Brothers resumed their functions in 1810. Encouraged to develop to counter the influence of the Jesuits, authorized in 1816 to return to France, they rapidly expanded throughout France.

But the educational situation was pitiful. This is what senior French officials constantly say when they visit the territories annexed by the Empire, notably North Germany and Holland. The comparison with France makes them blush with shame.

In 1810, the naturalist Georges Cuvier wrote in his report:

« We would be hard pressed to convey the effect produced on us by the first elementary school we entered in Holland. Children, teachers, premises, methods, teaching, everything is in perfect order (…) Several prefects have assured us that we would not find a single young boy in their department today who did not know how to read and write. »

Faced with such a contrast, which was not to the conqueror’s advantage, the Imperial University, like ancient Rome, set out to teach the conquered country. In his decree of November 15, 1811, the Emperor decided:

« The council of our Imperial University will present us with a report on the part of the system established in Holland for primary instruction that would be applicable to the other departments of our Empire. »

The Emperor abdicated on April 4, 1814, before any decision had been taken to regenerate the French « petites écoles ». At least the Imperial University’s reports had exposed their misery and drawn public attention to them.

Appointed Minister of the Interior, and therefore in charge of Education during the Cents-Jours, Lazare Carnot, a co-founder of the Ecole Polytechnique, was completely convinced of the potential excellence of « mutual education ».

On April 10, 1815, he set up a Council for Industry and Charity, at whose first meeting he himself presented Gérando‘s report;

On April 27, 1815, he submitted a report to the Emperor in which he stated:

Lazare Carnot.

« There are 2 million children in France clamoring for primary education, and of these 2 million, some receive a very imperfect education, while others are completely deprived« .

He then recommended mutual education, whose « purpose is to give primary education the greatest degree of simplicity, rapidity and economy, while also giving it the degree of perfection suitable for the lower classes of society, and also by bringing into it everything that can give rise to and maintain in the hearts of children a sense of duty, justice, honor and respect for the established order ».

Minutes later, Lazare Carnot had the French Emperor sign the following decree:

« Article 1. – Our Minister of the Interior will call upon those persons who deserve to be consulted on the best methods of primary education. He will examine these methods, and decide on and direct the testing of those he deems to be preferable.

« Art. 2 – A primary education test school will be opened in Paris, organized in such a way as to be able to serve as a model and to become a normal school for training primary school teachers.

« Art. 3 – Once satisfactory results have been obtained from the trial school, our Minister of the Interior will propose the appropriate measures to ensure that all departments can rapidly benefit from the new methods that will have been adopted.

For Carnot, contrary to those in the business of Philanthropy, there were not any longer poor or rich children. All citizens of the Republic required and had to be offered the best education available on Earth.

The advisory board set up by Carnot included his friends Laborde, Jomard, Abbé Gaultier, then Lasteyrie and Gérando, i.e. the very promoters or first founders of the Société en formation.
Thus, on June 17, 1815 (the eve of the defeat at Waterloo), the Société pour l’instruction élémentaire (SIE) was born, still under the impetus of Carnot, determined to win the war for education. The SIE’s first general meeting was held on the premises of the Société d’Encouragement. At its head were several protagonists of the ministerial commission: Jomard became one of the secretaries of the new society, alongside Gérando (president), Lasteyrie (vice-president) and Laborde (general secretary).

Before the ordinance of 1816, the number of children attending « petites écoles » was 165,000 throughout France, and by the end of 1820 it had risen to 1,123,000. Almost a factor of 10!

Lazare Carnot clearly wanted to perpetuate the offensive he had launched during the Hundred Days to propagate mutual education throughout the country and, in so doing, to rapidly develop the education of all the children of the Patrie.

After its creation, subscriptions for the SIE poured in, and before long 150 names were added to those of the founders to promote and organize mutual education in France. One of these subscribers was Lazare Carnot.

In its first year of existence, the SIE attracted almost 700 members, initially teachers from the École Polytechnique (Ampère, Berthollet, Chaptal, Guyton de Morveau, Hachette, Mérimée, Thénard), and then some 30 alumni, around half of them from the first graduating class (1794) of the École Polytechnique. Among the latter were a fellow student of Jomard‘s at the geographers’ school, Louis-Benjamin Francœur, professor of higher algebra at the Paris Faculty of Science, comrades from the Egyptian campaign, and Chabrol de Volvic, prefect of the Seine since 1812.

All had but one hope: that Monge’s genial methods of brigades and mutual tuition, which had been diminished and banned once Napoleon turned Polytechnique into a mere military school under the direction of mathematician Pierre-Simon Laplace (1749-1827), could benefit the greatest number and organize a national recovery.

Based in Paris, the SIE extended its operations to the provinces, where it encouraged the founding of subsidiary companies, to which it offered « to send them teachers, to provide them with any information they might need, to give them paintings and books at cost price… ».

The SIE was also interested in education girls (art. 10). It set up a committee of ladies to look after them: president, Baroness de Gérando; vice-president, Countess de Laborde.

Beyond women, the movement spread to uneducated adults, so numerous at the time. On May 1, 1816, the Society set up a commission for the establishment of adult schools. It was also concerned with barracks, which were to be turned into military schools; prisons, especially children’s prisons; and the colored inhabitants of the colonies, who were to be regenerated by the development of education.

Finally, the members of the Society, attributing a human and general value to their mission, dreamed of founding branches abroad. In November 1818, Laborde called for the creation of a special committee to do so.

rLast but not least, the Society did not limit its activities to simply creating schools, but also organized inspections and examinations. It published works (on the mutual tuition method, elementary books on reading, grammar and arithmetic). It distributed awards to the best teachers and instructors.

Following the promulgation of the ordinance of July 29, 1818 authorizing Caisse d’Epargne societies (Saving Banks associations), it asked teachers to entrust part of their salaries to these funds to ensure their retirement; setting an example, it deposited funds with the Caisse for the teachers of the schools it had set up.

Today, the SIE, whose head office is a specially-built building at 6, rue du Fouarre in the 5th arrondissement of Paris, remains the oldest and largest secular primary education association in France.

Façade of the Société pour l’Instruction Elémentaire, 6, rue du Fouarre, Paris. In the medaillons, from left to right, surrounding « Arts », « Morality » and « Sciences », portraits of some of its major founders and leaders: Larochefoucauld-Liancourt, Francoeur, Jomard and Leroy.

11. The rue Saint-Jean-de-Beauvais pilot program

As said before, after his trip to England, Jomard, whose portrait appears in a medaillon on the façade of the SIE, also embraced the new system.

In his « reflections on the state of English industry », he wrote, after expressing his enthusiasm for various inventions observed across the Channel: « There is, however, something even more extraordinary: these are schools without teachers: nothing, however, is more real. We now know that there are thousands of children taught without a teacher, and at no cost to their families or the State: an admirable method that will soon spread to France.« 

A graduate of the Ecole Polytechnique, and an exceptionnal scientist who went with Monge to Egypt, Jomard was the ideal man to oversee the material organization of the test school, in particular by arranging for furniture to be made and teaching aids to be printed in accordance with English principles. Jomard also supervised the training of a small nucleus of students – around 20 – as « monitors » before the opening of the school proper in September 1815, planned for 350 students: a modality reminiscent of the « chefs de brigade » of the first graduating class of the École polytechnique.

However, the members of the SIE soon realized that they needed to train trainers. The English therefore welcomed several Frenchmen to train them in mutual teaching. A pastor from the Cévennes, François Martin (1793-1837), after training as a « monitor » in England, was called in by Lasteyrie to run the first mutual school, which opened its doors on June 13, 1815, on rue Saint-Jean-de-Beauvais in Paris, close to Place Maubert. This was the model school that would enable other mutual schools to be opened, thanks to the training of competent « monitors ». The school was soon unable to keep up with demand from hundreds of communes, which were considering sending one of their own to be trained in the new method.

Pastor Paul-Emile Frossard, also trained by the English, took charge of a Parisian school on rue Popincourt, while Bellot ran another. In July, Martin submitted his report. The model class takes in some 15 students destined to become monitors and principals of elementary schools with up to 350 children. Martin reports that in six weeks, they read, write, calculate and « know how to execute the movements that form the gymnastic part of the new education system ».

12. Mutual tuition and music

As Christine Bierre amply documents in her article « La musique et formation du citoyen à l’ère de la Révolution française » (1990):

Alexandre Choron.

« It was at this school on rue Saint-Jean-de-Beauvais, under the direction of a Commission comprising Gérando, Jomard, Lasteyrie, Laborde and Abbé Gaultier, that the application of mutual teaching to the learning of solfeggio and singing was tested for the first time. Alexandre Choron (1771-1834), who since 1814 had opened two music schools for boys and girls, was also a member of the Commission. Not surprisingly, it was on the initiative of Baron de Gérando that the idea of introducing singing into primary education was adopted. When Monsieur le baron de Gérando proposed the introduction of elementary singing in primary schools’, says Jomard in a report presented to the Board of Directors of the Société pour l’Enseignement mutuel, ‘you were all struck by the correctness of the views developed by our colleague (…) It showed the happy influence that such a practice could have, and the real connection that exists between the proper use of song and the perfecting of morals, the ultimate goal of instruction and of all our efforts. Not only was the application of mutual instruction to music revolutionary in itself, but what was equally revolutionary was the fact that children were learning to read and write, almost as intensively. Children studied singing, for four to five hours a week! »

In fact, it was Lazare Carnot himself who wanted to introduce music into the mutual education schools. To this end, he met several times with musician Alexandre Choron (1771-1834), who brought together a number of children and had them perform in his presence several pieces learned in very few lessons. Carnot also was acquinted with Guillaume-Louis Bocquillon, known as Wilhem (1781-1842) for ten years. He saw the possibility of using him to introduce singing into schools, and together they visited the one on rue Saint-Jean-de-Beauvais, a free pilot school for mutual education in Paris open to three hundred children.

Michael Werner‘s recent article, « Musique et pacification sociale, missions fondatrices de l’éducation musicale (1795-1860) », echoes and confirms the groundbreaking research initiated by Christine Bierre in 1990.


« One of the fields in which the results of mutualist pedagogy are clearly visible is musical education. Several players played a decisive role here, and deserve a brief mention.

The first is Guillaume-Louis Bocquillon, known as Wilhem (1781-1842). The son of an officer and himself from a military background, he then devoted himself to musical composition and teaching, particularly at the Lycée Napoléon (later Collège Henri-IV). His friend Pierre Jean de Béranger put him in touch with Joseph-Marie de Gérando and François Jomard, the leading lights of the SIE. Through them, he learned about mutual teaching and immediately understood the benefits of this method for musical education. In 1818, the Paris municipality allowed him to set up a first experiment at the elementary school on rue Saint-Jean-de-Beauvais. Wilhem developed a method, the necessary teaching materials (in the form of charts) and instructed the chosen student monitors. The results were, according to Jomard, spectacular. At the end of a few months’ instruction, the pupils had not only acquired the basic notions of solfeggio and musical notation, chromatic scales, intervals and measures, but were also performing collective songs in several voices (Jomard 1842: 228 ff)

This success led the SIE to propose to the Prefect and Minister of the Interior that music be introduced into the teaching of elementary schools in the city of Paris, a move officially endorsed in 1820. Wilhem himself was appointed full professor of music teaching in Paris, and music classes were introduced in many of the city’s schools, before spreading to the départements and regions. At the same time, the municipality opened two teacher-training colleges to train future singing teachers.

The second early player in the debate was the composer Alexandre Choron (1771-1834). A member, like Jomard and Francœur, of the first graduating class of the École polytechnique (1795), composer and friend of André Grétry, he had been concerned since 1805 about the decline of choral singing following the abolition of the master classes. An opponent of the Conservatoire, whose academicism and lack of interest in the teaching of choral singing he criticized, in 1812 he was entrusted by the Ministry with a mission to « reorganize the choir and the choirmasters of the churches of France ». He developed a teaching method known as the « concertante method », but also remained committed to the social vocation of choral music. Choron was also one of the founding members of the SIE in 1815, a sign of his commitment to educational issues. During the Restoration, he turned more to religious songs, which he considered to be the historical heart of choral practice. (…) Finally, with the king’s support, he founded the Institution royale de musique classique et religieuse, successfully competing with the Conservatoire in the teaching of vocal art.

For the general public, he arranged for oratorios, requiems and cantatas to be performed by singers from his school in a number of spacious churches, thus ensuring a new presence for sacred music on the Parisian stage. For some of these concerts, he sometimes mobilized student singers from elementary and poor schools, whom he never ceased to follow throughout his career. »

L’Orphéon des Dames de la Manufacture d’Armes et Cycles de Saint-Etienne, vers 1900.

« (…) What fostered this expansion of music education for young people and the working classes from 1820 onwards was a political will shared by a broad spectrum of leaders and stakeholders. The liberals who formed the core of the SIE continued to adhere to the emancipatory mission of education set out by the Convention. By focusing on both the inner formation of the soul and the blossoming of a collective conscience, music – and singing in particular – became a prime field for popular education. Liberals therefore emphasized the moral benefits of music. Thus, in his proposal to introduce singing into elementary school, Gérando remarks:
Those of us who have visited Germany have been surprised to see how much simple music plays a part in popular entertainment and family pleasures, even in the poorest conditions, and have observed how salutary its influence is on morals. And Joseph d’Ortigue states lapidary: ‘A people that sings is a happy people, and therefore a moral people. This emphasis on the social benefits of musical activity fits in well with the idea of ‘universal education’, inherited from the Enlightenment and the foundation of the pedagogies of Lancaster in England or Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi in Switzerland.' »

After a trial run at the St-Jean-de-Beauvais school in 1819, singing quickly spread to all the mutual schools. Wilhem was both the creator and the architect of the development of this teaching method, which soon spread to adult and apprentice classes. Periodic meetings of children initiated into vocal music were organized. Thus was born the first French post-school organization: the Orphéon, which, after Wilhem, counted Charles Gounod and Jules Pasdeloup among its directors.

In an 1842 speech to the SIE, Hippolyte Carnot asserted that Wilhem had « elevated music to the rank of a civic institution », and that the « ennoblement » of the individual soul was to be achieved in the new collective order of the reunited nation.

13. Jomard, Choron, Francoeur and « elementary » knowledge


Renaud d’Enfert‘s comprehensive article, published on the website of the Société de la bibliothèque et de l’histoire de l’Ecole polytechique (SABIX), completes the picture with a close-up on the work of Jomard and Francoeur, whose portraits are featured in a medallion on the façade of the SIE headquarters on rue du Fouarre in Paris.

Right from the start of the Second Restoration, the SEI received the backing and support of the Prefect of the Seine, Gaspard de Chabrol de Volvic (1773-1843). In the summer of 1815, the latter appointed Jomard, a linguist in contact with the Humboldt brothers who had been part of the short-lived commission under Carnot and who had protected him during the Hundred Days, « head of the office of public instruction and arts », a position he held until 1823.

In a decree dated November 3, 1815, Volvic, in order to take « the necessary measures to extend the benefits of instruction to all poor families domiciled within the prefecture » and to develop « the new system of elementary instruction » throughout the Seine department, created an eleven-person committee « to extend the benefits of free education to the Seine department », and included all the influential members of the SIE (Jomard, Gérando, Laborde, Doudeauville, Lasteyrie, Gaultier, etc.). ).

In this role, Jomard was responsible for finding sites for new schools. These rapidly multiplied in and around the capital: in 1818, he counted 18 free and 32 fee-paying mutual schools covering all of the capital’s arrondissements, as well as 13 schools in the arrondissements of Sceaux and Saint-Denis. From this work, he drew up his « Abrégé des écoles élémentaires » (1816), a sort of practical guide in which he compiled everything a cityen decided to set up a mutual school needed to know about material organization.

On the pedagogical front, Jomard was the author, in 1816, of a reading method produced in collaboration with the composer and musician Alexandre Choron, who had published a method for learning to read and write as early as 1802, and Abbé Gaultier, a pedagogue who had developed a teaching method under the name of « jeux instructifs » and had traveled to London to study English methods.

Designed for the new elementary school on rue Saint-Jean-de-Beauvais, where Choron was appointed music teacher, it breaks with the traditional spelling method.

Instead of saying « b-o-n = bon », she uses the musical sounds of the language to say « b-on = bon ». In 1821-1822, Jomard also published « Arithmétique élémentaire » (Elementary Arithmetic), designed to remedy the weaknesses of Lancaster’s arithmetic method, which he accused of « making children contract a simple, routine and mechanical habit » instead of serving « to fortify their attention and train them in reasoning ». In the meantime, he and Francœur and Lasteyrie had set up a « calligraphy commission » at the SIE, to develop the principles that would guide the teaching of writing in mutual schools, a writing style intended to be « national », to replace the English models.


For his part, Louis-Benjamin Francoeur (1773-1849) provides, according to Jomard, « a long series of luminous reports on treatises on arithmetic, weights and measures, singing and musical art, drawing and geometry, which it would take far too long to relate or quote ». Filling a gap, in 1819 Francœur published « Le dessin linéaire » (Linear Drawing), a drawing method based on freehand drawing of geometric figures, which broke with traditional, academically inspired ways of teaching and learning drawing.

For Jomard and Francoeur, the idea behind « mutuel tuition » was to broaden the range of subjects taught in primary schools beyond the traditional « reading, writing and arithmetic »: in addition to drawing, also singing, gymnastics, geography and grammar now made their appearance in elementary school.

Model’s out of Francoeur’s handbook for linear drawing.

Linear drawing was nonetheless seen as an elementary skill in its own right, on a par with reading, writing and arithmetic.

Presenting Francœur‘s method to the Société d’Encouragement, Jomard declared:

« The usefulness that industry may one day derive from it is so great and so visible, that it would be superfluous to insist on it. It is not without reason that this result has been considered as precious for the people, as the knowledge of reading and writing ».

Finally, for Jomard, the widespread teaching of reading, writing, arithmetic, linear drawing and singing is the prerequisite for the scientific education of the people:

« In recent times, we have rightly insisted on the usefulness of teaching the elements of the physical and mathematical sciences to the working class. On this depends the advancement of industry and agriculture, which, despite all their progress, are still backward in many respects. It is only through the possession of these elementary notions that workers will perfect their processes, their means, their instruments and their products, and will be able to become skilful foremen and good workshop managers. But how can this be achieved when the mass of the population is still so ignorant?

How, without the art of reading and writing, could they not understand a single word of the chemical and mechanical arts, but only feel their advantage and consent to engage in arduous studies? What’s this! Fifteen million Frenchmen and more perhaps, do not know how to do the first two rules of arithmetic, and we would flatter ourselves to propagate among them the first principles of mechanics and geometry! The basis of this improvement is obviously primary education made more general or even universal ».

14. Nationwide

The results of mutual education are spectacular and rapid, both in terms of learning time and the quality of skills acquired. Whereas in the Lasalle Brothers’ schools it took 4 years to learn to read, this time was reduced to a year and a half in the mutuel establishments!

The enthusiastic French of 1815, with their vivid imagination, saw in this teaching system a veritable panacea. It had undeniable advantages. First of all, it was economical, requiring few teachers and enabling a considerable number of children to be taught at low cost. It is estimated that 4,000 to 5,000 fr. a year were sufficient to maintain a school of 1,000 children: 4 fr. per pupil! Education would never have been so cheap. It also ensured rapid development of primary education, since the shortage of teachers was no longer a limiting factor. With figures to back it up, it was calculated that it would only take a dozen years to extend the benefits of primary education to the whole of France!

To these indisputable advantages, the travelers of 1815 added qualitative arguments. They considered the teaching of instructors superior to that of masters: « He does not know his lesson better than the master, » wrote Laborde, « but he knows it differently ». The child instructor (monitor) takes pleasure in communicating his newly acquired knowledge to his classmates, doing his job « with as much charm as a preceptor finds it disgusting » (Laborde).

On the other hand, being a child himself, he knows better than the teacher the difficulties of the task, the pitfalls of the lesson, over which he has just stumbled. He will therefore lead his classmates more slowly, more surely, and be a better guide for them.

But teaching won’t be the only thing to benefit from the mutual system; school discipline and morals will also benefit. The child, submissive to his classmate, will obey him more readily than the teacher, since the young instructor owes his superiority solely to his own merit. Finally, the child, with his classmate who knows him well because he lives with him, will not have, as with the teacher, the resource of lying to hide his intimate thoughts or faults: and dissimulation, the social scourge that was learned from the school benches, will thus disappear from mutual establishments.

And Laborde concluded his apology for the method : in the new schools, « work is for them a game, science a struggle, authority a reward ».

The benefits of this teaching were not to be confined to the school: children returning home would in turn exert a happy influence on their parents, becoming « missionaries » of both morality and truth in their families.

Gontard wrote in 1956:

« And let no evil spirits say that these are the daydreams and utopias of idealists! There is irrefutable proof of the value of this method. Look at Scotland. At the end of the 17th century, it was a land of beggary and misery, living without law, without religion, without morals, men drinking, women blaspheming, all fighting. In 1815, thanks to the magic wand of the mutual school, Scotland became a paradise. « It is not uncommon in Scotland to find a shepherd reading Virgil… but it is almost unheard of to meet a malefactor there, »

Laborde agrees.

« Let’s develop the method in France and, by 1850, it will be a land of prosperity and happiness, from which immorality, fanaticism, revolutions and social unrest, all sons and daughters of ignorance, will be banished. »

In 1818, Joseph Hamel, in his report to the Emperor of Russia, notes:

« The method of mutual education has been introduced throughout France with a rapidity and success far greater than could reasonably be expected, and in less than three years more than 400 schools have already been founded. There is every reason to hope that, in the not-too-distant future, more than 2 million children who were still in complete ignorance will be able to receive the benefits of a free education, sufficient for their future vocation.« 

Right from the start, with Carnot and a generation of brilliant scientist coming out of Polytechnique, France was giving leadership !

Pupils of Polytechnique, pediment of the Panthéon in Paris, David d’Angers.

Amiens and the Somme department

Interesting in that regard, the following account of the adoption of mutual tuition methods in Amiens and the Somme department.

« On May 15, 1817, after much mistrust and hesitation, the Amiens town council founded a society to encourage elementary education in the department. More than ennobling the pupils’ souls, for the rector, it was a question of ‘giving the children of these workers an elementary education, [to prepare them] not only for the habit of order and subordination that is acquired in the mutual education schools and which they carry over to the workshops, but also to put them in a position to serve more usefully inside the factories, how to study the industrial processes whose preservation and improvement are so essential to national prosperity' ».

For the Rector, speed of acquisition was a guarantee of success for the new method compared to the « simultaneous method »:

« That a primary education which takes children away for whole years from work necessary for the family’s subsistence becomes for the poor a very onerous burden; but that experience teaches the father of a family that a few months will suffice to procure for his children an advantage which he has regretted so many times in the course of life not to have been able to enjoy himself, we must hope that he will not sway to make a slight sacrifice in order to obtain an important result ».

The manuel class, 1891. Girls school (Finistère).

These are mainly boys’ schools. There are a few girls’ schools and evening classes for adults. They mainly catered for the children of small craftsmen: dyers, octroi clerks, innkeepers, foremen, tailors, millers, dressmakers, coopers, dressmakers, locksmiths, butchers, spinners, ironers, laborers, car loaders, carpenters, booksellers, lamplighters, cutlers, bookbinders and so on.

At its peak, in 1821, mutual education in the Somme department included not one but 25 schools, 4 of them for girls (for a fee): 4 out of 10 were located in towns. In 1833, there were 16 more. The network shrank considerably thereafter, but did not disappear altogether. The last two schools in Amiens closed their doors involuntarily in 1879, and the one in Abbeville in 1880: until then, it played an important role in preparing candidates for examinations.

The Amiens Model School – the first provincial model school – prepares future teachers for the practice of mutual education. It was founded on May 26, 1817. It welcomed over 200 pupils. By 1818, 6 teachers from the Somme had graduated. Most of the teachers from the Aisne, Oise and Pas-de-Calais departments spent some time there before taking up their duties.

In 1831, when the Prefect created the Ecole normale de garçons, it was called the « Ecole normale primaire d’enseignement mutuel ». At first, it served as a training school: student teachers were required to visit the school once a week to observe and practice the mutual teaching method.

After the government reshuffles of 1817-1818, several SIE members were appointed to important ministries: Mathieu Molé (1778-1838) to the Navy, Laurent Gouvion-Saint-Cyr (1764-1830) to the War, Elie Decazes (1780-1860) above all to the Interior, the ministry on which primary education depended. Government support became systematic.

The Minister of the Interior supported the SIE de Paris and its subsidiaries with grants for school foundations and maintenance. He invited the prefects to contribute in any way they could to the development of the method. Prefects took the initiative in setting up local companies, and lobbied local assemblies for subsidies.

A growing number of General and Municipal Councils voted to set up mutual schools. Once a school had been founded, the local authorities (prefect and mayor) visited it and presided over the prize-giving ceremony. For its part, on July 22, 1817, the Commission d’Instruction Publique, which since 1815 had replaced the Grand Master of the University, decided to establish a model mutual-education school in the chief towns of France’s twelve Academies, as a breeding ground for future teachers. Other ministers, each in their own sphere, supported the method.

Molé, in charge of the colonies, founded mutual tuition schools in Senegal.

In 1818, Gouvion-Saint-Cyr established a full-fledged « Ecole normale militaire d’enseignement mutuel » in the caserne Babylone of Paris. Each regiment in Paris and the provinces was required to send one officer and one non-commissioned officer, who would return after a few months’ training to teach the troops the benefits of primary education.

In 1817-1818, mutual tuition triumphed. An irresistible enthusiasm carried France towards it. The network of schools continued to expand. From term to term, more and more reports arrived in Paris from the provinces, counting schools and their pupils.

It was a song of victory that Jomard could sing at the SIE meeting in January 1819. Of the 81 départements in France, only 5 had no mutual school; the other 76 had 687 schools, attended by over 40,000 pupils. There were also 105 regimental schools, 5 adult schools, 4 prison schools and 2 or 3 schools in Senegal.

Geographical Society of Paris (1821).

Exemplifying what was becoming a new Promethean paradigm of scientific optimism, on December 15, 1821, at a meeting at Paris City Hall, the Geographical Society was founded by 217 leading figures, including some of the greatest scientists of the day, such as Jomard, Champollion, Cuvier, Chaptal, Denon, Fourier, Gay Lussac, Berthollet, von Humboldt and Chateaubriand. Other illustrious members include Jean-Baptiste Charcot, Dumont d’Urville, Élisée Reclus and Jules Verne.

The collection and study of geographical data from many continents enabled certain members, such as Gustave Eiffel and Ferdinand de Lesseps, to propose major infrastructure projects, notably the Suez and Panama Canals.

15. Criticism

The first criticisms of mutual education came not from its failure, but from its success. The first « risk » was that the children, having learned too effectively and too quickly (2 to 3 times faster !), would return « to the streets » too soon, not yet being old enough to go to work!

Children weren’t « locked up » at school long enough, and so mutual education disturbed the existing social order. In 1818, the General Council of Calvados heard:

« The greatest service to be rendered to society would perhaps be to devise a method that would make instruction for the lower and indigent classes of society more difficult and time-consuming »…

The second « risk » was that, by continuing to use mutual education, these newly-educated people, mostly from the poorer classes, would become too intelligent, too « enlightened », and begin to express political or social demands, in particular that everyone should have the same rights as the better-off social classes.

Imagine the mess if the social order were challenged! French urban planner and sociologist Anne Querrien notes that, in fact, most of the organizers of the labor movement at the time came from the mutual school, where they had of course learned to read, write and count, but also to trust themselves and their comrades. The mutual school encouraged its pupils to think, and in particular to reflect on the organization of society, a society that assigned them a destiny of submission and obedience.

The influential theologian and politician Félicité Robert de Lamennais (1782-1854) said it loud and clearly :

« Lancaster-style schools are the craze of the day. All the authorities in this country, and especially the Prefect, are infatuated beyond expression. Hatred for priests has a lot to do with this mania. The fact is that everything good about this method has been practiced for over a century by the Brothers of the Christian Schools; the rest is pure charlatanism. There is talk of teaching children to read and write in four months: in the first place, this would be a great misfortune, for what can be done with such well-educated children, whose age would not yet allow them to work? Secondly, nothing could be further from the truth than these marvellous results. »

If one has « to decide between the instruction of Abbé de La Salle and that of Lancaster, the question is quite simple; it’s a question of choosing between society and anarchy ».

His brother, the vicar Jean-Marie de la Mennais (1780-1860), took the lead in what can only be described as a political witch-hunt. He said:

« Mutual education was introduced into France by Protestants during the disastrous Hundred Days. M. Carnot was then Minister of the Interior; under his auspices, the Société d’Encouragement, established to propagate this method, held its first meeting on May 16, 1815 ».

He struggled to prove that « the Lancastrian method is defective in its procedures, dangerous for religion and morals in its results » and in a brochure, De l’Enseignement mutuel, published in 1819 in Saint-Brieuc, Brittany, he vigorously attacked this teaching method.

It’s true that questioning authority and the established order is inherent to mutual education. The « simultaneous » method is based on the premise that to pass on knowledge, you need to be qualified (to be the teacher). Conversely, in the mutual school, the teacher is no longer the repository of knowledge, as each student can enlighten his or her classmates.

Another concern for the elites was that, with this method, children are merely instructed, not « educated », and no Christian moral education is imparted.

Last but not least, mutual teaching required fewer supervisors, given the pupils’ role as creators, transmitters and bearers of knowledge. Some may have feared for their jobs…

Brother’s schools.

In 1818, in his report to the Emperor of Russia, Joseph Hamel told the mutualists’ main opponents, the « Brothers of the Christian Schools », that they were almost entirely unaware of what they were denouncing. Hamel also points out that there are 40,000 communes to be provided with elementary school, and that the number of Brothers‘ schools « does not amount to more than one hundred in the kingdom… ».

On the negative side, what is striking, when examining the incriminations, is that one thing is said in the morning and its opposite in the afternoon. In the morning, it’s said that mutual education blurs minds by diluting the authority of teachers; in the afternoon, it’s asserted that it overly « militarizes » education through a totally hierarchical command structure!

On the question of « morality », Lazare Carnot would never have endorsed an education that ruined the Christian spirit, let alone the notion of legitimate authority, while vigorously combating those that lacked it, such as the Monarchy of divine right or the Consulate for life imposed by Napoleon. In the same way, in the morning, the mutualist system was accused of failing to transmit Christian « morals »; in the afternoon, it was seen as a Protestant plot…

And yet, the national impulse in favor of « the fatherland » and future generations has succeeded in uniting personalities from all political and religious backgrounds in a single effort.

Cuvier (Protestant) and Gérando (Catholic), both fervent republicans and promoters of the mutual mode, as well as the Inspector General of the University, Ambroise Rendu (1778-1860, Catholic), even took part in drafting the ordinance of February 29, 1816, promulgated by Louis XVIII and the Minister of the Interior, de Vaublanc (1756-1845).

Following massive pressure from the congregations, mutualist teachers Martin, Frossard and Bellot, all Protestants, were forced to leave their school headships. Martin went on to be very useful in other European countries, notably Brussels, where in 1820 he organized a mutual school at Les Minimes.

16. Mechanistic drift?

Without grasping the state of mind and enthusiasm that young polytechnicians might have had for the blossoming of an industrial culture and the wonders of machinismo, the defenders of a feudal France see only a « fundamentally mechanistic vision », when Jomard compares the mutual method to a machine, with its cogs and springs, of which the teacher is a mere operator:

« Once the school has been establisehd out and equipped with all the furniture it needs, all that remains to be done is to introduce the pupils and the teacher, and then to set in motion all the springs of this kind of mechanism, by means of the new practices ».

While Victor Hugo evoked a « happy swarm », Laborde was accused of a « mechanistic » drift when he compared the buzzing activity of pupils in English mutual schools to the noise of machines in cotton mills.

Communication, argued critiques, is « entirely mechanical and hierarchical ». It flows « only from the master or general instructor to the instructors and pupils, not in the other direction. It’s a means of action, not a means of exchange.« 

Let’s face it, any pedagogical approach, no matter which one, set up as a system and postulating that it’s « enough » to apply mechanically to a human being, can be horrifying. It’s easy, then, to accuse the mutual school of all the ills from which those who accused them suffered, perhaps even more so.

At the mutual school, corporal punishment is banned. It was a courageous decision that Octave Greard was quick to point out:

« It is one of the claims of the founders of the mutual schools to public recognition that they outlawed the corporal punishments, ferulas and whips, which were still in use, and we cannot be too grateful to them for having sought to replace in the hearts of pupils the feeling of fear with the feeling of honor, or, as M. de Laborde used to say, the feeling of well-administered shame ».

Knowing the immense happiness of the thousands of children who quickly gained access to a minimum of public instruction and experienced the indescribable joy of educating their peers, one can only suspect the pen of jealous congregations behind this poem falsely lamenting the misfortune of the poor little ones:

« This system, it is said, born of Anglomania,
Contrasts horribly with our genius.
There, everything is mechanism and our sad children
Seem like a machine, in the middle of their benches;
Their absurd discipline, and no doubt fatal,
Governs even the steps, the attitude or the gesture:
Today, we can prophesy the fate
Of this automaton people thus moved by spring ».

17. Death of Mutual Tuition in France

« Progrès des Lumières », print, 1819.

In 1815, after Waterloo, King Louis XVIII, who had fled, returned on July 8, 1815. Unlike his brother, the future Charles X, leader of the ultra-royalists, was fully aware that the history of the Revolution could not be erased. He realized that France could no longer be a country of « subjects », and that it had become a Nation. Hence the « Constitutional Charter » he promulgated, which had the force of a constitution. In the same spirit, in view of the popularity of mutual education, he granted it favors (subsidies, creation of model schools, protection from the Ministry of the Interior).

Mutual education soon lost its protectors, as the ministerial commission created by the decree of April 27 did not survive Napoleon’s fall in June 1815.

By the autumn of 1816, criticism was pouring in from the Congregationalists. The Grand Chaplain of France, Cardinal de Talleyrand-Périgord, Archbishop of Reims (John Baptist de La Salle’s birthplace…), for his part, addressed the King to express the alarm of Catholics.

By 1820, the SIE already had a network of 1,500 mutual schools, grouping together more than 170,000 pupils thanks to an audacious collective pedagogy. However, mutualism came under fire from the ultras, who considered it too liberal, too favorable to children’s autonomy and incapable of « raising youth in religious and monarchical sentiments ».

The child who leaves this school, they say, « is a learned parrot, without religious ideas, without moral values, more dangerous than the ignorant for the political and social order, since instruction has developed new needs in him, always ready to engage in new scenes of revolution or dechristianization. Ah, Carnot, the regicidal conventionalist and patron of mutual education, knew what he was up to when he introduced it into France with the decree of 1815! »

Jean-Baptiste de La Salle, founder of the « Brothers of the Christian Schools ».

As said earlier, in France, mutual tuition was seen as an aggression by the religious congregations who practiced « simultaneous teaching », codified as early as 1684 by Jean-Baptiste de La Salle (1651-1719) for Institute of the Brothers of the Christian Schools (Latin : Fratres Scholarum Christianarum; French Frères des Écoles Chrétiennes; Italian: Fratelli delle Scuole Cristiane, abbreviated FSC) : classes by age, division by level, fixed and individual places, strict discipline, repetitive and simultaneous work supervised by an inflexible master.

And the merits of the FSC’s schools and « simultaneous teaching », confirmed by centuries of experience, were considered in total opposition to those of mutual education, the « mania of the moment », and considered the work of « charlatans » speculating on primary education.

A fierce supporter of order and suspecting a vast Protestant plot against the Vatican, Pope Leo XII, the « Pope of the Holy Alliance », decided in Quod Divina Sapientia, his papal bull of August 28, 1824 (art. XXVII, 299), that « public schools of mutual instruction will be suppressed and abolished in all the Papal States. The bishops will prosecute those who continue to use this teaching method or who attempt to introduce it into their dioceses ».

In anticipation of the Papal Bull, the Ordinance of April 1824 placed mutual education in France under the strict supervision of the traditional Church, which took over the entire educational question. In August, just after Leo XII’s bull, a Ministry of « Ecclesiastical Affairs and Public Instruction » was created, a name that reflected the Church’s return to business. The accession of Charles X only exacerbated this situation. The Church of the time loved the Enlightenment, but above all it loved candlelight…

Catholic School at Versailles, painting by d’Antoinette Asselineau, 1839.

From then on, the schooling situation took a dramatic turn for the worse.

In 1828, of the 39,381 communes :

  • around 24,000 had boys’ schools, catering for 1,070,000 children ;
  • no more than 430,000 girls attended elementary school;
  • 15,381 communes have no boys’ schools ;
  • and perhaps 20,000 without girls’ schools;
  • 1,680,000 boys and 2,320,000 girls attend no school at all, making a total of 4 million.

Despite an upturn between 1828 and 1829, mutuellism was rejected, its schools closed one after the other (their number fell by three-quarters compared to 1820), although the electoral weight of the ultras diminished from election to election. However, the people’s educators resisted.

In the years following the 1830 revolution, over 2,000 mutual schools were still in operation, mainly in towns, in competition with the denominational schools promoted by the regime. Officially, the mutual school was not a guarantor of morality, and was said to be « industrial » and inhumane.

François Guizot.

Then came the famous « Guizot moment ». Although he had initially campaigned for the development of mutual education within the SIE, François Guizot (1787-1874), Louis-Philippe’s Minister of Public Instruction from 1832 onwards, gave mutual education the coup de grâce in France by having the « simultaneous » method endorsed as the only official teaching method.

Schools adopting mutual tuition were no longer subsidized, nor did they receive any support from the government or the Church. Faced with material difficulties, the majority of pupils mostly admitted free of charge had now to pay a fee. Many parents in need withdrew their children and sent them to the newly opened Brother of the Christian Schools, who had become free of charge…

The Church slanders, casts doubt on the morality of the teachers, tried to keep the children of Catholic families away from the « devil’s school », persecutes and threatens to keep them away from catechism and communion in order to break mutual tuition. Most of the teachers using that method felt obliged to bandon it and embrace the official « simultanous » method. With no more pupils, no more teachers, mutual schools gradually disappeared.

It was Guizot who put the final nail in the coffin of mutual tuition, creating the École normale des instituteurs in 1867 to train the future teachers of Jules Ferry’s school in the simultaneous method still the norm today.

The young Hippolyte Carnot also joined the SIE in order to reconnect, post mortem, with his father. In 1847, when he became Minister of Public Instruction under the Second Republic, he attempted to revive the mutual education cherished by his father Lazare Carnot, but although his work was great, his enemies were many and his term of office very short.

18. Conclusion

Education is in deep crisis. Everything that was largely accomplished by Lazare Carnot and his son Hippolyte has been systematically destroyed by the new church of our time: the financial, transhumanist and decadent oligarchy, having led the world to the brink of collapse, still determined to save its privileges by organizing the physical and moral ruin of humanity.

To rebuild an education worthy of the name, we are convinced that mutual education, provided it is adapted to our times, is an extremely promising avenue. Several African countries, currently lacking sufficient resources, are already taking inspiration from it.

Mutual tuition is not a relic of the past, but an experiment to be renewed to open the gates of the futur. For the Global South, still plagued by post-colonial exploitation, war and epidemics, education of this kind is the way to go: efficient, rapid and cheap but also humanizing and joyfull, it is the way to go.

It’s a message that Vincent Faillet, a young french teacher with a doctorate in education and training in the Paris region, who is reviving this method, cleary expresses in this video:

19. Short list of works consulted

Merci de partager !

Le combat républicain de David d’Angers, statue de Gutenberg à Strasbourg

En plein centre-ville de Strasbourg, à deux pas de la cathédrale, tournant le dos à la Chambre de commerce qui date de 1585, la belle statue en bronze représentant l’imprimeur allemand Johannes Gutenberg tenant une page à peine imprimée de sa Bible sur laquelle on peut lire : « Et la lumière fut ! » (NOTE 1)

Évoquant l’émancipation des peuples grâce à la diffusion de la connaissance par le développement de l’imprimerie, la statue, érigée en 1840, arrive à un moment où les partisans de la République sont vent debout contre la censure de la presse imposée par Louis-Philippe sous la Monarchie de Juillet.

Strasbourg, Mayence et la Chine

Modèle en plâtre pour la statue de Gutenberg, par David d’Angers.

Né vers 1400 à Mayence, Johannes Gutenberg, avec l’argent que lui prête le marchand et banquier Johann Fust, réalise à Strasbourg, entre 1434 et 1445, ses premiers essais avec des caractères d’imprimerie mobiles en métal, avant de perfectionner son procédé à Mayence, notamment en imprimant à partir de 1452 sa fameuse Bible dite à 42 lignes.

A sa mort (à Mayence) en 1468, Gutenberg lègue son procédé à l’humanité permettant l’envol de l’imprimerie en Europe. Des chroniqueurs évoquent également le travail de Laurens Janszoon Coster à Harlem ou encore ceux de l’imprimeur italien Panfilo Castaldi qui aurait ramené le savoir-faire chinois en Europe. Soulignons que le monde « civilisé » d’alors refusait de reconnaître que l’imprimerie avait vu le jour en Asie avec les fameux « caractères mobiles » (en porcelaine et en métal) mis au point plusieurs siècles plus tôt en Chine et en Corée. (NOTE 2)

En Europe, Mayence et Strasbourg se disputent la place d’honneur. Ainsi, pour célébrer le 400e anniversaire de « l’invention » de l’imprimerie, Mayence inaugure, le 14 août 1837, sa statue de Gutenberg érigée par le sculpteur Bertel Thorvaldsenalors, alors qu’à Strasbourg, dès 1835, un comité local avait confié la réalisation d’un monument du même type au sculpteur David d’Angers.

Ce dernier, assez peu connu, fut aussi bien un grand sculpteur ami proche de Victor Hugo, qu’un républicain fervent en contact personnel avec la fine fleur de l’élite humaniste de son époque en France, en Allemagne et aux Etats-Unis. Il fut également un combattant inlassable de l’abolition de la traite négrière et de l’esclavage.

La vie du sculpteur

Sculpteur français Pierre-Jean David, dit « David d’Angers » (1788-1856) est le fils du maître sculpteur Pierre Louis David. Pierre-Jean sera marqué par l’esprit républicain de son père qui le forme à la sculpture dès son jeune âge. A douze ans, son père l’inscrit au cours de dessin de l’École centrale de Nantes. A Paris, il est sollicité pour réaliser les ornementations de l’Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel et la façade sud du palais du Louvre. Enfin il entre aux Beaux-arts.

David d’Angers, par François-Joseph Heim, Musée du Louvre.

David d’Angers possède un sens aigu de l’interprétation de la figure humaine et une aptitude à pénétrer les secrets de ses modèles. Il excelle dans le portrait que ce soit en buste ou en médaillon. Il est l’auteur d’au moins soixante huit statues et statuettes, d’une cinquantaine de bas-reliefs, d’une centaine de bustes et plus de cinq cents médaillons. Victor Hugo avait dit à son ami David: « C’est la monnaie de bronze avec laquelle vous payez votre péage à la postérité. »

Il voyage en Europe : Berlin, Londres, Dresde, Munich où partout, il exécute des bustes.

Vers 1825, alors qu’il obtient la commande du monument funéraire que la Nation élève par souscription publique en l’honneur du général Foy, un tribun de l’opposition parlementaire, une mutation idéologique et artistique s’opère en lui. Il fréquente les milieux progressistes des intellectuels de la « génération de 1820 » et rejoint le courant républicain international. Il s’interroge alors sur les problèmes politiques et sociaux de la France et de l’Europe. Plus tard, il resta toujours fidèle à ses convictions, refusant par exemple la commande prestigieuse du tombeau de Napoléon.

Production artistique

Projet de statue du médecin Françis-Xavier Bichat (1771-1802), David d’Angers.

Son art s’infléchit donc dans le sens d’un naturalisme dont l’iconographie et l’expression détonnent si on le compare à l’art que pratiquent ses collègues académiciens et à celui des sculpteurs dissidents dits alors « romantiques ». Pour David, point de sensualisme mythologique, d’allégories obscures ni de pittoresque historique. La sculpture, selon David, doit au contraire généraliser et transposer ce que l’artiste observe, de façon à assurer la survie des idées et des destinées dans une postérité intemporelle. David s’attacha à cette conception particulière, limitée de la sculpture, adoptant ainsi les réflexions de l’âge des Lumières selon lesquelles cet art se fait « le dépôt durable des vertus des hommes » en perpétuant le souvenir des exploits des êtres d’exception.

Médaillon figurant Alexandre de Humboldt, David d’Angers.

Prévaut alors l’image, un peu austère, des « grands hommes » que l’on connaît surtout grâce à quelque 600 médaillons représentant les hommes et femmes célèbres, de plusieurs pays, la plupart étant ses contemporains. A cela, s’ajoute une centaine de bustes, avant tout représentant ses amis, des poètes, des écrivains, des musiciens, des chansonniers, des scientifiques et des hommes politiques avec lesquels il partage l’idéal républicain.

Parmi les plus éclairés de son époque, on compte : Victor Hugo, Lafayette, Wolfgang Goethe, Alfred de Vigny, Alphonse Lamartine, Pierre-Jean de Béranger, Alfred de Musset, François Arago, Alexandre de Humboldt, Honoré de Balzac, Lady Morgan, James Fennimore Cooper, Armand Carrel, François Chateaubriand, Ennius Quirinus Visconti et autres Niccolo Paganini.

Pour magnifier ses modèles et rendre visuellement les qualités du génie propre à chacun, David d’Angers invente un mode d’idéalisation non plus fondé sur le classicisme à l’antique, mais sur une grammaire des formes issue d’une science nouvelle, la phrénologie du Docteur Gall, qui voulait que les « bosses » crâniennes d’un individu traduisent ses aptitudes intellectuelles et ses passions. Pour le sculpteur il s’agissait de transcender la physionomie du modèle pour que la grandeur de l’âme rayonne à son front.

En 1826, il est élu membre de l’Institut de France et, la même année, professeur aux Beaux-Arts. En 1828, David d’Angers est victime d’un premier attentat jamais élucidé. Blessé à la tête, il est obligé de garder le lit pendant trois mois. Ce qui ne l’empêche pas, en 1830, toujours fidèle aux idées républicaines, de participer aux journées révolutionnaires et combats sur les barricades. Fronton du Panthéon, David d’Angers.

Le sculpteur se trouva ainsi tout désigné, en 1830, pour exécuter la commande du programme de sculpture politique le plus chargé de sens de la monarchie de Juillet et, peut-être, du XIXe siècle en France, la nouvelle décoration du fronton de l’église Sainte-Geneviève reconvertie, dès juillet, en Panthéon.

Il s’agit pour lui, historiographe, de représenter les civils et hommes de guerre qui édifièrent la France républicaine. L’exécution des personnages qu’il avait choisis et disposés dans une esquisse d’abord approuvée puis suspendue, devait nécessairement conduire, en 1837, à un conflit avec le haut-clergé et le gouvernement. À gauche, nous voyons Bichat, Voltaire et Jean-Jacques Rousseau, David, Cuvier, Lafayette, Manuel, Carnot, Berthollet, Laplace, Malesherbes, Mirabeau, Monge et Fénelon. Alors que le gouvernement tente de faire supprimer l’effigie de Lafayette, ce que David d’Angers refuse avec obstination, appuyé en cela par la presse libérale, le fronton est dévoilé sans cérémonie officielle en septembre 1837, sans la présence de l’artiste, non invité.

Entrée en politique

Lors de la Révolution de 1848, il est nommé maire du XIe arrondissement de Paris, entre à l’Assemblée nationale constituante puis à l’Assemblée nationale législative où il vote avec la Montagne (gauche révolutionnaire). Il défend l’existence de l’Ecole des Beaux-arts et de l’Académie de France à Rome. Il s’oppose à la destruction de la Chapelle Expiatoire et au retrait de deux statues de l’Arc de Triomphe, (Résistance et Paix d’Antoine Etex).

Il vote aussi contre les poursuites à l’encontre de Louis Blanc (autre homme d’Etat républicain condamné à l’exil), contre les crédits de l’expédition romaine de Napoléon III, pour l’abolition de la peine de mort, pour le droit au travail, pour l’amnistie générale.


Jeune fille grecque, statue de David d’Angers pour le tombeau de Markos Botzaris.

Il n’est pas réélu député en 1849 et se retire de la vie politique. En 1851, à l’avènement de Napoléon III, David d’Angers est arrêté et également condamné à l’exil. Il choisit la Belgique puis voyage en Grèce (son vieux projet). Il veut revoir sa Jeune grecque sur le tombeau du républicain patriote grec Markos Botzaris, qu’il trouve mutilée et à l’abandon (il la fera rapatrier en France et restaurer).

Déçu par la Grèce, il revient en France, en 1852. Aidé par son ami de Béranger, il est autorisé à séjourner à Paris où il reprend ses travaux. En septembre 1855, il est terrassé par une attaque d’apoplexie qui l’oblige à cesser ses activités. Il décède en janvier 1856.

Amitiés avec Lafayette, l’abbé Grégoire et Pierre-Jean de Béranger

Le marquis de Lafayette. peint par Adolphe Phalipon d’après un tableau d’Ary Scheffer (1795-1858).

David d’Angers apparaît comme un véritable trait-d’union entre les républicains du XVIII et ceux du XIXe siècle et une passerelle vivante entre ceux d’Europe et d’Amérique.

Né en 1788, il aura la chance de fréquenter dans son jeune âge certaines grandes figures révolutionnaires de l’époque avant de s’impliquer personnellement dans les révolutions de 1830 et 1848.

Vers la fin des années 1820, David participe aux réunions chaque mardi du salon de Madame de Lafayette épouse de Gilbert du Motier, marquis de La Fayette (1757-1834).

Alors que le général Lafayette s’y tenait droit comme « un chêne vénérable », ce salon, note le sculpteur,

« a une physionomie bien tranchée, écrit-il. Là les hommes causent de choses sérieuses, surtout politiques, les jeunes gens mêmes ont l’air grave : il y a quelque chose de décidé, d’énergique et de courageux dans leur regard et dans leur maintien (…) Toutes les dames et aussi les demoiselles ont l’air calme et réfléchi ; elles ont plutôt l’air d’être venues pour voir ou assister à des délibérations importantes, que pour se faire voir. »

Le général républicain irlandais Arthur O’Connor.

David y rencontre un compagnon d’armes de Lafayette, le général Arthur O’Connor (1763-1852), ancien député irlandais acquis à la cause républicaine ayant rejoint les volontaires de l’Etat-Major de Lafayette en 1792.

Accusé d’avoir suscité des troubles contre l’Empire britannique et en contact avec le général Lazare Hoche, O’Connor se réfugia en France en 1796 et participa à l’expédition d’Irlande. O’Connor, épousa en 1807 la fille de Condorcet et sera naturalisé Français en 1818.

Le chansonnier républicain Pierre-Jean de Béranger, buste de David d’Angers.

Lafayette et David d’Angers se retrouvaient souvent avec un petit groupe d’amis, quelques « frères », membres de loges maçonniques : tels le chansonnier Pierre-Jean de Béranger, François Chateaubriand, Benjamin Constant, Alexandre Dumas (qui correspondait avec Edgar Allan Poe), Alphonse Lamartine, Henri Beyle dit Stendhal ou encore les peintres François Gérard et Horace Vernet.

Dans ces mêmes cercles, David fera également connaissance avec l’Abbé Grégoire (1750-1831) et on y évoquait souvent le problème de l’abolition de l’esclavage que Grégoire avait fait voter le 4 février 1794.

Dans leurs échanges, Lafayette aimait rappeler ce que disait son ami de jeunesse Nicolas de Condorcet :

« L’esclavage, c’est une horrible barbarie, si nous ne pouvons manger du sucre qu’à ce prix, il faut savoir renoncer à une denrée souillée du sang de nos frères.« 

Pour Grégoire, le problème était bien plus profond :

« Tant que les hommes seront altérés de sang, ou plutôt, tant que la plupart des gouvernements n’auront pas de morale, que la politique sera l’art de fourber, que les peuples, méconnaissant leurs vrais intérêts, attacheront une sotte importance au métier de spadassin, et se laisseront conduire aveuglément à la boucherie avec une résignation moutonnière, presque toujours pour servir de piédestal à la vanité, presque jamais pour venger les droits de l’humanité, et faire un pas vers le bonheur et la vertu, la nation la plus florissante sera celle qui aura plus de facilité pour égorger les autres.« 

(Essai sur la régénération physique, morale et politique des juifs)

Napoléon et l’esclavage

La première abolition de l’esclavage avait été, hélas de courte durée. En 1802, Napoléon Bonaparte, à court d’argent pour financer ses guerres, rétablit l’esclavage et neuf jours plus tard, il exclut de l’armée française les officiers de couleur. Enfin, il proscrit les mariages entre « fiancés dont la couleur de peau est différente ». David d’Angers restait très sensible à cette question, ayant comme camarade, un tout jeune écrivain, Alexandre Dumas, dont le père était né esclave à Haïti.

Dès 1781, sous le pseudonyme de Schwarz (noir en Allemand), Nicolas de Condorcet avait fait paraître un manifeste plaidant pour la disparition graduelle de l’esclavage sur une période de 60 à70 ans, un point de vue rapidement partagé par Lafayette. Fervent militant de la cause abolitionniste, Condorcet condamne l’esclavage comme un crime mais dénonce aussi son inutilité économique : le travail servile, dont la productivité est faible, est un frein à l’établissement de l’économie de marché.

Et avant même la signature du traité de paix entre la France et les Etats-Unis, Lafayette écrivit à son ami George Washington le 3 février 1783 pour lui proposer de s’associer à lui afin de mettre en route un processus d’émancipation progressif des esclaves. Il lui suggérait un plan qui « deviendrait franchement bénéfique pour la portion noire de l’humanité ».

Il s’agissait d’acheter un petit État dans lequel on ferait l’expérience de libérer les esclaves et de les faire travailler comme fermiers. Un tel exemple, expliquait-il, « pourrait faire école et ainsi devenir une pratique générale ».  (NOTE 3)

Washington lui répond qu’à titre personnel il aurait plutôt envie d’appuyer une telle démarche mais que le Congrès américain (déjà) y était totalement hostile.

De la Société des amis des Noirs à la Société française pour l’abolition de l’esclavage

L’abbé Henri Grégoire, buste de David d’Angers.

A Paris, l’abbé Grégoire et Jacques Pierre Brissot créent le 19 février 1788 « La Société des amis des Noirs » dont le règlement fut rédigé par Condorcet et dont les époux Lafayette furent également membres.

La société avait pour but l’égalité des Blancs et des Noirs libres dans les colonies, l’interdiction immédiate de la traite des Noirs et progressive de l’esclavage ; d’une part dans le souci de maintenir l’économie des colonies françaises, et d’autre part dans l’idée qu’avant d’accéder à la liberté, les Noirs devaient y être préparés, et donc éduqués.

Après la quasi disparition des « Amis des Noirs », l’offensive fut renouvelée avec d’abord, en 1821, la fondation de la « Société de la morale chrétienne » constituant en 1822 un « Comité pour l’abolition de la traite des Noirs », dont une partie des membres ira fonder en 1834 la « Société française pour l’abolition de l’esclavage (SFAE) ».

D’abord favorable à une abolition progressive, la SFAE sera ensuite favorable à une abolition immédiate. Interdit de réunion, elle décide de créer des comités abolitionnistes dans l’ensemble du pays pour que ceux-ci relaient tant au plan local qu’au plan national la volonté de faire cesser l’esclavage.

Goethe et Schiller

À l’été 1829, David d’Angers effectue son premier voyage en Allemagne et rencontre Goethe (1749-1832), le poète et philosophe qui s’était retiré à Weimar. Plusieurs séances de pose ont permis au sculpteur de réaliser son portrait.

Victor Pavie.

L’écrivain et poète Victor Pavie (1808-1886), ami de Victor Hugo et un des fondateurs des « Cercles catholiques ouvriers », nous relate un épisode pittoresque du sculpteur dans son « Goethe et David, souvenirs d’un voyage à Weimar » (1874).

En 1827, le journal français Globe avait fait paraître deux lettres racontant deux visites rendues à Goethe, en 1817 et 1825, par Victor Cousin (1792-1887), ainsi qu’un courrier d’André-Marie Ampère (1775-1867), de retour de l’« Athènes de l’Allemagne ». Le tout jeune savant y faisait part de son admiration, et donnait de nombreux détails qui aiguisèrent l’intérêt de ses compatriotes. Lors de son séjour à Weimar, Ampère compléta les connaissances de son hôte au sujet des auteurs romantiques, et notamment en ce qui concerne Mérimée, Vigny, Deschamps et Delphine Gay. Goethe avait déjà une opinion (positive) sur Victor Hugo, Lamartine et Casimir Delavigne, et sur tout ce qu’ils devaient à Chateaubriand.

Abonné au Globe depuis sa fondation en 1824 Goethe disposait d’un merveilleux instrument d’information française. En tous cas, il ne lui restait pas grand chose à apprendre sur la France, quand David et Pavie se présentèrent chez lui, au mois d’août 1829. Fort de son expérience malheureuse avec Walter Scott à Londres, David d’Angers avait, cette fois, pris ses précautions, se munissant d’un certain nombre de lettres de recommandation pour les habitants de Weimar, ainsi que de deux lettres d’introduction auprès de Goethe, signées par l’abbé Grégoire et Victor Cousin. Afin de montrer à l’illustre écrivain ce qu’il savait faire, il avait mis dans une caisse quelques uns de ses plus beaux médaillons.

Arrivés à Weimar, David d’Angers et Victor Pavie rencontreront de grandes difficultés dans leur quête, d’autant que les destinataires des lettres de recommandation étaient tous absents. Frappé de désespoir, craignant l’échec, David accuse alors son jeune ami Victor Pavie :

Friedrich Schiller, médaillon de David d’Angers.

c« Oui, tu t’es lancé avec ton optimisme de jeune homme sans me laisser le temps de réfléchir et de me dégager. Ce n’est point en poltron et sous le patronage interlope d’un aventurier, c’est de front et résolument qu’il nous fallait aborder le personnage. (…) On vaut par ce qu’on est, c’est oui ou non. Tu me connais, à genoux devant le génie, et, devant le pouvoir, imployable.
Ah ! les poètes de cour, grands ou petits, partout les mêmes ! 

(…) Et d’un bond s’élançant de la chaise où il s’était insensiblement laissé choir : Où est Schiller (1759-1805) que je l’embrasse ! Celui-là était peuple, on ne disait point Monsieur de Schiller ; sa tombe, où je frapperai, ne me restera point scellée ; j’irai l’y prendre, et l’en ramènerai glorieux. Je ne l’ai point vu, qu’importe ? ai-je vu Corneille, ai-je vu Racine ? Le buste que je lui destine n’en ressemblera que mieux ; sur son front reluira l’éclair de son génie. Je le ferai tel que je l’aime et l’admire, non point avec ce nez pincé dont l’a gratifié Dannecker, mais les narines gonflées de patriotisme et de liberté ».

Le récit de Victor Pavie révèle la ferveur républicaine animant le sculpteur qui, fidèle aux idéaux de l’abbé Grégoire, réfléchissait déjà à la grande sculpture contre l’esclavage qu’il projetait de réaliser :

« En ce moment, la fenêtre entrebâillée de notre chambre, cédant à la brise du soir, s’ouvrit à deux battants. Le ciel était superbe ; la voie lactée s’y déroulait avec un tel éclat qu’on en eût compté les étoiles. Il (David) resta quelque temps silencieux, ébloui ; puis, avec cette soudaineté d’impression qui renouvelait incessamment autour de lui le domaine des sentiments et des idées : ‘Quelle œuvre, et quel chef-d’œuvre ! Sommes-nous pauvres près de cela ! Tous vos génies en un, écrivains, artistes, poètes, atteindraient-ils jamais à ce poème incomparable dont les tâches sont des splendeurs ? Dieu sait pourtant vos prétentions insatiables ; on vous écorche en vous louant… Et légers ! Retiens bien ceci (et ses pressentiments à cet égard n’étaient rien moins qu’une chimère), c’est que tel d’entre eux qui a reçu de moi pour gage de mon admiration un buste en marbre, en aura quelque jour littéralement perdu le souvenir. – Non, il n’y a rien de noble et de grand dans l’humanité que ce qui souffre. J’ai toujours dans la tête, ou plutôt dans le cœur, cette protestation de la conscience humaine contre la plus exécrable iniquité de nos temps, la traite des nègres : après dix ans de silence et de souffrance il faut qu’elle éclate par la voix de l’airain. Tu vois d’ici le groupe : l’esclave garrotté, l’œil au ciel protecteur et vengeur du faible ; près de lui, gisante et brisée, sa femme, au sein de laquelle une frêle créature suce du sang au lieu de lait ; à leurs pieds, détaché du collier rompu de la négresse, le crucifix, l’Homme-Dieu mort pour ses frères, noirs ou blancs. Oui, le monument sera de bronze, et quand soufflera le vent, l’on entendra battre la chaîne, et les anneaux résonneront’ ».

Enfin, Goethe finit par rencontrer les deux Français et David d’Angers réussit à faire son buste. Victor Pavie : « Goethe s’inclina avec politesse devant nous, attaqua dès l’abord le français avec aisance, et nous fit asseoir de cet air calme et résigné qui m’étonnait, comme si c’était une chose toute simple de se trouver debout à quatre-vingts ans, face à face avec une troisième génération, à laquelle il se trouve transmis à travers la seconde, ainsi qu’une vivante tradition. 

« (…) David portait sur lui, comme l’on dit vulgairement, un échantillon de son savoir-faire. Il présenta au vieillard quelques uns de ses profils vivants, d’une expression si morale, d’une exécution si nerveuse et si intime, fragment d’un grand tout qui va se complétant avec notre âge, et qui réserve aux siècles d’après la physionomie monumentale du XIX
e. Goethe les prit dans sa main, les considéra muet, avec une scrupuleuse attention, comme pour en soutirer une harmonie cachée, et fit entendre une exclamation sourde et équivoque que je reconnus plus tard pour une marque de satisfaction authentique. Puis à ce propos, par une transition plus intelligible et bien flatteuse, dont il ne se douta peut-être pas, marchant à sa bibliothèque, il nous étala avec charme une riche collection de médailles du moyen âge, rares et précieuses reliques d’un art que l’on pourrait dire perdu, et dont notre grand sculpteur David a su de nos jours retrouver et retremper le secret.

« (…) Le projet de buste n’eut pas à languir longtemps : et dès le lendemain un des appartements de l’immense maison du poète était transformé en atelier, et un tertre informe gisait sur le parquet, attendant le premier souffle de l’existence. Sitôt qu’il se fut remué lentement vers une apparence humaine, on vit se mouvoir en même temps la figure jusque-là calme et impassible de Goethe. Peu-à-peu, comme s’il se fut déterminé une secrète et sympathique alliance entre le portrait et le modèle, à mesure que l’un s’acheminait à la vie, l’autre s’épanouissait à la confiance et à l’abandon : on en vint bientôt à ces confidences d’artiste, à ce confluent de poésie, où réunies de part et d’autre, les idées du poète et du sculpteur se précipitent dans un moule commun. Il allait, venait, rôdant autour de cette masse croissante, (pour me servir d’une comparaison triviale) avec l’inquiète sollicitude d’un propriétaire qui fait bâtir. Il nous adressait de nombreuses questions sur la France dont il suivait la marche avec une jeune et active curiosité ; et s’ébattant à loisir sur la littérature moderne, il passait tour-à-tour en revue Chateaubriand, Lamartine, Nodier, Alfred de Vigny, Victor Hugo, dont il avait médité sérieusement la manière dans Cromwell.

« (…) Le buste de David sera beau comme celui de Chateaubriand, de Lamartine, de Cooper, comme toute application de génie à génie, comme l’œuvre d’un ciseau apte et puissant à la reproduction d’un de ces types créés tout exprès par la nature pour l’habitation d’une grande pensée. De toutes les ressemblances tentées avec plus ou moins de bonheur, dans tous les âges de cette longue gloire, depuis sa jeunesse de vingt ans jusqu’au buste de Rauch, le dernier et le mieux entendu de tous, ce n’est pas une prévention de dire que celui de David est le meilleur, ou pour parler plus franchement encore, la seule réalisation de cette ressemblance idéale qui n’est pas la chose, mais qui est plus que la chose, la nature prise au-dedans et retournée au-dehors, la manifestation extérieure d’une intelligence divine passée à l’état d’écorce humaine. Et il est peu d’occasion comme celle-ci, où l’exécution colossale ne semble que l’indication impuissante d’un effet réel. Un front immense, sur lequel se dresse, comme des nuages, une épaisse touffe de cheveux argentés ; un regard de haut en bas, creux et immobile, un regard de Jupiter olympien, un nez de proportion large et de style antique, dans la ligne du front ; puis cette bouche singulière dont nous parlions tout-à-l’heure, avec la lèvre inférieure un peu avancée, cette bouche, tout examen, interrogation et finesse, complétant le haut par le bas, le génie par la raison ; sans autre piédestal que son cou musculeux, cette tête se penche comme voilée, vers la terre : c’est l’heure où le génie couchant abaisse son regard vers ce monde qu’il éclaire encore d’un rayon d’adieu. Telle est la description grossière de la statue de Goethe par David. – Quel malheur que dans son buste de Schiller, si célèbre et si prôné, le sculpteur Dannecker lui ait préparé un si misérable pendant ! »

Quand Goethe reçoit son buste, il remercie chaleureusement l’Angevin pour les échanges épistolaires, les livres et les médaillons… mais ne fait aucune mention du buste ! Pour une raison simple : il ne se reconnaît pas du tout dans l’œuvre, qu’il ne garde d’ailleurs pas chez lui… Le poète allemand est représenté avec un front démesuré, pour refléter sa grande intelligence. Et ses cheveux ébouriffés symbolisent les tourments de son âme…

David d’Angers et Hippolyte Carnot

Hippolyte Carnot, fils cadet de Lazare Carnot, peint par Jules Laure, 1837.

Parmi les fondateurs de la Société française pour l’abolition de l’esclavage (SFAE), Hippolyte Carnot (1801-1888), frère cadet de Nicolas Sadi Carnot (1796-1832), pionnier de la thermodynamique et fils de « l’organisateur de la victoire », le génie militaire et scientifique Lazare Carnot dont il va, en 1869, relater l’œuvre et le combat dans sa biographie Mémoires sur Lazare Carnot 1753-1823 par son fils Hippolyte.

Hippolyte publiera en 1888, sous le titre Henri Grégoire, évêque républicain, les Mémoires de ce défenseur de tous les opprimés d’alors (des nègres comme des juifs), grand ami de son père et qui lui avait gardé cette amitié.

Pour l’ancien évêque de Blois,

« il faut éclairer l’ignorance qui ne connait pas et la pauvreté qui n’a pas les moyens de connaitre.« 

Grégoire avait été un des grands « éducateurs de la Convention » et c’est sur son rapport que fut fondé, 29 septembre 1794, notamment, pour l’instruction des artisans, le Conservatoire des Arts-et-Métiers. Grégoire contribua également à la création du Bureau des longitudes le 25 juin 1795 et de l’Institut de France le 25 octobre 1795.

Buste de Rouget de Lisle, David d’Angers.

Hippolyte Carnot et David d’Angers publièrent ensemble les Mémoires de Bertrand Barère de Vieuzac (1755-1841) qui, au Comité de Salut Public, avait en quelque sorte le rôle de Ministre de l’Information, chargé d’annoncer à la Convention, dès leur arrivée, les victoires des Armées Républicaines.

C’est également l’abbé Grégoire qui chargea David d’Angers, avec l’aide de son ami Béranger, d’apporter en 1826 un peu de confort matériel et financier à Rouget de Lisle (1860-1836), l’auteur légendaire de La Marseillaise composée à Strasbourg, lorsque dans ses vieux jours, le compositeur croupillait en prison pour dette.

Dépassant les sectarismes de leur époque, voilà trois fervents républicains plein de compassion et de reconnaissance pour un génie musical qui n’a jamais voulu accepter de renoncer à ses convictions royalistes mais dont la création patriotique deviendra l’hymne national de la jeune République française.

Gouvernement provisoire de la IIe République

Hippolyte Carnot.

Tous ces combats, démarches et mobilisations aboutiront en 1848, lorsque, pendant deux mois et 15 jours (du 24 février au 9 mai), une poignée d’authentiques républicains firent partie du « gouvernement provisoire » de la IIe république.

En si peu de temps, que de bonnes mesures furent prises ou mises en chantier ! Hippolyte Carnot y est un ministre de l’Instruction publique déterminé à créer une éducation de haut niveau pour tous, et femmes incluses, suivant les modèles fixés par son père pour Polytechnique et de Grégoire pour les Arts et Métiers.

L’article 13 de la Constitution de 1848, « garantit aux citoyens (…) l’enseignement primaire gratuit ». Le ministre de l’Instruction publique, toujours Lazare Hippolyte Carnot, soumet à l’Assemblée le 30 juin 1848 un projet de loi qui anticipe totalement sur les lois Ferry, en prévoyant un enseignement élémentaire obligatoire pour les deux sexes, gratuit et laïc, tout en garantissant la liberté d’enseignement. Il prévoit également pour les instituteurs une formation gratuite de trois ans dans une école normale, avec en contrepartie une obligation d’enseigner pendant au moins dix ans, système qui sera longtemps en vigueur. Il propose une nette amélioration de leurs salaires. Il exhorte, déjà, les instituteurs « à dispenser un catéchisme républicain ».

Buste de David d’Angers signé « A son honorable ami François Arago ».

Membre du gouvernement provisoire, le grand astronome et scientifique François Arago est ministre des colonies, après avoir été désigné par Gaspard Monge à lui succéder à l’Ecole polytechnique pour y enseigner la géométrie projective. Son ami le plus proche n’est autre qu’Alexandre de Humboldt, ami de Johann Wolfgang Goethe et de Friedrich Schiller.

Il est un autre militant abolitionniste ayant passé une bonne partie de sa vie d’adulte à Paris. Humboldt fait partie de la Société d’Arcueil formée autour du chimiste Claude-Louis Berthollet où se rencontrent également François Arago, Jean-Baptiste Biot, Louis-Joseph Gay-Lussac avec lesquels Humboldt se lie d’amitié. Ils publient ensemble plusieurs articles scientifiques.

Humboldt et Gay-Lussac mènent des expériences communes sur la composition de l’atmosphère, sur le magnétisme terrestre et la diffraction de la lumière, recherches dont le grand Louis Pasteur cueillera par la suite les fruits.

Napoléon, qui voulait initialement expulser Humboldt, finit par tolérer sa présence. La Société de géographie de Paris, fondée en 1821, le choisit comme président.

Humboldt, Arago, Schoelcher, David d’Angers et Hugo

Humboldt ne cache pas ses idéaux républicains. Son Essai Politique sur l’Ile de Cuba (1825), a l’effet d’une bombe. Trop hostile aux pratiques esclavagistes, l’ouvrage fut interdit de publication en Espagne. Londres va jusqu’à lui refuser tout accès à son Empire.

Bien plus déplorable, John S. Trasher, qui en publia, en 1856, une version en langue anglaise, supprima carrément le chapitre consacré aux esclaves et à la traite ! Humboldt protestera énergiquement contre cette mutilation, opérée à des fins politiques. Trasher était esclavagiste, Sa traduction expurgée fut destinée à combattre les arguments des abolitionnistes nord-américains, qui par la suite publièrent le chapitre escamoté dans le New-York Herald et le Courrier des États-Unis. Victor Schoelcher et le décret abolissant l’esclavage dans les colonies françaises.

En France, sous Arago, le sous-secrétaire d’État à la Marine et aux colonies se nomme Victor Schoelcher. Il n’a pas besoin d’argumenter beaucoup pour convaincre l’astronome que toutes les planètes sont alignés pour passer à l’acte.

Franc-maçon, Schoelcher est un frère de loge de David d’Angers, « Les amis de la Vérité » aussi connu sous le nom de Cercle social, en réalité « un mélange de club politique révolutionnaire, de loge maçonnique et de salon littéraire ».

Le 4 mars une commission est mise en place pour résoudre le problème de l’esclavage dans les colonies françaises. Elle est présidée par Victor de Broglie, président de la SFAE à laquelle adhèrent cinq des douze membres de la commission. Grâce aux efforts de François Arago, Henri Wallon et surtout Victor Schoelcher, ses travaux permettent l’abolition de l’esclavage le 27 avril.

Hugo abolitionniste

Victor Hugo, buste de David d’Angers.

Victor Hugo fut un des partisans de l’abolition de l’esclavage, en France, mais aussi d’une égalité entre ce que l’on désignait encore comme « les races » au XIXe siècle. « République blanche et république noire sont sœurs, de même que l’homme noir et l’homme blanc sont frères », affirmait déjà Hugo en 1859. Pour lui, tous les hommes étant des créations de Dieu, la fraternité était de mise.

Lorsque le 27 avril 1851, une anti-esclavagiste, Maria Chapman, écrit à Hugo pour lui demander de soutenir la cause abolitionniste, Hugo lui répond : « L’esclavage aux États-Unis ! s’exclame-t-il le 12 mai, y a-t-il un contresens plus monstrueux ? ». Comment, en effet, une république dotée d’une aussi belle constitution est capable de préserver une pratique aussi barbare ?

Huit ans plus tard, le 2 décembre 1859, il écrit une lettre ouverte aux États-Unis d’Amérique, publiée par les journaux libres d’Europe, pour défendre l’abolitionniste John Brown condamné à mort.

Partant du fait qu’« il y a des esclaves dans les états du Sud, ce qui indigne, comme le plus monstrueux des contre-sens, la conscience logique et pure des états du Nord », il relate le combat de Brown, son procès et son exécution annoncée, et conclut : « il y a quelque chose de plus effrayant que Caïn tuant Abel, c’est Washington tuant Spartacus ».

Un journaliste de Port-au-Prince, Exilien Heurtelou, le remercie le 4 février 1860. Hugo lui répond le 31 mars :

« Vous êtes, monsieur, un noble échantillon de cette humanité noire si longtemps opprimée et méconnue. D’un bout à l’autre de la terre, la même flamme est dans l’homme ; et les noirs comme vous le prouvent. Y a-t-il eu plusieurs Adam ? Les naturalistes peuvent discuter la question ; mais ce qui est certain, c’est qu’il n’y a qu’un Dieu. Puisqu’il n’y a qu’un père, nous sommes frères.

C’est pour cette vérité que John Brown est mort ; c’est pour cette vérité que je lutte. Vous m’en remerciez, et je ne saurais vous dire combien vos belles paroles me touchent. Il n’y a sur la terre ni blancs ni noirs, il y a des esprits ; vous en êtes un. Devant Dieu, toutes les âmes sont blanches.

J’aime votre pays, votre race, votre liberté, votre révolution, votre république. Votre île magnifique et douce plaît à cette heure aux âmes libres ; elle vient de donner un grand exemple ; elle a brisé le despotisme.
Elle nous aidera à briser l’esclavage. »

En 1860 également, la Société abolitionniste américaine, mobilisée derrière Lincoln publiera un recueil de discours. La brochure s’ouvre sur trois textes de Hugo, suivis par ceux de Carnot, Humboldt et Lafayette.

Hugo accepte de présider, le 18 mai 1879, une commémoration de l’abolition de l’esclavage en présence de Victor Schoelcher, auteur principal du décret d’émancipation de 1848, qui salue en Hugo « le défenseur puissant de tous les déshérités, de tous les faibles, de tous les opprimés de ce monde » et déclare ceci :

« La cause des nègres que nous soutenons, et envers lesquels les nations chrétiennes ont tant à se reprocher, devait avoir votre sympathie ; nous vous sommes reconnaissants de l’attester par votre présence au milieu de nous.« 

Un début de mieux

Autre mesure prise par le gouvernement provisoire de cette éphémère IIe République : l’abolition de la peine de mort dans le domaine politique et la suppression, le 12 mars, des châtiments corporels, tout comme la contrainte par corps (prison pour dette) le 19 mars.

Dans le domaine politique, la liberté de la presse et celle de réunion sont proclamées le 4 mars. Le 5 mars le gouvernement institue le suffrage universel masculin, en remplacement du suffrage censitaire en vigueur depuis 1815. D’un coup le corps électoral passe de 250 000 à 9 millions d’électeurs. Cette mesure démocratique place le monde rural, qui regroupe les trois quarts des habitants, au cœur de la vie politique, et ce, pour de nombreuses décennies. Cette masse de nouveaux électeurs, faute de véritable formation citoyenne, voyant en lui un protecteur, plébiscitera en masse Napoléon III, aussi bien en 1851, en 1860 qu’en 1870.

Victor Hugo

Deuxième buste de Victor Hugo, par David d’Angers.

Pour revenir à David d’Angers, une amitié durable l’unit à Victor Hugo (1802-1885). Fraîchement mariés, Hugo et David se retrouvaient pour dessiner. Le poète et le sculpteur aimaient dessiner ensemble, faire des caricatures, peindre des paysages ou des « architectures » qui les inspiraient.

Un même idéal les unissait et avec l’arrivée de Napoléon III, les deux hommes connurent l’exil politique.

Par amitié, David d’Angers a fait plusieurs bustes de son ami. Hugo est représenté portant un costume élégant contemporain.

Son large front et ses sourcils légèrement froncés expriment la grandeur, encore à venir, du poète. Renonçant à détailler les pupilles, David confère à ce regard une dimension intérieure et pensive qui fit écrire à Hugo :

« Mon ami, c’est l’immortalité que vous m’envoyez.« 

En 1842, David d’Angers réalise un autre buste de Victor Hugo, couronné de laurier, où cette fois ce n’est pas Hugo l’ami intime qui est évoqué mais davantage le génie et le grand homme.

Enfin, pour les funérailles de Hugo, en 1885, la République d’Haïti tint à manifester au poète sa reconnaissance en se faisant représenter par une délégation. Emmanuel-Edouard, écrivain haïtien, la présidait et déclara notamment au Panthéon :

« La République d’Haïti a le droit de parler au nom de la race noire ; la race noire, par mon organe, remercie Victor Hugo de l’avoir beaucoup aimée et honorée, de l’avoir raffermie et consolée.« 

Les quatre bas-reliefs de la statue de Gutenberg

Visite-conférence de la statue de Gutenberg par l’auteur, le 8 juillet 2023.

Une fois que le lecteur identifie ce « grand arche » qui traverse l’histoire et, les idées et convictions, qui animaient David d’Angers, il saisira la belle unité qui sous-tend les quatre bas-reliefs du socle de la statue commémorant Gutenberg à Strasbourg.

Ce qui ressort c’est l’idée très optimiste que le genre humain, dans sa grande et magnifique diversité, est un et fraternel . Une fois libéré de toutes les formes d’oppressions (l’ignorance, esclavage, etc.), il peut vivre ensemble dans la paix et l’harmonie.

Ces bas-reliefs en bronze ont été ajoutés en 1844. Après d’âpres débats et contestations, , ils ont remplacé les modèles en plâtre peints originaux de 1840 apposés lors de l’inauguration. Ils représentent les bienfaits de l’imprimerie en Amérique, en Afrique, en Asie et en Europe. Au centre de chaque relief, une presse d’imprimerie entourée de personnages identifiés par des inscriptions ainsi que des instituteurs, des enseignants et des enfants.

Pour conclure, voici un extrait du compte-rendu de l’inauguration décrivant les bas-reliefs. Sans tomber dans le wokisme (pour qui toute idée de « grand homme » est forcément à combattre), soulignons qu’il est écrit dans les termes de l’époque et donc sujet à discussion :

Diffusion des idées en Europe grâce à l’imprimerie. Modèle en plâtre pour le socle de la statue de Gutenberg, David d’Angers.


« L’Europe est représentée par un bas-relief sur lequel se côtoient René Descartes dans une attitude méditative, placé sous Francis Bacon et Herman Boerhaave. A gauche, l’on voit successivement William Shakespeare, Pierre Corneille, Molière et Racine. Un rang en dessous se succèdent Voltaire, Buffon,Albrecht Dürer, John Milton et Cimarosa, Poussin, Calderone, Camoëns et Puget. A droite du tableau, se pressent Martin Luther, Wilhelm Gottfried Leibniz, Emmanuel Kant, Copernic, Wolfgang Goethe, Friedrich Schiller, Hegel, Richter, Klopstock. Rejetés sur le coté Linné et Ambroise Parée. Près de la presse, on peut voir au-dessus de la figure de Martin Luther, Erasme de Rotterdam, Rousseau et Lessing. Sous le gradin se voient Volta, Galilée, Isaac Newton, James Watt, Denis Papin et Raphaël. Un petit groupe d’enfants étudient parmi lesquels un Africain et un Asiatique « .

Diffusion des idées en Asie grâce à l’imprimerie. Modèle en plâtre pour le socle de la statue de Gutenberg, David d’Angers.


« Une presse est de nouveau représentée à côté de laquelle William Jones et Abraham Hyacinthe Anquetil-Duperron offrent des livres aux brahmanes qui leur donnent en retour des manuscrits. Près de Jones, le sultan Mahmoud II est en train de lire le Moniteur revêtu de vêtements modernes, son ancien turban gît à ses pieds et tout près un Turc lit un livre. Un degré en dessous un empereur chinois entouré d’un Persan et d’un Chinois lit le livre de Confucius. Un Européen instruit des enfants tandis qu’un groupe de femmes indiennes se tient près d’une idole et du philosophe indien Rammonhun-Roy. « 

Diffusion des idées en Afrique grâce à l’imprimerie. Modèle en plâtre pour le socle de la statue de Gutenberg, David d’Angers.


« Appuyé sur une presse, William Wilberforce étreint un Africain possédant un livre, alors que des Européens distribuent à d’autres Africains des livres et s’occupent à instruire les enfants. A droite, on peut voir Thomas Clarkson brisant les fers d’un esclave. Derrière lui, l’abbé Grégoire aide un noir à se relever et tient sa main sur son cœur. Un groupe de femmes élève leurs enfants retrouvés vers les ciel, qui ne verra désormais plus que des hommes libres, tandis qu’à terre gisent des fouets et des fers brisés. C’est la fin de l’esclavage.  »

Diffusion des idées en Amérique grâce à l’imprimerie. Modèle en plâtre pour le socle de la statue de Gutenberg, David d’Angers.


« L’acte de l’indépendance des Etats-Unis qui a fraîchement été tiré de sous la presse figure dans les mains de Benjamin Franklin. Près de lui se tiennent Washington et Lafayette qui tient sur sa poitrine l’épée que lui donne sa patrie adoptive. Jefferson et tous les signataires de l’acte d’indépendance sont rassemblés. A droite, Bolivar serre la main d’un Indien. « 


1884, chantier de la statue de la Liberté, rue de Chazelles, Paris XVIIe.

L’on comprend mieux les paroles prononcées par Victor Hugo, le 29 novembre 1884, c’est-à-dire peu avant sa mort, lors de sa visite de l’atelier du sculpteur Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi où le poète est invité à admirer la statue géante portant le nom symbolique « La Liberté éclairant le monde », fabriquée avec le concours de Gustave Eiffel et prête à partir aux Etats-Unis par bateau. Don de la France à l’Amérique, elle consacrera le souvenir de la part active que le pays de Lafayette a prise pendant la guerre d’Indépendance.

Initialement, Hugo s’est surtout intéressé aux héros et grands hommes d’Etat américains : William Penn, Benjamin Franklin, John Brown ou encore Abraham Lincoln. Des modèles, selon Hugo qui permettaient au peuple de progresser. Aussi l’Amérique est-elle, pour l’homme politique français devenu républicain en 1847, l’exemple à suivre. Même s’il est très déçu par la position des américains sur la peine de mort et l’esclavage.

Après 1830, l’écrivain abandonne cette vision un peu idyllique du Nouveau Monde et s’en prend aux « civilisateurs » blancs, pourchasseurs d’indiens :

« Vous croyez civiliser un monde, lorsque vous l’enfiévrez de quelque fièvre immonde [4], quand vous troublez ses lacs, miroirs d’un dieu secret, lorsque vous violez sa vierge, la forêt. Quand vous chassez du bois, de l’antre, du rivage, votre frère naïf et sombre, le sauvage… Et quand jetant dehors cet Adam inutile, vous peuplez le désert d’un homme plus reptile… Idolâtre du dieu dollar, fou qui palpite, non plus pour un soleil, mais pour une pépite, qui se dit libre et montre au monde épouvanté l’esclavage étonné servant la liberté ! « 

(NOTE 5)

Surmontant sa fatigue, devant la statue de la Liberté, Hugo improvise ce qu’il sait être sa dernière allocution :

« Cette belle œuvre tend à ce que j’ai toujours aimé, appelé : la paix entre l’Amérique et la France – La France qui est l’Europe – Ce gage de paix demeurera permanent. Il était bon que cela fût fait ! « 


  1. Si la phrase figure dans le livre de la Genèse, il pourrait également se référer à Notre-Dame de Paris (1831) un roman de Victor Hugo, grand ami du sculpteur de la statue, David d’Angers. On sait par une lettre d’Hugo d’août 1832 que le poète porta à David d’Angers la huitième édition du livre. La scène la plus directement incarnée dans la statue est celle durant laquelle le personnage de Frollo converse avec deux érudits (l’un étant Louis XI déguisé) tout en désignant d’un doigt un livre et de l’autre la cathédrale en remarquant : « Ceci tuera cela », c’est-à-dire qu’un pouvoir (la presse imprimée), la démocratie, supplantera l’autre (l’Église), la théocratie, une évolution historique qu’Hugo pensait inéluctable.
  2. C’est la rencontre avec l’Asie qui va amener en Europe d’innombrables savoirs-faire techniques et découvertes scientifiques d’Orient, les plus connus étant la boussole et la poudre à canons. Tout aussi essentiel pour l’imprimerie que les caractères mobiles, le papier dont la fabrication fut mis au point en Chine à la fin de la Dynastie des Han de l’Est (vers l’année 185). Quant à l’imprimerie, à ce jour, le plus vieux livre imprimé que nous possédons est le Sûtra du Diamant, un écrit bouddhique chinois datant de 868. Enfin, c’est au milieu du XIe siècle, sous la dynastie des Song, que Bi Sheng (990-1051) inventa les caractères mobiles. Gravés dans de la porcelaine, céramique d’argile visqueuse, durcis dans le feu et assemblés dans la résine, ils révolutionnent l’imprimerie. Comme le documente le musée Gutenberg de Mayence, c’est le Coréen Choe Yun-ui (1102-1162) qui va améliorer cette technique au XIIe siècle en utilisant du métal (moins fragile), procédé que reprendra Gutenberg et ses associés. L’Anthologie des enseignements zen des grands prêtres bouddhistes (1377), également connue sous le nom de Jikji, a été imprimée en Corée, 78 ans avant la Bible de Gutenberg, et est reconnue comme le plus ancien livre à caractères métalliques mobiles existant au monde.
  3. Etienne Taillemite, Lafayette et l’abolition de l’esclavage.
  4. Victor Hugo a sans doute voulu rebondir sur les nouvelles qui lui arrivèrent d’Amérique. L’épidémie de variole du Pacifique Nord-Ouest de 1862, qui a été apportée de San Francisco à Victoria, a dévasté les peuples indigènes de la côte du Pacifique Nord-Ouest, avec un taux de mortalité de plus de 50 % sur toute la côte, de Puget Sound au sud-est de l’Alaska. Certains historiens ont décrit l’épidémie comme un génocide délibéré, car la colonie de l’île de Vancouver et la colonie de la Colombie-Britannique auraient pu la prévenir, mais ont choisi de ne pas le faire, et l’ont en quelque sorte facilitée.
  5. Victor Hugo, La civilisation extrait de Toute la lyre (1888 et 1893).
Merci de partager !