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Louvet, Jean-Baptiste (1760-1797): French Author and Revolutionary

Jean-Baptiste Louvet also known as Jean Baptiste Louvet de Couvray (an addition that he added to differentiate himself from his older brother) was born in Paris on 12 June 1760. His father, known to be brutal, owned a stationer’s shop. At 17 years of age, Jean Baptiste was working as a printer’s foreman, then became secretary for a famed mineralogist, Philippe-Frederic de Dietrich, and also worked as an assistant bookseller.

Very early on, he saved enough money to devote much of his time to writing love novels that enjoyed great success in France. In 1787, he published at his own expenses, the first volume of his novel Faublas, titled Les Amours du Chevalier de Faublas. In 1788, a second part is published, Six Semaines de la vie du Chevalier de Faublas followed in 1790 by Fin des amours du Chevalier de Faublas. The novel is much inspired by the love he had since childhood for Marguerite Denuelle who was unhappily married with a jeweler. After many attempts to divorce her husband, she finally managed to leave him and in 1789 moved in with Louvet. The latter chose to change her name to Lodoiska, who was the main female protagonist of Faublas. In 1791, he published Emilie de Varmont ou le divorce nécessaire et les amours du curé Sévin, a melodramatic novel based on Marguerite Denuelle’s failed attempts to divorce her husband. Louvet also composed three highly satirical plays, La Grande Revue des armées blanche et noire (a satire of the émigré army), L’Annobli Conspirateur (a critic of the royalists), and L’Election et l’audience du grand Lama Sispi (a mockery of Pope Pius VI).

In 1789, he embraced the revolution ideals with great passion. In October, he answered Jean-Joseph Mounier, a member of the new French National Assembly, who had blamed people for their march to Versailles with a pamphlet, Paris Justifié, which gained him admittance to the Jacobin club and put him in the public eye. He first hesitated to take leadership positions but as the revolution progressed he was swallowed by its great turmoil. After consulting his mistress, “Lodoiska”, he decided to get fully involved and in December 1791, presented a discourse at the Assembly that he considered as one of his best, “Petition against the Princes”, in which he demanded the Princes and émigrés ’arrestations. He never wrote another romance after that speech.

On 17 January 1792, at the Jacobin club, Louvet made a pivotal presentation which captured his vision of French politics. He stated that there were four dominant parties. First, the Feuillants who were in favor of a constitutional monarchy and did not want to overthrow the king Louis XVI. Second, the Cordeliers (led by Danton, Georges, Marat, Jean-Paul, and Desmoulins, Camille) which associated themselves with the Jacobins (led by Robespierre, Maximilien François Marie Isidore de, Saint-Just, Louis-Antoine de and Collot d'Herbois); the two clubs joined to become the Montagnard party. Third, the Girondins or Brissotins led by Brissot, Jacques Pierre and Vergniaud, Pierre. Fourth, the party of the court which according to Louvet hoped for an invasion of foreign armies to get rid of the 1791 constitution. The Girondins were opposed to the Montagnards because the formers wanted to rush to war against foreign armies but the latter considered France was not yet ready to fight England, Austria and Prussia.

Louvet clearly positioned himself for the war and rallied Brissot, Vergniaud and Roland. His speech against the Princes had been so successful that Brissot, Jacques Pierre praised it on his own journal, Le Patriote français. By siding with the Girondins, he was making himself Robespierre’s adversary. In March 1792, encouraged by Madame Roland and her husband, he started his newspaper La Sentinelle. In September, he was elected deputy at the Convention where he directly confronted Robespierre accusing him of being involved in the massacre of September when the Parisian mob murdered 1,600 inmates (mainly royalist sympathizers and refractory priests -priests that rejected the new constitution-) as well as scheming against the lives of the Girondin leaders. Robespierre was given a week to clear himself which he did with the approval of the majority of the Convention’s deputies. Louvet wrote a reply “A Maximilien Robespierre et à ses royalistes” in which he maintained his attacks. From then on, Louvet was targeted for elimination by Robespierre.

The balance of popularity between Girondins and Montagnards was switching in favor of the latter after important developments. The first was the king’s trial. The ambiguous position of the Girondins who violently criticized Louis XVI but were hesitant to condemn him but did so not to lose their popularity backfired on them. Louvet himself was ambivalent. He strongly slated the king, voted for his death but also voted the final decision to be decided by the people. The second was General Dumouriez’s defection to the Austrians who was one of the Girondins’ strongest supporters. His betrayal incited Fabre d'Eglantine, an important member of the Montagne and close ally to Danton, to use his journal "La Gazette de France nationale" to lead a violent campaign against the Gironde. Louvet justified Dumouriez’s double-crossing as a Montagnard’s orchestration to discredit the Girondins. Louvet even imputed Dumouriez’s defeat at Neerwinden to Pache, the minister of war, who conspired to ill-provide Dumouriez’s army to cause defeat and by repercussion to shame and disrepute the Girondins. Louvet was persuaded that Robespierre, Danton, Georges and even Marat were royalists who only wanted to get rid of Louis XVI to replace him with his cousin, Philippe Egalité, Duke of Orléans, whom they would easily control. Louvet was so convinced of it that he wrote a pamphlet to the Convention A La Convention National et à mes Commettants sur la Conspiration du 10 Mars et la Faction d’Orléans.

The worsening of the economy infuriated Parisians who hold the Girondin ministers responsible for the crisis. On 31st May, the Paris Commune, the governing body of Paris, demanded the arrestation of 22 Girondin deputies. Robespierre, Marat and Saint-Just seized the opportunity to blame the Girondins and supported the request. On June 1st 1793, the Paris Commune declared an insurrection against the Convention to ensure the Girondin deputies would be arrested. On the night between June 1st and 2nd, the comité insurrectionnel led by François Hanriot, a sans-culotte leader, along with 40,000 men surrounded the Convention and required the arrest of several leaders of the Gironde. On the 2nd, the Convention put those leaders, Louvet included, on house arrest. The Montagnards were now in control of the Convention, it was the start of the Reign of Terror. The assassination of Marat by Corday, Charlotte on 13 July 1793 was the coup de grâce to the Gironde. Marat's murder had the opposite effect expected by Charlottte Corday; it incited the Montagnards to take harsher measures on anyone suspected of counter-revolutionary activities.

On the 28, the Convention decreed the arrest of more Girondins. The purge of the Girondins was acted. Some like Vergniaud, Pétion, and Gensonnet accepted their house arrest, others like Brissot, Roland, Condorcet, Marie Jean Antoine Nicholas Caritat, Marquis de and Louvet did not believe in the justice of the revolutionary tribunal and fled in the hope to gather the provinces to lead a movement against Paris and the Convention. Louvet first went to Caen in Normandy then moved around France but finally decided to hide in the Jura and in Switzerland. He spent the first months unaware of what happened to other Girondins and to his mistress Lodoiska. The latter managed to join him and having obtained her divorce in 1792 was finally able to marry him. While in hiding, Louvet had begun his Memoirs, which would be partly published in 1795. A lot of it is devoted to his hardships and his emotions caused by his wanderings. Many have considered it one of the best refugee-story of the time.

After 9 Thermidor (27 July 1794) and the demise of Robespierre, the Reign of Terror ended. Louvet therefore wrote his Appel des victimes du 31 mai aux Parisiens du 9 Thermidor in which he requested the Convention to clear all the proscribed Girondins. Upon his return to Paris in October 1794, he opened a little bookstore. In March 1795, he was readmitted as a member of the Convention. In April, he was part of the committee to first revise the constitution and thereafter to completely rewrite it. After the attempted royalist reaction of 13 vendémiaire an IV (5 October 1795) he stayed true to his republican ideals and did not give up to the street hostility that targeted him. On 23 Vendémiare (15 October), he was elected member of the Conseil des Cinq Cents which functioned as the new French senate. The Directoire, the new French Revolutionary government (1795-1799) had selected him to be Consul to Palermo but unfortunately Louvet could not occupy his new position since he died at only 37 years of age of exhaustion and probably tuberculosis on 25 August 1797.

In spite of the political changes and instability, Louvet remained republican till the end. His last speech was against a decree excluding royalists from public employment. His tolerance stemmed from his own miseries and distresses while in hiding. Louvet is one of the very few Girondins that died of natural causes. Vergniaud, Barbaroux, Brissot, Gensonné, Madame Roland died at the guillotine. Condorcet, Guadet, Roland, Pétion and Buzot committed suicide.

Further Reading:

Bette W. Oliver, Witness to the Revolution: Jean-Baptiste Louvet, 1760–1797, 2020.

Guy Toubiana

The Citadel