The Conspiracy of Equals

Philippe Buonarotti

Source: Notice Biographique sur Buonarotti. Epinal, 1838;
Translated: from the original for by Mitch Abidor;
CopyLeft: Creative Commons (Attribute & ShareAlike) 2005.

Philippe Buonarotti, descendant of the great Michelangelo Buonarotti, was born in Pisa on November 11, 1761. He could easily have obtained the favor of princes, but only ever incurred their rage. He was only twelve when Grand Duke Leopold who, feeling affection for his father had decorated him with the cordon de Saint-Etienne, amused himself by having the young Philippe play with the bauble. It is said that he himself had received that order, but this is not true: Buonarotti never wore a single decoration. Barely embarked upon real life he tore up his letters of noblesse and renounced all his family privileges. Of an illustrious origin, he had the vigor, the love of labor, the patience and the courage of a man of the people. He owed his illustriousness to his own popular virtues alone.

He attracted the displeasure and anger of the prince who had attempted to awaken the desire for external distinctions as soon as the French Revolution broke out because of his ardor in saluting it with his wishes and efforts. Forced to seek refuge in Corsica, he published there a newspaper entitled “The Friend of Italian Freedom.” In 1792 he left his retirement and went to Paris, where the energetic and sincere expression of his republicanism made him stand out at the Jacobin Society. Sent as an envoy to Corsica with extraordinary powers, upon his return he had the Convention pronounce the joining of the island of Saint-Pierre, near Sardinia, to French territory. The Committee of Public Safety then honored him with several missions, both in the French interior and beyond the Alps. He rendered great service to the Italian states, where he had been delegated as agent of the French Republic, until he was arrested at the time of the Thermidorian reaction and brought back to Paris. Buonarotti then began the long career of persecutions that he sanctified by a complete sacrifice of that which commonly attaches men to life. This time he remained a prisoner until the month of Vendémiaire, year IV in the prison of Plessis where he formed ties with Babeuf, Germain, and a great number of departmental revolutionary committees, ties which were to cause him to be rudely tested. Here is how he expressed himself on the time of his first captivity in his book titled Conspiration de Babeuf:

“From these houses of pain burst the electric sparks that so many times made the new tyranny go pale. A spectacle as touching as it was new beautified the interior of prisons: those that aristocracy had plunged there lived in the most intimate frugality; took honor from their chains and poverty, the result of their patriotic devotion; gave themselves over to work and study and conversed only about the ills of the fatherland and the means of ending them. The singing in chorus of civic songs every evening brought together a crowd of citizens attracted by their curiosity or the analogousness of their sentiments with those of the prisoners.”

Buonarotti’s first imprisonment having increased the patriotic party’s confidence in him, when freed for a few instants he was charged with the command at Loano. He was recalled after being denounced. From that time on he observed the march of affairs, reproved them and, just as an austere judge has the sentence he conscientiously pronounced carried out without remorse, he occupied himself solely with actively conspiring against the government he had condemned in the probity of his soul. Arrested with Babeuf and Darthe he, like them, disdained to bargain for his life by having recourse to denial. “Brought before the high court of Vendome,” we read in the Biographie des contemporains by Rabbe, “he took pride in having taken part in the projected insurrection for which he was accused, and solemnly professed his devotion to pure democracy. The public ministry, which judged him as guilty as the actual chief of the conspiracy, demanded the death penalty for him. But the jury only pronounced the death penalty for Babeuf and Darthe and struck Germain, Cazin, Moroy, Blondeau, Menessier and Buonarotti with deportation. “ It was on the very bench of the accused that the latter made the promise to his two friends who were about to die that he would dispel the slanders spread about them. He kept this promise after having devoted thirty-two years of study to the examination of the immense questions he was to raise; so fearful was this honest soul of spreading any kind of error that could surprise him. The book La Conspiration de Babeuf only came out in 1828 in Brussels.

It would be appropriate here to point out an error in the biography that was just cited. It is said that Buonarotti obtained the commutation of his sentence to the simple surveillance that he underwent until 1806 in a city in the Alpes Maritimes. Buonarotti never asked for anything, never addressed a single plea to those in power.

Those condemned to deportation were taken to the fort constructed on Pelée Island at the entry to the harbor of Cherbourg. They traversed the long route that separated them from it in barred cages, sometimes exposed to insults and threats, sometimes receiving the most touching signs of affection and respect. At Falaise, Caen, and Valogne they suffered imminent danger, but they were received with friendship and honors at Mellereau, Argentan and Saint-Lo. In this last city the mayor, at the head of the municipal body, congratulated them and embraced them, calling them our unfortunate brothers. He said: “ You defended the rights of the people. Every good citizen owes you love and recognition.” By decree of the general council they were lodged in the meeting room, where they received the most tender care and consolations.

The deportees awaited their transport to Guyana for quite some time at the fort of Cherbourg. Finally, in the year VIII, they were taken to the island of Oleron. It was from there that Buonarotti, without having been told of either the cause or the execution of this measure, was removed and sentenced to surveillance in a city in the east. Perhaps the First Consul remembered that for a brief time he had lived in the same room and slept in the same bed with he whose noble misfortune caused him a too bitter remorse.

Nevertheless, the man who had heard Bonaparte cry out after May 31: “Here’s a good occasion to make myself King of France” and who had judged the man, didn’t hide his thoughts about the new emperor, exiled though he was. “The cause of freedom,” he said, “is once again condemned by the aristocrats, who prefer engorging themselves with gold, decking themselves with braids, and crawling under the scepter of a soldier, to living free and equal with the people.” He couldn’t remain in France and retired to the area of Geneva, where he lived modestly from his profession of composer. This was one more thing he had in common with J-J Rousseau, whose contemporary and devoted follower he was. Brought up in a Jesuit college he had been tormented there for having read Rousseau.

European diplomacy didn’t allow him any repose and obtained his expulsion from Swiss territory. He took refuge in Belgium and remained there until the July Revolution.

It can be seen how much he loved the people. He made the following reflections on the constitution of the year III, which can be applied to many others:

“In order to impose silence on all its pretensions and to forever close all paths to innovations favorable to the people, all of their political rights were either stolen or truncated. Laws are made without its participation and without their being able to exercise any kind of censure over them. The constitution forever enchains them, both themselves and their posterity, for it is forbidden to them to change it. It declares the people sovereign but any deliberation by the people is declared seditious. After having spoken in a confused fashion of equality of rights, the rights of the mass of citizens is taken from them there, and that of naming to principal state functions is exclusively reserved to the well-to-do. Finally, in order to forever maintain that unfortunate inequality, the source of immorality, injustice and oppression, the authors of that constitution carefully cast aside any institution tending to enlighten the entire nation, to form republican youth, to diminish the ravages and damages of ambition, to rectify public opinion, to improve morals, or to rescue the mass of the people from the idle and the ambitious.

“As soon as wealth was made the basis for the happiness and strength of society, they were necessarily led to refuse the exercise of political rights to all those who, through their fortune, don’t offer a guarantee of their attachment to that order, reputed to be the good par excellence.

“It’s a fact worthy of observation that the national energy for the defense of the revolution increases or decreases according to whether or not the laws favor equality or distance themselves from it. It’s the working class, so unjustly held in contempt, which gave birth to so many prodigious acts of devotion and virtue. Almost everyone else has constantly hindered public regeneration.”

Listen to his judgment on the goal proposed by Jean-Jacques:

“Rousseau proclaimed the rights inseparable from human nature. He pleaded for all men without distinction. He placed the prosperity of society in the happiness of each of its members and its strength in the attachment of all to the laws. For him public wealth resides in the labor and the moderation of its citizens; liberty resides in the might of the sovereign, which is the entire people, every element of which preserves the influence necessary for the life of the social body through the effect of the impartial sharing of joy and enlightenment.”

Finally, judge how much importance he attached to the power of morality:

“The reform of morality must precede the enjoyment of liberty. Before conferring on the people the exercise of sovereignty it is necessary to render general the love of virtue, and to substitute disinterestedness and modesty for avarice, vanity, and ambition, which maintain among the citizens a perpetual war. The contradiction established by our institutions between the needs of love and independence must be annihilated, and the means of misleading, frightening, and dividing must be torn from the hands of the natural enemies of equality. To renounce this preliminary reform means abandoning power to those who are the friends of all abuses and losing the means of assuring public happiness.”

Buonarotti was 70 when he returned to Paris in 1830. The thirty-five years that had passed since he left it, though devoured by prison or exile, had been entirely dedicated to study, under the inspiration of the most religious love of humanity. He had always employed his days and a part of his nights to work, and he only suspended his industrious habits when sickness had defeated him, less than three weeks before his death. The only book he produced is La Conspiration de Babeuf, but he left behind precious manuscripts that will not be lost. What is more, he was so modest that he never wrote anything with publicity in mind. He only studied and instructed himself so as to pour into the souls of his friends the treasures of his knowledge and, even more, his eminent virtue. His counsels were without showiness or vanity, like the rest of his life. He was a sage. He conversed with the old man, the mature man, with the young man or the child as the most intimate friend and brother. He was a witness to the most terrible epochs of our revolution and had taken part in them. Neither his body nor his soul had bent under nearly a half a century of the worst persecutions, and that soul, gifted with so much vigor, far from having been hardened by the struggle, preserved all its gentleness and goodness. No one had more of a right to be severe than Buonarotti, yet no one was more indulgent than he. But indulgent towards faults and reparable errors; inflexible towards the vices of the heart, towards the corruptions of money, towards the cowardly betrayals that sacrifice nations to mad pride or the cupidity of a few men.

Buonarotti’s life was prolonged for 77 years without a single stain having ever been discovered. Those who regularly approached him, who lived most intimately with him, were able to find nothing in his past, surprise nothing in the present, which could trouble this soul worthy of antiquity.

His most extreme old age was not completely sheltered from the suspicions of power. The prefect of police (it was M. Gisquet) had this venerable man arrested and appear before his agents, and only freed him when he had before his eyes the decree of the Convention declaring Philippe Buonarotti a French citizen in recognition of the services he had rendered the republic. “Monsieur, you are not a Frenchman,” the employee charged with interrogating him said to him. “You were not yet born when I already was one,” the descendant of Michelangelo gently answered him, “look in your boxes for the decree of May 27, 1793.”

Without that striking adoption by the National Convention they would cruelly have driven from France, at age 74, he who had so worthily served it. It was under the protection of the decree of the Republic that he was able to die in France.

But he died there under a name other than his own. The condemnation at the High Court of Vendome had pronounced his civil death, and no act had lifted that condemnation. The amnesty of 1830 in favor of those condemned during the Restoration prudently guarded its silence on all previous condemnations. A legal fiction had dispossessed of his name a man whose life any moral power would have singled out for public recognition. Don’t you think that we find in this a bitter irony in our official justice and society? He was insensible to this iniquity, as he was to all others. As long as he did good it made no difference to him if he did it under the name of Buonarotti or Raymond. He regretted the errors of men and never became irritated because of them, always seeking in those that he suffered from a reason to help others avoid similar attacks.

After having fulfilled eminent functions Buonarotti remained poor: what use would riches have been to this sage who had no need of them? Until almost his final days he lived from the lessons in mathematics and music he gave, and it was later said how many noble struggles were necessary to obtain from the nearly blind elderly professor that he finally cease, not to study and learn at his home, but to pursue occupations outside of it.

At his last moments his friends saw him as strong as ever, having guarded the memory, intelligence, and affectionate sentiments of his youth up till the end. Several among them heard him say a few minutes before expiring, and with accents of profound piety; “I am soon going to join those virtuous men who set us such good examples.” And when one of his friends answered: “It is we who have need of yours, and you will remain with us yet,” he added, “You treat me with too much indulgence, speak to me of those whose memory we honor.”

Fifteen hundred citizens followed his remains. Almost all were able to see that high forehead, that so beautiful face in which the great proportions of Michelangelo were preserved. Buonarotti seemed to be sleeping: nothing of death’s sad aspect could be found on his face. Everyone said that they had never seen a more beautiful type. There was power in these cold relics, and those young people who contemplated it took away a lesson in virtue.

– Trélat