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Frank A. Kafker

Professor of History
University of Cincinnati, Cincinnati, Ohio, USA 
Camargo Foundation Fellowship: 1993 - Winter-Spring

Project: A collective biography of the 139 contributors to the Encyclopédie of Diderot and d'Alembert. This book will refute the myth that has developed about the Encyclopedists and show that, despite their reputation, they were not a close-knit group of radicals intent on subverting the Old Regime in France. Instead they were a disparate group of men of letters, physicians, scientists, craftsmen and scholars. They did not share a common social and economic background, birthplace, schooling or career path. Their intellectual interests and accomplishments varied widely, as did their experiences with the Encyclopédie. They were recruited in different ways; some were paid, others unpaid; and most contributed on their specialties while suffering no harm from the Church or State. Even the small minority who were persecuted for writing articles belittling what they viewed as unreasonable customs—thus weakening the might of the Catholic Church and undermining that of the monarchy—did not envision that their ideas would encourage a revolution. Among those fifty or so Encyclopedists who lived during the French Revolution, none was Girondin when the Girondins were in power or a Montagnard when the Montagnards were in power. By the end of the Reign of Terror, most of them were disillusioned with the Revolution; and by Napoleon's coup d'état of 1799, they were ready to rally behind a different kind of regime. It is ironic that most of the surviving contributors to the Encyclopédie, with its reputation for liberalism, anti-Catholicism and anti-militarism, approved of Napoleon's regime. But this is understandable once one discovers that the surviving Encyclopedists had, after ten years of turbulence, lost wealth and status and longed for an end to civil strife. Napoleon supplied order at the same time as he rewarded and honored those who supported him. He also carried out an extensive program of legal, financial, educational and administrative reforms. Most of the Encyclopedists could not predict that he would eventually bring defeat in war, foreign occupation and the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy; only seven of them lived beyond 1807. In reality, most of the Encyclopedists were moderates. During the Old Regime they either felt royalty to the Bourbon government or ambivalence toward it rather than hostility; and those who lived to experience the Revolution came to believe that the new order was even less appealing than the old one.