Adam Smith et l’affaire du Chevalier de la Barre

Note: I made significant revisions to this part of my “Adam Smith in Love” series of blog posts. (Check out my blog post of November 10, 2020.)

When Adam Smith first arrived in Paris in early 1764, little did he know that a tumultuous and world-changing Revolution would sweep over the City of Lights in just a few years. The Kingdom of France that Smith visited and lived in for two years–from February 1764 through October 1766–was the France of the Ancien Régime, an Old World domain in which Catholicism was the official state religion, a feudal and autocratic kingdom composed of three great estates–the clergy, the nobility, and the common people.

The main outline of Adam Smith’s travels in France is well known by now. After arriving in Paris on 13 February 1764, Smith and his charge, the Third Duke of Buccleuch, travelled to Toulouse, where they lived for many months. Smith and the Duke eventually returned to the City of Lights in February of 1766, where they resided until the month of October of that same year. During their extended sojourn in Paris (Feb. to Oct. 1766), Smith visited the town of Abbeville, about a 12-hour journey from Paris by horse and carriage. It’s unclear how much time Smith spent in Abbeville or exactly when he stayed there, but Smith’s sojourn in Abbeville was a significant one for several reasons. Abbeville is the place where Smith is said to have fallen “deeply in love with an English lady” (see here), a woman who Ian Simpson Ross would later identify by name as one “Mrs. Nicol.” (Note that the honorific “Mrs.” in the early modern era stood for “Mistress” and implied social rank or caste status, not marital status. See Leneman & Mitchison, 1988, p. 497, n. 18.)

But Smith’s stay in Abbeville would be significant for another reason. It was in Abbeville that a young nobleman, François-Jean Lefebvre de la Barre–also known as the Chevalier de La Barre, was unjustly tortured, beheaded, and burned at the stake on 1 July 1766. At the time, the Case of the Chevalierde La Barre attracted attention across France. Even the great Voltaire got involved in this notorious case, writing not one but two accounts of the Chevalier’s unjust prosecution and sentence. Indeed, this case has become so central to the identity and history of France that several monuments were subsequently erected in the Chevalier de la Barre’s honor, including a statue (pictured below) standing at the gates of the famous Sacred Heart Cathedral in the beautiful Montmarte neighborhood of Paris.

Although the facts of this case are murky, this deadly prosecution was set in motion when a cherished wooden crucifix on a bridge in Abbeville was found mutilated under mysterious circumstances. To this day, the identity of the original vandal or vandals is unknown, but after a lengthy investigation several young noblemen–including one Saveuse de Belleval, the son of the lead judge/investigator in the case–were accused of committing numerous acts of blasphemy and anti-Catholic vandalism. During the investigation, a search of the Chevalier de La Barre’s bedroom led to the discovery of more incriminating evidence, including pornographic books as well as a copy of Voltaire’s Philosophical Dictionary. Although the other suspects somehow managed to flee or elude justice, the unlucky Chevalier de la Barre was apprehended and put on trial in February of 1766. He was adjudged guilty and sentenced to death on 20 February. A few months later (4 June 1766), the Parlement of Paris confirmed the sentence on appeal, and the unfortunate Chevalier de la Barre was burned at the stake, along with his copy of Voltaire’s Philosophical Dictionary, in Abbeville’s town square on 1 July 1766.

Although to my knowledge there is no mention of this cause célèbre in any of Smith’s surviving papers and correspondence, how could Adam Smith have not taken notice of this notorious case? After all, Smith had travelled to the scene of the crime, so to speak, that same year (1766), and he also considered himself not only an admirer but also a friend of Voltaire. I therefore offer the following French conjecture: Adam Smith must have at some point in time heard about the case of the Chevalier de la Barre. Further, though more a matter of speculation, if Smith did fall “deeply in love with an English lady” in Abbeville, Smith view of individual liberty may have encompassed both intellectual liberty as well as the freedom to love …

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About F. E. Guerra-Pujol

When I’m not blogging, I am a business law professor at the University of Central Florida.
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1 Response to Adam Smith et l’affaire du Chevalier de la Barre

  1. Pingback: Love and Liberty Redux | prior probability

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