Publication Spotlight: Anarchists, Terrorists and Republicans

Blog written by Professor Richard Whatmore

Many years ago I discovered Etienne Clavière, a man notorious in his time and even in his death – he was reputed to have stabbed an ivory dagger into his own heart without uttering a sound in order to avoid being dragged to the guillotine. At the time Clavière was imprisoned in Paris in the early years of the French Revolution. He had served as Louis XVI’s last finance minister and the first of the new French Republic. As a Girondin victim of the ruling Jacobins, however, he was arrested, imprisoned, and prepared for execution. Clavière was accused of being an English agent when he was arrested. Although this was nonsense, it was the case that he was an Irish subject of the British crown, having taken an oath of fealty to George III at Dublin in February 1783. Very few people are aware of Clavière’s back-story, which led him from the independent republic of Geneva to friendships with British ministers during and after the American Revolution, and then involvement in the revolution at Paris, which ultimately killed him.

My book Terrorists, Anarchists and Republicans tells the story of Clavière and his associates, who were involved in a remarkable political experiment before the French Revolution. They aspired to move the republic of Geneva – the centre of European Calvinism – to just outside the city of Waterford in Ireland. They wanted to do this because they felt that Geneva was no longer an independent state. Its manners had been corrupted by French luxury, its people were no longer frugal, and Calvinism itself was deemed to be being destroyed. One of the main figures Genevans like Clavière believed was poisoning Geneva was Voltaire, who lived on the edge of the city and whose mission of spreading enlightenment entailed the abolition of Calvinism. Voltaire thought that the Genevans who had expelled the bishop and gained liberty at the time of the Reformation then placed themselves in a prison erected by Calvin.

After Clavière came to power through a popular rebellion at Geneva in April 1782 he knew that he was risking the wrath of Louis XVI and his chief minister Vergennes – the latter hated republicanism and worried about popular government on France’s borders. Although Clavière and his fellow republicans tried to get the support of other states, the French were determined to crush them. Twelve thousand troops invaded Geneva from France, Bern, and Savoy. When the invaders mounted canons on mounds of earth outside the gates of the city, the people inside were ready for martyrdom. Men, women, and children had worked to repair the city walls and had placed gunpowder in the cathedral of Saint Pierre and in the houses of their enemies in the city, whom they branded aristocrats. Clavière and his fellow leaders at the very last moment took the decision not to die to teach the world how endangered republics were – rather they fled and ended up in Britain. They persuaded the Prime Minister Lord Shelburne to give them £50,000 to build a new city in Ireland. A hundred families travelled and like Clavière became Irish subjects. The French launched a campaign against the exiles, attacking them as terrorists and anarchists, wild fanatics who followed the dangerous philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. For a variety of reasons the city failed. It was turned into a barracks. Then, in a remarkable irony, the place that had started life as a possible utopia for republicans was turned into a prison for Irish republicans, the United Irishmen who rebelled in 1798. So atrocious were the conditions in the prison, called New Geneva Barracks, that it passed into folklore. James Joyce mentions it in Ulysses but the story of the place has not been told until now.

About standrewshistory
With over forty fulltime members of staff researching and teaching on European, American and Asian history from the dawn of the Middle Ages to the present day, the School of History at the University of St Andrews has one of the finest faculty and diverse teaching programmes of any School of History in the English speaking world. The School boasts expertise in Mediaeval and Modern History, from Scotland to Byzantium and the Americas to South Asia. Thematic interests include religious history, urban history, transnationalism, historiography and nationalism. The School of History prides itself on small group teaching, allowing for in-depth study and supervision tailored to secure the best from each student. Cutting edge research combined with teaching excellence offer a dynamic and intellectually stimulating environment for the study of History.

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