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The Napoleon Series > Book Reviews > Biographies

Michael J. Leonard Bourdon: The Career of a Revolutionary, 1754-1807

By Michael J. Sydenham

Sydenham, Michael J. Michael J. Leonard Bourdon: The Career of a Revolutionary, 1754-1807. Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier Univ., 1999. 419 pages. ISBN# 0889203199. C$49.95 (Canadian). Hardcover.

Michael J. Sydenham has written a life of Leonard Bourdon, a "second level" participant in the French Revolution whose importance never reached that of a Robespierre or a Danton, but who as a Conventionniel and a politician of his section was involved in many of the important events of the Revolution. He was also an educational reformer who, through most of the Revolution, operated an experimental school in Paris. Bourdon also edited the Recueil des actions heroiques et civiques des Revolution Français, a publication intended to instill revolutionary virtues on young and old alike.

During his life, and after his death, Bourdon was vilified by his enemies, especially those on the Right, as an extremely violent, bloodthirsty revolutionary. Leonard Bourdon was eventually dubbed by his detractors as the "Leopard of the Revolution." Sydenham attempts to demonstrate that Bourdon's reputation has been undeserved. In reality there is little reliable documentary evidence of Bourdon's crimes and Sydenham manages to put as good a face on Bourdon's activities as possible, pointing out the biases of Bourdon's accusers. In the end however it is more the lack of evidence one way or the other that leads Sydenham to give Bourdon the benefit of the doubt.

Bourdon was involved in two incidents at Orleans, which were to come back to haunt him in later years. Although perhaps only indirectly involved, these incidents would constitute the chief elements of Bourdon's reputation as a "terrorist." The first incident involved some prisoners under Bourdon's ultimate authority who were sent to Versailles and massacred there at about the same time the September Massacres took place in Paris. The second incident involved an assault on Bourdon that led to the eventual execution of nine men of Orleans accused before the Revolutionary Tribunal in Paris of having "assassinated" Bourdon.

There is no question that Bourdon firmly believed in the Revolution and was a committed Jacobin. Politically Bourdon had "Hebertist" leanings, although he was never, according to Sydenham, a member of that "party." Bourdon was however a sectionnaire with a natural sympathy for the poor. Within his own section of the Gravilliers Bourdon was outflanked on the Left by his chief rival, the enrage Jacques Roux. In the Jacobins however Robespierre found Bourdon's politics too far to the Left and Robespierre was also turned off by Bourdon's strong dechristianizing stance. Bourdon took a leading part in Robespierre's downfall in Thermidor, commanding the force that arrived first at the Hotel de Ville, where Robespierre and Company were hold up. The fall of Robespierre however was to lead eventually to Bourdon's own downfall.

After Thermidor Bourdon was attacked by Freron and others on the Right as a "drinker of blood" and "Terrorist." Bourdon was eventually arrested and imprisoned at Ham with a number of other Jacobin conventionniels. During his imprisonment, Bourdon's school, which had enjoyed government support, was shut down by the authorities. Bourdon was only released from prison because of a general amnesty declared before the inauguration of the Directory. Under the Directory Bourdon was employed by the government in Belgium where he was once again involved in difficulties brought about in part because of his reputation and his extreme republicanism. Although he'd lost his school, Bourdon continued to lobby the government about his favorite bugaboo, educational reform, and also to press for the payment of outstanding claims related to the closing of his school. Towards the end of 1797 Bourdon was appointed commissioner to the neutral city of Hamburg to keep an eye on émigré activity in that Hanseatic port. Bourdon was also briefly involved with the Irish revolutionaries in exile there.

After 18 Brumaire the 46-year-old Bourdon obtained the position of member of the administrative council of the military hospital at Marseille and later at Toulon. In 1807 he became a principal director of military hospitals, following the Grande Armée into Prussia where he died. Due to the lack of evidence about Bourdon's later life it is not known to what extent Bourdon was able to reconcile his republican beliefs with Napoleon's new regime. Napoleon was always one, however, to employ useful men and evidently he found Bourdon useful whatever their political differences.

Bourdon's educational policies have been compared, interestingly enough, to those of A.S. Neill and his Summerhill school that had some notoriety in the 1950s and 1960s. The curriculum of Bourdon's school, la Societe des Jeunes Francais, included military and physical training, the performing arts including music and drama, printing and engraving (the Societe actually printed a substantial number of Bourdon's Recueil for distribution to other public schools) were compulsory subjects, reading, writing, mathematics, technical drawing, engineering, geography and cartography, literature including classical and "American" languages, and history. Students were required to apprentice in at least one of a number of crafts taught at the school, including baking, printing and engraving, furniture making or shoe-making. The school was to be self-governing and would theoretically be able to pay its own way by the money taken in from the students' work. Bourdon's primary goal was not so much to give his students formal knowledge as to develop well-rounded republican citizens. A number of students placed in Bourdon's institution and paid for by the government were orphelins des defenseurs de la patrie, the sons of men who had given their lives for the Revolution.

The Recueil des actions heroiques that Bourdon edited was an official publication intended to spread patriotism in the country by presenting a series of short, simply written stories illustrating examples of republican civisme -both military and civilian-lfor the edification of school children and others. The Recueil included stories such as that of the poor woman who returned a lost assignat worth 25 livres to its rightful owner or the story of the 13-year-old boy-soldier Joseph Barra who gave his life fighting against the royalists in the Vendee (a story which still appears in French schoolbooks). The Recueil was, in other words, a sort of revolutionary Lives of the Saints.

Although perhaps dryly written, Sydenham's book does a good job detailing the ups and downs in the life of a dedicated revolutionary. Leonard Bourdon includes extensive footnotes and the bibliography includes both primary and secondary sources, including archival documentation.

Reviewed by Tom Holmberg
Place on the Napoleon Series: January 2000