Fact Check 1: Learning and Forgetting
This is The Siècle, Fact Check 1: Learning and Forgetting.
Welcome, everyone. The Siècle is a podcast devoted to covering French history between 1814 and 1914 — between Napoleon and the First World War. And you’re listening to a special episode, the first in a new category of episodes that I’m calling “Fact Checks.” These are going to be focused looks at elements of 19th Century French history that have entered into popular consciousness — but gotten a little mangled along the way.
I’ve already done some of this debunking here and there over the course of the podcast, in side-comments and footnotes published online at thesiecle.com — that’s t-h-e-s-i-e-c-l-e dot com. My goal is to bring this fact-checking together, to the foreground — to create a single authoritative source people can point to when they see these garbled facts in the wild.
So far The Siècle has been focused on the “Bourbon Restoration,” a period beginning in 1814 when the relatives of the guillotined King Louis XVI were put back on the French throne after Napoleon’s defeat. The Restoration doesn’t last that long, and it’s certainly less exciting than the nonstop wars of the Napoleonic Era. But I think the show so far has shown it to be a deeply fascinating period.
For today’s inaugural fact-check, we’re going to start off with one of the few things that a lot of people know about the Bourbon Restoration, the damning quote that: “The Bourbons have learned nothing and forgotten nothing.”
This is a real quotation, more or less. But almost everything else most people think they know about it is wrong.
It’s not surprising that this quote is so often misused, because it seems so apt. The Bourbon Restoration does not last forever, and it’s commonly painted as a backward-looking anachronism, intent on resurrecting the pre-Revolutionary order. That certainly sounds like a regime that has “learned nothing.” And over the course of The Siècle we’ve seen plenty of examples of old grudges being nursed, from King Louis XVIII’s ongoing bitterness toward the Marquis de Lafayette to Catholic missionaries demanding Frenchmen repent for their actions during the Revolution.
But here’s the thing. Despite how you might see it attributed some places, this quote wasn’t said by Napoleon or Talleyrand or Joseph Fouché or any of the other usual suspects. And more importantly: it wasn’t said about the Bourbon Restoration.
The Chevalier de Panat
Our true culprit is a fairly obscure figure: the younger son of a distinguished noble family named Léopold de Brunet, but more often referred to by his title: the Chevalier de Panat. The Chevalier de Panat had two brothers who both served in the 1789 Estates-General: the eldest Dominique-François with the nobility, and the middle brother Armand with the clergy. All three Brunet brothers would emigrate abroad as the Revolution took off, and it was from London in January 1796 that the Chevalier de Panat wrote a letter to a fellow émigré named Jacques Mallet du Pan, lamenting the state of the world.1
Panat had personal reasons to lament. His brother Dominique-François had just died at the young age of 43, and Panat was professionally stymied. He had set out on a career in the French Navy, but had abandoned this when he emigrated during the Revolution. He thought the French Republic bloody and radical, but also scoffed at hidebound counter-revolutionaries who “shuddered at a single word of compromise.” The Chevalier de Panat had particularly harsh words for the younger brother of the guillotined King Louis XVI, who now styled himself “Louis XVIII” after the 1795 death of Louis XVI’s uncrowned son.2
To understand why the Chevalier de Panat was particularly upset with Louis XVIII in January 1796, we need to step back from the Chevalier for a moment and look at Louis, many years before he finally returned to France as king in 1814.
One Gentleman of Verona
Until his brother was guillotined, the future Louis XVIII was known by his title, the Comte de Provence, and had cultivated a modest reputation as an intellectual and reformer in the ancien régime.3 This was in contrast to the youngest of the three royal brothers, the future King Charles X, then known as the Comte d’Artois. Artois as a young man was a playboy and an arch-conservative, resolutely opposing the smallest reforms and fleeing France into exile the day after the fall of the Bastille.4 Provence, in contrast, supported a number of concessions and only fled France in 1791.5
But this early reformism didn’t stick. Instead, during his long years of exile, Louis XVIII’s political views shifted depending on political circumstances and who his advisers were at any particular moment.6 In 1795, when he declared himself king, Louis XVIII was extremely conservative.
Louis made these views clear in a public manifesto issued in July 1795 from exile in northern Italy. The “Declaration of Verona” made a few gestures of conciliation, such as promising to uphold equality of all before the law and giving everyone access to positions previously reserved for nobles. But its tone was overwhelmingly reactionary. Louis castigated the French people for proving “faithless to the God of your forefathers” and by having “rebelled against the authority which he had established.” He described the medieval system of the three estates of clergy, nobility and commons as “[tracing] with precision that scale of subordination without which society cannot exist.” He insisted on the execution of the French legislators who had voted to execute Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette. In general, it was a call to restore the government which, in his words, “for 14 centuries was the glory of France and the delight of the French,” with only corrections for some “abuses” that had crept in. The Declaration of Verona thrilled the hard-line faction of émigrés, but it dismayed more moderate royalists who thought Louis could recover his throne if only he showed himself willing to make concessions.7
The Chevalier de Panat was one of these despairing moderates. “You speak to me often of the madness of Verona,” he wrote in this January 1796 letter. “Alas, my good friend, this madness is general and incurable. How mistaken you are to believe there is any sense in the brother’s court! We see all of this up close and sigh: Nobody has been corrected; no one has forgotten anything, nor learned anything.”8
So there’s the birth of our famous quote. As with many famous quotes, it’s been improved a little bit in the retelling. Though Panat does not specifically mention “the Bourbons” in the quote, by context he’s clearly talking at least in part about the Bourbon Louis XVIII and those surrounding him. But originally, the quote was intended to pass judgment not on the Bourbon Restoration as it existed after 1814, but on the spirit of French émigrés circa 1796.
Still: the origins of this quote are one thing. It’s possible that later figures during or after the Restoration repeated Panat’s 1796 sentiments, applying them to the Restoration even though that wasn’t their original context.9 So it’s worth digging a bit deeper to ask whether the popular misquote is accurate in spirit. When the Bourbons finally returned after 1814, had they truly learned nothing and forgotten nothing?
Louis the learner
This is a question we need to tackle generously. It’s not enough to identify one thing that Louis XVIII learned since the Revolution and say, “Aha! Disproved!” What people really mean when they tote this quote out is not that the Bourbon Restoration literally learned nothing from the Revolution and forgot nothing from the Revolution. What they mean is that the Bourbons didn’t learn the important things, the key things that would have helped them if they had learned them, and similarly that they held onto the wrong grudges.
But that moves this from a simple question of fact to a complicated question of interpretation. And having studied this period fairly intensely, I can say you can make good arguments on either side — that the Bourbons had meaningfully evolved by the Restoration, or that they remained stuck in the past on the important issues.
I’m not going to leave you with that on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand answer, though. While I reserve the right to change my mind on this, I think you can make a pretty strong case that King Louis XVIII’s reign showed he had in fact learned important things and let himself forget important things.
Louis’s younger brother, King Charles X, is… a more difficult case to make. But we’ll get to him later.
The Louis XVIII who finally sat on his throne in 1814 had changed a lot from the man who issued the Declaration of Verona nearly two decades prior. Far from insisting on “subordination” and calling for the restoration of the ancien régime and the execution of revolutionary regicides, Louis issued the 1814 Charter of Government that set up a constitutional monarchy. Article 11 declared, “All investigations of opinions and votes given prior to the Restoration are forbidden. The same oblivion is required from the tribunals and from citizens.” Article 9 guaranteed the security of lands confiscated from the Catholic Church and nobility, despite demands from both groups for the land’s return. The watchword of Louis’s regime was “union and forgetting” — as deliberate a rebuke to the charge of “learning nothing and forgetting nothing” as you can imagine.
Of course, you can make counter-arguments to all of this. Louis clung to the white Bourbon flag instead of the tricolor, initially refused to wear the badge of the Napoleonic Legion of Honor, and privileged émigrés for jobs and appointments.10 He officially forbid investigating Revolutionary “opinions and votes” — but that didn’t stop him from from flipping out when Henri Grégoire, who had supported executing Louis’s brother, got elected to the Chamber of Deputies in 1819.11 Louis guaranteed the security of confiscated lands and called to forget the disputes of the Revolution, but plenty of returned émigrés loudly agitated for their lands back, including missionaries backed by Louis himself.12 And Louis himself evolved over the course of the Restoration, following a more reactionary course starting after his nephew’s assassination in 1820.13
But overall, Louis after 1814 was clearly a man who had moved on from the intransigence of the Declaration of Verona. He was pressured into accepting a constitution, yes — but even as early as 1814 saw genuine wisdom in that path. In that year Louis captured his reluctant but genuine embrace of this innovation when he wrote that he had “given a constitution to his peoples, because it was the spirit of the age, and it was always better to give one than to have one imposed on you.”14 Though the document itself was written by a committee with limited input from Louis, the king came to become genuinely proud of his Charter, seeing it as “the product of his own wisdom.”15 Whether Louis should have learned more or forgotten more is up for debate, but I think his reign clearly shows someone who wasn’t merely stuck in the past, however much he might have missed the old regime.
King Charles X is another matter entirely, of course. I won’t go as in-depth into the twists of Charles’ reign right now, simply because I haven’t finished writing his narrative yet for The Siècle. But at a minimum, his career seems to show a man who is consistently more attached to the ideals of the ancien régime than Louis XVIII was, and less attached to the lessons of the Revolution16 — though even Charles never attempted to abandon some of the more practical reforms of the interregnum, such as a more centralized executive or the rationalized division of France into departments instead of medieval provinces.
A chevalier by any other name
Before I wrap up here, there’s one more little fact to check. It’s either trivial or extremely important, depending on your perspective. See, if you’re Googling the Chevalier de Panat or his famous quotation, you might find a lot of references to a Chevalier de Panat with the given name of “Charles Louis Étienne.”17 But earlier I gave Panat’s name as “Léopold.” So what’s the guy’s name — “Léopold” or “Charles Louis Étienne”?
Dear listeners, this took me down an extremely deep rabbit hole, but I believe I have emerged with some answers. First, I ruled out a couple of obvious explanations. While there have been multiple men to bear the title “Chevalier de Panat,” this isn’t a case of mixing up two different men — biographical entries for both “Léopold” and “Charles Louis Étienne” give their lifespan as 1762 to 1834 and share identical details about their careers. These entries are clearly talking about the same person, just under two different names.
Second, this isn’t a case of a Frenchman with an extremely long compound name being referred to by different parts of his name. That definitely happens sometimes — for example, François-René de Chateaubriand is sometimes referred to as “François” and sometimes as “René.” But for Panat, I haven’t found any sources that combine “Léopold” and “Charles Louis Étienne.” It’s either one or the other.
No, there is a single right answer here. The quotable Chevalier de Panat was indeed named Léopold, which I sourced as far back as an 1841 genealogical dictionary.18
So where did the “Charles Louis Étienne” naming come from? I haven’t found anything conclusive, but I did find the error as far back as the 1888 English-language Appletons’ Cyclopaedia of American Biography, which gives the correct 1762 to 1834 lifespan for the Chevalier de Panat, and the same career facts, but falsely names him as “Charles Louis Étienne” and incorrectly says he was the fourth son instead of the third.19 I’m not sure where Appletons’ got this incorrect information, but perhaps on their authority people have been mis-naming our friend the Chevalier de Panat since at least 1888.
Would you like to learn more?
I’ll close by coming back full circle, to our friend the Chevalier de Panat. Panat’s 1796 letter was far from his last word on the subject. Before too long, a discouraged Panat returned from his emigration and took a job working for Napoleon’s naval ministry. He was still in office when 1814 came around — and promptly continued working for Louis XVIII, the man he had savaged two decades prior. Louis promoted Panat to rear admiral and secretary-general of the Admiralty, where he served for the remainder of the Restoration.20 Panat, who had walked away from his career once for his beliefs, showed no hesitation working for the king he had once slammed. And if Louis was aware of what Panat had written, he proved more than willing to forget it.
If you’d like to learn more, be sure to subscribe to The Siècle for a narrative tour through France’s overlooked century beginning in 1814. As I write this, our story is through the year 1827, when legislative elections just delivered a shocking result to King Charles X. I recommend starting the show at Episode 1, but once you catch up, you’ll be ready to dive into the show’s next episode. There, we’ll explore the web of conspiracy theories underlying 1820s French politics in Episode 32: The Congregation.
Mallet du Pan coined a famous quote himself — that “the Revolution devours its children.” For more on the Brunet family, see: Geneanet, Léopold de BRUNET dit le Chevalier de Panat. Geneanet, Dominique François de BRUNET. Geneanet, Armand Jean Simon Elisabeth de BRUNET. ↩
Chevalier de Panat to Jacques Mallet du Pan, January 1796, in Jacques Mallet du Pan, Mémoires et correspondance de Mallet Du Pan […], ed. André Sayous, vol. 2 (Paris: Amyot, Libraire and J. Cherbuliez, 1851), 195-6. ↩
Philip Mansel, Louis XVIII, Rev. ed. (Phoenix Mill: Sutton, 1999), 34-5, 41-3. ↩
Vincent W. Beach, “The Count of Artois and the Coming of the French Revolution,” The Journal of Modern History, 30, no. 4 (Dec. 1958), 314, 320, 324. ↩
Mansel, Louis XVIII, 41-3. ↩
Mansel, Louis XVIII, 95-7, 248. ↩
Louis XVIII, “Declaration of Verona,” in: P.H. Beik, ed., The French Revolution, The Documentary History of Western Civilization (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1970), 325-9. Mansel, Louis XVIII, 111-4. ↩
Panat, 196-7. ↩
In an 1866 book of quotations, for example, Craufurd Tait Ramage notes that the usual, perhaps inevitable, attribution to Talleyrand is “on doubtful authority” and cites Panat’s letter. However, Ramage adds that the sentiments are “applied well to the character of the emigrants.” Craufurd Tait Ramage, Beautiful Thoughts from French and Italian Authors […] (Liverpool: Edward Howell, 1866), 384. ↩
See Episode 14. ↩
See Episode 27. ↩
See Episode 15. ↩
Mansel, Louis XVIII, 179. ↩
Mansel, Louis XVIII, 182-3. Robert Alexander, Re-writing the French Revolutionary Tradition: Liberal Opposition and the Fall of the Bourbon Monarchy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 4. ↩
See Episode 26. ↩
For examples of the mistaken name, see Wikiquote, this paper on the history of some contemporary engineers, this collection of Jefferson Davis’s papers, as well as innumerable posts in web forums and comment sections. Notably, most of these references either don’t cite a source, or if they do cite a source, that original source refers only to the “Chevalier de Panat” with no given names. For example, Wikiquote’s original edit by user Dhartung attributes the citation to “Charles Louis Étienne, Chevalier de Panat” to an 1866 book by Craufurd Tait Ramage, Beautiful Thoughts from French and Italian Authors. This includes the quote “They have learned nothing, and they have forgotten nothing” under Talleyrand’s entry with a note that the attribution is doubtful. Ramage then quotes the original 1796 letter, which he credits only to “De Panat” — no given name. The Davis papers cite “They have learned nothing…” to Burton Stevenson’s The Home Book of Quotations, Classical and Modern, 6th ed. The 10th edition of the Stevenson book I found credits the quote to simply “Chevalier de Panat,” no given name. Ramage, Beautiful Thoughts, 304. Burton Stevenson, The Home Book of Quotations, Classical and Modern, Tenth Edition (New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1984), 304. ↩
P.-Louis Lainé, Archives généalogiques et historiques de la noblesse de France […], Vol. 7 (Paris: 1841), 11. ↩
James Grant Wilson and John Fiske, eds., Appletons’ Cyclopaedia of American Biography, Vol. 4 (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1888), 641. ↩
François-René de Chateaubriand, Mémoires d’Outre-Tombe, vol. 2 (Paris: Libraire Garnier Frères; Project Gutenberg, Nov. 28, 2007), note 117. Claude Merle, “Panat,” Histoire de Guerre. ↩