Fraternité, Liberté, Égalité: Sophie de Grouchy, Moral Republicanism, and the History of Liberalism, 1785-1815

Date of Award

Spring 2021

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Moyn, Samuel


This thesis explores the political thought and activities of Sophie de Grouchy (1763-1822), author of Letters on Sympathy (1798) and wife of the philosophe and French Revolutionary the marquis de Condorcet. The chapters proceed chronologically and thematically. I begin by forwarding a new and earlier date for the drafting of Grouchy’s major treatise, Letters on Sympathy, and thus an original interpretation of this text. I argue that the central tenets of Grouchy’s philosophy, in particular her key argument that founds a knowledge of natural rights on the proper combination of sympathy and reason, were developed in response to her interest in criminal trials of the late 1780s, and not, as scholars have hitherto assumed, as a reaction to later events of the French Revolution. In this text, I suggest, she laid the foundations for an innovative form of ‘moral republicanism’. This discourse shared many of the concerns of Jacques Pierre Brissot (1754-1793) and Étienne Clavière (1735-1793)’s commercial republicanism of the same period. Grouchy, however, founded an individual’s capacity and right to participate in the polity not primarily on his productive capacity, but on his or her ability to sympathise with others. The following chapters chart the development of Grouchy’s theory, as she contributed to Condorcet’s revolutionary political career, but staked out her dissent to the Brissotins’ policy of an aggressive European war; as she based her initial support and subsequent rejection of Napoleon Bonaparte’s regime on the same principles of ‘moral republicanism’; and as, in the face of Bonaparte’s increasing authoritarianism, she adapted her ideas, in dialogue with German aesthetic philosophy, into a form of proto-liberalism. I end by demonstrating that Grouchy’s ‘moral republicanism’ was an important part of a broader conversation among early liberals, and that, in particular, Benjamin Constant (1767-1830), the so-called ‘first theorist of liberalism’, developed certain strands of Grouchy’s thought in his own writings. The dissertation makes three key interventions. Firstly, based on a mass of hitherto neglected archival material written by or relating to Grouchy, I show that Grouchy was far more politically and intellectually influential during the French Revolution and Napoleonic era than has hitherto been recognised. I argue, for example, that she acted as a co-author with Condorcet on his important Cinq mémoires sur l’instruction publique (1791). Secondly, my study showcases a revised methodology for the examination of historical figures who have been understudied in traditional history of political thought. Drawing both on methodologies used more commonly in so-called ‘Global Intellectual History’, and on the concept of the ‘imaginary’, I suggest that in the case of eighteenth-century revolutionary thinkers, and in particular women, it is important not only to reconstruct their written work from brief texts and those written in collaboration with others, but also to attempt to ‘read’ their activities, networks, and forms of sociability as forms of philosophical expression in their own right. Finally, a full understanding of Grouchy’s thought has repercussions for our understanding of the long history of liberalism. Tracing the micro-evolution of Grouchy’s thinking, in conjunction with her actions and in concert with her social network, allows us to see how older ideas associated with a particular version of eighteenth-century republicanism and Enlightenment rights-talk contributed, in the wake of the French Revolution, to the emergence of an early form of liberalism that placed both the moral individual and the importance of fellow-feeling at its core. My study of Grouchy reveals that early French liberalism was not, as revisionist scholars like Helena Rosenblatt have argued, divorced from early natural law arguments about individual rights; nor should it be described as always a zero-sum game between either atomistic individualism or an emphasis on morality, community and social justice.

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