A central figure of the French Revolution
Stanislas de Clermont Tonnerre, one of the central figures of the French revolution, was born in 1757, the son of a high-ranking French Freemason, Francois-Joseph de Clermont Tonnerre.
Despite training as a soldier, it was as a politician that Stanislas made his mark on French society.
A moderate conservative and monarchist by inclination, he spent most of his adult life trying to prevent France tipping either into absolutist tyranny or anarchic revolution.
But his efforts were dwarfed by more powerful forces in French society and he was killed in a political assassination, aged 35.
Stanislas spent the early part of his life in Lorraine, close to the French border with Luxembourg. There his father was Chief Chamberlain to Stanislas Leczinski, the former King of Poland who had abdicated and retired to the region.
When the old king died in 1762, Stanislas and his parents moved back to the Clermont-Tonnerre estate in Saintry, in northern France.
He was educated in Paris and entered military service at the age of 16. He was appointed a lieutenant in the Reine Dragons (Queen’s Dragoons), a cavalry regiment.
A brief army career
But the life of a cavalryman, with its long waits in lonely country outposts, depressed Stanislas. Sent to Clermont-Ferrand, a town in the centre of France, he wrote home to say that it was “dark and cold.” He wanted to return to Paris.
He relied on his mother, Marie-Anne de Lentillac de Gimel, to secure more interesting employment.
She interceded with an influential family connection and French diplomat, the Baron de Breteuil, who took Stanislas as his apprentice to the Habsburg court in Vienna.
Here both men represented France at international engagements. They were present at the Teschen congress of 1779, during which the subject of Bavarian succession was debated; and Breteuil wrote to colleagues saying his new recruit had it “in his soul and his spirit to be a great success.”
But Stanislas was less optimistic about his future as a diplomat. He did not rise to prominence in Viennese circles; instead he appears to have spent much of his time studying.
The Enlightenment Era
The 1780s were a time of great intellectual ferment in France. Stanislas revelled in the news ideas of the Enlightenment. He was inspired by Montesquieu l’Espirit des lois (“The Spirit of the Law”) and especially so by Jean-Jacque Rousseau’s Social Contract.
He also, it was reported, fell in love with a young Viennese woman and announced his intention to marry her. But she was of uncertain origins, and Stanislas’ French minders in Vienna discouraged the match and had him recalled to Paris.
Marriage and pastoral life
Instead, on 24 February 1782, Stanislas married Marie Louise Delphine de Sorans, a woman famed for her beauty who hailed from an established French family. The couple moved into a Clermont-Tonnerre family house in Saintry, near Corbeil.
Here Stanislas continued to study and think. He wrote verses to his wife and translated the Ossian poems, a group of verses on Gaelic mythology written by the renowned Scottish poet James McPherson.
But soon events in the public life of France were to force him out of his pastoral isolation.
Opposition to the King
After decades of fiscal mismanagement, the French royal treasury was in a parlous state. Serious tax reform was badly needed. But King Louis XVI – a greedy and indifferent monarch – seemed hardly the man to provide it.
While Louis made only half-hearted attempts to grapple with the issue of France’s debt levels, he spent wildly, approving huge pensions for his favoured nobles and hosting lavish entertainments in the Court of Versailles.
French nobles split along a fault line depending on whether they were in or out of favour with the King. Stanislas, inspired by his reading of the Enlightenment thinkers, declared himself in opposition.
In 1787 he became a member of the provincial assembly in Dobeil, representing the arrondissement de Brie-Comte-Robert.
In 1789, Stanislas was appointed a deputy in the Estates-General, the long-dormant assembly that the King had re-convened in an attempt to resolve the nation’s tax impasse.
He distinguished himself by his oratory and elegance, opposing the King’s tyranny and his elevation of undeserving nobles. He voted for a motion to introduce to abolish feudalism in France.
Defending the Jewish population
He defended the rights of Jews in France, insisting – in the spirit of Montesquieu – that “The law cannot affect the religion of a man. It can take no hold over his soul; it can affect only his actions, and it must protect those actions when they do no harm to society.”
But Stanislas was never a full-blooded revolutionary. The political groups he joined advocated moderate reform.
On 3 May 1789 he was part of a delegation of nobles who presented to the king a list of requirements – le cahier de la banlieue – including the liberty of individuals and of the press, and a more democratic framework for law-making and taxation.
In August 1789, he founded, with a coterie of friends including Jean-Jospeh Mounier and Pierre-Victor Malouet, The Monarchist club. It sought a fair legal system and constitution but backed the institution of monarchy.
Moderates, though, were rarely in the ascendant in France at this time. Stanislas and his allies failed to tame the more violent impulses alive in Paris and other urban centres.
In July 1789, a mob stormed the Parisian fortress of the Bastille after rumours that the king intended to suppress the national assembly. In June 1791, when the King again attempted to escape the revolutionaries, it was taken as proof that he was in league with foreign powers and he was forced to accept a new constitution.
Nobles like Stanislas feared a total breakdown of order and tried to slow the pace of reform.
In the summer 1792, he plotted with Bertrand de Molleville, Lally-Tollendal and Pierre-Victor Malouet to rescue Louis XVI from the revolutionaries.
An untimely death
On 10 August 1792, amid rumours of a full scale riot in Paris, the men attempted to make contact with the king to guide him to safety. But Robespierre’s mobs had heard of Stanislas’s complicity.
He was recognised as he moved through the streets and pursued to the home of a friend, Madam de Brassac.
Here, in the Abbaye au Bois, not far from the Ile de La Cité in central Paris, Stanislas was captured and forced through a fourth-floor window, killed for his loyalty to the King.