Comte de Mirabeau

The French statesman and author Honoré Gabriel Victor de Riqueti, Comte de Mirabeau (1749-1791), was a key leader of the French Revolution in its first years. He sought an alliance of the Crown and the Third Estate against his own class, the nobility.

Born at Bignon near Nemours on March 9, 1749, Honoré Gabriel de Riqueti, later Comte de Mirabeau, was the son of a distinguished physiocratic author, Victor de Riqueti, Marquis de Mirabeau, known as the "friend of the people" for his reform proposals. Mirabeau's career began as a cavalry officer in 1767, but he was soon sent to prison on the Island of Ré for his escapades. He was released in 1769 to join the French expeditionary force that quelled rebellious Corsica. After retirement the next year with the rank of captain, he married Émilie de Marignane (1772) at his father's wish but quickly fell out with his unloved wife. His father, enraged by Mirabeau's notorious debauches and spendthrift habits, had him repeatedly interned by letters de cachet, in 1773 in Manosque, then in the fastnesses of the Château d'If in Marseilles harbor in 1774, and finally in the fortress of Joux near Pontarlier in 1775.

In Joux, Mirabeau wrote the Essay on Despotism and won the heart of the young wife of the elderly Marquis de Monnier. Under the name of Sophie de Ruffey, she fled with him in 1776 to Switzerland and then to Amsterdam. There he earned his living as a writer of vitriolic pamphlets against the Old Regime in France, many blatantly plagiarized. He soon gained a European reputation.

In May 1777 Mirabeau was arrested and turned over to the French police. Imprisoned at Vincennes until 1780, he used this time to read widely and to write various works, including the Essay upon Letters de Cachet, published 2 years after his release. His liaison with Sophie de Monnier now ended, he obtained a divorce from his wife in a notorious trial (1783). He then lived with the illegitimate daughter of a Dutch statesman, Willem van Haren, her identity transparently disguised by the name of Henriette Amalie de Nerah. After 2 years in London (1784-1785) he returned to Paris to wage a pamphlet war against Charles Alexandre de Calonne and Jacques Necker, the reforming ministers of finance, on behalf of a group of Parisian bankers. Nonetheless the government sent him on a secret diplomatic mission to Berlin (1786-1787), which was of little importance in itself but gave him an opportunity to study Prussian absolutism, with its bureaucratic and militaristic apparatus, at firsthand and to write a penetrating book on the Prussian monarchy.


French Revolution

The convocation of the Estates General in 1789 brought Mirabeau's career to its climax. His own order, the nobility, scorned to elect him as a deputy, but he was chosen by the Third Estate of Aix-les-Bains in Savoy. Now all his talents, especially his eloquence and his skill in political maneuver, found their opportunity, and he became the leader of the Third Estate despite wide personal antipathy to him. His policy, despite tactical shifts, remained the same: to use the impact of the Third Estate to break the resistance of the privileged estates to reform, at the same time seeking to persuade the Crown to accept the transformation of the government into a constitutional monarchy as its only salvation. Although personally opposed to the consolidation of the three estates on June 17, he upheld the legality of the newly created National Assembly in the famous reply he gave to the royal master of ceremonies on June 23: "Tell those who send you that we are here by the will of the people and will leave only by the force of bayonets." Yet he considered the proclamation of the Declaration of the Rights of Man in August to be ill-timed, opposed the transfer of the government from Versailles to Paris, and argued for the King's right of absolute veto in the new constitution.

Mirabeau's hope to become prime minister was dashed when the National Assembly forbade its members to hold ministerial posts. Beginning in May 1790, he accepted secret payments from the Crown to support the monarchy in the Assembly but did not cease his efforts to persuade the King to abandon absolutism as a lost cause and to work with the nation's representatives. Although most of his fellow deputies suspected his corrupt financial practices, they continued to follow him politically. In December 1790 Mirabeau was elected to the presidency of the Jacobin Club, before its turn to radical extremism, and in February 1791 he was elected president of the National Assembly. He died in Paris on April 2, before the failure of his policies—due to the refusal of the King to accept the limitations imposed by the new constitution and the upsurge of popular violence under the impact of hunger and war—became clear.

Mirabeau was personally and politically a paradox but not an enigma. Extraordinary ugliness resulting from smallpox at the age of 3 did not keep him from involvement in numerous amorous scandals, which, with his reckless spending and stinging political writings, brought him repeated confinement in French prisons. A foe both of absolute monarchy and of the ministers who sought to save it by limited fiscal reforms in the last years of the reign of Louis XVI, he was nonetheless entrusted with secret diplomatic missions. After the beginning of the Revolution, he represented the Third Estate with great oratorical talents, but his political wiles served not only his private interests but also the cause of constitutional monarchy. His personal corruptness was matched by an ultimate honesty of political principle.


Further Reading on Comte de Mirabeau

Two interesting biographies of Mirabeau are Eric Rede Buckley, The Prisoner of Vincennes: The Early Life of Mirabeau (1930), and Antonia Vallentin, Mirabeau (trans. 1948). The best modern study of his career is Oliver J.G. Welch, Mirabeau: A Study of a Democratic Monarchist (1951).

Additional Biography Sources

Luttrell, Barbara, Mirabeau, Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1990.

Ortega y Gasset, Jose, Mirabeau, an essay on the nature of statesmanship, Manila: Historical Conservation Society, 1975.