Author of the Book: Comte de Mirabeau

Comte de Mirabeau, author of the book in the 1785 painting (De la Caisse d'Escompte).

Honoré Gabriel Riqueti, Comte de Mirabeau (9 March 1749 – 2 April 1791),1 was a popular and influential French writer, orator and statesman in the period leading up to the French Revolution.

Based on Thomas Jefferson's first-hand recollections to friends and family in later years, Jefferson—while serving in Paris—became closely acquainted with Mirabeau,2 greatly admired his oratory,3 and "was an eye and ear witness" to much of it.4 During his time in France, Jefferson provided to Mirabeau materials he had written.5 6


Mirabeau was a prolific writer, authoring dozens of books and pamphlets in his relatively short life. His first major work, Essai sur le despotisme (Essay on Despotism), was published anonymously and printed in London in 1775.7 It echoed ideals that were the basis for the American Revolution and that appeared in much of Mirabeau's subsequent writing.

Title page from 1785 English translation of Mirabeau's 1784 Cincinnatus book. The work was praised by Thomas Jefferson and distributed widely in England and America.

A second tract—Avis aux Hessois (Advice to the Hessians), published in 1777—denounced the traffic carried on by German princes in the flesh of their subjects. Mirabeau noted the irony of Hessians being paid to fight Americans who, in turn, were fighting for the fundamental rights of people such as the Hessians.8

Other influential works by Mirabeau included Considerations Sur l'Ordre de Cincinnatus (20 September 1784), or Considerations on the Order of Cincinnatus—a pro-democracy work translated into English by Mirabeau's friend Sir Samuel Romilly in 1785 and distributed widely in England and America.9 Mirabeau used Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of Independence as the basis for many of the egalitarian arguments made in Cincinnatus,10 and Mirabeau's colleague Benjamin Franklin personally provided some of the book's materials to Mirabeau.11

Mirabeau's next publication, De la Caisse d'Escompte (17 May 1785)—the book shown in the foreground of the 1785 Delapierre portrait—contained a scathing analysis of a French government-controlled financial institution (the Discount Bank). Mirabeau accurately predicted it was a risky venture doomed to collapse, likely with serious political repercussions.

In the book's introduction, Mirabeau expressed views on agriculture that mirrored Jefferson's at the time.12 He professed that farming was the most honorable profession and that other endeavors—such as trading shares of the Discount Bank—were little more than speculation based on greed.13

De la Caisse d'Escompte was followed by several financial tracts and other books that made Mirabeau increasingly popular with the Third Estate (commoners) in France. Many of these were banned by the King's Council, including De la Banque d'Espagne, dite de Saint Charles (printed about June 1785) and Lettre du comte de Mirabeau à M. Le Couteulx de la Noraye, sur la Banque de Saint-Charles & sur la Caisse-d'Escompte (printed on 15 July 1785)—the two books Mirabeau wrote just after De la Caisse d'Escompte.14

Role in the Revolution

A moderate, Mirabeau favored a constitutional monarchy built on the model of the United Kingdom. He unsuccessfully conducted secret negotiations with the French monarchy in an effort to reconcile it with the Revolution.

On 29 January 1791, just two months before his untimely death, Mirabeau was elected President of the National Constituent Assembly of France.15

A few days later, his health fading, Mirabeau confided prophetically to a friend: "When I am no more, it will be realized what I was worth. The evils I averted will fall upon France from all quarters; that criminal faction that trembles before me will no longer have any constraint." 16

Mirabeau was honored with one of the most elaborate funerals ever staged in France—then or since. It was for him that the Panthéon in Paris was converted from a church to a mausoleum for the interment of great Frenchmen.

Mirabeau's Book Collection

In addition to his prolific writing, Mirabeau, like Jefferson, was a voracious reader and book collector. He amassed one of the largest private libraries in France, intending it to be a testament to the progress of mankind.

After he died, the books were sold at an auction that lasted several days.17

References and notes

[1] Antonina Vallentin, Mirabeau, translated by E.W. Dickes, The Viking Press, New York, 1948, pp. 17, 519.

[2] According to Henry S. Randall, "The late Henry Clay informed us that he had heard Mr. Jefferson speak in strong and glowing terms of Mirabeau's matchless power over the minds [of] every class of men. Some of Mr. Jefferson's family entertain similar recollections." (See Henry S. Randall, LL.D., The Life of Thomas Jefferson: In Three Volumes, Vol. 1, J.B. Lippincott & Co., Philadelphia, 1865, p. 527, footnote 2.)

[3] William Wirt, a U.S. Attorney-General and colleague of Jefferson, described Jefferson's high regard for Mirabeau in a letter dated 6 May 1806 that Wirt wrote to his friend Benjamin Edwards: "He [Jefferson] spoke of him [Mirabeau] as uniting two distinct and perfect characters in himself, whenever he pleased;—the mere logician, with a mind apparently as sterile and desolate as the sands of Arabia, but reasoning at such times with a Herculean force, which nothing could resist; at other times, bursting out with a flood of eloquence more sublime than Milton ever imputed to the cherubim and seraphim, and bearing all before him." (See John P. Kennedy, Memoirs of the Life of William Wirt, Attorney-General of the United States, in Two Volumes, Vol. I, Lea and Blanchard, 1850, p. 137.)

[4] Mirabeau is perhaps most remembered for a celebrated reply he made to the Marquis de Brézé on 23 June 1789—three weeks before the fall of the Bastille and the beginning of the French Revolution. When, in the name of King Louis XVI, Brézé ordered the National Assembly to disperse, a defiant Mirabeau refused. Jefferson, who was present with the National Assembly when Mirabeau made his famous statement, recalled it as follows: "Tell those who sent you that we shall not move hence but at our own will, or at the point of the bayonet." (See Henry S. Randall, LL.D., The Life of Thomas Jefferson: In Three Volumes, Vol. 1, J.B. Lippincott & Co., Philadelphia, 1865, p. 527, footnote 1.)

[5] For example, Jefferson wrote to Mirabeau on 21 August 1786 and provided Mirabeau with copies (French and English text) of the "Act for Establishing Religious Freedom"—first drafted by Jefferson in 1779—with the hope that "…the Count de Mirabeau will perhaps be able on some occasion to avail mankind of this example of emancipating human reason." (The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Volume 10, edited by Julian P. Boyd, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 1954, p. 283; see also image below.)

Part of letter from Thomas Jefferson to Monsieur le comte de Mirabeau, 21 August 1786 (Jefferson's "Press Copy," Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.).

[6] The research team has not found evidence that Jefferson had established a personal relationship with Mirabeau by mid-to-late 1785, when the Delapierre portrait was painted; however, he surely knew of Mirabeau then because of Mirabeau's earlier writings and because of the close personal relationship that Benjamin Franklin—Jefferson's colleague and ministerial predecessor in Paris—had established with Mirabeau prior to that time.

[7] Most early copies of Mirabeau's Essai sur le despotisme (Essay on Despotism) were printed in 1776. But a few of the very first, such as one obtained by the research team in June 2005, were published in 1775 (see image below).

Title page from Mirabeau's first book, Essai sur le despotisme (Essay on Despotism). The work was published anonymously and printed in London beginning in 1775.

[8] P.F. Willert, Mirabeau, Macmillan & Co., London, 1898, p. 34.

[9] Carl Van Doren, Benjamin Franklin, The Viking Press, New York, NY, 1938, pp. 709-710.

[10] Considerations on the Order of Cincinnatus…translated from the French of the Count de Mirabeau, printed for J. Johnson, St. Paul's Church-Yard, M.DCC.LXXX.V. [1785], p. 27, footnote 1 (which quotes from the United States Declaration of Independence and references its entirety).

[11] Benjamin Franklin provided Cincinnatus materials to Mirabeau during a meeting at Franklin's residence in Passy, France, that took place on 13 July 1784. Eight weeks later, on 8 September 1784, Franklin wrote a letter to Benjamin Vaughan that was instrumental in helping Mirabeau find a publisher in London for "his dangerous book." (See Carl Van Doren, Benjamin Franklin, The Viking Press, New York, NY, 1938, p. 710.)

[12] "Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens."—Thomas Jefferson (in a letter from Jefferson to John Jay, 23 August 1785). See The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Volume 8, edited by Julian P. Boyd, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 1953, p. 426.

[13] English translation: "Only one class of men perhaps is different….It is farmers…"—Comte de Mirabeau, De La Caisse d'Escompte, 17 May 1785, p. viii.

[14] The only book of Mirabeau's not banned in France during the period when Delapierre painted the 1785 portrait was De la Caisse d'Escompte. (See Vallentin, pp. 215-218.)

[15] Vallentin, p. 496.

[16] Ibid., p. 498.

[17] An offering by Jonathon A. Hill, Bookseller, of the auction catalog for Mirabeau's library gives the following title and description: "Catalogue des Livres de la Bibliothèque de feu M. Mirabeau l'aine, Député et ex-Président de l'Assemblée Nationale Constituante, dont la vente se fera…le lundi 9 Janvier 1792 et jours suivans…. [Catalog of the Books of the Library of the late Mr. Mirabeau the elder, Deputy and ex-President of the National Constituent Assembly, the sale of which will take place…Monday, 9 January 1792 and the following days….] The scarce sale catalogue of the important library of Honoré Gabriel Riquetti, Comte de Mirabeau (1749-91), the great French statesman and intellectual pathfinder of the French revolution. It was the plan of Mirabeau to build up a gigantic library illustrative of the progress of mankind."