Sylvain Maréchal, Precursor and Artisan of the Republican Calendar

Source: Maurice Dommanget, Sylvain Maréchal, L'Homme Sans Dieu. Paris, Spartacus, 1950;
Translated: for by Mitchell Abidor.

Michelet demonstrated in several admirable pages that the establishment of the republican calendar was a logical outcome of the circumstances [of the period].

In general, people wanted to leave the ancien régime behind. They wanted to do so, not only in the political and economic orders, but even in space, in gravity, and in time. From which the need to complement the uniformity in weights and measures with the uniformity of the calendar, and even to apply, as much as possible, the decimal system to the division of time. The labours of the Committee of Public Instruction and the reports provided the Convention leave no doubt on this subject.

But if we more particularly examine the period when the revolutionary calendar legally took form, it can be seen that it is inserted into the great de-christianization movement. The truth is that people wanted to leave the ancien régime behind on the religious plane as well. All the revolutionaries didn’t want it in the same way or to the same degree, but all wanted it.

It is not by chance that the new calendar was born in the atmosphere of August-October 1793. The needs of national defense, financial demands, the aspirations for public education, the attempts at a pagan cult, the fight against priests, and the activities of Chaumette and the Paris Commune and various representatives on mission came together like so many burning flames in the anti-Christian inferno. In a sense, the decree establishing the revolutionary calendar did nothing but coordinate, but solder all these efforts. This is what has not been sufficiently noted until now.

Even though it is impossible to deny the great international influence, the great human significance of the reform – which Michelet and Jaurès did not fail to do – we cannot overestimate its importance in the internal political struggle of the moment.

On the battlefield of the calendar, Christianity and philosophy, the church and the Revolution again confronted each other.

At the Committee of Public Instruction on 6 November 1792 Manuel and Gorsas had insisted on the need to reform almanacs, and on 20 December the Convention had invited the Committee of Public Instruction to present a draft decree on the ‘harmony of the republican era with the vulgar era.’ The opinions of the committee had more importance, since on 21 December it decided it would address ‘the changes to be made in the calendar and in the manner of fixing or naming the different periods of time.’ This meant taking inspiration from Sylvain’s bold precedent of 1788.

What is more, the idea of a new era was launched again at the Convention on 31 December 1792, Manuel having protested against the fact that the Almanach National was dated the second republican year, ‘as if the republic dated from the day of the circumcision.’ According to Manuel ‘the free French calendar’ can only begin on 21 September. But again, the assembly decided that the year would begin on 1 January. He most likely retreated before the complications that could be foreseen from Manuel’s innovation if it didn’t wait for the report of the Committee of Public Instruction to decide.

And yet the need for a new era had enthusiastic supporters. One must cite among them Francois de Neufchateau, president of the department of the Vosges, who had requested of the Committee of Public Instruction the opening of a competition and the distribution of a prize for the establishing of a ‘civil calendar.’

The supporters of civic and moral ceremonies similar to the festivals imagined by Maréchal in his calendars were even more numerous. One realizes this upon consulting the imposing series of reports and projects on public education provided by members of the Convention. Lakanal, in his draft decree presented at the Convention on 26 June 1793 anticipated among national festivals a Festival of Marriage celebrated in the cantons, a Festival of Equality, and a Festival in Memory of ancestors in the districts and the departments, along with a Festival of the Abolition of Privileges (4 August), and the Festival of the Destruction of Orders (17 June). The capital was also to see a festival of the Revolution on 14 July, but the festival of the Abolition of the Monarchy and the Establishment of the Republic, which Maréchal placed on 21 September, was moved to 10 August. The fact that in Lakanal’s revised text the festivals of ancestors and the printing press were suppressed in no way disproves their transfer from the Maréchalian calendars.

In his plan presented to the Convention on 2 July 1793 Lequinio took up Maréchal’s Festival of Spouses under the name festival of Marriage, which he fixed for the spring equinox. It is that epoch of ‘universal resurrection,’ that the ‘citizen of the globe’ uses as the starting point of the calendar, which more or less returns us to the starting date of the Almanach des Hônnetes Gens. Even more, Lequinio, while eliminating most of Lakenal’s too numerous festivals, kept several drawn from Maréchal’s almanacs.

In the meanwhile, the commissioners of the Committee of Public Instruction, Prieur and Romme, in concert with members of the Academy of Sciences, pursued their work with the aim of establishing the new calendar. Romme, charged with the report, presented it to the Committee on 17 and 18 September, announced it at the Convention the 18th, and presented it to that assembly on the 20th. The vulgar era was abolished. The republican year would begin the day of the autumn equinox. The twelve months were equal and divided in tenths. The five supplementary days were called Epagomènes. But the question of the names of the months remained open. The committee had rejected every name: the names of the signs of the zodiac, the names of men who had served liberty, the names drawn from phenomena of nature and labours in the countryside.

The Convention, absorbed by its many tasks, didn’t address this question with sufficient alacrity for the sans-culottes. The proof of this can be found in the debate that occurred at the Paris Commune on 5 October, old style.

According to the version in the Moniteur the prosecutor of the Commune, Chaumette, demanded ‘that no festivals any longer be celebrated than those in honour of liberty and which recall the memorable phases of the revolution by erasing the least trace of fanaticism.’ With this goal he called for the adoption and observance of the ‘republican calendar made by Citizen Maréchal.’ The general council adopted this resolution.

According to the Journal de la Montagne Chaumette proposed that the administration of public works be charged with framing Sylvain Maréchal’s calendar and sending it to the sections so it could be followed and observed. Chaumette said: ‘We will replace Monsieur Saint-Antoine and his pig with festivals of Solon, Lycurgus, and Brutus.’ The municipal assembly set the number of calendars necessary for ‘replacing superstition’s festivals with those of liberty’ at two thousand.

Whatever the exact modalities of its application, one fact remains, and it is an important one: in its haste to renounce the Gregorian calendar and in the absence of an official calendar, which was slow in seeing the light of day, the Paris Commune adopted Sylvian Maréchal’s calendar. However, the very day that the Commune took this decision the Convention decreed the establishing of the republican calendar, which forced the municipal assembly to reverse its decision a few days later.

In fact, on 5 October, when the discussion of the months – the only one that took place that was of any magnitude – came before the Convention Romme found himself confronting seven proposals. Four had as their bases moral and revolutionary denominations, as Maréchal had done in his Almanach des Républicains, and Romme came out in support of this. But the Convention, after having spoken in favour of moral names, finally rejected them in favour of ordinal names, until Fabre d'Eglantine had the names adopted that we have come to know and which he had thought of in 1777.

In his Almanach des Républicains Maréchal had respected the names of the days after having suppressed them and replacing them with simple numbers in his Almanach des Honnêtes Gens. The names of the days were changed in Romme’s proposal. In addition, Maréchal’s hybrid system, consisting in maintaining unequal months while blocking out five supplementary days at the end of the year, disappeared to make way for a decimal system. Finally, taking into account Duhem’s observations and Fabre d'Eglantine’s, report the Convention later replaced the names of saints by the names of products and tools of agriculture and rural economy.

There is no need to say that Maréchal greeted the establishing of the republican calendar with joy. But this joy was not unalloyed.

The Révolutions de Paris, where he regularly collaborated, having suspended publication between 3 August and 28 October, he was obviously unable to dedicate to the calendar question the articles that current events would have dictated. Nevertheless, in his brief notice on ‘the beautiful revolutionary activities’ of the period that figures in its first issue upon its reappearance, he demonstrated the need to purge the interior of homes of ‘the foolish emblems of credulity and servitude,’ and affirmed that the establishing of the new calendar was in keeping with this. According to him, this calendar was ‘founded as much on political reason as on astronomy.’

In the following issue Maréchal presented observations on the onomastics of the new calendar. He was not happy with these names. He wrote: ‘The old almanac was a piece of marquetry composed of Greek, Latin, Arabic, and French words. We would have thought that the new makers would avoid the inconveniences of such a motley appearance. Apparently they didn’t have sufficient confidence in the people’s reason, which they thought to be mired in routine, as much a slave to their former usages as before, and in order to have the names better understood and followed they decided not to speak French. Consequently, they set about to commit torture by composing a barbaric nomenclature, but ended up with rhymes, hoping in this way to treat memory gingerly and erase ancient impressions.’ Inspired by these reflections, Maréchal asked that they speak ‘naturally and in good French:’ the Month of the Grape Harvest, the Month of Mist and so on instead of Brumaire and Vendémiaire. The names he proposed are all the more appropriate because the committee maintained the names of the seasons ‘quite naturally and in good French.’ But another element should, according to him, be taken into consideration in rejecting the nomenclature of months drawn from natural things. It is that Messidor is not the month of harvests for the whole republic, nor is October that of the wine crop, etc. It would be better ‘to stick with numeral denomination or, better still, to compose one that is entirely political; to call, for example, the month of January that of the People’s Justice because of Capet’s punishment; July the Month of the Bastille; September the Month of the Republic and so on.’ He added that ‘it is impossible to make the rising generation too familiar with the great events of our revolution.’ In this Maréchal remained faithful to his Almanach des Républicains.

The names of the days of the décade [ten day week] being numerals was more pleasing to the writer. But he considered ‘that they smell of the barbarism of the century in which Monday, Tuesday, etc. were imagined,’ and ‘they don’t have the merit of the former ones in their sweetness and ease of pronunciation.’ For Maréchal the object of the festivals of the five supplementary days proceeds from a happier choice. Nevertheless, he would have placed Virtue and not Virtues at the head and allowed Labour precedence over Genius. He accepted the festival of the People or the Sans-culottide every four years, the bissextilaire, noting only that it could have been called the festival of the Revolution.

These were the remarks and reflections inspired in Maréchal by the names on the new calendar. He held back from making them in his Tableau historique des evenemens révolutionnaires [Historical Tableau of Revolutionary Events] which appeared in early year III and which was little more than a propaganda pamphlet aimed at ‘patriots of the countryside.’ He contented himself with applauding both the disappearance of ‘the festivals of falsehood and superstition,’ and the elimination of ‘the names of the mass of idle or maleficent personages’ proposed by the clergy for eighteen centuries. In future, he would say maliciously to rural workers; ‘You can lay down your tools without blushing. The Festivals of Virtue or Fraternity are worth every bit as much as the day a woman both virgin and mother conceived without the participation of her complacent husband.’

It should be noted that in his assessment of the revolutionary calendar Maréchal makes no mention of the substitution of names touching on rural economy for the names of saints. Should we conclude from this that he had reservations about this modality? In the absence of texts on the subject we can only ask the question. But given the position previously taken by Maréchal it is not too bold to assert that he would probably have preferred the substitution of celebrated men for saints.

There were many who asserted they were partisans of this road. And so in year III H. Blanc and X. Bouchard, teachers in Franciade (Saint-Denis), and in year VII Citizen Boinvilliers, professor at the Ecole Centrale of the Oise put on parade in their calendars great men of all countries and all centuries, following in the footsteps of Rousseau, Jacquin, and Etienne Dupin in the Almanachs du Républicain,1 and the Angevin patriots who wrote the Calendrier du peuple franc [Calendar of the Free People].2 As for Citizen Beyerle, of whom we previously spoke, careful to render justice to ‘the fairer half of humankind,’ his calendar was made up entirely of women ‘who have become famous, not only by their virtues, but also by the qualities that make men so vain of their superiority.'3 The work bore the title Almanach des femmes célèbres...pour l'an VI de la Republique Francaise [Almanac of Celebrated Women, for year VI of the Revolution].

Throughout the nineteenth century Sylvain Maréchal’s outline was taken up by Positivism and many free thinkers. The task would be endless if we were to try to draw up even a summary list of the nomenclature of calendars of this genre that appeared between the Revolution and today.

All these trials prove that the supporters of calendar reform tend towards the adoption of days dedicated to great men rather than to labours, as laid out by the members of the Convention.

Whatever the path adopted, the fact remains that the name of Sylvain Maréchal is and will remain necessarily attached to efforts made by free thought movements and governments with the goal of substituting for the calendar of a church of whatever kind one more in conformity with the needs and aspirations of a secular society.