The Abbé Raynal, 1713-1796: An Intellectual Odyssey

J.H.M. Salmon profiles an important - but largely forgotten - historian of the ancien régime, whose main theme was expansion in Asia and in the New World.

During the last generation of the ancien régime, the most popular and influential radical work was not by Voltaire or Rousseau: it was the Abbé Raynal’s Philosophical History of the Two Indies. From its first publication in 1770 until the crisis of 1789, it appeared in some thirty authorized editions, and at least as many pirated ones. It underwent two substantial revisions, and grew in revolutionary fervour as it catalogued the progress of the American struggle for independence.

Contemporaries ranked Raynal with the leading propagandists of the Enlightenment. The makers of the French Revolution learnt at least as much from his book as they did from the American experience that helped to inspire it. As Raynal’s disciple, Napoleon carted its many volumes with him on his Egyptian expedition.

By this time, however, the Abbé’s reputation was already in decline and, since the issue of the final and posthumous version of the Philosophical History in 1820, his name has been almost forgotten. He had described a multitude of voyages from his armchair; and yet the brevity of his fame was due to a kind of intellectual odyssey on which he had himself embarked. In the course of this voyage his liberal philosophy had come to embody the most acute contradictions within the Enlightenment.

Guillaume-Thomas Raynal was born in 1713 in a small town in Rouergue. His father was a local merchant, and his mother’s father a successful lawyer. He was educated at the Jesuit college of Rodez and entered the Jesuit Order. He had progressed as far as the second vow, and acquired some experience as a teacher in Jesuit schools, when, in 1747, he decided to leave the Order and seek his fortune in Paris. There he sustained himself by celebrating masses at the church of Saint-Sulpice.

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