Lazare Carnot made his name as a mathematician and artillery officer under the ancien régime before turning to politics during the Revolution. A man of strong republican principles, he sat with the Mountain, a group formed by the more radical Revolutionaries, in the National Convention, becoming a member of the Committee of Public Safety during the Reign of Terror. On the committee he had responsibility for the war effort, and he exercised this with such skill and ingenuity that he turned the war around and was acclaimed with the sobriquet Organizer of Victory. After the fall of Robespierre he continued to serve under the Directory and the Consulate-as one of the five directors after 1795, as minister of war in 1800, and, despite his bitter opposition to the Empire, as an elected member of the Tribunate from 1802 to 1807.
Carnot was a man of true intellectual distinction, a mathematician of some talent who shared the intellectual curiosity of his age. He was born into the provincial bourgeoisie in the small town of Nolay in Burgundy, where his father was a royal notary and an avocat in the local parlement. He enjoyed a good education, showing a particular talent for mathematics, and-as a nonnoble who enjoyed none of the privileges that came with nobility-he chose to become an army officer in the only arm where he could hope to progress, the artillery. In 1770 he benefited from noble patronage to enter the Ecole de Génie at Mézieres in eastern France, where he studied with the distinguished scientist Gaspard Monge before graduating with a commission in 1773. From that point he could make a modest career in the military, though as a commoner he could only be promoted as far as the rank of captain-which, without the advent of the Revolution, is where he would probably have remained. Carnot was far more than a competent artillery officer, however. He was a mathematician of some note who enjoyed the intellectual challenge of finding solutions to algebraic puzzles and who did some notable work solving complex equations. He submitted papers for prize competitions, including prizes offered by the academies in Paris and Berlin, among them a dissertation on the mathematical concept of infinity. And he shared the general enthusiasm of his age for science and the application of science, applying his understanding of mathematics to the science of war, publishing papers on the value of traditional fortifications, on aerostats, and on the theory of machines. He was, in other words, an intellectual before he was an army officer, a son of the Enlightenment, a polymath who read widely in philosophy and literature as well as in the natural sciences, an avid reader who found inspiration in Denis Diderot’s Encyclopédie and remained a close friend of one of its coauthors, the philosophe Jean d’Alembert.
And with his own ambition thwarted by the demands of noble privilege and the petty rules of precedence, he was exactly the sort of individualist who would throw himself eagerly into revolutionary politics after 1789, recognizing, like many other men of talent, that it was on the political stage that his talents could be best used in the service of the nation. In Carnot’s case, that conversion did not happen immediately, for though he wrote a thirteen-page address in September 1789 urging the immediate reform of the Royal Corps of Engineers-it appeared under the timely and seemingly revolutionary title Réclamation contre le régime oppressif sous lequel est gouverné le Corps Royal du Génie, en ce qu’il s’oppose aux progres de l’art-that was practically his only foray onto the national political stage under the National Constituent Assembly. If he was involved politically during this early period, it was on the local stage in the town of Saint-Omer. It was in 1791, with the elections to the Legislative Assembly, that he entered national politics, along with his brother as a deputy for the Department of the Pas-de-Calais. In the Legislative Assembly he did not make an immediate impression as an orator, but he quietly served on a number of committees and kept a watching brief on the many military reforms being proposed by the deputies. He sat with the deputies of the Left, showed a healthy suspicion of the motives of the king, and following the overthrow of the monarchy on 10 August was chosen-as were many of the more radical deputies- to go out on mission to the provinces, in his case to the Army of the Rhine. Thus, when he was elected to the Convention in September he already enjoyed something of a reputation as a critic of the monarchy, a man of generally radical views, and an army officer with a deep commitment to the cause of military reform. His approach and experience would prove invaluable to a country at war.
In the Convention Carnot sat with the Mountain, and though not a member of the Jacobin Club he won the trust of the inner circle of Jacobins by associating himself with many of their more radical policies. In the debate on the fate of Louis XVI he did not hesitate, voting for death and thus condemning himself in the eyes of the Bourbons as an extremist and a regicide. He was also respected by his fellow deputies for his military expertise and for the experience and good judgment he brought to a series of missions, including a vital one to the Army of the North between March and August 1793, which exposed the treason of General Charles Dumouriez and ordered his arrest. By the summer of 1793 France faced a military crisis of huge proportions, defeats and rumors of treason combining to sap confidence and morale. It was in these circumstances that the Committee of Public Safety-a committee composed of civilians and including no one of military experience- turned to Carnot. There were few soldiers among the members of the Convention, few who had the necessary background for the task in hand. That is why the committee asked for the services of Carnot along with another young army captain, Prieur de la Cote d’Or (Claude- Antoine Prieur-Duvernois), like Carnot a military reformer and a staunch Republican. In mid-August Carnot returned from the northern frontier to join the committee, where, along with Prieur and Robert Lindet, he was assigned responsibility for the organization and deployment of the armies.
This was the role in which Carnot would establish his reputation as a great war leader, as the man who turned the war around and imposed himself as the Organizer of Victory. The army he inherited was in a desperate plight, especially along the vital northern frontier against the Austrians: It was poorly trained and equipped and desperately short of horses and munitions; it was threatened with starvation, defeated on the battlefield, and raddled by rumors of treason and allegations of cowardice. It was Carnot’s task to resolve personnel problems, to root out inadequate officers, and to establish some sort of strategic overview that could turn the army into an effective military force. The task was a massive one, given the huge size of the army and the troops’ lack of battle experience: The levée en masse was intended, after all, to enlist three-quarters of a million young recruits. They had to be armed and clothed, and provisions had to be found and paid for, all at a time when peasants were wary of the government’s new paper currency, the assignats, and when the sans-culottes were staking the claims of Paris and the cities above those of the military. Carnot had to organize logistical support for armies that were constantly on the move and that increasingly had to contend with civil as well as foreign emergencies- in 1793 alone troops were being redeployed at home to face the federalist revolt in Lyons and throughout much of the Midi, treason in Toulon, and civil war in the Vendée and the departments of the West.
He also had to deal with politics inside the army, too, as radicals like Louis Lavalette tried to radicalize the military and Maximilien Robespierre sought to purge the officer corps of aristocrats and political moderates. Carnot dealt with political reality as he found it. He was won over to the radical idea of a mass army and to the tactic of the bayonet charge, the benefit of speed that came with use of the bayonet (arme blanche). He sought to inspire the troops with news and propaganda, himself publishing a successful newspaper for the armies, La soirée du camp, which imitated the tropes and style of Jacques-René Hébert’s sans-culotte icon Le Pere Duchesne. In short, he showed himself to be a skilled communicator, a motivator of men. But he was also careful to hold himself aloof from the more Robespierrist elements on the committee and to root out the more extreme radicals from the offices of the Ministry of War. He distanced himself from Robespierre’s more extreme social policies, and he disliked Louis de Saint-Just’s terrorist approach to the military. This helped to ensure his survival in 1794 when the more loyal Robespierrists were purged at Thermidor.
Carnot not only survived; he flourished, as a republican who had dissociated himself from the more extreme excesses of the Terror. Eight months later he was returned to the Council of Ancients, where he was chosen as one of the five directors with responsibility for running the war. He presented himself as a champion of the army and of public order, urging the harsh repression of the Babouvistes, the egalitarian radicals who were followers of Gracchus Babeuf, and promoting Napoleon Bonaparte to command the Army of Italy. Carnot’s career stumbled with the royalist coup at Fructidor, when the royalists took their revenge on their republican opponents by sentencing fiftythree deputies and two directors-Carnot and François Barthélemy-to be deported to the prison hulks of Cayenne, and Carnot was forced to flee to Geneva for safety. Amnestied by Bonaparte after Brumaire, he returned to government as minister of war from April to October 1800, but his strongly republican ideas and his openly stated belief that the years of war were bankrupting France did not endear him to the First Consul, who seemed happy to accept his resignation from office. He did not withdraw from politics, but he rapidly became a somewhat peripheral and disgruntled figure. Elected to the Tribunate in 1802, he showed himself increasingly alienated by Napoleon’s personal ambition and voted against both the Consul for Life and the proclamation of the Empire. Unlike many former Revolutionaries, Carnot had little appetite for office under the Empire. When the Tribunate was dissolved in 1807, he retired into private life with a pension from the government in recognition of past services. He took no part in the Napoleonic Wars until the final months, when, in 1814, as a Frenchman, a patriot, and an officer, he felt duty-bound to offer his services for the defense of the nation. He still proclaimed his republican principles, yet he ended his career as a général de division in the armies of the Emperor, directing the defense of Antwerp against the Allied armies in a desperate bid to prevent the fall of France and the reimposition of monarchy. Knowing that by 1814 there was no chance of a republic, Carnot used what influence he had in pursuit of a constitutional settlement. He pleaded with Louis XVIII to establish liberal institutions and a constitutional government, but he then turned back to Napoleon, accepting his assurances of greater liberalization and accepting office as minister of the interior during the Hundred Days.
After the Second Restoration Carnot knew that he could expect no mercy; he stood twice condemned, as a regicide in 1793 and as a traitor to the Bourbon cause. He therefore chose voluntary exile, this time in Germany, where the respect in which he was held as a mathematician and a man of the Enlightenment ensured that he found employment; he ended his long and turbulent career as a professor of mathematics in Magdeburg. Like many of his republican peers, he was never allowed back into France, and he died in Magdeburg in August 1823 at the age of seventy.
References and further reading Blanning, T. C. W. 1996. The French Revolutionary Wars, 1787-1802. London: Arnold. Brown, Howard G. 1995. War, Revolution and the Bureaucratic State: Politics and Army Administration in France, 1791-1799. Oxford: Clarendon. Carnot, Hippolyte. 1861-1864. Mémoires sur Carnot par son fils. 2 vols. Paris: Education de la jeunesse. Charnay, Jean-Pierre. 1990. Lazare Carnot, ou Le savantcitoyen. Paris: Presses de l’Université de Paris-Sorbonne. Dhombres, Jean, and Nicole Dhombres. 1997. Lazare Carnot. Paris: Fayard. Dupre, Huntley. 1940. Lazare Carnot, Republican Patriot. Oxford, OH: Mississippi Valley. Gillispie, Charles C. 1971. Lazare Carnot, Savant: A Monograph Treating Carnot’s Scientific Work. Princeton: Princeton University Press. Griffith, Paddy. 1998. The Art ofWar in Revolutionary France, 1789-1802. London: Greenhill. Lynn, John A. 1984. The Bayonets of the Republic: Motivation and Tactics in the Army of Revolutionary France, 1791-94. Urbana: University of Illinois Press. Reinhard, Marcel, 1950-1952. Le Grand Carnot. 2 vols. Paris: Hachette.