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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  23 December 2003

University of Leeds


Even during his lifetime, the French revolutionary Girondin leader Jacques-Pierre Brissot de Warville's reputation was tarnished by allegations that, before 1789, he was a swindler, police spy, and political pornographer. These charges resurfaced in 1968 in a celebrated article by Robert Darnton, which found miscellaneous, fragmentary evidence to support them, above all in the papers of the pre-revolutionary police chief, Lenoir. Although Darnton's view has been challenged by several historians, no critic has supplied any substantive new evidence, and hence the Brissot debate remains mired in assertions and counter-assertions. This article finally offers such evidence, drawing both on Darnton's main source, the Lenoir papers, and on sources unavailable to him in 1968, notably records of Brissot's Licée de Londres and his embastillement, now on deposit in the Archives Nationales. While acquiting Brissot on all counts, it finds that Darnton's suspicions were not entirely unfounded. Brissot did have compromising links to both police and political pornographers. Nevertherless, allegations that he spied and wrote scandalous pamphlets appear malicious, despite Brissot's arrest on the latter charge in 1784. The article also attempts to explain Brissot's motivations and the lasting implications of his arrest and persecution in shaping Brissot and the French Revolution.

Research Article
© 2003 Cambridge University Press

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The author wishes to thank the Archives Nationales for permission to consult Brissot's papers; the Universities of Waikato and Leeds, the Humanities Research Centre at the Australian National University, and the British Academy for supporting his research; and David Adams, Laurence Brockliss, Simon Dixon, Alan Forrest, Russell Goulbourne, Tom Kaiser, Andrea Kemp, Iain McCalman, David Parker, and the Historical Journal's anonymous readers, for comments on drafts and preliminary discussions.