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Pierre Claude François Daunou

Pierre Claude François Daunou (1761-1840), French statesman and historian, was born at Boulogne-sur-Mer, and after a brilliant career in the school of the Oratorians there, joined the order in Paris in 1777.

He was professor in various seminaries from 1780 till 1787, when he was ordained priest. He was already known in literary circles by several essays and poems, when the revolution opened a wider career. He threw himself with ardour into the struggle for liberty, and refused to be silenced in his advocacy of the civil constitution of the clergy by the offer of high office in the ohurch. Elected to the Convention by Pas-de-Calais, he associated himself with the Girondists, but strongly opposed the death sentence on the king. He took little part in the struggle against the Mountain, but was involved in the overthrow of his friends, and was imprisoned for a year.

In December 1794 he returned to the Convention, and was the principal author of the constitution of the year III. It seems to have been due to his Girondist ideas that the Ancients were given the right of convoking the corps législatif outside Paris, an expedient which made possible Napoleon's coup d'état of the 18th and 19th Brumaire. The creation of the Institute was also due to Daunou, who drew up the plan for its organization. His energy was largely responsible for the suppression of the royalist insurrection of the 13th Vendémiaire, and the important place he occupied at the beginning of the Directory is indicated by the fact that he was elected by twenty-seven departments as member of the Council of Five Hundred[?], and became its first president. He had himself set the age qualification of the directors at forty, and thus debarred himself as candidate, as he was only thirty-four.

The direction of affairs having passed into the hands of Talleyrand and his associates, Daunou turned once more to literature, but in 1798 he was sent to Rome to organize the republic there, and again, almost against his will, he lent his aid to Napoleon in the preparation of the constitution of the year VIII. His attitude towards Napoleon was not lacking in independence, but in this controversy with the pope, the emperor was able again to secure from him the learned treatise Sur la puissance temporelle du Pape (1809). Still he took little part in the new régime, with which at heart he had no sympathy, and turned more and more to literature. At the Restoration[?] he was deprived of the post of archivist of the empire, which he had held from 1807, but from 1819 to 1830 (when he again became archivist of the kingdom) he held the chair of history and ethics at the College de France, and his courses were among the most famous of that age of public lectures. During the reign of Louis Philippe he received many honours. In 1839 he was made a peer.

In politics Daunou was a Girondist without combativeness; a confirmed republican, who lent himself always to the policy of conciliation, but whose probity remained unchallenged. He belonged essentially to the centre, and lacked both the genius and the temperament which would secure for him a commanding place in a revolutionary era. As an historian his breadth of view is remarkable for his time; for although thoroughly imbued with the classical spirit of the 18th century, he was able to do justice to the middle ages. His Discours sur l'état des lettres au XIII' siècle, in the sixteenth volume of the Histoire littéraire de France, is a remarkable contribution to that vast collection, especially as coming from an author so profoundly learned in the ancient classics.

Daunou's lectures at the College de France, collected and published after his death, fill twenty volumes (Cours d'études historiques, 1842-1846). They treat principally of the criticism of sources and the proper method of writing history, and occupy an important place in the evolution of the scientific study of history in France. All his works were written in the most elegant style and chaste diction; but apart from his share in the editing of the Historiens de la France, they were mostly in the form of separate articles on literary and historical subjects.

Personally Daunou was reserved and somewhat austere, preserving in his habits a strange mixture of bourgeois and monk. His indefatigable work as archivist in the time when Napoleon was transferring so many treasures to Paris is not his least claim to the gratitude of scholars.

See Mignet, Notice historique sur la vie et les travaux de Daunou (Paris, 1843); Taillandier, Documents bibliographiques sur Daunou (Paris, 1847), including a full list of his works; Sainte-Beuve, Daunou in his Portraits Contemporains, t. iii. (unfavourable and somewhat unfair).

This entry was originally from the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.

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