Antoine Laurent Lavoisier by Harry Schenawolf

Gunpowder Wizard for the American Cause in the Revolutionary War

Antoine Lavoisier
Antoine Lavoisier

For decades England’s draconian control of American imports and exports demanded that the colonists deal only with British and Scottish agents. Americans had to sell colonial goods to these agents who took a nice cut prior to distribution. The British government also kept a tidy sum. In turn, colonialists had to buy all their necessities from England. All colonial needs had to be shipped on English vessels, even if purchased through British agents representing European manufacturers. So too was manufacturing excluded from expanding to America’s shores. This kept the colonists completely subservient to England’s financial institutions as well as the British government.

After 1763 and the close of the Seven Years’ War, known in America as the French & Indian War, England was drowning under an enormous war debt. Much of it came from the humongous expense of providing an army of British regulars and local militias. There was also the British navy that guarded shipping and the near two thousand mile long American coast line. Add to this the expense of supplying all the necessary material needs to defend the colonies and the final figure was immense. Parliament decided that Americans should contribute more money to settle this debt. At the close of the war, colonists were paying taxes far below the average British citizen in England and had a higher per-capita income. To the politicians in England, it seemed logical and just that Americans pay their fair share. When Americans protested that these taxes, along with trade and duty acts, were being levied on them without their representation in Parliament, something British citizens in England enjoyed, they rebelled. At first it took the form of protests and boycotts, yet soon deepened until by the early to mid 1770’s, armed conflict seemed imminent.

At the start of the American Revolutionary War, the problems Americans faced were huge and overwhelming. Since they were dependent upon England, they had no way to make or purchase the materials necessary to go to war. Most especially muskets, shot, and gun powder. They had to deal directly with European countries for these important needs. France, who had been on and off at war with England since the middle ages, had an interest both militarily and financially to see England’s most economically successful colonies purchase war goods directly from them.   Since there was no American navy to defend merchant ships plying the waters between America and France, and France could not risk a war with England by sailing to American ports, the Americans depended upon smuggling and privateers. Colonial shippers leaped to the chance to reap huge profits through this lucrative but risky business.

France was at the cutting edge in musket and rifle design and had healthy stocks of available gunpowder. Unfortunately the quality of France’s gunpowder was considered poor, actually far below the normal standard which was made evident during the last war with England. They sought to improve the quality of their powder. It would attract American desperate for good powder which in turn would undermine British interests. But France’s goal did not end with supply the American army; they hoped to capture the world’s gunpowder market.

The national authorities of France approached a chemist in the spring of 1775 who would be considered the founder of modern chemistry, Antoine Laurent Lavoisier. The question they posed to him was simple – would he devote his great knowledge of chemistry to the perfection of powder “warranted to explode when touched by even a few small sparks?”   Lavoisier accepted the challenge and by August of that year, began serious work on improving France’s gunpowder.[1] In so doing, by 1776, he converted French gunpowder from being the worst to the best in Europe.

Lavoisier's Laboratoire
Lavoisier’s Laboratoire

Antoine Laruent Lavoisler was born in Paris to wealthy parents on August 26, 1743 and died on May 8, 1794, a victim of the French Revolution. He was a nobleman who, at the age of five, inherited an enormous estate valued at over two million pounds. In 1754 he began his studies at age 11 at the College of Mazarin. He studied chemistry, botany, astronomy, and mathematics and was tutored by Abbe’ Nicolas Louis de Lacaille, a distinguished mathematician and astronomer. He entered the school of law and received a bachelor’s degree in 1763 and was admitted to the bar. He was never a practiced lawyer, instead devoting his time to scientific investigations.

In 1769, at the age of 26 and around the time he was elected to the Academy of Sciences, Lavoisier bought a share in the Ferme Générale, a tax farming financial company which advanced the estimated tax revenue to the royal government.   In return they were given the right to collect the taxes. Lavoisier attempted to introduce reforms in the French monetary and taxation system to help the peasants. Ironically, participation in this endeavor would give his enemies cause to press for his execution during the French Revolution.[2]

Marie Anne Pierrette Paulze & Antoine Lavoisier
Marie Anne Pierrette Paulze & Antoine Lavoisier

He married Marie Anne Pierrette Paulze on Dec. 6, 1771. She was thirteen and he was twenty-eight. “The marriage was a happy one,” according to Lavoisier biographer Douglas McKie. “Mme. Lavoisier was possessed of a high intelligence; she took a great interest in her husband’s scientific work and rapidly equipped herself to share in his labors.[3]

Lavoisier is called the Father of Modern Chemistry for his many accomplishments in that field. His fundamental contributions were a result of a conscious effort to fit all experiments into the framework of a single theory and changing the science from a qualitative to a quantitative one. He recognized and named oxygen in 1778 and is noted for his discovery of the role oxygen played in combustion. Many investigators had been experimenting with the combination of Henry Cavendish’s inflammable air. In 1783 Lavoisier termed it hydrogen (Greek for “water-former”), with dephlogisticated air (oxygen) by electrically sparking mixtures of the gases. Lavoisier synthesized water by burning jets of hydrogen and oxygen in a bell jar over mercury. The quantitative results were good enough to support the contention that water was not an element, as had been thought for over 2,000 years, but a compound of two gases, hydrogen and oxygen.[4] He also set the ground work for the metric system, wrote extensive lists of elements, predicted the existence of silicon, and established that sulfur was an element rather than a compound. He also discovered that although matter may change its shape or form, its mass remained the same.

He was an active and concerned statesman attending to humanitarian affairs. Among his many activities was a scientific approach in agriculture leading to many improvements, developing industry, lightening the tax burden on the poor, financial aid to younger scientists, and aiding the famished inhabitants of Blois and Romorantin. He also founded a free school near his Chateau de Frechines.[5]

It was late 1772 that Lavoisier turned his attention to the phenomenon of combustion in which he made what many believe to be his most significant contributions to science. In 1775 he was one of four commissioners of gunpowder appointed to replace a private company, similar to the Ferme Générale, which had proved unsatisfactory in supplying France with its munitions requirements. There were two factories at Escone which were placed under the personal care of Lavoisier. As a result of his efforts, both the quantity and quality of French gunpowder greatly enhanced. “He improved the manufacture of gunpowder so as to add one third to its explosive force, thereby reversing the previous superiority of English over French ordinance.”[6] Gunpowder became an important source of revenue for the government. His appointment to the Gunpowder Commission brought one great benefit to Lavoisier’s scientific career as well. As a commissioner, he enjoyed both a house and a laboratory in the Royal Arsenal. Here he lived and worked between 1775 and 1792.

Lavoisier had also drafted plans that resulted in a substantial increase in the supply of gunpowder. By 1776, large quantities of powder were available to the rebellious Americans and began making its way overseas. This eventually gave a tactical advantage to both colonial musketeers and riflemen, resulting in fewer misfires and a rapid combustion which increased overall accuracy. An interesting sideline involved the relationship between Benjamin Franklin and Lavoisier. Lavoisier was not impressed with the great American statesman and scientist who attended the French courts and aristocracy as an ambassador for his struggling new nation. Lavoisier exerted all efforts to keep Franklin out of the Academy of Sciences.

By 1789, the French Revolution gained momentum and Lavoisier’s world began to collapse around him. On March 20, 1791, the National Assembly[7] of France cancelled the lease of the Farmers/General who, under the system established by Colbert in the 16th century, brought the privilege of collecting the indirect national taxes and certain customs and duties for a stipulated sum paid annually to the government in advance.[8] In 1792, Lavoisier was forced to resign from his post on the Gunpowder Commission and to move from his house and laboratory at the Royal Arsenal. On August 8, 1793, all the educational and learned societies, including the Academy of Sciences, were dissolved.

One of Lavoisier’s last major works was a proposal to the National Convention for the reform of French education. By then it was too late. He tried to remain aloof from the political violence and turmoil that surrounded him, but his worst fears came to fruition. On November 24, 1793, he and all the former tax collectors of the Ferme Générale[9] were arrested. He was branded a traitor by the Convention under Maximilien de Robespierre during the Reign of terror in 1794. On May 8th, 1794, he was convicted of having plundered the people and the treasury of France, of having adulterated the nation’s tobacco with water, and of having supplied the enemies of France with huge sums of money from the national treasury. After conviction, that same afternoon he was drawn in a cart before a mass gathering and guillotined.

Mathematician and astronomer Count Joseph-Louis de Lagrange is quoted; “It took them only a moment to sever that head, and a hundred years perhaps will not suffice to produce another like it.” Einstein, who would revolutionize physics as Lavoisier had revolutionized chemistry, was born eighty six years later in 1879.[10]

A year and a half after Lavoisier’s death, he was exonerated by the French government and his properties were returned to his widow Marie. Pierre Samuel Du Pont was reported to have been intimate with Marie in the 1780’s while Lavoisier was deeply involved in scientific farming. In 1800, Du Pont immigrated to America where his son Eleuthère Irénée, a protégé of Lavoisier, set up a gunpowder factory in Wilmington, Delaware. Eleuthere wanted to name the factory Lavoisier Mills, but history tells us that his father persuaded him to name it Du Pont de Nemours and Company. By 1812, the United States could charge Eli Whitney’s mass-produced rifles from Hamden with Antoine Lavoisier’s scientific gunpowder from Wilmington. The buildings around Killian Court at MIT, Cambridge, Massachusetts pay homage to Lavoisier and list his name.

Read the first installment of A Black Man’s Destiny (Shades of Liberty) here.

RESOURCES

Depew, Chauncey Mitchell. One Hundred Years of American Commerce 1795 – 1895 …: A History of American Commerce by One Hundred Americans, with a Chronological Table of the Important Events of American Commerce and Invention Within the Past One Hundred Years. 1895: D. O. Haynes publishing

Garrison, Webb. Sidelights on the American Revolution. 1974: Abington Press, Nashville, TN.

Kohler, Robert E., Jr., “The Origin of Lavoisier’s First Experiments on Combustion,” Isis, Vol. 63, No. 3 (Sept. 1972), pp. 349-355).

Lavoisier, Antoine, Chicago Journal, Vol. 26, No. 1, Dec. 1936, Antoine Lavoisier

McKie, Douglas, “Antoine Laurent Lavoisier, F.R.S. 1743-1794,” Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London, Vol. 7, No. 1 (Dec. 1949), pp. 1-41.

McKie, Douglas. Antoine Lavoisier: The Father of Modern Chemistry. 1935: J. B. Lippincott Publishing, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Rappaport, Rhoda, “The Early Disputes between Lavoisier and Monnet, 1777- 1794,” The British Journal for the History of Science, Vol. 4, No. 3 (Jun., 1969), pp. 233-244.

Tucker, Spencer C. The Encyclopedia of the Wars of the Early American Republic, 1783–1812: A Political, Social, and Military History [3 volumes]: A Political, Social, and Military History. 2014: ABC – CLIO Publishing, Santa Barbara, California.

Web

“Antoine Lavoisier,” http://www.acs.org/content/acs/en/education/whatischemistry/landmarks/lavoisier.html

“Antoine Laurent Lavoisier (1743-1794),”

http://classes.yale.edu /01-02/chem125a/125/history99/2Pre1800/Lavoisier/David/lavoisierdavid.htm

[1] Garrison, pg. 30.

[2] Antoine Laurent Lavoisier (1743-1794). Web site Yale Classics.

[3] McKie, pp. 38-39.

[4] Antoine Lavoisier. Web article, acs.org.

[5] Antoine Lavoisier, Chicago Journal.

[6] Depew, pg. 192.

[7] The National Assembly was formed on June 10, 1789. It was succeeded by the Legislative Assembly

on October 1, 1791, and then by the National Convention, which declared France a Republic, on September 1792.

[8] McKie, Notes of the Royal Society of London, pg. 1.

[9] The Farm had been the object of violent criticism and invective, mostly by ill-informed and provoked by disgruntled employees who urged that the fortunes which they alleged had been acquired by the Farmers General should be disgorged and confiscated for the benefit of the nation. When the Farm’s accounts were finally and impartially examined, it was found that, instead of the Farm owing the nation 130 million livres as alleged, the nation owed the Farm 8 million livres. Page. 2 McVie, notes society

[10] Yale Classics

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *