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He was born at Vého near Lunéville, the son of a peasant. Educated at the Jesuit college at Nancy, he became curé of Emberménil and a teacher at the Jesuit school at Pont-à-Mousson. In 1783 he was crowned by the academy of Nancy for his Eloge de la poisie, and in 1788 by that of Metz for an Essai sur la rëgindration physique et morale des Juifs. He was elected in 1789 by the clergy of the bailliage of Nancy to the Estates-General, where he soon made his name as one of the group of clerical and lay deputies of Jansenist or Gallican sympathies who supported the Revolution. He was one of the first of the clergy to join the third estate, and contributed notably to the union of the three orders; he presided at the session which lasted sixty-two hours while the Bastille was being attacked by the people, and spoke vehemently against the enemies of the nation. He later took a leading role in the abolition of the privileges of the nobles and the Church.
Under the new Civil Constitution of the Clergy, to which he was the first priest to take the oath (December 27, 1790), he was elected bishop by two départments. He selected that of Loire-et-Cher, taking the old title of bishop of Blois, and for ten years (1791-1801) ruled his diocese with exemplary zeal. An ardent republican, it was he who in the first session of the National Convention (September 21, 1792) proposed the motion for the abolition of the kingship, in a speech in which occurred the memorable phrase that "kings are in the moral order what monsters are in the natural." On November 15 he delivered a speech in which he demanded that the king should be brought to trial, and immediately afterwards was elected president of the Convention, over which he presided in his episcopal dress. During the trial of King Louis XVI, being absent with other three colleagues on a mission for the union of Savoy to France, he along with them wrote a letter urging the condemnation of the king, but attempted to save the life of the king by proposing that the death penalty should be suspended.
When, on November 7, 1793, Jean-Baptiste-Joseph Gobel, bishop of Paris, was intimidated into resigning his episcopal office at the bar of the Convention, Grégoire, who was temporarily absent, hearing what had happened, hurried to the hall, and in the face of a howling mob of deputies refused to give up either his religion or his office. He was prepared to face death; but his display of courage won the day. Throughout the Reign of Terror, in spite of attacks in the Convention, in the press, and on placards posted at the street corners, he appeared in the streets in his episcopal dress and daily read mass in his house. After Robespierre's fall he was the first to advocate the reopening of the churches (speech of December 21, 1794). He also tried to get measures put in place for restraining the vandalistic attacks on works of art, extended his protection to artists and writers, and devoted attention to the reorganization of the public libraries, the establishment of botanic gardens, and the improvement of technical education. He had taken during the Constituent Assembly a great interest in Negro emancipation, and it was on his motion that men of colour in the French colonies were admitted to the same rights as whites.
On the establishment of the new constitution, Grégoire was elected to the Council of 500, and after 18 Brumaire he became a member of the Corps Législatif , then of the Senate (1801). He took the lead in the national church councils of 1797 and 1801; but he was strenuously opposed to Napoleon's policy of reconciliation with the Holy See, and after the signature of the concordat he resigned his bishopric (October 8, 1801). He was one of the minority of five in the Senate who voted against the proclamation of the empire, and he opposed the creation of a new nobility and Napoleon's divorce from Josephine; notwithstanding this, he was created a count of the empire and officer of the Legion of Honour. During the later years of Napoleon's reign he travelled in England and Germany, but in 1814 he returned to France and opposed the empire.
During the Restoration
To the clerical and ultra-royalist faction which dominated the Lower Chamber and court circles after the second Restoration, Grégoire, as a revolutionist and a schismatic bishop, was an object of hatred. He was expelled from the Institut de France and forced into retirement, but his influence was still felt and feared. In 1814 he published, De la constitution française de l'an 1814, in which be commented on the Charter from a Liberal point of view, and this reached its fourth edition in 1819, in which year he was elected to the Lower Chamber by the départment of Isère. By the powers of the Quadruple Alliance this event was regarded as a bad omen, and the question was raised of a fresh armed intervention in France under the terms of the secret Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle. To prevent this, Louis XVIII decided on a modification of the franchise; the Dessolles ministry resigned; and the first act of Decazes, the new premier, was to annul the election of Grégoire. From this time onward the ex-bishop lived in retirement, occupying himself in literary pursuits and in correspondence with most of the eminent savants of Europe; he was compelled to sell his library to obtain means of support.
Grégoire remained a devout Catholic, fulfilling all his obligations as a Christian and a priest; but he refused to budge from his revolutionary principles. During his last illness he confessed to his parish curé, a priest of Jansenist sympathies, expressing his desire for the last sacraments of the Church. These the Archbishop of Paris would only concede on condition that he retract his oath to the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, which he refused to do.
In defiance of the archbishop, the abbé Baradère gave him the viaticum, while the rite of extreme unction was administered by the abbé Guillon, an opponent of the Civil Constitution, without consulting the archbishop or the parish curé. The attitude of the archbishop caused great excitement in Paris, and the government had to take precautions to avoid a repetition of the riots which in the preceding February had led to the sacking of the church of St Germain l'Auxerrois and the archiepiscopal palace. Grégoire's funeral was celebrated at the church of the Abbaye-aux-Bois; the clergy absented themselves in obedience to the archbishop's orders, but mass was sung by the abbé Grieu assisted by two clergy, the catafalque being decorated with the episcopal insignia. After the hearse set out from the church the horses were unyoked, and it was dragged by students to the cemetery of Montparnasse, the cortege being followed by a sympathetic crowd of some 20,000 people.
Grégoire's name lives on mainly because of his efforts to prove that Catholic Christianity is not irreconcilable with political liberty. In this he was defeated, mainly because the Revolution changed into a military despotism which allied itself with the spiritual despotism of Rome, and partly because, when the Revolution was overthrown. the parties of reaction sought salvation in the "union of altar and throne." Possibly Grégoire's Gallicanism was fundamentally irreconcilable with the Catholic idea of authority. At least it made their traditional religion possible for those many French Catholics who clung passionately to the benefits the Revolution had brought them; and had it prevailed, it might have spared France and the world that fatal gulf between Liberalism and Catholicism which Pope Pius IX's Syllabus of 1864 sought to make impassable.
Besides several political pamphlets, Grégoire was the author of:
- Histoire des sectes religieuses, depuis le commencement du siècle dernier jusqu'à l'époque actuelle (a vols., 1810)
- Essai historique sur les libertés de l'église gallicane (1818)
- De l'influence du Christianisme sur la condition des femmes (1821)
- Histoire des confesseurs des empereurs, des rois, et d'autres princes (1824)
- Histoire du manage des primes en France (1826).
Grégoireana, ou résumé général de la conduite, des actions, et des écrits de M. le comte Henri Grégoire, preceded by a biographical notice by Cousin d'Avalon, was published in 1821; and the Mémoires ... de Grégoire, with a biographical notice by H Carnot, appeared in 1837 (2 vols.).
- This entry incorporates public domain text originally from the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica, which gives the following references:
- A Debidour, L'Abbé Grégoire (1881).
- A Gazier, Etudes sur l'histoire religieuse de la Révolution Française (1883).
- L Maggiolo, La Vie et les œuvres de l'abbé Grégoire (Nancy, 1884).
- Numerous articles in La Révolution Française; E Meaume, Étude hist. et biog. sur les Lorrains révolutionnaires (Nancy, 1882).
- Numerous articles in A Gazier, Études sur l'histoire religieuse de la Révolution Française (1887).
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