Léon Gambetta

On this date in 1839, Léon Gambetta was born in Cahors, France. In 1857, he went to Paris to study law, and was called to the bar in 1859. He expressed very strong republican opinions (France was at that time governed by Napoleon III in the Second Empire) and in 1868 he became famous for his defense in a political case, called the Affaire Baudin. Baudin had died in an attempted coup, and Gambetta defended eight journalists who were prosecuted for attempting to build a memorial to Baudin. In 1869, Gambetta was elected to the Legislative Assembly, where he opposed the Franco-German War, which broke out in July 1870. He was instrumental in forming a provisional government and declaring a republic after Napoleon III was captured by the Germans. Gambetta then helped to lead the defense of France from Germany. He briefly left government in March 1871, after the ratification of a peace treaty which gave up Alsace and Lorraine. He was then elected to the National Assembly in July of that same year, where he was instrumental in the vote to institute the Third Republic, rather than to restore a Bourbon monarchy. Gambetta remained active in politics, becoming President of the Chamber of Deputies, until he died at age 44 of appendicitis.

In addition to being a republican, Gambetta was also a part of the anticlericalist faction and an avowed atheist. He spoke of the conflict between “those who pretend to know everything through revelation, in an immutable manner, and those who march, thinking and progressing, to the suggestions of science, which every day accomplishes progress and which pushes back the boundaries of human knowledge” (in The End of the Soul by Jennifer Michael Hecht, 2006). He wanted France to be a beacon for freethought as well as political freedom, and on his death he made a posthumous contribution to freethought — his brain went to the Society of Mutual Autopsy, a group that wished to investigate the workings of the brain through dissection, attempting to show physical traits in connection with mental properties. D.1882.

“Clericalism, that's the enemy!”

—Léon Gambetta, via Jennifer Michael Hecht, The End of the Soul

Compiled by Eleanor Wroblewski

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