Journalist, Statesman, Atheist (August 2002)

Atheist politicians seem to be an endangered species these days, but things were very different a century to a century-and-a-half ago. Between the mid-1800s and the start of World War I–the period we think of as the Golden Age of freethought–public servants with no use for religion were a common sight on the political landscape.

Nowhere was this more the case than in Second empire and early Third Republic France–the France of the second half of the 19th century. These were glory years in the annals of French freethought, a time when scientific positivism, anti-clericalism and faith in science and reason reinvigorated the climate of ideas with the spirit of Voltaire. It was a period that might well be called the French Neo-enlightenment. One of its standout figures was Georges Clemenceau.

Clemenceau (1841-1929) was born in a little village in the Vendee region of western France. The son of a physician, he studied medicine in Paris in the early 1860s, eventually earning a medical doctorate. While in medical school he took his first steps into journalism, meeting and befriending emile Zola and writing with him for an ephemeral newspaper called Travail (Work). In his articles, Clemenceau boldly endorsed freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and the establishment of a Republic. These opinions, during the years of Napoleon III’s Second empire, were bound to get him into trouble. In 1862 he served sixty-three days in jail for participating in a pro-republican student demonstration.

In 1865 Clemenceau sailed to New York City as a foreign correspondent for Le Temps. He ended up spending four productive years in the United States. During this time he sent back many pieces to his Parisian home office on life in post-Civil War America, including several anti-slavery articles and an interview with Ulysses Grant.

Clemenceau’s U.S. sojourn also left him with an excellent command of english, a skill that would serve him well a half century later at Versailles, in his discussions with Woodrow Wilson and British prime minister David Lloyd George at the table of the Paris Peace Conference, where Clemenceau served as leader of the French delegation.

In addition, Clemenceau translated John Stewart Mill’s Auguste Comte and Positivism into French (positivism would leave a lasting impression on his own thinking) and taught French and equestrianism at Aiken Seminary for Young Ladies in Stamford, Connecticut. Here he met a student named Mary Plummer, whom he married in 1869. The marriage would last seven years, producing three children.

Returning to France with his new wife, he plunged into politics. In 1870, in the wake of France’s disastrous defeat at the hands of the Prussians, the radical government known as the Commune appointed him Mayor of Montmartre. Clemenceau’s anti-German sentiments, which would never abate, took root at this time. He was a member of the Paris Municipal Council from 1871 to 1876. During the 1870s and 1880s he was five times elected a deputy to the National Assembly.

Clemenceau was out of politics between 1893 and 1906 but continued his social action as a journalist. For much of this period he owned and edited La Justice, a newspaper to which he contributed a steady stream of articles, many of them anti-clerical. Biographer Wythe Williams calls the Clemenceau of the 1890s “the most widely read and influential molder of public opinion in the [French] nation.”1

Between 1898 and 1901, peak years in the Dreyfus Affair, Clemenceau edited and contributed regularly to the daily L’Aurore (Dawn), where he was joined by old friend emile Zola in that paper’s ardent campaign on behalf of Alfred Dreyfus. Zola’s famous open letter to the French president, “J’accuse,” published in L’Aurore in January 1898, owed its title to Clemenceau. The complete collected newspaper articles of Clemenceau fill nineteen volumes; articles written during the Dreyfus Affair account for seven of the nineteen. Criticism of religion is a thread running through all nineteen volumes.

In spite of his intense social involvement during the 19th century’s final decade, Clemenceau found time to ponder the history of religions, and this resulted in a collection of essays entitled Le Grand Pan (The Great God Pan, 1896). The idea behind Clemenceau’s title is that Pan is paradoxically still among us. Although it may please us to think that primitive, “false” gods have been replaced over time by more modern and “truer” ones, such changes are illusory. Historically, says Clemenceau, there are no new gods, just old gods recycled. We are mistaken to think that Pan was buried under with the advent of Christianity. In actuality he lives on, as do various other deities from earlier eras, all of them disguised, but only slightly, under new names and costumes, all of them false, all of them eternally animated by the same unchanging forces: ignorance and superstition.

From 1903 to 1906 Clemenceau served in the Senate while continuing to edit L’Aurore. He was twice Prime Minister of France, first from 1906 to 1909, then from 1917 to 1920. During the second of these two terms, the defeat of Germany was his all-consuming goal. When World War I came to an end with France on the winning side, Clemenceau was acclaimed throughout his country as Pere Victoire, Father Victory. In 1920, at age 79, he narrowly missed being elected President of the French Republic.
Nicknamed “The Tiger” early in his career, Clemenceau was a scrappy political fighter who excelled at ousting political opponents by provoking votes of no confidence, a tactic that earned him the title “wrecker of ministries.” He also cut a fierce figure in the beau monde of French society. A famed duelist, he was known and feared as an expert swordsman and marksman.

Toughness of character notwithstanding, Clemenceau was a person of learning and culture. He knew and loved painting and sculpture and was among the first to herald the genius of Van Gogh. Rodin, who sculpted a bust of him, was a personal friend. So was Claude Monet, about whom Clemenceau wrote a book. Clemenceau owned Monet’s self-portrait, eventually donating it to the Louvre. He himself, like his friend Zola, sat for edouard Manet. It was at Clemenceau’s insistence that James McNeill Whistler’s famous painting “Arrangement in Gray and Black” (we know it better as “Whistler’s Mother”) was purchased by the French government. A statue of Clemenceau stands on the Champs-elysee.

Clemenceau’s 17th-century forebears were Protestants who had experienced persecution during the reign of Louis XIV. In time the family returned to Catholicism, but without abandoning a certain streak of rebelliousness and skepticism. Clemenceau’s paternal grandfather, though a member of a Catholic parish, was buried without a religious funeral. His father was an outspoken nonbeliever who insisted that his children be raised without religious training. In this he was opposed by Clemenceau’s mother, a practicing Protestant. Though deeply attached to both parents, young Georges identified strongly with his father. At age 16 he was once suspended from school for arguing against Christianity with a teacher.

When he married in 1869, Clemenceau insisted, to the dismay of his bride and her family, on a strictly civil ceremony, free of all religious trappings. “Throughout his life,” biographer Williams tells us, “the Tiger declined to attend religious services, except for an occasional state ceremony in a cathedral, which in his public position he could not avoid.”2 In his will, Clemenceau stipulated that his body was to be taken from the mortuary to the graveyard without rites of any kind.

The Tiger’s wry sense of humor added to his popularity. As he progressed into his eighties, he enjoyed raising eyebrows by referring fondly to his impending death as a long overdue sleep he was eager to enjoy. For his burial he chose a plot next to the grave of his father. When the carver in charge of his tombstone took Clemenceau to the site to complain that the area was too small for a coffin, the two-time Prime Minister of France, indifferent to gaping onlookers, strolled over to the spot in question and fell to the ground, stretching out full-length and “modeling” his future grave, to demonstrate that the bed he had chosen for his final slumber was indeed a comfortable fit.

Not surprisingly, history textbooks and encyclopedias tend to skirt the issue of Clemenceau’s atheism. His anti-clericalism (a political stance and thus a relatively “safe” topic) is inevitably discussed, but specific mention of his personal rejection of religion is carefully avoided. Collier’s Encyclopedia, Encyclopedia Americana, The Encyclopedia Britannica and Grolier’s Multimedia Encyclopedia are all cases in point: nowhere in the Clemenceau entries found in these standard reference works is there a direct statement about Clemenceau’s open, lifelong atheism.

Georges Clemenceau is a towering figure in the history of France’s Third Republic. Throughout his political and journalistic career he fearlessly attacked the Church as an institution guilty of fostering ignorance, superstition and inhumanity. Along with countless other 19th-century French artists and intellectuals, he dreamed of a day when organized religion would be rendered obsolete by the forces of reason and science.

Freedom From Religion Foundation