Historical Figures

Louis-Sébastien Mercier, great reporter of the 18th century

Louis-Sébastien Mercier (1740-1814) , who called himself "the greatest bookseller in France" can be considered the great reporter of the 18th century. Poet, journalist, writer, he lived under several political regimes ranging from the monarchy to the Empire, passing through the Constituent Assembly, the Convention and the Directory. His "Picture of Paris" earned him his first success, but also his setbacks and the Academy was banned from him. Author of an Essay on Dramatic Art which revolutionized critical thought on theatre, Mercier met with great success as a playwright in his time, but he has since been forgotten. The Romantics, however, saw in him a precursor because of his vision of History.

Louis-Sébastien Mercier, young writer

Louis-Sébastien Mercier was born in the heart of Paris in June 1740. This son of a merchant "furbisseur", in other words gunsmith, spent his youth near the Pont Neuf. He belongs to this bourgeois class, of well-to-do artisans without being really rich, attached to equal rights and freedom of expression. Continuing his studies at the Collège des Quatre-Nations, he went to Bordeaux to replace him at the Collège de la Madeleine, becoming Regent in 1763. Preferring modern literature, theater and foreign letters, he did not flourish in this position and returned to Paris a few years later.

He definitely threw himself into writing by writing a few heroids, but quickly abandoned this genre in the face of little success. In 1764, he published "Calas on the scaffold to his judges" which participated in the outbreak of the Calas affair started by Voltaire to rehabilitate this man. Then, having learned of the rising fame of JJ Rousseau, he tried his hand at academic discourse, with several "letters and eulogies" and worked for the theatre.

In 1766 he wrote stories like "Wild Man" translated from German, then collections of short stories and wrote a tragedy "Virginia" in 1767. All this not obtaining the hoped-for success, he decided to write only prose like "Dreams and philosophical visions" in 1768 and showed himself to be the obstinate detractor of poets and their works:he became friends with Rousseau, Diderot, Crébillon son , Restif de la Bretonne.

The great work of Louis-Sébastien Mercier

At the age of thirty, he found his own style in "The Year 2440" written in 1771. This piquant text showed that a revolution was necessary in France and almost inevitable! The book was banned by the authorities...he then started writing plays featuring real characters in their daily problems.

In 1775, she was offered the direction of the Journal des Dames, which at first was based on the promotion of women . Mercier then took the opportunity to convey his literary and political opinions, but he had to leave this post two years later. His fame increases, but also the outbursts and lawsuits.

In 1781, he began his famous "Tableau de Paris", a description of the mores of the capital, an "inventory and dramatic description of Parisian life" in his hometown. Starting with two volumes, and in the face of great success, it was eight in 1783 and would increase to twelve volumes in 1788. Meanwhile, faced with certain threats, being afraid of being misjudged (the Parisian rumor said that his to several authors), he left Paris to settle in Neufchâtel in Switzerland.

He travels in this country, amazed by the mountains and nature, but retains in him a certain mistrust of men, a feeling that has pursued him for a long time and publishes "portraits of kings de france” in 1783 then “Mon bonnet de nuit” in 1784. It was in Switzerland that the first edition of the “Tableau de Paris” was published, a battle between booksellers vying for publication. Mercier becomes famous, but is shunned by the Academy. The public does not like his style as Rivarol said "it is a work thought out in the street and written on the terminal"... It is true that Mercier delivered certain abrupt truths with some satirical characters.

Deputy to the Convention...

He returned to Paris in 1786 and extended his work with four new volumes and received praise from the Courrier de l'Europe "it is the work of a sensitive and courageous, unstoppable by small considerations. He wanted to see what no one sees”. But he continues as a journalist and his writings become political. He tackles the Old Regime with the “Portrait of Philip IX, King of Spain”. But the Revolution is preparing, Mercier is certain to have been a prophet in his edition of L'An 2440 where he thought of the demolition of the Bastille!

A moderate supporter of new ideas, he became involved in the revolutionary movement and approached the Girondins. He published a journal “Les Annales patriotiques et littéraires de la France” between 1789 and 1791, then “La Chronique du mois” in which he constantly pointed out the Jacobins as the most formidable enemies of the constitutional system. He pleads for a revolution of the institutions which must protect the citizen; he rises up for the increasingly poor people and fights for more justice, more morality, less selfishness.

...opposed to the death of Louis XVI

Elected deputy for Seine and Oise at the Convention from September 1792 to October 1795, then deputy for Sarthe until in December 1799, he did not vote for the death of the king, thinking that a perpetual detention would suffice “As a national judge, I say that Louis deserved death; as a legislator, the national interest speaks louder here than its crimes, and I must, for the interest of the people, vote for a less severe penalty. What does justice command here? It is the peace of the nation. Now I say that a death warrant, which would have its immediate execution, would be impolitic and dangerous. Louis is a hostage; it is more, it serves to prevent any other claimant from ascending the throne; he protects, he defends your young republic, he gives it time to form itself. If his head falls, tremble! A foreign faction will find him a successor. Louis is no longer king, he has no more rights to the crown than his son and his brothers; but the phantom serves us marvelously here; yes, we must walk with this ghost, with time which is also a legislator:let's not rush an irrevocable measure. I vote for the detention of Louis in perpetuity”.

In the spring of 1793, he voted against the arrest of the Girondins...but was imprisoned on October 3 with 72 other protesters. Released after the fall of Robespierre in July 1794, he reappeared in the Assembly in December 1794 and moved to the Council of Five Hundred in October 1795, elected deputy for the Côtes du Nord and Côtes du Nord. This is a period when Mercier “takes it out” on everyone:he refuses to allow Descartes to accede to the honors of the Pantheon, judging him responsible for the Terror with his freedom of thought; he accuses Voltaire of having destroyed morality; he accepts a position as controller of the Lottery fund even though he had caused its abolition previously...he leaves the council of Five Hundred in May 1797 to be appointed professor of history at the Ecole Centrale and swears not to no more talking about politics!

The last writings of Louis-Sébastien Mercier

He took advantage of his time to produce the "New Paris" in 1797 and six volumes were produced on the morals of the Revolution; but Mercier has changed, he is embittered and defends the dream of an enlightened and egalitarian society, he will not approve of the Empire either and will resent Napoleon. He published one of his last works in 1801 "Neology or vocabulary of new words, to renew or taken in new acceptances", then in 1808 "Satires against Racine and Boileau" where he is ironic about France fearful, narrow, cramped to its classicism.

Louis-Sébastien Mercier died on April 25, 1814, between the abdication of Napoleon and the arrival of Louis XVIII, having these remarks published in the year 2440 "men of all country, envy my destiny:born a subject, I died free and republican". He will be entitled to speeches, to burial at Père-Lachaise, but will be forgotten. "Reporter" from the end of the 18th century, no one will pay homage to him when this word appears in the dictionary.

Main works

- Women of Paris – Edition Sabine Melchior-Bonnet, March 2012.

- Painting of Paris, New Paris – Discovery, 2006.

- Dictionary of French parliamentarians from 1789 to 1889 – Robert and Cougny.


- Louis Sébastien Mercier, a literary heretic. Collective work, Mercure de France, 1995.