A Guide to Sites, Museums, and Memory

Maison Abbé Grégoire Emberménil, France

Coat of arms of the village of Emberménil
Coat of arms of the village of Emberménil.

Born in 1750 in the small village of Lorraine de Vého, abolitionist Abbot Gregory was ordained in 1775, and appointed pastor of Emberménil in 1782. When the Estates-General were convened in 1789, he was elected a member of the lower Clergy of Luneville. From there, began an exceptional career that was to make him one of the greatest figures of the French Revolution.

He was one of the founders who rallied the third estate of the clergy, was present at the Tennis Court Oath, and chaired the National Assembly during the storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789. He is the author of the decree which abolished the monarchy, and one of the founders of the First Republic. Chairman of the National Convention, he sat in the Council of the Five Hundred going on to be senator under the Consulate and the Empire. He voted against the establishment of the Empire in 1804, and prepared the text for the downfall of the Emperor in 1814. He was hated by Napoleon, in much the same way as Napoleon hated the Bourbons who deviated from their duties.

Consequently, alongside a political career, Gregory left France a considerable body of work: Instigator of the removal of the salt tax, and of primogeniture, he led reforms of public education, became the inventor of conservation heritage, introduced measures to fight against vandalism, created the Office of Longitude, and universalized common French. He founded the Office of the Department of Agriculture, was one of the fathers of the French Institute, and created the Academy of Moral and Political Sciences, and the National Conservatory of Arts and Crafts.

But his most significant work was the fight for human rights, one he had declared in writing in the first article of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen: "men are born and remain free and equal". His fight was initially for the Jews. In 1788, in his essay on the restoration of the Jews, he pled for their integration and equal treatment. It was he, who first introduced representation of Jews in the National Assembly demanding equal rights that were permanently recognized in 1791, when the Jewish community became a full member of the nation.

But his longest fight was for blacks: in1789 Gregory was a member of the "Society of Friends of Blacks" of which he became President. He removed government subsidies for slavery on February 4, 1794 by seizing the National Convention for the abolition of slavery.

He opposed the Leclerc shipment in 1801, and became one of the few to vote against the restoration of slavery in May 1802. He traveled to England and met the great abolitionists Wilberforce and Clarkson, between 1808 and 1827 writing numerous books denouncing the crimes against blacks. In 1815 he called on the members of the Vienna Congress for its immediate abolition.

He was the protector of the fledgling Republic of Haiti: in 1800 he maintained communications aiding Toussaint Louverture, and in 1812 he was invited to Cape Town by King Christophe. In 1819 Haiti opened a subscription to endow the presidential palace with his portrait. In 1825 when representatives of Haiti came to buy the recognition of independence of their country from France, the official authorities prohibited their meeting with Gregory. Defying the ban, Haitians, under the cover of darkness, could not help but meet up with their protector, who in 1827 wrote the touching "Letter to the Haitians."

Abbot Gregory died on 28 May 1831. Boycotted by official authorities, his funeral was popular with the people. A procession of 20,000 people composed of workers, students, as well as Jews and Blacks, accompanied Gregory's coffin to the cemetery of Montparnasse. On the announcement of his death national mourning was decreed in Haiti: flags were set at half mast, solemn Masses were held in all the churches, and a cannon was fired every hour for two days. The following year a statue of Gregory was erected in Port-au-Prince.

In 1989, as part of the Bicentennial commemorations of the Revolution, France gratefully dedicated immortality on Gregory by transferring his ashes to the National Pantheon.


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