Coffee, coffeehouses, and the French Revolution
By Perry Luckett, CoffeeMan1
I’ve been writing recently about the times and places public coffee drinking was banned or under threat. Together, we covered a lot of time and territory, from Mecca in 1511 to Prussia in 1781. A common theme in the six places where rulers banned coffee drinking was the danger of coffeehouses as meeting places that fostered serious discussions against the king or government. Sultans and kings alike were nervous about the possibility of revolt growing out of these discussions, but none saw that happen during their reigns. In the late 18th century in France, however, the monarch’s luck ran out.
France, Coffeehouses, and the French Revolution
Coffee had a positive beginning in France under King Louis XIV. In 1714, he received a gift of a young coffee plant from the Mayor of Amsterdam and ordered it planted in the Royal Botanical Garden in Paris. In 1723, a young naval officer, Gabriel de Clieu got a seedling from the King's plant and took it safely to the island of Martinique, after overcoming horrendous weather, a saboteur who tried to destroy the seedling, and a pirate attack. The seedling not only thrived but fostered more than 18 million coffee trees on Martinique during the next 50 years. In fact, it was the parent of all coffee trees throughout the Caribbean, as well as South and Central America.
At first, Louis XIV’s royal approval of coffee staved off the usual attacks against it. But he died of gangrene in September 1715 and was succeeded by his 5-year-old great grandson, Louis XV. The latter wasn’t very effective after he reached adulthood. He lost colonies to England after disastrous wars and weakened respect for, and confidence in, royal authority.
Meanwhile, according to historian Calestous Juma, coffee's critics in France likened the drink to wine and repeatedly tried to outlaw it on this basis. When coffee drinking and coffeehouses continued to spread into France’s cities, the threatened wine and beer industries attacked.
One winemaker in Marseilles allied with a university student to write a thesis titled "Whether the Use of Coffee Is Harmful to the Inhabitants of Marseilles." The student asserted that the “burnt particles, which [coffee] contains in large quantities, have so violent energy that, when they enter the blood, they attract the lymph and dry the kidneys. . . . [thus producing] general exhaustion, paralysis, and impotence."
In addition to this usual attack based on coffee’s supposed unhealthful characteristics, French coffeehouses troubled Louis XV because they were often a wellspring of radical thought. He was particularly fond of employing spies, whose missions ranged from undercover work in foreign capitols to simply eavesdropping on people Louis saw as potential enemies or as fomenters of discontent with his regime.
These spies found coffeehouses a rich source of information for the King. Indeed, as historian Mark Pendergrast suggests: “One of the ironies about coffee is it makes people think. It sort of creates egalitarian places—coffeehouses where people can come together—so the French Revolution and the American Revolution were planned in coffeehouses."
Coffeehouse Café de Procope becomes cozy corner of revolt
The Café de Procope attracted scrutiny from the monarchy, even after Louis XV died of smallpox and was succeeded by his grandson Louis XVI in 1774. It opened in 1689 directly opposite the newly opened Comédie Française, in the street then known as the rue des Fossés-St.-Germain but now is the rue de l'Ancienne Comédie. Because of its location, the Café became the gathering place of many noted French actors, authors, dramatists, and musicians of the eighteenth century.
As a center for intellectuals, the Café de Procope looms large in the annals of the French Revolution. During the turbulent days of 1789 one could find at the tables, drinking coffee or stronger beverages and debating the burning questions of the hour, such characters as Marat, Robespierre, Danton, Hébert, and Desmoulins.
Robespierre, a prominent lawyer and politician, was one of the best known and most influential figures associated with the French Revolution. His hatred for King Louis XVI’s oppressive policies led him to say, “The king must die so that the country can live” and “to punish the oppressors of humanity is clemency; to forgive them is cruelty.” He led the nobility in rebelling against the King’s harsh financial reforms, which Louis had largely caused by spending huge sums on the American Revolution, borrowing from other countries, and pushing France toward bankruptcy.
Napoleon Bonaparte, then a poor artillery officer seeking a commission, was also there. He busied himself mostly in playing chess, a favorite recreation of the early Parisian coffeehouse patrons. According to popular accounts, the café’s owner François Procope once required young Bonaparte to leave his hat for security while he sought money to pay his coffee score. Bonaparte absorbed the radical principles of coffeehouse speakers and gradually gained influence in politics and rapid military promotions as he became a front runner in the collective resistance against the French monarchy. Sadly, his personal ambitions drove him to betray many of these principles in his eventual drive to become the first emperor of France in 1804.
Palais Royal coffeehouses: centers of rebellion in 1789
When coffee houses began to crop up rapidly in Paris, most centered in the Palais Royal, "that garden spot of beauty, enclosed on three sides by three tiers of galleries," which Richelieu had erected in 1636, under the name of Palais Cardinal. It became known as the Palais Royal in 1643; and soon after the opening of the Café de Procope, it began to blossom with many attractive coffee stalls, or rooms, sprinkled among the other shops that occupied the galleries overlooking the gardens.
In the July days of 1789 leading up to the fall of the Bastille and the beginning of the French Revolution, the Palais Royal coffeehouses hosted increasingly violent conversations against King Louis XVI. Arthur Young, who was visiting Paris at that time, wrote an account of the scene at Palais Royal:
The coffee houses present yet more singular and astounding spectacles; they are not only crowded within, but other expectant crowds are at the doors and windows, listening à gorge déployée to certain orators who from chairs or tables harangue each his little audience; the eagerness with which they are heard, and the thunder of applause they receive for every sentiment of more than common hardiness or violence against the government, cannot easily be imagined.
The Palais Royal teemed with excited Frenchmen on that fateful Sunday—July 12, 1789. The moment was tense when, coming out of the Café Foy, young journalist Camille Desmoulins mounted a table and began a frenzied harangue. He so played on the passions of the mob that, when his speech ended, he and his followers marched away from the Café on their errand of Revolution. The Bastille fell two days later.
Despite all this radical activity—or perhaps because of it—coffeehouses and coffee drinking continued to see explosive growth in France. In the reign of Louis XV Paris hosted 600 cafés. At the close of the eighteenth century there were more than 800. By 1843 the number had increased to more than 3,000. Just shows us neither kings nor radicals can stop the march of our magic elixir.
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Calestous Juma, Innovation and Its Enemies: Why People Resist New Technologies, Oxford University Press, 2016.
Mark Pendergrast, Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World, as quoted in
http://www.web-books.com/Classics/ON/B0/B701/16MB701.html [Especially useful for the section on Palais Royal coffeehouses]
Kay Sirrah, Historical Attempts to Ban Coffee, Jul 14, 2013 at www.hitrecord.org
Louis IV – by Hyacinthe Rigaud, 1701
Louis XV – by Maurice-Quentin de La Tour, 1748
Louis XVI – by Antoine-François Callet
Napoleon Bonaparte – by Jacques-Louis David, 1812
Café de Procope – Engraving by Bosredon
Café Foy at Palais Royal – Engraving by Bosredon