Jean-Sylvain Bailly was born 15 September 1736 in Paris at the Louvre. He was the son of Jacques Bailly, an artist and supervisor of the Louvre. As Bailly’s family was involved with the arts, it was only natural he would follow in their footsteps, which he initially did, showing talent in poetry and letters. However, the intellectual Bailly, described as tall, serious, and firm in character, found he was more attracted to astronomy having been introduced to the field by the French astronomer Nicolas Louis de La Caille (sometimes spelled Lacaille). It was after this introduction that Bailly became enamored with everything related to astronomy.
Bailly’s interest in astronomy resulted in Bailly being admitted to the Academy of Sciences where he proved to be an excellent student: He calculated that the next orbit for the appearance of Halley’s Comet would be in 1759, and he published a correction reducing La Caille’s observations of the zodiacal stars. Bailly also participated in the construction of an observatory at the Louvre. In addition, he published a number of books: A History of Ancient Astronomy (1775), Discourse on the Origin of the Sciences (1777), Discourse on Plato’s ‘Atlantide’ (1779, and A History of Modern Astronomy (1782). These achievements resulted in him being elected to the Académie Française (French Academy) in February of 1784.
When the French Revolution erupted, Bailly found himself in the middle of the revolution. This resulted in him putting his love for astronomy aside and turning his attention to politics. He was elected to the Estates General in May of 1789, and, a month later, he was elected president of the National Assembly (a revolutionary group formed from members of the third estate). A few days after the formation of the National Assembly, Bailly found himself presiding over the proceedings of the Tennis Court. (This was an event where members of the National Assembly took an oath and pledged they would not disband until a new national constitution was drafted and implemented.)
After the Bastille was stormed on 14 July 1789, a new government in Paris was established called the Commune. Under the Commune, Bailly was elected the first mayor of Paris. As mayor, some people — Camille Desmoulins and Jean-Paul Marat — thought Bailly was too conservative. Bailly was also criticized for trying to promote his authority while at the same time limiting the powers of the Commune. In addition, Bailly made a fatal mistake at the Champ de Mars on 17 July 1791: He ordered the National Guard to suppress an assembly of revolutionaries who were demanding the monarchy be abolished. Rioters threw stones at the guardsmen who responded by firing into the crowd, wounding and killing some people. Revolutionaries saw Bailly’s actions as a great betrayal, and it caused such a firestorm of controversy, Bailly was forced to resign as mayor of Paris.
After his resignation, Bailly retired to Nantes. In Nantes, he wrote an incomplete narrative related to his public life. These were later published — between 1821 and 1822 — in three volumes under the title of Mémoires de Bailly. While he was living in Nantes, the Commune decreed the house previously occupied by Bailly as mayor, should have had taxes paid in the amount of 6,000 livres. The Commune then determined Bailly was responsible for the taxes, which he unwillingly paid. He was also placed under surveillance and “obliged [for a time] to present himself at the house of the Syndic Procurator of the Departmental Administration of the Lower-Loire.” Because of the political agitation in Nantes, Bailly decided to leave and moved to Mélun, settling there in July 1793.
Part of Bailly’s reason for leaving Nantes had to do with Bailly’s colleague, Pierre-Simon, Marquis de Laplace. Laplace was an influential French scholar in the sciences and mathematics. He wanted to sell his house in Mélun and move nearer the Seine River. About the same time, as Bailly left Nantes, the revolutionary army began marching to Mélun. Laplace warned Bailly that he should not come to Mélun, and told him that if he did, he would be arrested. Bailly ignored Laplace’s warning and stated upon his arrival in Mélun, “If I am to be arrested, I wish it to be in a house that I have occupied some time.” Soon thereafter, Bailly was arrested and taken to Paris.
In Paris, attempts were made to make Bailly testify against Marie Antoinette. He refused. He was then taken before the Revolutionary Tribunal — a court instituted in Paris for the trial of political offenders — and found guilty of treason and sentenced to death.
On 12 November 1793, he was taken to the Champs de Mars to be executed. This was the same site where he had suppressed the riot two years earlier, and revolutionaries selected this site because they believed he had betrayed them. It was a cold day. Rain had been falling steadily. Before Bailly mounted the scaffolding one spectator cried out, “Thou tremblest, Bailly.” A drenched but stoic Bailly replied, “I am cold, my friend.”
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- Edinburgh Magazine, Vol. 11, 1798
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