Honore Mirabeau was born Gabriel Riqueti in 1749, to a wealthy commercial family in central France. His father was Victor de Riqueti, a noted economist who emphasised the importance of agriculture and landed nobility to France’s national prosperity.
Following a brief military career, the younger Riqueti became involved in several scandals, usually involving gambling and young women. By the age of 23, he had married, fled to Switzerland with another woman, been bankrupted through gambling and disowned by his prominent father.
Riqueti was arrested and sentenced to death, though this was later commuted to a prison term. During his four years behind bars, Riqueti wrote prolifically. One of his texts, completed in 1782, was Erotika Biblion (‘Erotic Bible’) which offbeat historian Richard Zacks described as “one-quarter love manual, three-quarters history of sex”.
Released from prison in 1782, Riqueti began to attract attention as a writer, barrister and orator. He became more interested in political and financial matters, writing critically about France’s delicate economic state and failed government policies.
In 1789, Riqueti was elected to represent the people of Aix-la-Chapelle at the Estates-General. It was there he rose to prominence as a potential leader. His remonstrances on the floor of the Estates-General revealed both oratorical flair and a canny understanding of politics, setting Riqueti apart from the other Third Estate delegates. An admirer of the British political system, Riqueti favoured the adoption of a similar form of constitutional monarchy in France.
When his fellow members of the Third Estate moved to convene as the National Assembly, Riqueti, fearing it would create a rift with the king, absented himself from the final vote. Yet within a week, he reemerged as the National Assembly’s de facto leader, telling a royal official “that we are only to be driven out by the bayonet.”
The elder Count Mirabeau died on July 13th 1789 and his noble title passed to Riqueti (a privilege he did not refuse). The new count visited the ruins of the Bastille days later and was showered with flowers by an adoring crowd.
Mirabeau’s position was that political reform was superior to public violence. He was critical of the Great Fear and the August 4th decrees that abolished feudalism, contending that they went too far and threatened social stability. Through 1789 and 1790, Mirabeau worked furiously behind the scenes to engineer a constitutional monarchy. He attempted to reconcile the National Constituent Assembly and Louis XVI. He also tried to forge alliances with popular figures like Marquis de Lafayette and Jacques Necker, most of which failed.
Mirabeau served briefly as president of the National Constituent Assembly – but by late 1790 he had lost the confidence of the royal court. By January 1791, Mirabeau had realised the stubborn royal court and competing interests in the assembly made his dream of a constitutional monarchy an impossibility. His own health began to fail because of a heart condition and he died in April 1791.
Public affection for the dead orator lasted only 18 months, until the opening of the king’s secret armoire de fer (‘iron chest’) in the Tuileries Palace in late 1792. Private correspondence showed Mirabeau had been in receipt of 6,000 livres a month for providing advice to the king. This revelation shattered public perceptions of Mirabeau. His corpse was removed from the Panthéon, placed in a lead coffin and interred in a communal burial ground.
A historian’s view:
“One only has to read Mirabeau’s secret letters to realise the extent to which revolutionary politics… were conducted in a two-fold language. In offering his services to the king, Mirabeau did not become a traitor to his ideas; as his friend la Marck put it: ‘He takes payment but he believes the advice he gives’. In his secret notes to Louis XVI Mirabeau defends the same political aims as in his public speeches in the Assembly: a popular and national monarchy rallied to the Revolution, acting on behalf of the nation against the privileged corps of the Ancien Régime.”