The Real Reason Why Jim’s French Architect Ancestor Escaped the Guillotine

Isn’t it nice when the genealogy gods deliver? On the season finale of Who Do You Think You Are? Jim Parsons wanted a connection back to France and an artistic ancestor… and boy, did he get both!

As with many episodes, we on the other side of history can see the celebrities’ ancestors marching straight towards calamitous historical events that they had no idea they were about to encounter.  (I’ve reflected how my own descendants will perceive my life, having moved to NYC a year before 9/11.)  In this episode we learned about how Jim’s 6x great-grandfather, Louis François, became closer and closer to the King of France in the years leading up to the French Revolution, but it was hard to enjoy his success knowing that that association, once such a distinction, proved fatal for so many.  And indeed, four of Louis François’ colleagues were guillotined and twenty-five more imprisoned… but somehow Louis François emerged unscathed.

The historian suggests that it was because of Louis François’ deep connection to the Enlightenment.  And indeed, his architectural style and choice of friends (and houseguests!) reflected his radical thinking there.  But while preparing this week’s recap (which you can read above), it didn’t take long to discover that there were some key facts of Louis François’ life not included in the episode that perhaps better explain how he remained safe.

The episode suggests that Louis François had an unbroken rise, but it turns out that that is not the case.  In the early 1770s he was accused of malpractice!  As a result of this disgrace, he loses both his current job at Orléans and his post at Versailles.  That is why he living in Paris, not Versailles, at the time he hosted Abbé Reynal, Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams.  It wasn’t until just before the Revolution that his career turned back around.  The new king, Louis XVI, took the charges against Louis François to be slander and finally elevated him to the first class of architects in the Royal Academy in 1787, though it does not appear that Louis François ever returned to Versailles or undertook another royal commission.  So, when the French Revolution came around in 1789, though Louis François was a first class member of the Royal Academy of Architecture, he had spent most of the preceding two decades not in association with royalty at all.  I suspect that so some degree his career-ending disgrace ended up saving his life.

(Sources:  The Architecture of the French Enlighments by Allan Braham, Wikipedia)

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