Lavoisier:
The Chemical Revolution

By Gabriel Blanchard

Lavoisier represents the pinnacle of Enlightenment scientific advancement.

The Enlightenment can be usefully defined as the period from the middle of the seventeenth century to the beginning of the French Revolution in 1789. This period saw the early formulations of classical Liberalism, the philosophy of law on which the United States was founded; the Abolitionist movement slowly but steadily gained traction in Europe and her colonies in the Americas; and radical advances in the sciences took place.

One of the sciences that changed the most was chemistry. Having begun in the quasi-magical tradition of alchemy, scientists like Robert Boyle and Sir Isaac Newton began applying stricter methods of analysis and proof to their experiments with the physical properties of things. One of the culminations of the Enlightenment was the chemical revolution, which involved major advances in the basic understanding of chemistry, like the law of the conservation of mass, the oxygen theory of combustion, and new systems of performing experiments and classifying the elements. At the head of the chemical revolution stood a man named Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier.

Lavoisier came from a wealthy family in Paris, and entered academia at a young age. However, he was not an ivory tower sort; he was a philanthropist, exploring scientific questions both due to his native curiosity and in order to benefit the people of France. One of his first published essays was on improving urban street lighting. As early as age 25, he worked on a project to purify the Seine in order to secure Parisians clean drinking water, after his designs for an aqueduct saw no follow-through. Lavoisier also took an interest in more political issues, such as reforming prisons and making scientific and educational equipment more widely available.

We ought, in every instance, to submit our reasoning to the test of experiment, and never to search for truth but by the natural road of experiment and observation.

Antoine Lavoisier

Confirming the conservation of mass was perhaps Lavoisier’s most important achievement. He achieved this through extremely meticulous record-keeping, a principle that remains indispensable to every science to this day; he also took hitherto unthought-of steps to prevent the contamination or escape of the chemicals he was studying, such as studying reactions in sealed glass containers so that no gases would be lost. Because of this, he was able to do things like weigh a given sample both before and after a chemical reaction had taken place, and show that the weight was the same, thus indicating that the matter had not been annihilated but simply changed form. This, and his work in naming and classifying the elements, paved the way for discoveries like the laws of thermodynamics and the periodic table, allowing advances not only in chemistry but in physics as well.

Unfortunately for Lavoisier, both his noble birth and one of his biggest projects were against him in the 1790s. The Ferme générale of Enlightenment France was roughly equivalent to the IRS, and was not only extremely unpopular but ostentatiously wealthy. Lavoisier had worked for the Ferme for around twenty years; he was tried on false charges of corruption during the Reign of Terror and executed in 1794. He was exonerated after his death, and his possessions ultimately delivered to his widow, Marie-Anne Lavoisier, who had also been his assistant and translator.

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Every week, we publish a profile of one of the figures from the CLT author bank. For an introduction to classic authors, see our guest post from Keith Nix, founder of the Veritas School in Richmond, VA.

If you enjoyed this post, take a look at some of our other pieces here at the Journal, like this author profile of Harriet Tubman, this review of Zena Hitz’s book Lost in Thought, this “Great Conversation” post on life and death, or this post showcasing a selection of outstanding student artwork. And take a listen to our podcast, Anchored, hosted by our founder Jeremy Tate.

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