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“I consider myself as prisoner of war,” the French anarchist writes from prison, “Prisoner of war! This hurts the government’s ears”
ALS in French, signed “P.-J. Proudhon,” four pages on two adjoining sheets, 5 x 8, Le Peuple de 1850 letterhead, October 2, 1851. Letter to a colleague, written from the Ste–Pelagie prison in Paris, in full (translated): “I am answering your letter of Sept. 27: I was just transferred, upon my request, from the Conciergerie to Ste. Pélagie, very close to where my young family lives. This new position, while making my captivity less hard, allows me to live, in a way, a married life, and as if I were in confinement in my bedroom: my wife’s apartment being separated from mine only by the street width, and the both of us can, from our windows, see each other, and give each other news at any moment.
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But it seems that this favor, that I know to recognize, must lead to a compensation: the three days out per month that I was enjoying at the conciergerie with all my co-detainees are taken away from me: I do not go out any more. Under the pretext that at one of the last two times I went out I was seen at a theater, and I was asked, at first, that I deny the fact, then that I be under obligation to never show at a public meeting place.
I replied, that I consider myself as prisoner of war, nor as a guilty one put in penance; that I was going out on parole, which means under condition to come back on time, and not to participate in anything political; in that way, this order faithfully followed, I would be considered as free and able to enjoy my time as I please, and that I would not be subjected to any order that could change the character of political detention, as I conceive it and I understand it.
It is the way that back in time, Du Guesclin [French constable (1320–1380) who fought the English in the 100 year war] prisoner by the English, obtained to leave England, on parole, and come pick up his ransom at the spinners in Brittany.
It seems that at the ministry, they do not see it the same way. They absolutely want that I be a criminal, and that I have to take it as such. If moderation is used towards me, it is not by virtue for this loyalty that must prevail between adversaries, of this generous humanity which knows how to maintain love up to the struggle; it is that they hope to obtain my conversion. Prisoner of war! This hurts the government’s ears, whom, as the church, think it is infallible, and on the outside of it: and only sees errors and offenses. We are not listened to: and here I am cloistered.
You understand now, dear friend, that any stroll with family is impossible for me: I am not talking to you about another cause, more dear to my heart, it is Mrs. Proudhon’s incapability. Here I am just then double family’s man: this accumulation of prosperity arises feelings in me and views that remained until then strongly confused; with a life of plenitude, it seems that I have acquired plenitude of will, strength, and idea, that no single man will ever obtain. My dear friend, in four words, as in one hundred, and except any question of cult and government: what has made the incomparable strength of the Roman people, during the 6 centuries, it is that these people, soldiers, consuls, senators, etc., were all family men; what makes our weakness, to us all French people, white, red, right milieu, it’s that we do not have this character any more.
We get married for interest, or for love; we get married to be rich, or for over voluptuous pleasure. Double error, double insult to marriage. We look for women, perfect in shape, in mind, in talent, and riches; we want them brilliant, wise as Pallas [Minerva’s name]; we cannot stand them simply matronly, hard-working, strict, withdrawn, modest, and submissive as Lucretias.
We know nothing about marriage anymore, from the moment that we dream it as enjoyment and pleasure. There are no more family men in France: and I see that the day will come when France will not be a nation anymore…My dear friend, come by, if you like, at the Police Headquarters, prison office; with this letter, which will attest my consent, you will obtain authorization to see me; and when you have the time, a Sunday, go by Ste. Pélagie, around 5 o’clock. You could take your portion of my dinner, and you will see my family.
I will not tell you more, I only have that proof to give you of our long standing fondness. I hope that it will last, hence divergence, more and more pronounced, of our convictions: the line that you follow is rigorous, logic, and ends to a conception, according to me false, but full of nature and society system; the line that I follow is diametrically opposite to yours, on all points, and hence the system to which it leads has not yet appeared to me in its whole, I understand them already to extent enough to have grounds to believe in its certainty.
We cannot be of love anymore, my dear friend, and all the less that we reason more justly each on its own side: must that be that we would not love each other any more? No: and if many time the spectacle of an honest Christian man and family man has made me regret a faith that is not mine, I have the ambition in turn, to render respectable, through my private life, opinions that I profess.” Intersecting folds (one vertical fold passing through a single letter of the signature), soiling to the left side of the final page, and slight show-through from writing to opposing sides, otherwise fine condition.
Le Peuple de 1850 was one of the newspapers Proudhon was involved with, where he practiced a cynical, combative style of journalism that appealed to many French workers but alienated others. He was arrested for insulting the president, Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, and imprisoned from 1849 to 1852. However, as this letter reveals, was treated with relative leniency and spent these years quite productively—he married Euphrasie Piegard in 1849, fathered a child with her, wrote for two newspapers, and published four books. Penned while in prison, this lengthy letter features several interesting passages in which Proudhon offers his intimate thoughts on family life, marriage, and institutionalized punishment. Pre-certified PSA/DNA.