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Jean Sylvain Bailly

Updated on December 1, 2016

Jean Sylvain Bailly (1736-1793) was a French astronomer, legislator, and historian. He was born in Paris on September 15, 1736. He studied painting but devoted himself to poetry and belles-lettres until he became acquainted with the astronomer Nicolas Lacaille. He then turned his attention to astronomy and calculated the orbit of the comet of 1759 (Halley's comet). He was admitted to the Academy of Sciences in 1763, to the French Academy in 1783, and to the Academy of Inscriptions in 1784, thus becoming one of the few to be a member of all three. In 1766 he published a treatise on Jupiter's satellites, and in 1771, a general treatise on the light of the satellites. Later he also wrote Histoire de I'Astronomie (5 volumes, 1775-1787).

Bailly espoused the democratic cause in the French Revolution. He was elected from Paris, in 1789, as first deputy of the Third Estate, and was chosen president of the national assembly. In July 1789 he became mayor of Paris and discharged his duties, during 26 months of a most trying and dangerous period, with great firmness and wisdom. Losing his popularity by repressing rioting and by defending the queen, he gave up public life and lived in retirement until seized by the Jacobins and brought to Paris. He was condemned as a conspirator, and was executed in Paris on November 12, 1793.

Several of his works were published after his death, among them Essay on the Origin of Fables and Ancient Religions (1799) and Memoirs of an Eyewitness from April to October 1789 (1821-1822).

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