Modern history


Asked what he thought was the significance of the French Revolution, the Chinese Premier Zhou En-lai is reported to have answered, “It’s too soon to tell.” Two hundred years may still be too soon (or, possibly, too late) to tell.

Historians have been overconfident about the wisdom to be gained by distance, believing it somehow confers objectivity, one of those unattainable values in which they have placed so much faith. Perhaps there is something to be said for proximity. Lord Acton, who delivered the first, famous lectures on the French Revolution at Cambridge in the 1870s, was still able to hear firsthand, from a member of the Orléans dynasty, the man’s recollection of “Dumouriez gibbering on the streets of London when hearing the news of Waterloo.”

Suspicion that blind partisanship fatally damaged the great Romantic narratives of the first half of the nineteenth century dominated scholarly reaction during the second half. As historians institutionalized themselves into an academic profession, they came to believe conscientious research in the archives could confer dispassion: the prerequisite for winkling out the mysterious truths of cause and effect. The desired effect was to be scientific rather than poetic, impersonal rather than impassioned. And while, for some time, historical narratives remained preoccupied by the life cycle of the European nation-states – wars, treaties and dethronements – the magnetic pull of social science was such that “structures,” both social and political, seemed to become the principal objects of inquiry.

In the case of the French Revolution this meant transferring attention away from the events and personalities that had dominated the epic chronicles of the 1830s and 1840s. De Tocqueville’s luminous account, The Old Regime and the Revolution, the product of his own archival research, provided cool reason where before there had been the burning quarrels of partisanship. The Olympian quality of his insights reinforced (albeit from a liberal point of view) the Marxist-scientific claim that the significance of the Revolution was to be sought in some great change in the balance of social power. In both these views, the utterances of orators were little more than vaporous claptrap, unsuccessfully disguising their helplessness at the hands of impersonal historical forces. Likewise, the ebb and flow of events could only be made intelligible by being displayed to reveal the essential, primarily social, truths of the Revolution. At the core of those truths was an axiom, shared by liberals, socialists and for that matter nostalgic Christian royalists alike, that the Revolution had indeed been the crucible of modernity: the vessel in which all the characteristics of the modern social world, for good or ill, had been distilled.

By the same token, if the whole event was of this epochal significance, then the causes that generated it had necessarily to be of an equivalent magnitude. A phenomenon of such uncontrollable power that it apparently swept away an entire universe of traditional customs, mentalities and institutions could only have been produced by contradictions that lay embedded deep within the fabric of the “old regime.” Accordingly, weighty volumes appeared, between the centennial of 1889 and the Second World War, documenting every aspect of those structural faults. Biographies of Danton and Mirabeau disappeared, at least from respectable scholarly presses, and were replaced by studies of price fluctuations in the grain market. At a later stage still, discrete social groups placed in articulated opposition to each other – the “bourgeoisie,” “sans-culottes,” – were defined and anatomized and their dialectical dance routines were made the exclusive choreography of revolutionary politics.

In the fifty years since the sesquicentennial, there has been a serious loss of confidence in this approach. The drastic social changes imputed to the Revolution seem less clear-cut or actually not apparent at all. The “bourgeoisie” said in the classic Marxist accounts to have been the authors and beneficiaries of the event have become social zombies, the product of historiographical obsessions rather than historical realities. Other alterations in the modernization of French society and institutions seem to have been anticipated by the reform of the “old regime.” Continuities seem as marked as discontinuities.

Nor does the Revolution seem any longer to conform to a grand historical design, preordained by inexorable forces of social change. Instead it seems a thing of contingencies and unforeseen consequences (not least the summoning of the Estates-General itself). An abundance of fine provincial studies has shown that instead of a single Revolution imposed by Paris on the rest of a homogeneous France, it was as often determined by local passions and interests. Along with the revival of place as a conditioner have come people. For as the imperatives of “structure” have weakened, those of individual agency, and especially of revolutionary utterance, have become correspondingly more important.

Citizens is an attempt to synthesize much of this reappraisal and to push the argument a stage further. I have pressed one of the essential elements in de Tocqueville’s argument – his understanding of the destabilizing effects of modernization before the Revolution – further than his account allows it to go. Relieved of the revolutionary coinage “old regime,” with its heavy semantic freight of obsolescence, it may be possible to see French culture and society in the reign of Louis XVI as troubled more by its addiction to change than by resistance to it. Conversely, it seems to me that much of the anger firing revolutionary violence arose from hostility towards that modernization, rather than from impatience with the speed of its progress.

The account given in the pages that follow, then, emphasizes, possibly excessively, the dynamic aspects of prerevolutionary France without turning a blind eye to the genuinely obstructive and archaic. Important to its argument is the claim that a patriotic culture of citizenship was created in the decades after the Seven Years’ War, and that it was thus a cause rather than a product of the French Revolution.

Three themes are developed in the course of this argument. The first concerns the problematic relationship between patriotism and liberty, which, in the Revolution, turns into a brutal competition between the power of the state and the effervescence of politics. The second theme turns on the eighteenth-century belief that citizenship was, in part, the public expression of an idealized family. The stereotyping of moral relations between the sexes, parents and children, and brothers, turns out, perhaps unexpectedly, to be a significant clue to revolutionary behavior. Finally, the book attempts to confront directly the painful problem of revolutionary violence. Anxious lest they give way to sensationalism or be confused with counter-revolutionary prosecutors, historians have erred on the side of squeamishness in dealing with this issue. I have returned it to the center of the story since it seems to me that it was not merely an unfortunate by-product of politics, or the disagreeable instrument by which other more virtuous ends were accomplished or vicious ones were thwarted. In some depressingly unavoidable sense, violence was the Revolution itself.

I have chosen to present these arguments in the form of a narrative. If, in fact, the Revolution was a much more haphazard and chaotic event and much more the product of human agency than structural conditioning, chronology seems indispensable in making its complicated twists and turns intelligible. So Citizens returns, then, to the form of the nineteenth-century chronicles, allowing different issues and interests to shape the flow of the story as they arise, year after year, month after month. I have also, perhaps perversely, deliberately eschewed the conventional “survey” format by which various aspects of the society of the old regime are canvassed before attempting political description. Placing those imposing chapters on “the economy,” “the peasantry,” “the nobility” and the like at the front of books automatically, it seems to me, privileges their explanatory force. I have not, I hope, ignored any of these social groups, but have tried to introduce them at the points in the narrative where they affect the course of events. This, in turn, has dictated an unfashionable “top down” rather than “bottom up” approach.

Narratives have been described, by Hayden White among others, as a kind of fictional device used by the historian to impose a reassuring order on randomly arriving bits of information about the dead. There is a certain truth to this alarming insight, but my own point of departure was provided by a richly suggestive article by David Carr in History and Theory (1986), in which he argued a quite different and ingenious case for the validity of the narrative. As artificial as written narratives might be, they often correspond to ways in which historical actors construct events. That is to say, many, if not most, public men see their conduct as in part situated between role models from an heroic past and expectations of the judgment of posterity. If ever this was true, it was surely so for the revolutionary generation in France. Cato, Cicero and Junius Brutus stood at the shoulders of Mirabeau, Vergniaud and Robespierre, but very often they beckoned their devotees towards conduct that would be judged by the generations of the future.

Finally, the narrative, as will be obvious, weaves between the private and public lives of the citizens who appear on its pages. This is done not only in an attempt to understand their motivation more deeply than pure public utterance allows, but also because so many of them, often to their ruin, saw their own lives as a seamless whole, their calendar of birth, love, ambition and death imprinted on the almanac of great events. This necessary interconnection between personal and public histories was self-evident in many of the nineteenth-century narratives and, to the extent that I have followed their precedent, what I have to offer, too, runs the risk of being seen as a mischievously old-fashioned piece of storytelling. It differs from the pre-Tocquevillian narratives in being offered more as witness than judgment. But like those earlier accounts it tries to listen attentively to the voice of the citizens whose lives it describes, even when those voices are at their most cacophonous. In this sense too it opts for chaotic authenticity over the commanding neatness of historical convention.

It was Richard Cobb who first preached the “Biographical Approach” to the history of the Revolution twenty years ago, though he mostly had in mind the unsung victims of revolutionary turmoil rather than those who had been responsible for it. I hope, then, he won’t take amiss my own declaration of allegiance to that approach. From his unforgettable seminar in Balliol College in the late 1960s, I learned to try to see the Revolution not as a march of abstractions and ideologies but as a human event of complicated and often tragic outcomes. Other members of that seminar – Colin Lucas; Olwen Hufton, now my colleague at Harvard University; and Marianne Elliott – have over the years been an enormous source of enlightenment and scholarly friendship, for which this book is a rather blundering gesture of gratitude.

One of my greatest debts is to another of my colleagues, Patrice Higonnet, who has been kind enough to read the manuscript and save me from many (though I fear not all) errors and muddles. Much of what I have to say, especially concerning the group I call the “citizen-nobility,” owes its point of departure to his important and original work Class, Ideology and the Rights of Nobles During the French Revolution (Oxford 1981). Other friends – John Brewer, John Clive and David Harris Sacks – also read parts of the work and were, as always, generous with their comments and helpful with their criticisms.

My preoccupation with reexamining the oratory of the Revolution, and with the self-consciousness of the political elite, originates with a paper given to the Consortium on Revolutionary Europe at Charleston, South Carolina, in 1979. I am most grateful to Owen Connelly for inviting me to participate in a memorable panel that also included Elisabeth Eisenstein and George V. Taylor. It was at Charleston that long conversations with Lynn Hunt helped stimulate my interest in the force of revolutionary language and I am grateful to her and to Tom Laqueur for their interest and encouragement since. Robert Darnton, whose first book on Mesmerism and the late Enlightenment set me thinking many years ago about the sources of revolutionary truculence, on far more occasions than he deserves has had to hear me out. He has always offered helpful advice and gentle correction and has been a constant source of inspiration.

The book could not have been written without the posthumous help of one of Harvard’s most extraordinary scholars: Archibald Cary Coolidge, University Librarian in the 1920s. By buying the entire library of Alphonse Aulard, the first professor of the history of the Revolution at the Sorbonne, Coolidge created a priceless resource for scholars working in this field: a collection as rich in newspapers and pamphlets as it is in extremely rare and obscure works of local history. I am most grateful, as always, to the splendid staff of the Houghton Library, without whose patience and efficiency hard-pressed professors would find it impossible to do research in a busy teaching year. Susan Reinstein Rogers and her colleagues at the Kress Library of the Harvard Business School have been helpful as always and provided superb photographs from their spectacular editions of the Description des Arts et Métiers.

I am also most grateful to Philippe Bordes of the Musée de la Révolution Française at Vizille for help in tracking material connected with the Day of Tiles. Mrs. Perry Rathbone was kind enough to allow me to include an illustration of her Hubert Robert drawing of Desmoulins. Emma Whitelaw reminded me of the importance of Mme de La Tour du Pin’s memoirs.

Many colleagues and students contributed generously with time, patience and friendship to making this book possible when it seemed impossible, in particular Judith Coffin, Roy Mottahedeh and Margaret Talbot. I am also grateful to Philip Katz for allowing me to read his remarkable undergraduate dissertation on the iconology of Benjamin Franklin. Friends at the Center for European Studies, especially Abby Collins, Guido Goldman, Stanley Hoffmann and Charles Maier, have all kept me on the rails at the many moments when I have threatened to go careening off them and have restrained their incredulity at this whole enterprise in the most collegial way.

At Alfred A. Knopf, I owe a great debt of gratitude to my editor Carol Janeway for spurring me on to finish the book and for keeping the faith that it would, indeed, get done. Robin Swados has been a pillar of strength in every possible way, and I am also most grateful to Nancy Clements and Iris Weinstein for seeing the work through to its final version. Peter Matson in New York and Michael Sissons in London have, as usual, been enormously supportive at all times and have both demonstrated that fine literary agents also make good friends.

Fiona Grigg did virtually everything for this book except write it. Her help with picture research, proofreading, museum diplomacy and soothing ragged nerves with generous helpings of intelligence and goodwill made the whole work possible. I can never thank her enough for her collaboration.

Throughout the writing of the book my children, Chloë and Gabriel, and my wife, Ginny, endured far more in the way of uneven temper, eccentric hours and generally impossible behavior than they had any right to expect. In return I received from them love and tolerance in helpings more generous than I deserved. Ginny has throughout offered her infallible judgments on all kinds of questions about the book, from its argument to its design. If there is any one reader to whom all my writing is addressed, it is to her.

Peter Carson of Penguin Books first suggested to me the idea of writing a history of the French Revolution, and when I responded by mooting the idea of a full-blooded narrative along what were already eccentric lines, he never flinched. I am most grateful to him for all his support and encouragement over the years, though I fear the end result is not exactly what he originally had in mind.

The idea that I might tackle this subject, however, came from my old friend and teacher Jack Plumb. I believe he urged me to do it in the vain hope that, at last, I might be capable of writing a short book. I am sorry to disappoint him in so overwhelming a way, but I hope he will see in this book’s expansiveness some of his own concern that history should be synthesis as well as analysis, chronicle as well as text. He also encouraged me to ignore conventional barriers that have grown up like intellectual barbed wire about the subdivisions of our discipline, and I hope he enjoys this attempt to tear those fences down. Most of all he taught me that to write history without the play of imagination is to dig in an intellectual graveyard, so that in Citizens I have tried to bring a world to life rather than entomb it in erudite discourse. Since whatever virtues there may be in the book owe so much to his teaching, it is dedicated to him with great affection and friendship.

Lexington, Massachusetts

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