Modern history



In many senses, the eighteenth century was France’s century. The long reign of Louis XIV (1643–1715) was widely viewed as France’s Grand Siècle (‘great century’), yet by the king’s death, the country had been reduced by European war and domestic circumstance to a wretched state: its economy was shattered, its society riven by religious and social discontent, its population reduced by demographic crisis, its cultural allure contested and found wanting, its political system in the doldrums. Yet the country was able to bounce back from misfortune and imprint its influence on every aspect of eighteenth-century European life. Demo-graphically, France was the largest of the great powers – indeed between one European in five and one in eight was French. Socially and economically, the century witnessed one of France’s most buoyant and prosperous periods: though the benefits of economic growth were far from evenly distributed, the quality of life as measured by life-chances, income levels and material possessions marked a considerable improvement. Culturally, France was the storm-centre of the movement of intellectual and artistic renewal known as the Enlightenment: for most contemporaries, the lumière of this siècle des Lumieres shone from France. In terms of politics and international relations, France remained the power that other states had to take into account, to worry about, to keep if possible on their side. Although the monarchical system failed to adapt to the domestic strains and international pressures which the period produced, French courtly and administrative structures were very widely emulated down to 1789. Nor did the shift to a republic in 1792 halt the catalogue of achievement – as was widely anticipated by European statesmen. Indeed, by 1799, France had vastly extended its frontiers and its influence over much of Europe.

To think of eighteenth-century France as ‘the great nation’ did not rule out criticism. Indeed, writing a volume with this title invites dispassionate rather than eulogistic scrutiny of the criteria by which ‘greatness’ is judged. By the end of the period, for example, as the Revolution of 1789 was taking a more militaristic and expansionist turn, the phrase la grande nation was used in quite opposing ways. For many it highlighted the world-historical achievements of republican France. Yet for others, both within France and without, it signified something altogether more sinister. The universalist rhetoric of human emancipation spouted by French administrators and generals contrasted strikingly with the narrowly materialistic, self-seeking and indeed pillaging activities which French armies were inflicting on other Europeans. The Rights of Man of 1789 seemed to be focused largely on the claims of the French to feather their own nest, and the phrase la grande nation often had a critical, grudging and ironic tinge.

There was, moreover, a deeper, historical irony in the use of the term by that time too. For by then the very criteria of international greatness were shifting in ways which would knock France off its perch – and instal England in its place. This was not readily apparent in 1799: indeed, while France was brilliantly constructing a European empire, England’s political system was under strain, its financial strength seemed fragile, and its social fabric looked under pressure. With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that the British were by then establishing a lead in terms of economic growth, commercial strength, industrial force and political stability which would make them the world’s dominant power for much of the following century. And in 1815, France would be rolled back to its 1792 frontiers in a manner that smacked of national humiliation. But that is another story.

If historians have often failed to recognize the extent of the achievement of the French nation in the period from the death of Louis XIV until the advent of Napoleon, this is partly at least because the period was topped and tailed – in 1689–1713, then in the decade leading up to Waterloo in 1815 – by heavy military defeats at the hands of Britain and its allies. The lack of recognition owes much to the fact that much of the history written about this period focuses on the Revolutionary era of 1789–99. So prevalent has been the view that the 1789 Revolution was not of a piece with the rest of the century that Alfred Cobban’s A History of Modern France, vol. 1 (1715–99), published as long ago as 1957, remains the only history of the full period. Many historians have chosen to write as though the years prior to 1789 are only interesting insofar as they illuminate and help explain 1789. Digging for Revolutionary origins, they have tended not to look up and see the sources of strength as well as the problems and tensions within French pre-revolutionary society. The present study proceeds on the assumption that although the causes of 1789 constitute an important historical question, there are other issues about eighteenth-century France which also deserve to be taken seriously and given due attention. Many of these (the continuing power of the state, for example, France’s cultural and intellectual hegemony, its economic force, the roots of national identity) were grounded in France’s acknowledged strengths over this period – rather than those weaknesses which directly influenced the outbreak of the Revolution.

Although one of my aims has been to convey much that was of significance in the social, economic, intellectual and cultural history of the period from 1715 to 1799, I have highlighted political history, which provides an essential framework for understanding both the achievements and the problems about French society over the period as a whole. The work thus will reflect the remarkable revival of interest among historians in eighteenth-century politics since Cobban’s time, yet do so in a way which places politics in relation to broader developments. A thread of political narrative provides the work’s organizing principle; but it is heavily interspersed with analytical and contextual chapters.

I have tried to write a history which is enjoyable and instructive on its own terms and which needs no explanation. Many readers will thus be well advised to skip the remainder of this introduction, and to proceed to the opening chapters. However, I thought that fellow scholars would find it helpful if I outlined my approach, and highlighted how what I am offering reflects – but also hopes to inflect – existing historiographical trends. This is the aim of these introductory remarks.1

When Cobban wrote, the political history of France was in a doldrums period. The gaze of his fellow scholars fell more on social and economic than on political issues. The Annales tradition of French scholarship, initiated by Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre in the late 1920s, and then carried forward from the late 1940s by a second Annaliste generation dominated by Fernand Braudel, eschewed both the analysis of high politics and also narrative as a descriptive mode. It placed stress on the structural analysis of social phenomena in the long term (longue durée) and the middle term. ‘Event history’ (l’histoire événementielle) was regarded as the least deserving of serious scholarly attention: old-style political history was adjudged to have had its day. The hegemony of social-historical analysis extended to cultural and intellectual history too: ideas and taste were viewed within the context of mentalités (another Annaliste coinage, signifying the intellectual frameworks within which thinking takes place, rather than the ideas themselves). And mentalités followed the tortoise-like pace of the longue durée and were socially determined.

The hegemony of social-historical analyses – which was most evident from the late 1940s to the early 1970s – was such that the vast majority of in-depth analyses of eighteenth-century politics on offer were those devoted to the Revolutionary decade from 1789 to 1799. The Annaliste preoccupation with structures rather than narrative, and society rather than politics, dovetailed with the approach of the most internationally acclaimed historian of the French Revolution from the Second World War to his death in 1959, namely, Georges Lefebvre. Lefebvre’s earliest work was on the peasantry in the Revolution, and he and his pupils and admirers – amongst whom we may classify Albert Soboul and British historians Richard Cobb and George Rude – were instrumental in developing a ‘history from below’ perspective which also largely depreciated high politics, save only as a reflection of underlying social and economic trends. The history of prices developed from the 1930s by economic historian Ernest Labrousse buttressed this approach, by stressing the production and distribution of grain as one of the principal determinants of the pre-modern economy. The tempo of the eighteenth century was set more by the price of bread, it appeared, than by the deaths of kings or the fall of ministers. Historians of the Revolution tended to be interested in the politics of what they lumped together into the amorphous category of the ‘Ancien Régime’ only in so far as this helped them understand the social origins of the Revolution.

Alfred Cobban was one of the earliest and most pungent critics of Lefebvre’s pre-eminence, and, very much the Cold Warrior, spiced his critique with an acerbity based on the assumption that the current Lefebvrian orthodoxy in France was essentially a Marxist confection. Lefebvre and Soboul were avowed Marxists, and the schema and conceptual categories they offered (1789 as a ‘bourgeois revolution’, marking a ‘transition from feudalism to capitalism’) linked to Marxist interpretations of the French Revolution espoused by Soviet scholars. Yet this most polemical part of Cobban’s criticism perhaps overestimated the unitary nature of Marx’s views on the French Revolution (which have been shown to be changeable and complex) and it certainly underestimated how far the so-called Marxist interpretation could be accepted by scholars right across the political spectrum, in England and the United States as well as France. The emphasis on the social grounding of politics was, moreover, something which Cobban himself shared, as he showed by developing a ‘social interpretation of the French Revolution’ which highlighted the role of disenchanted venal office-holders (rather than a supposedly triumphant capitalistic grouping) as the true Revolutionary bourgeoisie. He and other Anglo-American scholars who followed in his wake2 invariably saw the eighteenth-century economy as traditionalist and uncapitalistic – a view which fitted in nicely with the ‘immobile history’ preached by third-generation Annaliste Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie.

The neglect of high politics which resulted from the hegemony of social history (plus a certain disdain for diplomatic history, one of the most unreconstructed of specialisms, which the Annalistes never really penetrated) meant that pre-Revolutionary political history did not attract younger scholars and consequentially lacked sparkle or dynamism. The first major scholarly study of Louis XV (who ruled for fifty-nine years of the century) to be published since 1945, for example, was Michel Antoine’s superb 1989 biography. We still, frankly, have no synoptic study worthy of the name for the ministries of either Fleury or Choiseul, who between them held sway for three decades.

Since the mid-1970s, however, there have been signs of growing interest in politics, tributary perhaps to that ‘revival of narrative’ in Western historiography noted by Lawrence Stone in 1979. It has been characterized by the renewal of old approaches to high politics and also by the exploration of new ways of thinking about the political – a process on which the so-called ‘cultural turn’ which many historians took from the late 1980s and early 1990s has had a particularly significant impact. This refocusing of political history has been evident in a number of domains:

·         Analysis of factional alignments at court and in ministerial politics.3

·         A revival of interest in diplomatic history.4

·         The work of ‘neo-ceremonialist’ historians, analysing political and constitutional issues raised by royal ritual and ceremony along lines mapped out by Ernst Kantorowitz.5

·         The ‘sites of memory’ (lieux de mémoire) approach – to adopt the term popularized by Pierre Nora – which combines an interest in the materiality of traces of the past (e.g. Reims, coronation site of the kings of France) with analysis of their mythologization within national culture.

·         Micro-history, often influenced by ethnographic analysis.6

·         The re-emergence of religious history not simply as a site for collective mentalités but also as a domain of politics, especially in regard to Jansenism.7

·         The renewal of cultural and intellectual history, now emphasizing more systematically linkages with political expression.8 This development has sometimes been influenced by the ‘Cambridge School’ of political ideas. It has also shaded into cultural psychology and into an analysis of discourse which owes much to the influence of Michel Foucault.9

·         The development of the notion of ‘political culture’. François Furet and Keith Michael Baker have been the most influential exponents in this domain, which has drawn copiously on a mixture of cultural and intellectual approaches. Political culture is conceived of as the ensemble of political practices and languages within which politics was transacted.10

·         Analysis of the Enlightenment in terms of a ‘bourgeois public sphere’. Pioneered by German political scientist, Jürgen Habermas, the term ‘public sphere’ (for historians have been rather divided over whether it was ‘bourgeois’ or not) developed into one of the most influential organizing concepts from the late 1980s. It designates the socio-cultural institutional matrix within which a political culture oppositional to that of the monarchy developed over the eighteenth century.

This range of scholarship has completely transformed the study of eighteenth-century politics and society since Cobban wrote. The Bourbon monarchy looks different now. This also has implications for how we think about the nature, objectives and outcomes of the Revolutionary decade. If the latter point is often lost on many historians of the Revolution, this is partly because the new political history has tended to be fragmentary in its range, focus and chronological spread. Furthermore, proponents of the different approaches have sometimes been at daggers drawn with each other. In addition to the old divisions over the French Revolution between Marxists on the Left and Cobbanite and post-Cobban ‘Revisionists’ (usually but not invariably) on the Right, and the bifurcation between Ancien Régime specialists and Revolutionists, the ‘political culturalists’ and the ‘factionalists’, for example, have often been mutually dismissive of each other’s work.

This scholarly dissension makes the challenge of writing a political history of France in the period from 1715 to 1799 all the more exciting, compelling, urgent – and risky. Such a history involves harmonizing divergent approaches. As I hope I show, analysis of political culture and state ceremonial can, for example, complement and complicate the study of faction in fruitful ways. Similarly, micro-historical perspectives – whether on Louis XIV’s legs or on the reception of Beaumarchais’s Figaro – can enrich rather than problematize the ‘big picture’. Even more importantly, the new approaches offer more fruitful ways of understanding social and cultural history than old-style histoire événementielle ever did. The new political history is emphatically not merely an embarrassing appendage to more cogent social developments, but an approach which seeks to embrace and find new ways of analysing the political dimension of social and cultural phenomena at every level of the past.

One particularly important side-effect of the revival of political history has been a kind of flattening-out of the century as a whole. The Revolution no longer rules the eighteenth-century roost, and pre-1789 politics is no longer the country cousin of Revolutionary developments. In this transformation, non-historiographical but intensely historical events since 1989 have clearly played a part. Many of the old teleological certainties have been exploded, and in a post-Marxist, post-Revisionist, and maybe even post-modern world, we can explore the political culture of the eighteenth century as a whole and its diverse political projects with less of a sense that 1789 was inevitable, or linked past and future in unilinear fashion, or even that it necessarily formed part of one of the founding grand narratives of Western modernity.

This new, more dispassionate perspective on the eighteenth century involves us rejecting the French Revolutionaries’ version of what preceded them as the infallible guide to the history of the pre-Revolutionary period. Even many of the scholars who have opened up fresh and exciting perspectives on the eighteenth century have still found it difficult to resist seeing the pre-1789 period in terms of what happened in 1789. Cobban’s classic 1957 work, for example, underplayed the period down to 1750 and then adopted a structural approach so as to explain the waiting-to-happen 1789. Symbolic of this difficulty in shaking off Revolutionist blinkers has been historians’ almost universal use of the term ‘Ancien Régime’ or (worse) ‘Old Regime’ to describe that political and social system. This term, dismissively adopted by the Revolutionaries themselves from 1790 to describe the ‘former’ (that is, ancien) state of affairs they wished to expunge, has become an apparently indispensable part of the historian’s lexicon, extended into a range of fields (e.g. ‘the socio-economic ancien régime’). The consequence of utilizing the concept as an analytical category has been, first, to give the pre-1789 social and political system an implicit unity – even though, as we shall argue, the vitality of the economy ran athwart of political developments in many ways, and society was surprisingly heterogeneous. Second, it has given the air of ailing decrepitude to a political system which viewed itself – and which was widely viewed within contemporary Europe – as anything but. Even after the disastrous impact of the Seven Years War, for example, most Europeans feared a plethora rather than a paucity of French state power – which was one reason why 1789 seemed so unanticipated. Third, it has encouraged the development of a very polarized, Manichean view of the pre- and post-1789 periods, adopting wholesale the vantage-point of the Revolutionaries themselves, so that historians think in terms of a ‘bad’ Ancien Régime and a ‘good’ Revolution, or vice versa.

In the present analysis of French society and government in the eighteenth century I have deliberately not used the term ‘Ancien Régime’ (save only from 1790, when it becomes an irrefragable fixture in the Revolutionary imaginary). I do this so as to avoid the conceptual pitfalls indicated above, but also so as to signal a wish to understand eighteenth-century politics in terms and frameworks which were relevant to contemporaries. I doubt I will be able to wean all scholars off the use of the term – but I hope to have demonstrated its dispensability as an analytical concept. In addition, I have drawn as copiously as I could on the work of political figures, writers and memorialists, whose testimony on political events more positivistic historians have often dismissed as ‘inaccurate’, but which nonetheless remains an excellent guide to the pullulating projects and plans of Bourbon political culture. From the point of view of the participants in political processes, for example, the vast majority of the century was spent in dialogue with the spirit of Louis XIV and his most cogent critics, such as Fénelon, rather than with Robespierre and Napoleon. Although when reading historians’ accounts of the eighteenth century it is easy to forget the fact, Robespierre and Napoleon were probably simply unimaginable for most French men and women before 1789 at the very earliest. Another advantage of this approach is that it allows us to recapture a sense of that spontaneous joy – and fear – caused by the outbreak of Revolution in 1789 and its subsequent lurch into Terror. The importance of recognizing the sense of differentness and the shocking newness of politics from 1789 onwards has too often been lost to historians seeking the ‘origins’ of the Revolution in pre-1789 political culture, or stressing the supposed inbuilt debility of the ‘old’ régime.

Also implicit in my account is an assumption that the political culture of the period from 1715 to 1789 was basically unitary. As I hope to demonstrate, the principal features of the political system remained intact between the Regency and pre-Revolution, viz.

·         The rules of the game as regards faction.

·         The ceremonial and constitutional apparatus of power.

·         Administrative mechanisms of the state underpinning the personal power of the monarch.

·         The monarchy’s acceptance of the need to develop a welfarist agenda, from the 1690s onwards.

·         The sense of a public which was in some way separate from the state, and the development of ‘public opinion’ as a notion to which appeal might be made as potential grounds of legitimacy.

·         A close sense of the interrelatedness of domestic and foreign policy. Prior to 1789, wars were what kings did. Since the emergence of fiscal-military states in the seventeenth century, fighting wars involved building up the economy. Historians have found it easier to separate home and international affairs than contemporaries did.

·         An enduring sense of the fragility of the dynasty. The kings of France were probably the most attentively scrutinized political actors in eighteenth-century Europe – and the question ‘what if?’ was never far away from the thoughts of the scrutineers. There was always someone waiting in the wings, and this shaped political ambitions and alignments in ways it is easy to lose sight of. The prince de Conti’s sentiment that the crown was a Bourbon heirloom rather than a personal possession of any single ruler was a family boast – but also a political threat to his royal cousin.11 In the early years following the death of Louis XIV, dynastic indeterminacy was grounded in the threat of extinction of the monarchy through demographic process. Later on, intra-Bourbon politicking produced a similar sense of conditionality.

By emphasizing the unitary nature of pre-1789 political culture, my account will thus downplay the importance of a mid-century fracture in the political culture of the Bourbon monarchy, which many historians in recent years, following the lead given by Keith Baker, have claimed to detect. Historiographical neglect of the period between 1715 and 1750 has allowed historians to overestimate the novelty of the languages of political opposition that were emerging after 1750. I shall argue that much of what was occurring after mid-century was the recycling of old discourses, which went back to 1715 or earlier. The disaster of the Seven Years War made it obvious – even to government itself – that some things had to change. Yet the intellectual bricolage and ideological projection which ensued, whose seriousness and whose achievements I will stress, were characterized by very extensive drawing on the historical record and the grounding of claims in a pre-existent repertoire of arguments.

To contend that the principal lineaments of Bourbon political culture ran like letters through a stick of rock from Regency to Revolution may seem to underplay the importance of the Enlightenment and the emergent public sphere after around 17 5o. It is certainly not my intention to deny the irreducible elements of ideological novelty associated with the impact of the Encyclopédie, and the writings of Voltaire, Rousseau and the other philosophes. My point is that they joined in conversations which were already taking place. As the chapter on the Enlightenment underlines, moreover, the enlargement of the social space in which political discussion took place in the Enlightenment was if anything even more important than the movement’s ideological freight. Political arguments had long since evoked the wider public and ‘public opinion’, for example. What was new was that that public was larger and better informed than ever before, and that dense new forms of sociability and exchange were allowing individuals outside the customary charmed circle to develop a sense of belonging to that public. A new kind of space was emerging which allowed new political actors to be enlisted into discussions and debates.

The role of the Enlightenment as sociological boom-box for intellectual involvement in public affairs needs to be linked closely, I shall argue, to the development of commercial capitalism. The word ‘commerce’ in the eighteenth century denoted intellectual communication as well as economic trading. This semantic overlap highlighted the extent to which the movement of ideas and information depended on wider economic networks – but, conversely too, the extent to which trade depended on ready supplies of information and markets open to the idea of exchange. As well as being an epochal intellectual achievement, the Encyclopédie – to take an obvious example – was also a commodity marketed through a superb business operation to avid consumers.

The decline of Annalisme has opened historians’ eyes to the dynamic levels of economic growth of the French economy over the eighteenth century. François Crouzet, who cogently argued against Braudel and others nearly forty years ago that the pre-Revolutionary economy was in many respects outperforming England, has been vindicated by much recent scholarship. The state’s finances may have been in bad shape by 1789, but the assumption that the same was true of the economy as a whole needs firm rebuttal. It is, moreover, not simply that the positive aspects of the French performance have been revalorized, and that the patchiness and gradualness of British economic growth have been demonstrated. In addition, the grand narrative on which British superiority was projected – that of an Industrial Revolution in which the royal road to capitalist success was the British one – has been questioned, allowing a more even-handed evaluation of economies following alternative pathways towards modernity.12

An emphasis on the solidity of France’s economic performance over the course of the eighteenth century also brings back into the picture a grouping which for long has been the missing person, so to speak, in Revisionist inquiries into the origins of the French Revolution, namely, the bourgeoisie (who were the triumphant hero of Marxist accounts). The tendency to view the Revolutionaries as industrial capitalists set in a Marxian mould has been rightly ruled out of court by Revisionist historiography – France’s industrialization process was far too complex and drawn-out to expect such a group to play a prominent political role in the eighteenth century. However, I have found it useful to keep the term bourgeois to designate that non-noble group of town-dwellers who dominated France’s production and exchange in an expanding economy. (The entrepreneurial role played by the nobility, though important, has been much exaggerated.) This bourgeois grouping may not always have used the term ‘bourgeoisie’ to describe themselves, for their identities were fixed more by status considerations than class allegiance, but they knew who they were – not least because they intermarried, formed partnerships and socialized together. They included merchants and traders as well as manufacturers, and were buttressed by large numbers of professionals – lawyers, medical men, state officials, teachers and the like. Such individuals invariably viewed themselves as having in common a distinctness on the one hand from the nobility (even though many aspired to join it) and on the other from the lower orders of town and countryside (into whose ranks they feared falling in hard times). In broad terms, it was the bourgeoisie which had the intellectual and business skills best to exploit market opportunities and the potential for advancement offered by a developing public sphere. They were also the group to experience most intensely the claims of citizenship in a political system which had always fragmented and hierarchized social identities.

Clearly, it will not do to view this heterogeneous grouping – with its large petty-bourgeois accompaniment of small traders, shopkeepers and the like – as constituting a single, self-conscious and unified bourgeois class. Indeed, as we shall see, one of the striking features of the eighteenth century as a whole would be the divisions and fragmentations within all social groupings (nobility, peasantry, town-dwellers, etc.). Conversely, however, one of the fascinations of the study of the eighteenth century is precisely that we start to detect the emergence of a kind of subterranean collective identity of the commercial and professional bourgeoisie, who developed a growing civic sense, which would make possible much of what was distinctive and novel about 1789. By then, new forms of identity were forming as the status perquisites of the Bourbon monarchy were commodified and marketed regionally and nationally. The Revolution would provide this grouping, who were widely acclaimed as the principal beneficiaries of 1789, with a new theatre for collective action – as well as scope for disagreements whose fall-out outlasted the following century.

It has been famously said that it was less the bourgeoisie which made the Revolution than the Revolution which made the bourgeoisie. Certainly, one of the most striking differences between politics in 1715 and 1799 was precisely the appearance of such individuals as legitimate actors on the political scene. However, I hope to have shown in the present study that the bourgeoisie – who were to play such an important role in the post-Revolutionary era – had begun to make itself long before 1789. In this respect, I go part of the way with Habermas, and like him (though without many whom he has influenced), I stress the importance of the economic dimension to this process prior to 1789: the bourgeoisie made itself on national and international markets as well as on the public sphere. However, I differ from Habermas in that, while deploying the term bourgeois public sphere, and highlighting its role in opening up new spaces for cultural and political exchange, I also stress the extent to which, before 1789, these new spaces were invaded by pre-existent political actors and provided a venue for existing debates. To a greater degree than Habermasian scholars have admitted, the bourgeois public sphere was colonized by the existing polity. Similarly, the public sphere’s political agenda – how could the state provide domestic prosperity and tranquillity while at the same time remaining militarily successful in the international arena? – was largely inherited from the Bourbon polity. It would, of course, be foolish to underestimate the extent to which the existence and vitality of such a public sphere put pressure on the political culture of the Bourbon monarchy. However, discourses of ‘othering’ and ‘outsiderhood’, fostered by the Revolutionaries and then, indeed, by their opponents, from the storming of the Bastille onwards, conceal the extent to which the Revolution emerged from within that political culture, not from without.

The primary focus of my story will be on the political elite. I want also to give a sense, however, of how a wide and growing array of individuals from varied backgrounds were, increasingly, affected by these processes – and how many of them came to offer their own contribution to it. It was probably this baggy bourgeois grouping who contributed more than any other to France’s ‘greatness’ – however that term is judged – over the course of the eighteenth century. Politics differed in 1799 from how it had been in 1715 partly at least because more individuals were directly involved with it. Furthermore, only by widening the focus in this way will we be able to get much purchase on one of the century’s most historic questions: how the Revolution which climaxed the century not only saw new solutions being essayed to old problems, but also how it managed to spawn a sense that the political values inaugurated in 1789 have been worth living by and dying for. That sense has subsisted both outside and inside France for more than two centuries now. And we as historians stand in awe of it.

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