Modern history


An overview of the political trajectory and the economic outcomes of the Revolutionary decade from the vantage-point of 1799 presents certain continuities with the pre-Revolutionary era. What those elements of linkage were and how they were mixed together had been, however, almost totally unpredicted and unpredictable in 1789. This was partly because of the circumstances in which the Revolutionaries were obliged to operate, with new collective political actors (the peasantry, the urban sans-culotterie) elbowing their way into the picture, an international framework of warfare, and a wayward and erratic pattern of economic vicissitudes. Partly too it reflected the nature of Revolutionary politics throughout the 1790s, which was invariably a kind of inspired bricolage, which involved yoking together a wide range of pre-existent elements into an unanticipated and constantly changing salmagundi of political forms. Some of these elements were drawn from the Bourbon polity (such as the notion of indivisible sovereignty), while others (for example, the Enlightenment project of rational improvement, the deification of nature and the concept of public opinion) drew on the bourgeois public sphere which had emerged in the interstices of Bourbon absolutism.

Unpredictability extended to individual fortunes too. No one in 1789 could have anticipated the appalling fate of Louis XVI, ignominiously executed only a few years after having been recognized as divine-right absolute monarch and potential patriot king. At the other end of the spectrum, for example, who in 1789 could have begun to foretell the dazzling success story of the impoverished and ill-considered Corsican hobereau and artillery officer Napoleon Bonaparte, who ten years later would close the Revolutionary decade – and end the Revolution – by a coup d’état which promoted himself to ruler, and from 1804, Emperor of the French? Snooty royalists were not slow to point (complainingly) the scriptural moral that the first had been made last, and the last first.

The goddess Fortuna seemed to be working overtime in a period in which it mattered rather a lot to be on the right side – but when it was far from clear which the right side was. Successfully navigating choppy and changing political waters so as to stay on the right side involved a good deal of acumen – and a liberal dash of luck. So fast-moving was the Revolutionary torrent (as contemporaries themselves referred to it), that a certain nimbleness of wits was at a premium. Revolutionary political culture was both intensely pervasive and intensely invasive. Tranquil regions existed which suffered few counter-revolutionary guillotinings; yet even there army recruits had to be found, taxes paid, officials elected. Opting out of the Revolution was not an option.

The skills (and luck) required to survive and prosper in this teemingly fissiparous, diverse and high-pressure world were not spread evenly among any social grouping. Despite the counter-revolutionary dread of a World Turned Upside Down, or the apparently random, cut-throat world of individualistic risk and danger, in general it appears that overall it was the middling sort – a variegated group, which could reasonably be called the bourgeoisie – who did best over the course of the decade. Individuals who went into the Revolutionary maelstrom with very little usually gained little, while those who were comparatively most heavily burdened with wealth, fame and fortune were most at risk. Although of all social groups the bourgeoisie did best, this is not to say, of course, that many bourgeois did not lose – and lose heavily – over the Revolutionary decade. This group included many who had been deeply encysted within the corporative fabric of the Bourbon polity – plus many for whom the chips did not fall well. Yet in general it was the loose, middling-sort grouping who were best programmed to do well after 1789, possessing as they did sufficient social capital to cushion them against mishap (but not so much as to endanger their survival), prior exposure to the market, which had habituated them to negotiating risk, plus a good admixture of the requisite administrative and political skills. A way with words was also useful: an ability to handle the changing grammar of power helped individuals to adapt to the kaleidoscopic transformations of the political field.

The fortunes of the industrial and commercial sectors of the bourgeoisie were particularly mixed. Though many of those benefiting from state privilege were reluctant to see the Bourbon polity fall, a great many merchants and manufacturers had welcomed 1789 and the end of state-backed privilege – including the abolition of internal tolls and the dissolution of chartered trading companies and state manufactories – and they appreciated the strong winds of freedom the Revolution brought into the world of production, retailing and distribution. Yet hope was cruelly deceived. As we have noted,42 the loss of colonial commerce, the dislocation of much intra-European trade and the resultant difficulties of industries dependent on the export market brought much ruin in their train. The wider context – the emigration of much of the luxury end of home demand, monetary chaos, the planned economy of Year II and systematic distrust in the period of Revolutionary government of the spirit of commerce – also took their toll. The institutionalization of warfare provided niches for enrichment, as we have seen, and the boom in cotton production highlighted the persistence of a buoyant home demand for fashionable commodities. But making a living required full-time effort over the 1790s, and it is not surprising that the proportion of merchants and industrialists engaged in national politics fell sharply over the decade: these groups had composed around 14 per cent of the membership of the Third Estate in 1789, but only 3 or 4 per cent of the Directorial Councils. They were stronger in local politics, and under the Directory they also inveigled themselves into the corridors of power. Their back-stairs influence and penchant for insider trading gave the whole regime a reputation for shocking venality and corruption, in everything relating to finance, army-contracting and speculative purchase of national land. In this respect, Directorial capitalists were not dissimilar to their pre-1789 forebears, who had a similarly Janus-faced attachment both to economic freedom and state support.

The best-represented group of the bourgeoisie at every level of politics were the professional groupings. Most prominent amongst these were men of law, who made up over two-thirds of the membership of the Third Estate in 1789 and around a half of the Convention. A quarter of the latter were other types of professionals, such as medical men, teachers and academics, petty clerks and soldiers. Politicians tended to be new men. Individuals who had been office-holders under the Ancien Régime dropped from around a quarter of the Third Estate in 1789 to a quarter of the Convention, to only an eighth of the Directorial Councils. What also increasingly characterized them was prior experience in lower branches of administration: 86 per cent of Conventionnels had held local office, especially at departmental level, while the figure for the Directorial Councils was only slightly less. Professionals were thus extremely well placed to benefit from the prizes – and also the perils – of political involvement.

Prior to 1789, the commercialization of the economy had brought most professional groupings into closer touch with the workings of markets for their services. State service and privilege had insulated some from commercial pressures, but to make a decent living most doctors and lawyers, for example, needed to ply their trade – and indeed they often showed real commercial zest. This situation within the wider public sphere had stimulated a wide-ranging debate on the nature of professionalism, which permeated all parts of the service sector of the economy.43 A discourse of corporative professionalism emerged, which emphasized that the disciplined hierarchy of the society of orders offered an appropriate location for the development of different forms of expertise which could be placed at the disposal of the public. This view was challenged by a counter-discourse of civic professionalism, often with links to the institutions of the Enlightenment. It sought to transcend the corporative framework of the state and stressed that social utility was best served by professionals developing organic links with their fellow citizens within a more egalitarian and non-hierarchical polity. For civic professionals, one was a patriotic citizen first, a lawyer (say) second – whereas for the corporative professionals the order was reversed.

1789 marked the triumph for the discourse of civic professionalism. The professionals who dominated the Constituent Assembly exploded the pertinence of any version of corporatism (plus the venality of office which had often underpinned it), and introduced a realm of patriotic freedom within all sectors of society and the economy. The notion of the ‘career open to talents’ endorsed by article six of the Declaration of the Rights of Man was targeted at opening up professions to which privilege had restricted entry in the past, and it proved a sturdy weapon against all corporative occupational groupings. Just as mercantilist regulation was removed from trade and industry, so bodies which had formerly regulated professional markets were viewed as anathematic. Colleges of surgeons and physicians, for example, were suppressed as corporative groupings under the provisions of the Night of 4 August 1789, and universities, which almost joined them, came under attack as ‘gothic’ and elitist institutions. Some died out, though a few staggered on until they were finally suppressed in 1795. Even before this, academies and other learned societies were put on the defensive. ‘Free nations do not require the services of speculative savants,’ one speaker proclaimed, and in August 1793 all academies were closed down.44 The introduction of the elective system within the judiciary changed the nature of magisterial office, while the extension of ‘amateur’ justices of the peace also struck against corporative legal professionalism. The Paris order of barristers disappeared on the grounds of its privileged status, and the status of attorney, following a measure of reform, was suppressed outright in October 1793.

By 1793, the language of civic professionalism had been given added potency by the declaration of war and the eulogization of patriotism. Civic professionalism was clearly ascendant in the army. The idea that soldiers were citizens before they were disciplined military automata had got some way before France went to war: the Nancy mutiny of 1791 had precisely concerned the issue of whether regular troops should enjoy the right to participate in political clubs. War changed the balance of forces. The emigration of the majority of the Ancien Régime officer corps cleared the way for greater egalitarianism. Though the practice of election of officers never really took hold, the soldier of Year II was the super-patriot, whose successes on the battlefield were held to owe more to his patriotic élan than to discipline or technical skills.

A similar development was evident in other professions. The notion of bureaucracy – and the word – had emerged in the last decades of the Ancien Régime to denote the machine-like operations of behind-the-scenes administrators. This grouping was hard hit by the suppression of venality of office in 1789. Most of the high nobles who had headed the administrative departments of Bourbon ministries resigned on political grounds or were dismissed. Many of their functions (and those of Intendants and their sub-delegates) had passed to the National Assembly and to elected officials at every level of national life from the commune upwards. Yet the outbreak of war, and the need to assemble prestissimo an army capable of keeping the European powers at bay, highlighted the case for a strong bureaucracy. The ministries’ secretarial and clerical staff in 1789 had been less than 670, and this figure remained constant under the Constituent Assembly. Yet in mid-1794, the CPS alone had a staff of over 500, the CGS a further 150. By the end of the Convention, the committees were serviced by between 4,000 and 5,000 staff. Staff in the financial administration had numbered 264 in 1789; by 1795 they had grown to 1026, and by 1796 to 1246.

Finding reliable personnel in the tense circumstances of the Terror proved highly problematic. Reliance on past administrative skill would mean giving ex-nobles and ex-venal officers a chance, and this was difficult to swallow. Marat urged the War Minister to ‘purge all the bureaux, which are infected with the most disgusting aristocracy, and replace them with tested patriots’.45 The tendency was thus to opt for ‘patriotic’ appointments, on the assumption that enthusiasm for the Revolutionary cause was all a good administrator needed. Cambon, Montpellier-born chair of the Finance Committee, appointed a meridional mafia of proven political orthodoxy under him. At the War Ministry, first Pache, then Bouchotte, drew sans-culottes of the purest pedigree into the administration, and cashiered ex-nobles. One of the bureau chiefs had ‘Call me citizen’ posted on his office door and insisted on tutoiement just to drive the message home.46

Law and medicine were also affected by this patriotic trend. The abolition of barristers and attorneys opened the way for the défenseur officieux, the patriotic ‘unofficial defender’, who acted as counsel in criminal cases. No training or prior legal experience was required for individuals to offer themselves in a role which was less, as one judge put it, ‘a position [un état] than a momentary service, a completely free service by a friend’.47 At the same time, with their former regulatory bodies either dissolved or under a cloud, surgeons and physicians found themselves operating alongside self-appointed ‘health officers’ (officiers de santé), whose highest recommendation was their own patriotic estimation of themselves. The only credentials which either ‘health officers’ or ‘unofficial defenders’ required was a certificat de civisme.

By 1793–4, the professionals in the Convention – at the very time, moreover, that they were submitting the economy to the tightest controls it had ever experienced – were thus presiding over the development of a free field in professional practice. In the Terrorist public sphere, growing economic regulation accompanied professional deregulation. In a strange throw of fortune, however, the late 1790s were to see an exact reversal of this trend: economic laisser-faire was conjoined with professional re-regulation, as professionals in the legislature negotiated the perils as well as the pleasures of laisser-faire. Problems with the free field in professional practice were first signalled in the Convention on 4 December 1794. The physician Fourcroy, while paying lip-service to‘laissez-faire [as] the great secret and the only road to success’ (he was speaking a matter of weeks before the suppression of the General Maximum), launched an attack on unqualified medical charlatans ruining the health of soldiers at the front. He dramatically evoked the way in which ‘murderous empiricism and ignorant ambition everywhere [now] hold out traps for trusting pain’,48 going on to get the Convention to agree to the creation of three new ‘health schools’, in Paris, Montpellier and Strasbourg. These medical facultiesavant la lettre were soon certifying the talents of the ‘health officers’. In the legal world, too, the tide began to turn against ‘unofficial defenders’. The ex-Conventionnel Thibaudeau attacked the crooks and charlatans who had moved into this position and who exploited ‘legal proceedings as if they were a branch of commerce’.49 In the bureaucracy, there was a mass purge of sans-culottes, and the educational and social level of recruits went up, with recruiters expecting appointees to have prior administrative experience, not just patriotic opinions. In December 1794, CPS member Cambacérès defended the justice of appointing on the basis of talent, with no regard for noble pedigree: ‘The man is of no import; it is his talent the Republic needs.’50Around one-third of the Directorial bureaucracy would have experience of government administration prior to 1789.

The latent authoritarianism in the Directorial regime – evident in its series of political coups, its electoral fixing, its deportation of political enemies – also manifested itself in the growth of the central bureaucracy at the expense of the elective principle. Even though the range of governmental tasks shrank when compared with the highly interventionist Jacobin state, government retained a supervisory and monitoring role over most aspects of social, economic, political and cultural life. A particularly significant innovation was the establishment of Directorial commissaries in each of the Departments to supervise local affairs – an institution which diminished local self-determination and simultaneously recalled the Bourbon Intendants and prefigured Napoleonic prefects. These men tended to evade the Directorial purges and provided a much-needed degree of administrative continuity for the regime. They also played an important part in the collection of data for the Ministry of the Interior which, particularly under François de Neufchâteau, started major statistical inquiries into the state of post-Revolutionary society and economy.

The Thermidorian and Directorial period thus saw a re-engagement with the problems of ensuring quality services in a maturing capitalist economy and state which were both professionally rigorous and also sufficiently imbued with patriotic public spirit. The conviction that patriotism by itself was insufficient as a guarantee of effective service was becoming universal, as was the perceived need for quality controls across the service sector. There was much hesitation, foot-dragging and changes of tack – in this as in most political domains in this troubled period – and the general trajectory would only be consummated under Bonaparte’s regime. The new health schools dispensed medical training, and a full system of state approval for all medical practitioners was introduced in 1803. In hospitals too, the late 1790s saw a gradual reintegration of communities of religious nursing sisters who had been expelled at the height of dechristianization, but whose long-honed caring skills were regarded as more important than their private beliefs. The legal world also started to swing back in line. There were outspoken attacks on the free field in law from 1797 onwards, and lawyers were reintroduced in 1800, as was a state system of notarial certification in 1803. The bonds of patriotism became less forceful in the army in this period too. Military professionalization was now marked by tighter discipline, less expression of political opinions and greater loyalty towards generals (who often encouraged dependence by sharing the booty they plundered with their men) than towards the abstract notion of the Republic.

Although corporatism had been one of the principal targets of the Revolution from the earliest days, the Directory and Consulate were introducing a kind of neo-corporatism (even complemented by a light seasoning of venality as regards auctioneers and attorneys, who had to pay ‘caution money’ before acceding to a post). Institutions of professional training under the close surveillance of the state seemed to be the means by which the Directorials conjoined the requirements of patriotism and the exigencies of expertise. From the mid-1790s onwards, a range of new educational institutions was established, several of them recalling the spirit of the professional training institutions of the Bourbon monarchy. The Institut national des sciences et arts was created in October 1795 as a direct successor to the old national academies, and it operated as a government-funded research institute. Even prior to that, there had been a range of similar renewals. The royal botanical garden, the Jardin du Roi, was in June 1793 transformed into a ‘Museum of Natural History’ to dispense courses on this topic. In March 1794, a ‘Central School for Public Works’ was created, and on 22 October 1795, it was transformed into the École Polytechnique, which was linked to further training in civil engineering (like the old Ponts et Chaussées), mining and military engineering. In September 1794, a Conservatoire des arts et métiers for the artisanal arts was created, and in October, an École normale for teacher-training.

The social status and levels of wealth of professionals was also on the rise in the late 1790s. Professionals – with lawyers and officials in the van – were among the big buyers of national lands, endorsing thereby their commitment to the Revolution. ‘Jacobins became buyers’, as Michelet reflected, ‘and buyers became Jacobins.’51 They were also well placed to respond creatively to the resurgence of demand in the service sector of the economy in the late 1790s. In addition, the re-establishment of an academic hierarchy gave select savants employment and a salary, but also renewed cultural capital. It was significant, for example, that Bonaparte chose to take with him to Egypt a commission of savants which recalled the great scientific expeditions of the Bourbon monarchy. An Egyptian Institute on the lines of the new Institut in Paris was established, for ‘the progress and the spreading of enlightenment in Egypt’, and a range of archaeological, engineering, natural historical and linguistic researches were begun. Bonaparte clearly saw the professional intellectual as a rising force which he wished to attach to his wagon.

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