Modern history

APPENDIX 3

The Revolution and its Historians

The First Two Centuries

It has never been possible to be neutral about the French Revolution. For contemporaries, the reasons were obvious enough. Ambitions were released, interests attacked or threatened, in ways where no compromise was possible. And so the essential positions and arguments for and against this sudden and sweeping attempt to transform an entire state, society, and culture had already been clearly staked out by 1791—when Robespierre still seemed a priggish bore, the guillotine a macabre joke, and the Terror as yet unimaginable. But the experience of the violent overthrow of the monarchy, the September Massacres, and above all the bloodshed of the Year II, complicated all perceptions and has scarred the reputation of the Revolution ever since. Government by massacre outran the worst expectations of enemies and opponents, and tested to the limit the commitment of friends and defenders. So from 1794 onwards, there were three rather than two basic positions. Hostility was only reinforced by the carnage, which in retrospect looked unsurprising and inevitable. But sympathizers were now divided between those who thought terror essential to the Revolution’s survival, and therefore necessary and defensible; and others who, while not defending it or seeing it as at all inevitable, found terror at least understandable. The three attitudes can be characterized in various ways. They can be called, using contemporary terms, aristocratic (or counter-revolutionary), Jacobin, and moderate. Later terminology would call them reactionary, radical, and liberal; or simply right, left, or centre. Over two hundred years later they still largely underpin attitudes and controversies among the Revolution’s historians.

All the main elements of right-wing interpretation can be found as far back as Burke. From this viewpoint, the old regime was still stable, and fundamentally viable. It followed that this regime must have been subverted from outside. The culprit was the Enlightenment, which, by persistent and irresponsible criticism, undermined faith in religion, monarchy, and the established social order. A more extreme version, fully elaborated by Barruel after the Terror, saw the Enlightenment as a secret and carefully laid plot to promote atheism and anarchy, its main agents being freemasons. Violence and massacre were inherent in a movement unleashed by the enemies of order, for nothing so ambitious could have been carried through peacefully.

The early history of these perspectives can be followed in P. H. Beik, The French Revolution seen from the Right (Philadelphia, 1956, reprinted 1970) and D. McMahon, Enemies of the Enlightenment: The French Counter-Enlightenment and the Making of Modernity (New York, 2001). Understandably popular in Catholic circles throughout the nineteenth century, the hostile tradition was given wider resonance during the century’s last quarter by a non-religious writer of the first rank, Hippolyte Taine. Les Origines de la France contemporaine (6 vols., Paris 1876–93), lacking a Catholic agenda but at the same time suffused with horror at bloody popular excesses seemingly repeated during the Paris Commune of 1871, reached a wider audience than many previous polemics. It proved so influential that the leading contemporary historian in the Jacobin tradition, Alphonse Aulard, devoted a whole book (1907) to attacking its scholarly standards—though only after Taine was dead. He was defended in turn (1909) by a young Catholic archivist, Augustin Cochin, who published almost nothing else before being killed in 1916. But in a series of posthumous essays, Cochin resurrected the idea of continuity between pre-revolutionary intellectual societies (including the freemasons) and Jacobinism. In an atmosphere of panic at the successes (and excesses) of the Russian Revolution, Taine’s and Cochin’s analyses were woven into a new right-wing synthesis by Pierre Gaxotte (1928, translated into English as The French Revolution, 1930), an adherent of the Action Française party which dreamed of a royalist restoration. Violence and terror, Gaxotte proclaimed, were inherent in the Revolution from the beginning, and the whole episode had been plotted and planned in the pre-revolutionary intellectual societies. Such views became orthodoxy during the Vichy years (1940–4); but the fall of that ignominious regime discredited them for almost half a century.

Unlike the founders of counter-revolutionary historiography, who largely observed the course of the Revolution from abroad, the original Jacobins were too busy making history to write it. Most of those who survived to compose their memoirs sought to exculpate themselves from involvement in a terror they always blamed on somebody else—usually Robespierre. The most unrepentant former Jacobin was perhaps Buonarroti, whose Conspiracy for Equality (Brussels, 1828, English translation by Bronterre O’Brien, 1836) chronicled the Babeuf plot of 1796 as an attempt to restore and go beyond the lost egalitarian promise of the Year II. But a continuous tradition of left-wing historiography only began in 1847, on the eve of another revolution. That year saw the publication of the first volumes of Jules Michelet’s and Louis Blanc’s histories of the Revolution. Both celebrated the heroic role of the people in the overthrow of an oppressive old order and the establishment of a regime of republican equality. There were no mobs in these histories: popular intervention was a force for progress, motivated by age-old yearnings for justice and fraternity. Nor were the people responsible in any way for the Terror. Michelet blamed it on Robespierre; and the socialist Blanc, impressed by the social idealism of the Incorruptible, depicted terror as the instrument of the self-seeking Hébertists. Both also saw it to some extent as the product of circumstances which nobody could have foreseen or controlled. In no sense was it essential to the Revolution’s work or development.

This was to be a standard reflex of historians embarrassed by the bloodshed which accompanied the desirable social welfare experiments, or ‘anticipations’, seen in the Year II. Even conservative republicans uncommitted to socialism found the killings which marked the first two years of the First Republic hard to reconcile with the progress they thought republicanism stood for. This was the attitude of Aulard, first professor of the History of the Revolution at the Sorbonne at a time when the Third Republic was seeking to buttress its legitimacy with evocations of the First. The French Revolution: A Political History (1901, English translation, 1910) argued that the historic mission of the Revolution was to create a democratic republic. When the monarchs of Europe coalesced to prevent this, the nation was forced into war, and terror and revolutionary government were expedients of national defence, which came to an end when the survival of the republic was assured. Robespierre, to his discredit, had sought to prolong them beyond necessity. Aulard’s hero was Danton, who had opposed their prolongation, and paid for it with his own life.

Aulard devoted the best part of a chapter to whether the Year II brought anticipations of socialism. He concluded not. Appearances to the contrary were simply another aspect of the ‘extraordinary’ and ‘temporary’ national emergency. Other writers were not so sure. The year 1901 also saw the appearance of the first volume of a Socialist history of the Revolution by the politician Jean Jaurès. Socialism was by now heavily freighted with Marxism, even though Marx himself had written little about the Revolution directly. Jaurès wished to integrate Marxist perceptions more thoroughly into its history. Thus he declared that ‘The French Revolution indirectly prepared for the coming of the proletariat. It brought about the two essential conditions for socialism: democracy and capitalism. But fundamentally, it was the political arrival of the bourgeois class’ (1929 edn., i. 19). Accordingly it was not enough to write simple political histories, like Aulard’s. The events of the Revolution were reflections of deeper economic and social developments, which thus far had scarcely been studied as they deserved. Jaurès now used his parliamentary influence to secure public funding for the publication of documents illustrating the economic and social history of the Revolution. And although politics reclaimed him (he had only begun to write his history while temporarily without a seat in the legislature) by the 1920s the approach he established would achieve dominance in the French historiography of the Revolution. It would retain it for almost sixty years as what Albert Soboul, its last great upholder, would call the ‘classic’ interpretation.

Yet it owed much of its triumph to an event Jaurès did not live to see and would have deplored if he had: the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 in Russia. Carried out by Marxists who openly claimed the heritage of Robespierre and the Jacobins of the Year II, the Russian Revolution inspired several generations of western sympathizers, and in France all those who thought that the business left unfinished in 1794 might still be brought to a glorious and workable conclusion. First to be enthused among historians was Albert Mathiez. Trained by Aulard, he was much more inspired by Jaurès. By 1908 he had already broken dramatically with his master and begun to establish a rival and more radical school of revolutionary scholarship and interpretation, the Society for Robespierrist Studies. It still exists, and its journal, the Annales Historiques de la Révolution française, remains the leading French periodical in the field. Mathiez’s quarrel with Aulard was mainly played out through attacks on the historical reputation of Danton, whom he depicted as corrupt, self-serving, and possibly even treasonous. In contrast, Mathiez set out to restore the reputation of Robespierre. Not since Buonarroti had anyone dared to mount an outright defence of a figure who, however idealistic and incorruptible, was inseparably associated with terror. The early experiences of the Russian revolutionaries, however, showed that terror might be necessary if reactionaries were not to triumph. In this light, Mathiez had no problem in justifying its use. ‘Revolutionary France would not have accepted the Terror if it had not been convinced that victory was impossible without the suspension of liberties’ and ‘Robespierre and his party perished very largely for having wished to make Terror instrumental in a new upheaval in property.’ Hopes of social and democratic revolution came to an end with that downfall, and Mathiez’s great history of the Revolution (1922–7, English translation, 1928) ended abruptly on 9 Thermidor. After that, there was nothing but a long wave of ‘reaction’.

When Mathiez died suddenly, at only 58, in 1932, there were no successors to his polemical and pugnacious style. Left-wing historians now tended to concentrate on detailed economic and social analyses. Most prominent was Mathiez’s exact contemporary, Georges Lefebvre, and he lived on until 1959. After making his reputation with studies of the peasantry, for the 150th anniversary celebrations in 1939 Lefebvre produced an elegant and succinct survey of the Revolution’s origins, Quatre Vingt Neuf (English translation, The Coming of the French Revolution [Princeton, 1946]), which was built around the now orthodox proposition that ‘economic power, ability, and a sense of the future were passing into the hands of the bourgeoisie …: the Revolution of 1789 re-established harmony between fact and law’. As to the Terror, in a general history published in 1930 (English translation, 2 vols., 1962–4), Lefebvre declared that ‘in spite of elements which extended it rashly or polluted it, it remained until the triumph of the Revolution what it had been from the first moment: a punitive reaction linked indissolubly to the defensive impetus against the "aristocratic plot"’.

The scholarly hegemony of this left-wing approach was abruptly curtailed under Vichy. But after the Liberation, with the right completely discredited and large numbers of young intellectuals joining the Communist party, it re-emerged stronger than ever. While the massive researches of Ernest Labrousse (La Crise de l’économie française à la fin de l’ancien régime et au début de la Révolution [Paris, 1944]) rooted the Revolution firmly in an economic context, a new generation was represented by Albert Soboul, who inLes Sansculottes Parisiens en l’An II (Paris, 1958; English translation, 1964) concentrated scholarly analysis on the so-called ‘popular movement’ which had driven revolutionary radicalization along. But his general overview was unaffected. ‘The French Revolution’, he proclaimed in a new survey published in 1962 (English translation, 1989) citing Marx and Engels in support, ‘constitutes … the crowning moment of a long economic and social evolution which has made the bourgeoisie the mistress of the world. This truth may pass nowadays for a commonplace …’

The triumph of the bourgeoisie was not, however, simply a Marxist idea. Indeed, it is likely that Marx took it from the first general histories of the Revolution to be written, under the Restoration. These were the histories by François Mignet (1824) and Adolphe Thiers (1823–7). The context of their appearance can be followed in S. Mellon, The Political Uses of History: A Study of Historians of the French Restoration (New York, 1958). These historians established the main outlines of the liberal approach to the Revolution. They found revolution justified by the abuses and inequities of the Old Regime. The enrichment, expansion, and education of the bourgeoisie had made its members impatient with the role of an absolute monarch and the social domination of a hereditary nobility. They had sought to establish a constitutional monarchy, embodying representative institutions and a range of equal and guaranteed political and civil rights; but the whole enterprise had been blown off course in and after 1791 by the intervention of popular forces with no interest in stability or public order. Liberal historians admired and emphasized the importance of courageous men who had tried to stabilize the Revolution in vain, men such as Mirabeau, and even Danton. They shrank in horror from bloodthirsty populists like Marat, and of course the heartless dictator and defender of terror, Robespierre, not to mention the even more terrifying Saint-Just. The essential problem for historians writing from this perspective has always been why and when a revolution that began so well ‘went wrong’.

Most historians writing on the Revolution in English have shared this problematic. Their nineteenth-century debates are fully analysed in H. Ben-Israel, English Historians and the French Revolution (Cambridge, 1968). Nevertheless the dominant Anglophone perception of the Revolution throughout the nineteenth century was probably that of Thomas Carlyle (1835) mediated by his admirer Charles Dickens through A Tale of Two Cities (1859). Surprisingly, Burke’s blanket condemnation found few echoes in the land where he wrote it. In most British eyes lack of parliamentary government and free speech were enough in themselves to have justified the overthrow of absolute monarchy—though never the violence that followed, understandable though Carlyle at least found it in the light of previous popular misery and degradation. But before the mid-twentieth century few British or American historians spent much time in France or its archives. Their work was largely based on distilling French authors who appeared sympathetic to the British example of peaceful evolution towards liberal institutions. The one they took most to their hearts, however (and Americans, too, since his first important book was on transatlantic democracy), stood apart from the mainstream of French liberalism: Alexis de Tocqueville.

Tocqueville never wrote the book he intended on the Revolution, but his preliminary study The Ancien Régime and the Revolution (1856) remains one of the most important ever written on the subject. It was not so much a history as an attempt to see the Revolution in a long-term context. In the long perspective of history, he saw it as a decisive stage in the irresistible progress of democracy and liberty. But these forces were not necessarily compatible, and in destroying the old order so comprehensively, the democratic, egalitarian impetus of the Revolution swept away most of the bulwarks of liberty which had impeded the authoritarian tendencies of the monarchy. This in turn had opened the way for Napoleon to overthrow the more rootless liberty introduced by the Revolution. None of the representative institutions set up since 1789 had survived long; and Tocqueville wrote when a new Bonaparte had destroyed the ones in which he himself had forged a political career. This liberal, therefore, did not see the Revolution as a liberating force. The democracy it unleashed was much more likely to lead to dictatorship. For Tocqueville this was a source of profound regret, since he revered liberal ideas, and could see that they worked beyond the Channel or the Atlantic. The inhabitants of these regions were flattered; and Tocqueville’s analyses, even though their factual bases could be easily shown to be inaccurate and misconceived, were widely studied in Britain and America for a century after he died (1859). The French were less inclined to listen to such a pessimistic analysis of their own history and prospects. Besides, only a few years after Tocqueville’s death the Third Republic ushered in a broadly liberal regime, confounding his expectations, and it lasted until 1940. He was soon largely forgotten in his own country; and the liberal strain in French writing about the Revolution was absorbed into the mainstream of the non-Marxist left.

Lying at the root of so many of the trends and movements that have fashioned the modern world, the Revolution has seldom been written about in isolation from contemporary politics. The years since 1945 have brought some change in this respect, yet it hardly seems a coincidence that the new controversies which have engulfed the subject arose in the shadow of the Cold War. They have been marked by what came to be known, like unwelcome internal criticism of Communist Party orthodoxies, as revisionism. In English-speaking countries it began in 1954, with the inaugural lecture of Alfred Cobban as Professor of French History at the University of London. Entitled ‘The Myth of the French Revolution’, the lecture argued that the Revolution was not the work of a rising, capitalist bourgeoisie, but of non-capitalist lawyers and office-holders. Ten years later Cobban amplified his criticisms of what he called the orthodoxies of Lefebvre, Labrousse, and Soboul in The Social Interpretation of the French Revolution(Cambridge, 1964, reprinted with a useful introduction by Gwynne Lewis, 1999). Not only was the Revolution not the work of bourgeois capitalists, it did not overthrow anything recognizable as feudalism, and so far from emancipating the economy by opening up free enterprise, it retarded economic expansion and was ‘a triumph for the conservative, propertied, landowning classes’. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, in a series of articles published between 1962 and 1972, George V. Taylor was analysing the structure of property and commercial activity before the Revolution. He concluded that the most vigorous types of capitalism worked through and with the monarchical state rather than against it; and that the share of French wealth represented by capitalism was small and therefore posed no challenge to the old order. There was in fact no economic competition between nobles and bourgeois at the top of society. Economically they formed part of a single élite. The Revolution was not therefore the result of class conflict. It was a political revolution with social consequence and not the other way round (see above all Taylor’s ‘Noncapitalist wealth and the Origins of the French Revolution’, American Historical Review, 79 (1967), 469–96).

In France these observations were greeted at first with incredulity or contempt. Lefebvre himself, before his death, brushed Cobban aside as a spokesman for an insecure western bourgeoisie. But the solidarity of the French left was beginning to crumble in the aftermath of the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, and growing criticism in Moscow itself of the historical record of Stalinism. In 1965 two disillusioned young former Communists, François Furet and Denis Richet, produced a new history of the Revolution (English translation and abridgement, French Revolution [London, 1970]) which resurrected the liberal tradition by arguing that the true Revolution was that of 1789–91, after which it had ‘skidded off course’ into terror as a result of royal treachery and popular control of Paris. The new authors were at once denounced, rather as Aulard had denounced Taine, for their lack of scholarly credentials. Furet responded to critics in 1971 with a furious attack on what he called the ‘revolutionary catechism’ or ‘Jacobin-Marxist vulgate’ which, he said, sought to commemorate the Revolution rather than analyse it with scholarly detachment. Now for the first time a Frenchman acknowledged the increasing contribution that English-speaking scholars were making to the subject, in contrast to its custodians in French universities, who, Furet contended, merely sought to perpetuate a fossilized Jacobin orthodoxy.

All this encouraged other French scholars to put their heads above the parapet, notably Guy Chaussinand-Nogaret, who argued in a book of 1976 on the pre-revolutionary nobility (English translation The French Nobility in the Eighteenth Century, Cambridge, 1984) that in many ways it resembled the bourgeoisie and was open to much of the revolutionary ideology. Accordingly, the Revolution was not so much a triumph for the bourgeoisie as for a new propertied élite comprising both nobles and bourgeois, destined to rule the country far into the nineteenth century under the name of the Notables. Other work on the nobility by British and American scholars seemed to point in the same direction, downplaying class conflict as a cause of the Revolution. In 1980 the present author, who had come to the Revolution by way of work on the old regime, produced Origins of the French Revolution (3rd edn., Oxford, 1999), which, after surveying scholarly debate since 1939, argued that the outbreak owed more to accident and political miscalculation than to social conflicts; and that the Revolution made revolutionaries and not the other way round.

Revisionist researches, in fact, had cumulatively and convincingly undermined the ‘classic’ interpretation of the Revolution’s origins. The increasing difficulties of the Soviet Union throughout the 1980s were also soon to dent the credibility of the celebratory tradition of history writing which Soviet achievements had done so much to sustain since 1917. After the death of Soboul in 1982 no major figure on the left sought to rebuild the ruins of a once-dominant interpretation. When François Mitterrand, a socialist president, decreed that the Revolution’s bicentenary should be celebrated in 1989, the theme he chose was an impeccably liberal one: the Revolution as the proclamation of human rights, with no reference or relation to the Terror.

This was to accept Furet and Richet’s version of 1965: but by now Furet had moved on. In 1978, alongside a reprint of his great polemic of 1971, he published a series of essays (English translation, Interpreting the French Revolution [Cambridge, 1981]) calling for an entirely new approach which relegated social analyses, as well as his own earlier perception of a revolution skidding off course, to the sidelines. Only two earlier historians, he declared, had ‘offered a rigorous conceptualisation’ of the Revolution: Tocqueville and Cochin. Both names were a challenge, but at least Tocqueville was familiar to English speakers. Cochin, an avowed enemy of the revolutionary legacy, had not been taken seriously since the early 1940s. Furet’s journey across the political spectrum was restoring respectability to the intellectual right; and when he began to proclaim in the 1980s that the terror had been inherent in the Revolution from 1789 itself, a product of ways of thinking matured over the preceding century, only his indifference to religious factors seemed to separate him from the oldest of hostile traditions. But soon the religious angle was resurfacing too, in renewed interest in the Vendée. Pioneered in 1964 by the American sociological analysis of Charles Tilly (The Vendée), the history of counter-revolution in the west was now seized upon by scholars with more traditional agendas. The most extreme and notorious example was Reynald Secher, Le Génocide franco-français: La Vendée-Vengé (Paris, 1986), which accused the Jacobin republic of systematically exterminating its peasant enemies, and did not shrink from the emotive description of genocide. Did the Revolution chart the path to twentieth-century holocausts and gulags? Another who seemed to think so was the British Jewish historian Simon Schama, whose Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution was the best-selling book of the bicentenary year. Violence, he argued, was the essence of the Revolution from the start, and ‘The Terror was merely 1789 with a higher body count’. Schama ended exactly where Mathiez and so many other left-wing accounts ended, with the fall of Robespierre in 1794: if terror was inseparable from the Revolution, when terror came to an end the Revolution was effectively over. An English-speaking world which knew about the Revolution chiefly through A Tale of Two Cities or even The Scarlet Pimpernel was told what it wanted to hear, but Schama was never translated into French. Furet, after all, had already conveyed the same message.

It was difficult to disentangle the social approach to the Revolution from the classic interpreters of the left who had first seriously promoted it. So that when the coherence of the classic interpretation crumbled under the impact of revisionist research, Cobban’s initial call for a new social history with an untainted vocabulary was ignored. Revisionism, many complained, had demolished one edifice and put nothing in its place. Disillusion with what social history could explain was not confined to Furet. As early as 1952, J. L. Talmon in The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy argued that the roots of modern tyranny, as first manifested during the Terror, were to be found in the thought of the Enlightenment. The argument owed something to Tocqueville, but much also to the counter-revolutionary tradition. Coming from a Jewish historian working in Israel, it could not be attributed to the Catholic right discredited by Vichy, but it was widely derided by social historians of all viewpoints. Not until Norman Hampson, author of the firstSocial History of the French Revolution (London, 1963) produced Will and Circumstance: Montesquieu, Rousseau and the French Revolution (London, 1982) did an established figure in the field return overtly to intellectual explanations. But by then, a younger generation was moving in a parallel direction. From the 1960s Robert Darnton had been trying to bring the social and intellectual history of pre-revolutionary France together by studying the world of clandestine publishing and scurrilous literature below the level of the ‘High’ Enlightenment (articles collected in The Literary Underground of the Old Regime [Cambridge, Mass., 1982]). In 1978 Keith Baker began a series of discussions (collected in Inventing the French Revolution [Cambridge, 1990]) of thought patterns and ‘discourses’ among pre-revolutionary political writers. Neither concentrated on leading figures. They were more interested in what Baker called the ‘intellectual stock’ of the old order and how it laid the basis for revolutionary ideology. Their interest was more in culture than ideas in themselves, and they found much in common with the later Furet. By the mid-1980s the tide was turning their way. It could be seen doing so in an influential collection of essays by Lynn Hunt, Politics, Culture and Class in the French Revolution (Berkeley, 1984); and in 1986 Baker and Furet convened the first of a series of conferences in Chicago on the theme of the French Revolution and the Creation of Modern Political Culture (proceedings published in four volumes under that general title, Oxford, 1987–94). Now the term ‘post-revisionism’ began to be used, signifying an approach based on the study of language and culture, in which the Revolution was largely viewed as a symptom of deeper trends such as the emergence of public opinion (building on the theoretical conjectures of J. Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society [1962; English translation, Cambridge, Mass., 1991]), on the supposed ‘desacralisation’ of monarchy (J. Merrick, The Desacralisation of the French Monarchy in the Eighteenth Century [Baton Rouge, La., 1990]) or on the marginalization of women in public life (Joan B. Landes, Women and the Public Sphere in the Age of the French Revolution[New York, 1988]).

The bicentenary of 1989, for which the first edition of this Oxford History was written, coincided with the collapse of the Soviet Union and its empire, and with it, the hope which had reinvigorated left-wing interpretations of the French Revolution over much of the twentieth century. In the worldwide scholarly debates which marked the bicentenary, Furet proclaimed himself the winner; and there were certainly few signs of a younger generation still prepared to espouse anything like the classic interpretation, apart from a few forlorn attempts (e.g. P. Higonnet, Goodness beyond Virtue: Jacobins during the French Revolution [Cambridge, Mass., 1998]) to dissociate Jacobinism from terror. In France, study of the Revolution languished after the death of Furet in 1997, and even beforethat, more and more it followed trends pioneered across the Atlantic (e.g. R. Chartier, The Cultural Origins of the French Revolution [Durham, NC, 1991]). Interpretation of the Revolution in the years since the revisionist challenges of Cobban and Taylor had gradually been taken over by what the French bizarrely call the ‘Anglo-Saxons’. And the post-revisionism which, by the turn of the century, had become hegemonic, was largely a North American movement, following the eddying fashions of a world where Marxism no longer offered any sort of intellectual challenge.

The Revolution Today

More detailed guidance on recent debates and how they have evolved can be found in two short and punchy surveys: G. Lewis, The French Revolution: Rethinking the Debate (London, 1993) and T. C. W. Blanning, The French Revolution: Class War or Culture Clash? (London, 1997). A useful collection of key articles, selected after wide consultation of scholars working in the field, is P. Jones (ed.), The French Revolution in Social and Political Perspective (London, 1996). The fullest (not to say most prolix) guide to the bicentennial controversies in France is S. L. Kaplan, Farewell, Revolution (2 vols., Ithaca, NY, 1995). There are many good short introductions, but anyone who has come to the Revolution through this book will presumably feel introduced already, and will be looking for more detail. An invaluable compendium of useful information is C. Jones, The Longman Companion to the French Revolution (London, 1988). The most comprehensive work of reference in English is S. F. Scott and B. Rothaus (eds.), Historical Dictionary of the French Revolution (2 vols., Westport, Conn., 1985), although the quality of the entries is uneven and there are some strange omissions. The same is true of its French equivalent, A. Soboul (ed.), Dictionnaire Historique de la Révolution française(Paris, 1989), mostly the work of historians in the classic tradition. The Furet school produced its own version, F. Furet and M. Ozouf (eds.), A Critical Dictionary of the French Revolution (New York, 1989), which is more a set of reflective essays than a work of reference. A quite superb and fundamental guide to the men of 1789 is E. H. Lemay, Dictionnaire des Constituants 1789–1791 (2 vols., Oxford, 1991). There is also much revolutionary material to be gleaned from J. Tulard (ed.), Dictionnaire Napoléon (2nd edn., Paris, 1989).

Most of the great figures of the Revolution have been the subject of biographies, although this approach is no longer as fashionable as it was among professional historians. The best life of Louis XVI is that by J. Hardman (London, 1993), but it is far more reliable and innovative for the period before 1789. A reliable guide to his last months is D. P. Jordan, The King’s Trial: The French Revolution vs Louis XVI (Berkeley, 1979). The greatest recent biographical enterprise for a figure of the period is L. Gottschalk’s multi-volume Lafayette (Chicago, 1950–73). It remains unfinished at mid-1790, and it seems legitimate to ask whether that self-important figure is worth such attention. There is still no good biography of Mirabeau (though several mediocre ones), nothing on Barnave since E. D. Bradby’s two volumes (Oxford, 1915), and nothing worthwhile on any of the leading Girondins, apart from K. M. Baker, Condorcet (Chicago, 1975) and G. May, Madame Roland and the Age of Revolution (New York, 1970). They are collectively considered, however, by L. Whaley, Radicals (Gloucester, 1999), as are prominent Montagnards by R. R. Palmer, Twelve Who Ruled (Princeton, 1941), and N. Hampson, Will and Circumstance. Marat has at last found an up-to-date biographer in I. Germani (Lampeter, 1992), but for his would-be successor we need to go back to G. Walter, Hébert et le Père Duchesne (Paris, 1946). N. Hampson, Danton (London, 1978) summarized what little reliable evidence there is on that enigmatic figure. Subsequently he did the same for Saint-Just (Oxford, 1991). On Carnot, the two volumes (in French) by M. Reinhard (1951–2) remain irreplaceable. Robespierre at least has had many good biographers. The fullest and most accessible life remains that by J. M. Thompson (2 vols., Oxford, 1939), but more recent perspectives are covered by the essays in C. Haydon and W. Doyle (eds.), Robespierre (Cambridge, 1998). The best known recorder of the revolutionary scene is himself recorded by W. Roberts, Jacques-Louis David, Revolutionary Artist (Chapel Hill, NC, 1989), while its most politically and socially extreme participant is the subject of R. B. Rose, Gracchus Babeuf: The First Revolutionary Communist (London, 1978). Consigned to the Pantheon for the Bicentenary, the most generally acceptable figure of the Revolution is now perhaps Grégoire. He is the subject of an interesting collection of essays, The Abbé Grégoire and his World, edited by R. H. and J. Popkin (Utrecht, 2001). Books about Napoleon, of course, are appearing all the time. An indifferent translation of the standard French biography by J. Tulard, subtitled The Myth of the Saviour, came out in 1984. The best brief life written in English, though overtaken in many respects by subsequent research, remains that by F. M. H. Markham (London, 1963).

The origins of the Revolution are a field in themselves. Lefebvre’s The Coming is still worth consulting, but a more recent approach, with a full historiographical introduction, is W. Doyle Origins of the French Revolution (3rd edn., 1999). B. Stone, The Genesis of the French Revolution: A global-Historical Interpretation (Cambridge, 1994) seeks to establish a wider context, while R. Chartier, Cultural Origins, introduces a more fashionable one. The best guide to late old regime politics is J. Hardman, French Politics 1774–1789 (London, 1995), but for the detail of 1787–8, J. Egret, The French Pre-Revolution, 1787–88 (Chicago, 1977) remains definitive; and the politics of 1788–9 have been carefully and convincingly reappraised by T. Tackett, Becoming a Revolutionary: The Deputies of the French National Assembly and the Emergence of a Revolutionary Culture (1789–1790) (Princeton, 1996). Continuities over the great divide of 1789 are stimulatingly investigated by P. M. Jones, Reform and Revolution in France: The Politics of Transition 1774–1791 (Cambridge, 1995).

The work of the Constituent Assembly has been looked at afresh by N. Hampson, Prelude to Terror (Oxford, 1988), M. P. Fitzsimmons, The Remaking of France (Cambridge, 1994) and H. B. Applewhite, Political Alignment in the French National Assembly, 1789–1791 (Baton Rouge, La., 1993). Two of its more momentous reforms are studied in subtle and impressive depth by J. Markoff, The Abolition of Feudalism (University Park, Pa., 1996) and T. W. Margadant, Urban Rivalries in the French Revolution(Princeton, 1992)—a study of redrawing the administrative map. The popular history of the period has been renewed by D. Andress, Massacre at the Champ de Mars (Woodbridge, 2000). The Legislative Assembly has always attracted little sympathy and consequently less intrinsic scholarly interest, but there is C. J. Mitchell, The French Legislative Assembly of 1791 (Leyden, 1988).

By contrast, the period of the Convention has always attracted extensive attention. Political alignments, long deemed self-evident, were fundamentally reappraised in 1961 by M. J. Sydenham, The Girondins (London). Even more radical, hard to absorb, but in the end entirely convincing, was the analysis of A. Patrick, The Men of the First French Republic: Political Alignments in the National Convention of 1792 (Baltimore, 1972); while the coup which sealed the Girondins’ fate is anatomized by M. Slavin, The Making of an Insurrection (Cambridge, Mass., 1986). The Terror in the French Revolution by H. Gough (London, 1998) is a convenient brief introduction to latest thinking on the Revolution’s defining episode, and an invaluable collection of thoughtful essays is edited by K. M. Baker as vol. iv of the great collection on the French Revolution and the Creation of Modern Political Culture (Oxford, 1994). The sansculottes, so notorious then and so much studied in the 1950s and 1960s, have attracted much less attention since, and the general surveys by G. Rudé, The Crowd in the French Revolution (Oxford, 1958) and G. A. Williams, Artisans and Sansculottes (London, 1968) remain excellent distillations of what was established then. The relative neglect of women in these studies has meanwhile been remedied by, among others, D. Godineau, The Women of Paris and their French Revolution (Berkeley, 1998). The downfall of political populism is anatomized by M. Slavin in The Hébertists to the Guillotine (Baton Rouge, La., 1994) and, after Thermidor, K. D. Tönnesson, La Défaite des Sans-culottes (Oslo and Paris, 1959). Still the most readable account of the post-Thermidorean period is A. Mathiez, After Robespierre (New York, 1931), but it is now very dated. Even the more detached M. J. Sydenham, The First French Republic 1792–1804 (London, 1974) has been superseded in all sorts of detail. A sober analysis of the Thermidorean dilemma is B. Baczko, Ending the Terror (Cambridge, 1994), while a stimulating set of essays is C. Lucas (ed.),Beyond the Terror: Essays in French Regional and Social History, 1794–1815 (Cambridge, 1983). I. H. Birchall, The Spectre of Babeuf (Basingstoke, 1997) provides a passionate perspective on the controversial conspirator, while attempts by later Jacobins to shake off terroristic associations are the subject of I. Woloch, Jacobin Legacy (Princeton, 1970) and J. Livesey, Making Democracy in the French Revolution (Cambridge, Mass., 2001). The most accessible recent survey of the crisis which brought Napoleon to power is M. H. Crook, Napoleon Comes to Power (Cardiff, 1998).

The best short introduction to the period’s religious history is J. McManners, The French Revolution and the Church (London, 1969); it has been superseded in detail and expanded on in scope by N. Aston, Religion and Revolution in France 1780–1804(Basingstoke, 2000). An outstanding discussion of the great divide is provided by T. Tackett, Religion, Revolution and Regional Culture in Eighteenth Century France: The Ecclesiastical Oath of 1791 (Princeton, 1986). Wider repercussions are chronicled in O. Chadwick, The Popes and European Revolution (Oxford, 1981). Tilly, The Vendée, is a classic analysis of how religion shaded into counterrevolution, but doubt has been thrown on some of its suggestions by D. M. G. Sutherland’s investigation of a parallel phenomenon, The Chouans (Oxford, 1982). The scale of repression in the Vendée has become intensely controversial since the appearance of Secher’s Le Génocide franco-français in 1986. More balanced conclusions are offered by J.-C. Martin, La Vendée et la France (Paris, 1987) and R. Dupuy, De la Révolution à la Chouannerie (Paris, 1988). A convenient, brief guide to the burgeoning literature on counter-revolution is J. Roberts, The Counter-Revolution in France, 1787–1830 (Basingstoke, 1990), while the world of the French émigrés has been reopened by the essays in K. Carpenter and P. Mansel (eds.), The French Emigrés in Europe and the Struggle against Revolution, 1789–1814 (Basingstoke, 1999). Their worst disaster at Quiberon is chronicled in unprecedented detail in M. G. Hutt, Chouannerie and Counter-Revolution (2 vols., Cambridge, 1983). All this work has almost, but not quite, superseded, J. Godechot, The Counter-Revolution: Doctrine and Action 1789–1804 (London, 1971).

If religion proved the first great turning point for the Revolution, war was the second, and for contemporaries perhaps even greater. T. C. W. Blanning, The Origins of the French Revolutionary Wars (London, 1986) convincingly shows why this great series of conflicts began, and was resumed in 1798. Subsequently he has readably plotted their course and significance in The French Revolutionary Wars 1787–1802 (London, 1996). The impact on the French armed forces is assessed in S. F. Scott, The Response of the Royal Army to the French Revolution: The Role and Development of the Line Army during 1789–93 (Oxford, 1978), and W. J. Cormack, Revolution and Political Conflict in the French Navy 1789–1794 (Cambridge, 1995), while everyday military life is illustrated by A. Forrest, Napoleon’s Men: Soldiers of the Revolution and Empire (London, 2002). On French expansionism in general J. Godechot, La Grande Nation: L’Expansion révolutionnaire de la France dans le monde (2nd edn., Paris, 1983) is irreplaceable. How the French treated foreigners at home is set out by M. Rapport, Nationality and Citizenship in Revolutionary France (Oxford, 2000). Despite its curious biases, R. R. Palmer, The Age of the Democratic Revolution (2 vols., Princeton, 1959–64) offers an important sweeping survey of the period, attempting to place France in a wider revolutionary context. O. Dann and J. Dinwiddy (eds.), Nationalism in the Age of the French Revolution (London, 1988) collect a series of case studies of reactions to the revolutionary message, and there is much of relevance to the 1790s in M. Broers, Europe under Napoleon 1799–1815 (London, 1996). An epic portrait of a state engulfed by the revolutionary tide is S. Schama, Patriots and Liberators: Revolution in the Netherlands 1780–1813 (London, 1977) while T. C. W. Blanning, The French Revolution in Germany: Occupation and Resistance in the Rhineland 1792–1802 (Oxford, 1983) covers more than just the Rhineland, and has an invaluable synoptic final chapter. The two countries where pro-French rebellions broke out are covered by B. Lesnodorski, Les Jacobins Polonais (Paris, 1965) and M. Elliott, Partners in Revolution: The United Irishmen and France (New Haven, 1982); while France’s most inveterate opponent is analysed by J. E. Cookson, The British Armed Nation 1793–1815 (Oxford, 1998) and E. Royle, Revolutionary Britannia? (Manchester, 2000). The Revolution was central to The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery, 1776–1848 studied by R. Blackburn (London, 1988); and the best detailed study of the Caribbean, more far-reaching than its title suggests, is D. P. Geggus, Slavery, War and Revolution: the British Occupation of Saint-Domingue (Oxford, 1982).

The economic and social history of the Revolution has languished somewhat since the triumphs of revisionism. Nobody has yet seen fit to translate the greatest work in this field, E. Labrousse, La Crise de l’économie française, although it has been reprinted (1984). There is still much to be learned, too, from A. Mathiez, La Vie chère et le movement social sous la Terreur (Paris, 1927). A magisterial treatment of the assignats and their consequences is F. Crouzet, La Grande Inflation: La Monnaie en France de Louis XVI à Napoléon (Paris, 1993), while the shadowy world of finance is explored by M. Bruguière, Gestionnaires et profiteurs de la Révolution (Paris, 1986). The French academic consensus on the Revolution’s economic history at the bicentenary is brought out by the essays in État, finances et économie pendant la Révolution française (Paris, 1991); whilst a thought-provoking overview by a sceptical layman is R. Sédillot, Le Coût de la Révolution française (Paris, 1987). The most distinguished of all studies of peasants, G. Lefebvre, Les Paysans du Nord pendant la Révolution française (Bari, 1959) remains untranslated, but that brilliant essay, The Great Fear of 1789: Rural Panic in Revolutionary France (London, 1973) is available in English. P. Jones, The Peasantry in the French Revolution (Cambridge, 1988) summarizes two generations’ work in this huge area, while despite some debateable assumptions A. Forrest, The French Revolution and the Poor (Oxford, 1981) has reopened a field too long left to Catholic propagandists. A welcome sign of renewed French interest in the big questions is B. Bodinier and E. Teyssier, L’Evénement le plus important de la Révolution: La Vente des biens nationaux (Paris, 2000).

Major issues relating to the Revolution as a whole are also being revisited. Understanding of revolutionary elections has been transformed by M. Crook, Elections in the French Revolution: An Apprenticeship in Democracy (Cambridge, 1996) and P. Gueniffey,Le Nombre et la raison (Paris, 1993). Bureaucracy, likewise, is better understood thanks to C. Church, Revolution and Red Tape: The French Ministerial Bureaucracy, 1770–1850 (Oxford, 1981) and H. Brown, War, Revolution, and the Bureaucratic State: Politics and Army Administration in France 1791–1799 (Oxford, 1995). The end of some central old regime institutions is covered in chapter 9 of W. Doyle, Venality: The Sale of Offices in Eighteenth Century France (Oxford, 1996) and S. L. Kaplan, La Fin des corporations (Paris, 2001). What filled the voids is stimulatingly explored in I. Woloch, The New Regime: Transformations of the French Civic Order, 1789–1820 (New York, 1994); and what Napoleon owed to it all is summarized in M. Lyons,Napoleon Bonaparte and the Legacy of the French Revolution (Basingstoke, 1994). H. Gough surveys The Newspaper Press and the French Revolution (London, 1998), and the essays in R. Darnton and D. Roche (eds.), Revolution in Print: The Press in France 1775–1800 (Berkeley, 1989) take in printing and publishing as a whole. A handy survey of a field that post-revisionism has thrown into prominence is E. Kennedy, A Cultural History of the French Revolution (New Haven, 1989). The downside is the subject of S. Bernard-Griffiths, M.-C. Chemin, and J. Erhard (eds.), Révolution française et ‘vandalisme révolutionnaire’ (Paris, 1992), but more positive aspects are studied by M. Ozouf, Festivals and the French Revolution (Cambridge, Mass., 1989). The revolutionaries’ ambiguities about their cultural heritage are surveyed in D. Poulot, Musée, Nation, Patrimoine, 1789–1815 (Paris, 1997), while their unfulfilled architectural dreams are lavishly illustrated in J. A. Leith, Space and Revolution: Projects for Monuments, Squares and Public Buildings in France 1789–1799 (Montreal and Kingston, 1991). Revolutionary dress is analysed by A. Ribiero in Fashion in the French Revolution (London, 1983), while the most ineradicable of revolutionary associations is thoughtfully discussed by D. Arasse, The Guillotine and the Terror (London, 1989).

Every aspect of the French Revolution has aroused controversy, and the main problem about forming a view about any of them is the sheer quantity of writing the Revolution has provoked. It is said that more is published every year on this subject than on the rest of early modern French history put together. The suggested reading here can be no more than indicative and to some extent arbitrary. But most of the works cited have important bibliographies of their own, or indicate their sources in learned footnotes.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!
Previous
Page
Next
Page