I tried something I’ve never tried before: Rather than read one book on a subject and not retain anything, I decided to read several book on one topic -- the French Revolution -- and see if I’d actually gain comprehension. I set out planning to read histories, biographies, and fiction.
Having finished, for now, I think it was worthwhile but I went about it the wrong way. I didn’t use any recommended reading list, and as a result the books I chose were probably not the best selections, and I definitely read them in the wrong order.
Here’s the list:
The French Revolution: A Very Short Introduction, William Doyle
The French Revolution, Christopher Hibbert
The Giant of the French Revolution: Danton, A Life by David Lawday
Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution, by Ruth Scurr
Reflections on the Revolution in France: Edmund Burke
The Ancien Regime and the Revolution: Alexis de Tocqueville
Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France was written contemporaneously, as a long rambling letter meant to lay out the case against revolution in England, and accordingly read as sort of a hazy and and amateurish history. But what is distinctive about it is that it represents a first statement of conservatism, a concept that may not ever have been needed in history before the revolution.
For that reason, some of the points he made sound obvious, because conservatism is a now well-established political reality. For instance, he pointed out that the French might be summoning up unintended consequences by hurriedly getting rid of all their institutions, including the monarchy, religion, and laws. Obvious point, but apparently it had never needed to be made before.
Key claim by Burke: There is an overarching law that should not be changed by the people who happen to be living and controlling government at any one time. Unlike business partnerships, which are set up to take advantage of a given opportunity in a moment in time, the state “is a partnership in all science; a partnership in all art; a partnership in every virtue, and in all perfection. As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.”
Burke argued against the French appropriation of private property on the grounds that depriving someone of economic independence he had already achieved was worse than killing him. He argued against the expropriation of the Church -- and predicted that it would be the overreach that turned off the British people from revolution -- on the grounds that the Church, like private property, is a permanent institution rather than a creation of the state and that its privileges are not meted out by the government.
Alexis de Tocqueville’s The Ancien Regime and the Revolution is probably the most valuable high-level, critical history of the revolution. I wish I’d read this after some of the other histories, rather than before. Writing in the 1850s, he went through the trouble of digging up tax rolls at the parish level and unearthing administrative letters to try to reach some generalized descriptions of the Ancien Regime.
Part of his thesis is that the revolution brought about a collapse of civil society:
“...in such communities where men are no longer tied to each other by race, class, craft guilds or family, they are all to read to think merely of their own interests, ever to predisposed to consider no one but themselves and to withdraw into a narrow individualism where all public good is snuffed out.”
Despotism, he said, makes that situation irresistible, because everyone to run afoul of the despot is to lose wealth and wealth is the only basis for standing in society.
- He viewed the French revolution as a political revolution with the character of a religious revolution. He compared the growth of the ideals of the French revolution to the religious revolution of Christianity: Unlike the pagan religions that were part of the social order in their respective city-states, Christianity didn’t limit itself to just one area or one political entity.
- The French middle class chafed more at remnants of feudalism than other nationalities because they had some property rights, and thus had “skin in the game” and felt the burdens of feudal rights and mis-administration acutely.
- Administrative overreach was a serious problem in the Ancien Regime. Quote: “The Ancien Regime in a nutshell: Strict rules, lax implementation.” The most glaring example, in his eyes: Prior to the Revolution, at the same time as Voltaire and other irreligious thinkers were on the rise, France actually has a law on the books imposing the death penalty for writings antagonistic to religion.
- Prior to the Revolution, the middle class was actually becoming wealthier, in relation to the stagnating nobility. It was also becoming more homogenous with the nobility, in the sense that both were reading the same materials published in Paris and taking social cues from the king. Both were also increasingly out of touch with the poor.
- De Tocqueville tried to explain why France went from being highly religious to murderously anti-religious within two decades, but didn’t really reach a satisfactory answer on irreligion. He thought that the Catholic faith was a casualty of the revolution because most people saw the church as tied up with the old guard. That’s one reason the revolution went so far, because the Church wasn’t able to exert moderating influence.
- Although administration was arbitrary, the middle class and nobility also had some freedoms in France that similar classes in other countries didn’t enjoy
- He argues that Britain was inoculated from some of the revolutionary sentiments by political liberty. Without the centralization and arbitrariness of the French government, British rule didn’t provoke revolt.
- Meanwhile, the rural poor areas had long suffered brain drain. Increasingly, the nobility congregated in Paris, which was socially hegemonic, and anyone smart enough to achieve success would flee the poor outskirts. In some poor rural areas, the only educated person might be the priest, and he could grate on the population if perceived as an example of the distance of the other rich, educated people. The taille, a direct tax, hit those poor people. Partly as a result, de Tocqueville suggests that those rural peasants were not necessarily better off economically than three centuries before.
Christopher Hibbert’s The French Revolution contains far more detailed and gory descriptions of specific highlights and lowlights of the revolution, with less of a focus on what drove events and which decisions proved pivotal.
One note that stuck with me is that he writes that, in 1789, before the Terror and the other major violence, the revolutionaries had basically carried out a successful constitutional reform, bringing the king to Paris to change the constitution. But, crucially, at that point, the peasants didn’t perceive any benefits, having happened to suffer a bad harvest and high unemployment. Their unrest helped precipitate the major shake-up of the constitutional order on August 4th and began the sequence of events that led into the bloody part of the revolution and the more radical changes.
One note from The Giant of the French Revolution: Danton, A Life: Lawday notes that that Thomas Paine was a hero to the Jacobins for predicting in The Rights of Man that the French Revolution would take over all other countries as well. That prediction didn’t pan out.