The Remaking of France; The Hebertistes To The Guillotine; & Ending The Terror

Peter Jones | Published in History Today
  • The Remaking of France: The National Assembly, The Constitution of 1791 and the French Polity, 1789-1791
    Michael P. Fitzsimmons - Cambridge University Press, 1994 - XV + 273 pp. - £35
  • The Hebertistes To The Guillotine: Anatomy Of A 'Conspiracy' In Revolutionary France
    Morris Slavin - Louisiana State University Press, 1994 - xvii + 280 pp. - £35
  • Ending The Terror: The French Revolution After Robespierre
    Bronislaw Baczko - Cambridge University Press, 1994 - xii + 269 pp. - £37.50

On the evidence of these three books, the full chronological range of the French Revolution continues to exert a powerful attraction upon the minds of historians. AII are scholarly monographs rooted in thorough, indeed obsessive, documentary research and all appear in English for the first time. Here, though, the similarities end. Morris SIavin retells the dramatic story of the destruction of the Hebertists from a sternly 'orthodox' viewpoint, whereas Fitzsimmons and Baczko approach , respectively, the onset and the aftermath of the Revolution from a substantially 'revisionist' perspective. Baczko's study, it is worth adding, originally appeared some five years ago in a French-language edition.

Non-specialists will find Fitzsimmons' book provides the most nourishing fare. For he addresses the question first raised by Alexis de Tocqueville: how precisely did the Revolution 'come out' of the ancien regime? The answer is to be found in a painstaking analysis of the debate on 'privilege' which gathered momentum in the months between the calling of the first Assembly of Notables and the convening of the Estates General.

Whereas most historians like to telescope this debate in order to emphasise how much of the fabric of the ancien regime had been called into question by the spring of 1789, Fitzsimmons is anxious to draw attention to the limited character of reformist strategy. Maybe the bulk of the nobility and the clergy had come round to the view, by May 1789, that their fiscal immunities would have to be sacrificed. Certainly, the deputies of the Third Estate would insist on nothing less. But this did not mean that every hallowed institution, every corporate privilege and provincial 'freedom' was up for grabs. Far from it. The vast majority of deputies attending the Estates General expressed no desire to break with the 'society of orders', that is to say the key social metaphor of Bourbon absolutism.

More controversially, Fitzsimmons further argues that respect for socio-juridical orders and the welter of territorial particularisms etched into the kingdom outlived the transition from Estates General to National Assembly. Shorn of its objectionable fiscal and political prerogatives, privilege, he implies, would have carried on pretty much as before.

So what happened to alter the trajectory of the National Assembly? The turning-point occurred on the night of August 4th-5th, 1789, when the deputies, in an ecstasy of enthusiasm, tore into shreds the fabric of the ancien regime. Almost overnight the reform agenda dramatically lengthened: France had to be ‘remade’, or rebuilt from scratch. The task was completed in record time and with minimal dissent, but only because a refashioned collective identity (here portrayed as the ‘sublimity of the nation’) swept away all erstwhile sources of opposition.

Although Fitzsimmons' book seeks acceptance as a political history of the National Assembly, its intellectual pivot lies firmly in the spring and summer months of 1789. With the celebratory Fete de la Federation held in Paris on the anniversary of the taking of the Bastille, his story is complete. The rest is little more than elaboration on the central theme. Nonetheless, the case for viewing the gestational months of 1789-90 as a kind of transitional period between old and new regimes is massively documented and powerfully argued.

Perhaps the author dwells unduly upon the traditionalist outlook of the deputies between May and early July, doubtless in order to highlight the mental revolution triggered by the 'sacrifices' of August 4th-5th. This prompts him to marginalise the constituency represented by the abbe Sieyes, and to underestimate the forces resisting the embrace of the 'nation' from the time of the Monarchiens onwards. Yet these are matters for interpretation by specialists. They detract not one jot from the signal achievement of this study which is to offer a uniquely parliamentary reading of the opening years of the French Revolution.

By contrast, Morris Slavin shows no interest whatsoever in the reviving fashion for parliamentary history. His hook is best characterised as a minute analysis of Parisian popular politics during the tense winter of 1793-94. These months revealed the Committee of Public Safety assailed on the one hand by street-level agitators, and on the other by a vocal body of deputies who thought the time had come to put an end to the Terror. The Hebertists, as the Sectional agitators became known in death, if not in life, mostly wished to curb the trend towards centralisation and to intensify the Terror. In effect, therefore, Hebert and his allies in the Cordeliers Club set out to challenge the political primacy of the great Committees.

This story is a familiar one, if only because Albert Soboul has told it before. However, Morris Slavin can justly claim the credit for providing, in English, the first really detailed account of Hebcrt's rise and fall. Many students of the French Revolution will thank him far that. Specialist historians, in their turn, will he impressed by the way in which he knits together the various strands of the Ventose Crisis: the growing food shortages, the repeated calls for some kind of insurrection, and the timely proposal of Saint-Just to distribute the property of ‘enemies of the people’. For the conclusion to which he leads us is that the popularity of Hebert and the Cordeliers militants rested on a fragile social base. When forced to choose, the Sans-culottes were far more likely to support Robespierre than the fabled editor of le Pere Duchesne.

How to find an escape route from a Terror which proceeded to devour Danton and Robespierre, as well as Hebert and thousands of ordinary mortals, is the subject of Bronislaw Baczko's book. Or to be precise, he is interested in the ways in which the men of Thermidor sought to disengage from a regime for which they bore a heavy responsibility. The options open to them were several. They could cast a veil of 'forgetfulness' over the experience of 1793-94; alternatively they could blame the bloody nightmare of the Revolutionary Tribunal on Robespierre and the Jacobins. But this required a line of demarcation to he drawn between acts of revolutionary as opposed to terrorist violence. Amid the mounting clamour for a politics of revenge, such distinctions soon gave way. The original architects of Thermidor became victims in turn as an all-embracing and 'public' trial of the Terror got under way.

This is the gist of Baczko's argument. However, it is presented in the form of a series of musings which lack a connecting narrative thread. Windy rhetoric, sharp insight and lengthy quotations compete for space on every other page, making this the hardest of the three books to digest. Whereas Fitzsimmons and Slavin can be read profitably at several levels, Baczko makes no attempt to provide a rounded account of the Thermidorian Reaction. As such it is really a book for the connoisseur.

PETER JONES is the co-author of Reshaping France: Town, Country and Region (Manchester University Press, 1991).

Get Miscellanies, our free weekly long read, in your inbox every week