David A. Bell

David A. Bell who teaches history at Princeton, is the author, most recently, of Men on Horseback: The Power of Charisma in the Age of Revolution.

‘One red sea of Fire, wild-billowing, enwraps the World; with its fire-tongue licks at the very Stars.’ When Thomas Carlyle wrote these words in the 1830s, few people in the West doubted that the event he was describing, the French Revolution, counted as among the most important in human history. Some saw it as a deliverance, others as a catastrophe, but they agreed that it had...

The Napoleonic Wars were in no sense purely European events. They involved individuals from around the world and had worldwide ramifications. They left a stamp on everything from the westward expansion of the United States to the independence of the Latin American nations to the geopolitical dominance of the British Empire in the 19th century. Napoleon’s own ambitions reached far beyond the European continent. ‘I wanted to rule the world,’ he told Benjamin Constant in 1815. ‘Who wouldn’t have done, in my place?’Historians have always been aware of these ramifications. It’s familiar knowledge that the westward expansion of the US began when Napoleon decided to sell it the vast Louisiana Territory and that Latin American independence movements took off after his invasions of Portugal and Spain, which meant they could no longer control their colonies. But the wars in Europe already make for a dauntingly complex subject.

In the autumn​ of 1730, a 20-year-old woman in the southern French port of Toulon claimed that her spiritual director, a middle-aged Jesuit, had repeatedly forced her to have sex with him. When she became pregnant, he made her drink a potion that induced an abortion. He denied everything and accused her of slander. The case went to trial before the sovereign court of Aix-en-Provence, and...

A State Jew: Léon Blum

David A. Bell, 5 November 2015

The​ newspaper Action française habitually referred to Léon Blum, France’s Socialist leader, as the ‘warlike Hebrew’ and the ‘circumcised Narbonnais’ (he represented a constituency in Narbonne). On 13 February 1936, Blum was being driven away from the National Assembly when he encountered a group of ultra-right-wing militants who had gathered at...

The 18th century​ was a great age for criminals. Western European countries were awash with more private wealth than ever before, but their police forces remained weak, at least by modern standards. Communications were slow and unreliable, and only the most rudimentary means existed for tracking individual malefactors. Especially in remote towns, a determined band might carry out a brazen...

Come and see for yourself: Tocqueville

David A. Bell, 18 July 2013

On 11 May 1831, a fastidious 25-year-old Norman aristocrat arrived in New York City with an assignment to report on American prisons for the French Ministry of Justice. Over the next nine months he travelled up the East Coast, down the Mississippi and through what was then the wild west of Kentucky, Ohio and Michigan. ‘Not every American is pleasant to interact with,’ he...

Simple Facts and Plain Truths: Common Sense

David A. Bell, 20 October 2011

Readers of the LRB probably don’t have a lot of common sense: this, after all, is a journal of the ‘chattering classes’. Some of its contributors are Marxists, feminists and postmodern philosophers. Could anything be more at odds with the no-nonsense common sense of the ordinary man or woman?

We have become so accustomed to this usage that it is something of a shock to be...

Handsome, Charming …: Beaumarchais

David A. Bell, 22 October 2009

The 18th century was the great age of the European parvenu. Social hierarchies were rigid enough to make a sudden leap up the ladder not just unusual but shocking. Yet even before the French Revolution these hierarchies were coming under unprecedented pressure as a result of a surging commercial economy, Enlightenment philosophy and absolute rulers who sought to twist traditional elites into...

In March 1962, the German far-right intellectual Carl Schmitt visited Spain. It was a homecoming of sorts, for while Germany now shunned this brilliant jurist, who had given enthusiastic support to the Nazis, the land of Franco still revered him (he spoke fluent Spanish, and his daughter was married to a prominent Franquista). Schmitt was there to give lectures at Pamplona and Saragossa in...

Un Dret Egal: Political Sentiment

David A. Bell, 15 November 2007

If you want to understand the origins of modern human rights legislation, Lynn Hunt claims, the place to start is not the philosophical background, or the crises that the legislation addressed, but 18th-century fiction. The path she follows is not obvious, by any means – particularly as she has not chosen the fiction that most directly confronted issues of injustice (Candide, say, or...

One Does It Like This: Talleyrand

David A. Bell, 16 November 2006

Napoleon Bonaparte and his chief diplomat, Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand, are usually seen as the oddest of history’s odd couples. One personified boldness, ambition and overblown operatic passion; the other, subtlety, irony and world-weary cynicism. One displayed such restless physical energy that contemporaries repeatedly reached for that newly hatched adjective ‘electric’...

There is a fable about the French past that goes as follows. Sometime in the 17th century, the country’s proud noble caste was humbled and tamed by imperious ministers and kings. Where once it had swayed the destinies of Europe, it was now confined to the gilded cage of the royal court, and the elegant salons of Paris. Others might have raged against this fate, but the French nobility...

Violets in Their Lapels: Bonapartism

David A. Bell, 23 June 2005

France, it has often been said, is a democracy with the manners of an absolute monarchy. Think of the ceremonial splendour with which French presidents surround themselves, the haughty, distant style they tend to adopt, or the way relationships within their entourages tend to mimic, with delicious self-consciousness, patterns of favouritism and intrigue developed long ago at the court of...

Ruling the Roast: A Nation of Beefeaters

David A. Bell, 25 September 2003

At moments of stress, depression or grief, my thoughts turn irresistibly towards the golden arches of McDonald’s. Usually, I find the food repellent, but there are times when nothing can soothe my wounded American spirit like the famous ‘two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles and onions on a sesame-seed bun’. Yes, the burgers are assembled from the...

The French Revolutionaries identified the Enlightenment as the work of a small, brave band of 18th-century philosophes, whom they rushed to entomb as heroes in the gloomy crypt of the Panthéon. In the corrupt and desolate wasteland of the Ancien Régime, the Revolutionaries proclaimed, the philosophes had cast welcoming rays of light and reason, stirring the dull roots of popular...

Of all the elements which go into making Paris such an exquisite object of desire, not the least is the memory of bloodshed. It adds a note of danger to the city’s frivolous pleasures, a sombre colour to an otherwise oppressively light palette. No other city’s history can offer such an extraordinary mixture of luxury and savagery, and the visitor who delights in the first also...

Andy Martin is unlikely to convince many readers that Napoleon conquered Europe only as compensation for his inability to write a sentimental novel. His attention to the Emperor’s literary ambitions is, however, not unreasonable. Napoleon dreamed of literary as well as military glory, wrote copiously at various moments in his life, and had real talent for it (Sainte-Beuve called him...

A Long Silence: ‘Englishness’

David A. Bell, 14 December 2000

The Americans have ‘American exceptionalism’. The French have ‘l’exception française’. The Germans have ‘der deutsche Sonderweg’. The English, on the other hand, have no equivalent catchphrase: it seems they take their exceptionality so much for granted that they don’t even bother putting a name to it. Does such a thing as...

Who mended Pierre’s leg? Lourdes

David A. Bell, 11 November 1999

On the surface, no two people in 19th-century France had less in common than Louis Pasteur and Bernadette Soubirous. Pasteur, the great icon of modern biological science, was a French national hero, a pillar of the academic establishment: the very embodiment of modern, rational, liberal civilisation. Soubirous was a miserably poor, tubercular peasant girl, illiterate, unable to speak anything other than Pyrenean patois, who claimed, in February 1858, to have seen a miraculous apparition in a grotto near the village of Lourdes. ‘Que soy era Immaculada Councepciou,’ the apparition said to her: ‘I am the Immaculate Conception.’‘

Six French Frizeurs

David A. Bell, 10 December 1998

The moment in the 18th century when Anglo-French relations reached their lowest point was probably 29 May 1794 – 10 Prairial, Year II, as the French then styled it. On that day, the Jacobin Bertrand Barère delivered a typically long-winded and overheated speech to France’s National Convention on his favourite subject, English perfidy. He accused English soldiers of unprecedented atrocities in Europe, North America and India. He denounced English spies for trying to assassinate his dear friend Maximilien Robespierre (two months later, in Thermidor, the politically nimble Barère voted to condemn Robespierre to death, but that is another story). He called corrupt, commercial England the new Carthage facing France’s new Rome, and added that the sooner it shared Carthage’s fate, the better. ‘National hatred must sound forth,’ he trumpeted. ‘Young republicans should suck a hatred of the name Englishman with their mother’s milk.’ The English were ‘a populace foreign to Europe, foreign to humanity. They must disappear.’ It seems that he meant this last sentence all too literally, for he concluded by proposing a pithy little motion, which the Convention approved unanimously and without debate, instructing French commanders in the field to take no English or Hanoverian prisoners alive. Fortunately, the commanders mostly ignored the order, although Norman Hampson, in his valuable new book, has found a couple of unfortunate instances where they followed it to the letter.’‘

Mother’s Boys

David A. Bell, 10 June 1993

It used to be that historians searched for the causes of the French Revolution in the manner of detectives on the track of a master criminal. Over the years, unfortunately, they dragged such a bewildering variety of suspects into the historical station-house that one would be forgiven for thinking a posse of bumbling Inspector Lestrades had been let loose in the archives. Sometimes the suspects were individuals (most popularly, Rousseau or the Duc d’Orléans), sometimes they were collective (philosophes, freemasons and the rising bourgeoisie, the last of whom once seemed the historical equivalents of serial killers, leaving their fingerprints everywhere), and sometimes abstract (the Esprit de Système, the Idea of Freedom, Capitalism …). Many of the accused seemed convincing culprits at the time, but such is the nature of historical inquiry that even the occasional Holmes among historians failed to make the charges stick for long. Nonetheless, each generation of specialists enthusiastically brought new techniques and methodologies to the same gigantic, confusing mass of clues.

Fallen Idols

David A. Bell, 23 July 1992

The French, a people normally not plagued by a lack of national pride, revere very few of their past leaders. Consider the following list: Richelieu, Louis XIV, Robespierre, Napoleon, Clemenceau, De Gaulle. Which of them enjoys anything like the adoration from their countrymen that Americans give to the secular canon of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Roosevelt and Kennedy? Napoleon himself is today remembered as a vainglorious tyrant who squandered his achievements. The last president or king who still excites unstinting positive emotions is Henri IV, assassinated in 1610. Even De Gaulle inspires far more respect than love. Only the English, perhaps, among Western nations, match the French in this lack of hero-worship (consider the similar fates of Churchill and De Gaulle in the immediate post-war period). Both nations do a much better job of idolising their great writers.


Animal Trials

5 December 2013

The story of the ‘pig of Falaise,’ formally tried and executed in the late 14th century for the supposed murder of a child, recounted by Michael Grayshott, is an excellent one. Alas, like so many good historical stories, it is also largely and perhaps entirely fictional, as the historian Paul Friedland recently demonstrated in Seeing Justice Done: The Age of Spectacular Capital Punishment...

A Bad President?

5 July 2012

Much as I admire David Bromwich, I find his unremittingly acerbic, ungenerous treatment of Barack Obama depressing and misguided (LRB, 5 July). Obama has been far from an unqualified success, but in the face of a depressed economy and a mean-spirited, fanatical opposition, he has achieved far more than Bromwich gives him credit for. He staved off total economic catastrophe, largely disengaged the United...


11 May 2006

Benedetta Craveri says that I accuse her of an ignorance of basic social history, and that I failed to read her footnotes (Letters, 6 July). In fact, in my review I paid tribute to her ‘serious research’. What I claimed, and stand by, is that her book ends up resembling traditional fables about the French nobility despite this research. I did not, as she seems to think, argue that her book...


23 September 2004

Perry Anderson’s two-part article on France is a virtuoso performance: a marvellously well-informed, dyspeptic and entertaining survey of recent French history (LRB, 2 September) and (LRB, 23 September). Still, it’s hard not to wonder if France has really seen quite so complete a triumph of liberal capitalism as Anderson implies. He writes with eloquence and bite about the continuing...

Revolutionary Yoke: Le Nationalisme

William Doyle, 27 June 2002

Recording the moment Samuel Johnson startled his friends in 1775 by declaring patriotism to be the ‘last refuge of a scoundrel’, Boswell felt that the definition needed to be glossed....

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