There is no more Vendée

Gavin Jacobson

  • The Coming of the Terror in the French Revolution by Timothy Tackett
    Harvard, 463 pp, £25.00, February 2015, ISBN 978 0 674 73655 9

Helen Maria Williams travelled to France in July 1790 to take part in the Fête de la Fédération that marked the first anniversary of the fall of the Bastille. She described the pageantry at the Champ de Mars as the ‘triumph of humankind; it was man asserting the noblest privilege of his nature; and it required but the common feelings of humanity, to become in that moment a citizen of the world.’ In 1794, in the midst of the Terror, she felt differently:

I have no words to paint the strong feeling of reluctance with which I always returned from our walks in Paris, that den of carnage, that slaughterhouse of man … We were obliged to pass the square of the revolution, where we saw the guillotine erected, the crowd assembled for the bloody tragedy, and the gens d’armes on horseback, followed by victims who were to be sacrificed, entering the square. Such was the daily spectacle which had succeeded the painted shows, the itinerant theatres, the mountebank, the dance, the song, the shifting scenes of harmless gaiety, which used to attack the cheerful crowd as they passed from the Tuileries to the Champs Elysées.

There has been no shortage of debate about the reasons for this descent into violence. Writing after the Second World War, Marxist historians like Georges Lefebvre understood the Terror of 1793-94 as a matter of national survival. By 1792, France faced invasion by the Austrian and Prussian armies; royalist insurgencies in Brittany, Lyon and the Vendée; defection among senior army officers; and massacres in Paris. The Jacobins weren’t terrorists, but part of a ‘revolutionary resistance’ that established a ruthless (but temporary) set of laws – under the Committee of Public Safety – to punish and deter counter-revolution.

The influence of Lefebvre’s argument was partly a result of the cultural and intellectual ascendancy of French communism after the war. It wasn’t until the 1970s that a younger generation of historians started to produce accounts of the Revolution inflected by ideological disenchantment. François Furet’s ur-text of liberal revisionism, Interpreting the French Revolution (1978), saw the Terror as a harbinger of 20th-century tyrannies, and revolutionary violence as a logical outcome of pre-revolutionary political thought. The Terror, he argued, emerged from Jacobin efforts to radicalise the Revolution ‘by making it consistent’ with theories of direct democracy, egalitarianism and the general will.

Recent studies are more interested in the improvised, temporally specific nature of the Terror: it was a series of responses to crisis and was fuelled by emotion as much as by ideology. There was little indication before 1789 that the leading revolutionaries – mainly lawyers, magistrates and property owners – would resort to terror. The French nobility’s fondness for ritualised violence and militarism wasn’t shared by Maximilien Robespierre, or most of the other members of the middle-class elite. Duelling, the aristocratic method of defending one’s honour, was considered barbaric. The future revolutionaries understood that low wages and food shortages might lead the urban poor to revolt, but they still condemned rioting workers in April 1789 as ‘mobs of rogues’. Their aversion to violence didn’t extend to capital punishment. Both Gabriel Bonnot de Mably’s Observations on the Romans (1751) and Rousseau’s Social Contract (1762) offered justifications for the execution of conspirators. The ‘evil-doer who attacks social right,’ Rousseau declared,

becomes a rebel and a traitor to the fatherland by his crimes, by violating its laws he ceases to be a member of it, and even enters into war with it. Then the preservation of the State is incompatible with his own, one of the two has to perish, and when the guilty man is put to death, it is less as a Citizen than as an enemy.

Countless versions of this argument would be quoted ex cathedra during the 1790s.

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