Down with Weathercocks

Tom Stammers

  • Liberty or Death: The French Revolution by Peter McPhee
    Yale, 468 pp, £14.99, July 2017, ISBN 978 0 300 22869 4

On 19 June 1790 the Prussian nobleman Jean-Baptiste du Val-de-Grâce, baron de Cloots, appeared at the bar of the French National Assembly. Five years earlier, he had left Paris in disgust at monarchical despotism, vowing not to return until the Bastille – its most notorious symbol – had fallen. Now he led a delegation of foreigners pleading the right to participate in the Fête de la Fédération, to commemorate the first anniversary of the fortress’s capture by the people of Paris. According to the minutes of the Assembly, his 36-man delegation included ‘Arabs, Chaldaeans, Prussians, Poles, English, Swiss, Germans, Dutchmen, Swedes, Italians, Spaniards, Americans, Indians, Syrians, Brabaçons, Liégeois, Avignonnais, Genevans’. Moved by their entreaties, the deputies not only reserved a special place for foreigners at the celebrations on 14 July, but concluded the session by pronouncing the abolition of noble titles. The former baron Cloots adopted the name Anacharsis, a homage to the philosopher-hero of Jean-Jacques Barthélemy’s bestselling novel about the defence of ancient Greek liberty.

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