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.

On 26 August 1792, two weeks after the overthrow of Louis XVI, Cloots was one of 18 foreigners accorded citizenship by the new republic; in September he was elected to the succcessor to the National Assembly, the Convention. He let himself be known as the ‘orator of the human race’ and dreamed of a world in which all states would be abolished in favour of a single global republic. But such cosmopolitan fantasies soon evaporated as the revolutionary government turned against those to whom it had previously offered asylum. By 1793, with France at war against a coalition of European powers, non-French nationals were hounded, imprisoned and expelled. In the spring of 1794 Robespierre stormed into the Convention and denounced Cloots for his links to the Vandenyver banking family, who were accused of distributing British gold in France. ‘Can we regard a German baron as a patriot? Can we regard a man with an income of more than a thousand livres as a sans-culotte?’ Cloots’s origins had caught up with him and he was guillotined before a large and spiteful crowd.

What happened to Cloots exemplifies some of the elements of revolutionary politics: the capacity for social reinvention, as well as its dangers; the quicksilver mutation of policies into their opposites; and the ineluctable gobbling-up of radicals by insatiable Mother Revolution. Cloots’s story also captures the ecstatic reaction to the revolution outside France’s borders. Early admirers across the Rhine abstracted the struggles for rights and recognition into a clash of warring concepts resulting in the painful birth of epochal truths (what Hegel called ‘a glorious mental dawn’). Sloughing off the muck and the gore, intellectuals made the revolution the hinge of a new philosophy of history. Nietzsche relished the irony that the revolution – ‘that gruesome and, closely considered, superfluous farce’ – had become almost unrecognisable, wrapped up in layers of excitable commentary: ‘Noble and enthusiastic spectators all over Europe interpreted from a distance their own indignations and raptures so long and so passionately that the text disappeared beneath the interpretation.’

By contrast, the great merit of Peter McPhee’s new synthesis is the weight it gives to the earthy, even mundane, aspects of revolutionary experience. It examines 1789 from the peripheries, rather than Paris, as seen through the eyes of the menu peuple, rather than from the heights of the Mountain, those radical deputies who sat on the highest benches of the Legislative Assembly. Neither the provincial geography of the book, nor its broad conclusions, would have displeased Georges Lefebvre, the interwar pioneer of history from below. What is lost in terms of the familiar drama of the revolution is gained in the portrayal of innumerable ordinary citizens who were obliged to pick sides and take momentous decisions. The principles of 1789 as proclaimed in the capital had to be embedded in thousands of villages and communes across France, a process commemorated in the planting of liberty trees, the naming of babies (‘Mucius Scaevola’, ‘Faisceau Pique Terreur’ and ‘Fumier’ – or ‘dung heap’, an eccentric emblem of regeneration) and the erection of altars to the fatherland (only one still stands, a dour column in Thionville on the Moselle).

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