The Days of the French Revolution

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 15)

Probably no event in history, at least in modern history, has stimulated the minds and imaginations of historians, antiquarians, novelists, playwrights, screenwriters, and the general public more than the Great French Revolution of 1789. Because of the Revolution’s continued popularity, a survey of the historiography of the Revolution and of the contributions of nonhistorians would be helpful in determining the value of Christopher Hibbert’s The Days of the French Revolution to the historian and the general reader.

Although the revolutionaries engaged in wanton destruction of anything associated with the old regime, they were nevertheless anxious to assure that posterity would not overlook their actions. As a result, the Revolutionary period witnessed the production of an overwhelming mass of written materials, some useful but much highly biased, from which scholars have worked since the early days of the Revolution. These materials include, but are not limited to, memoirs, pamphlets, broadsides, and documents of the successive Revolutionary governments and the Revolutionary Tribunal. From the beginning, the Revolution had its critics and supporters, men who were prescient enough to realize its significance. In 1790, across the Channel in Britain, Edmund Burke, in his Reflections on the Revolution in France, produced the classic counterrevolutionary conservative attack on the Revolution’s ideological premises. In the same year, there appeared in France the first volume of Histoire de la Révolution de 1789 et de l’établisement d’une Constitution en France, written anonymously by deux amis de la liberté. By 1803, it was to swell to twenty volumes and came to be attributed to many writers. In 1792, Jean-Paul Rabaut (also known as Saint-Étienne), a Huguenot pastor and member of the Girondin faction, published his Almanach historique de la Révolution française pour l’année 1792. Rabaut was executed in 1793, but his work was continued by Charles J. D. de Lacratelle who published his five-volume Précis historique de la Révolution française between 1801 and 1806.

Since then the production of historical literature on the Revolution has developed into a minor industry, primarily in France, and secondarily in Great Britain and the United States. Historians from other countries have also participated in the analysis of the Revolution. Until recently, French historians have usually been bitterly partisan in their interpretations of the Revolution’s meaning. Their attitudes have tended to reflect their own social and economic status, their religious views, their political philosophies, and conditions in France during the times they were writing. Thus, while the great Republican democrat Jules Michelet, writing in the 1840’s and 1850’s, viewed the Revolution as the great regenerative force in French history carried out by and for “the people,” Hippolyte Taine, writing in the 1870’s and 1880’s, viewed the Revolution from the the perspective of the Paris Commune of 1871, which had frightened him and disillusioned him with Michelet’s “people.” In a bitter and scathing indictment, Taine saw the Revolution, not as earlier conservative historians had perceived it as an accident or conspiracy, but as “spontaneous anarchy” carried out, not by Michelet’s “people,” but by “the mob,” “la canaille,” by the lowest dregs of society.

The Republican tradition received new life in the last years of the nineteenth century with the appointment of Alphonse Aulard to the Chair of the French Revolution at the Sorbonne in 1886, and his publication, in 1901, of the Histoire politique de la Révolution française. This was accompanied, in the years immediately before and after World War I and the Russian Revolution, by the emergence of the socialist school of French Revolutionary historical scholarship. The father of this movement was Jean Jaurès, the socialist pacifist who was assassinated in 1914 because of his opposition to war. The socialist tradition was continued by Aulard’s best-known student, Albert Mathiez, who because of his attraction to Jaurès’ work began to have strong disagreements with his mentor, Aulard. Indeed, the intensity of feeling that the Revolution has inspired in French men and women is clearly exemplified by Mathiez’s physical attack on Aulard over the vices and virtues of their respective Revolutionary heroes, Maximilien de Robespierre and Georges-Jacques Danton. Virtually every aspect of the Revolution has been subjected to the historian’s scrutiny. The antiquarian, G. Lenôtre (pseudonym of Louis L. T. Gosselin) devoted much of his life to tracing down the sites in Paris of many major and minor events of the Revolution.

Not only are there biographies of primary and secondary Revolutionary figures and histories of the various phases of the Revolution, but there are also works devoted to special aspects of the Revolution. These include, but are not limited to, histories of Revolutionary religion, foreign relations, economic trends and institutions, drama and the theater, education, journalism, language, literature, music, science, local history, military and naval affairs, law, social classes and problems, and women. The counterrevolution has also become a popular field of study which has attracted the labors of historians and sociologists. There are numerous separately published bibliographies dealing exclusively with the Revolution, as well as many periodicals. Indeed historical literature on the Revolution runs the gamut from histories of the proceedings of the Revolutionary assemblies to an account about the fate of dogs and cats during the Revolution. The volume of literature on the Revolution, much of it partisan, has enabled French Revolutionary historiography to evolve as a separate field of study unto itself. Indeed, various personalities and phases of the Revolution have been the subject of lengthy historiographical examinations, such as George Rude’s Robespierre: Portrait of a Revolutionary Democrat (1975).

Historical novelists have also found the...

(The entire section is 2515 words.)