Passion over Prudence


Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution, by Simon Schama, New York: Knopf, 948 pages, $29.95

"The first heavy casualties of the French Revolution were rabbits."

Detail and interpretations of this kind fill nearly every page of Simon Schama's magnificent "chronicle" of the French Revolution. In this case, Schama finds significant the widespread rural disregard of the laws protecting wildlife when, in the hungry spring of 1789, a plague of rabbits threatened to devour what was left of a meager harvest. Huge mobs of farmers and laborers roamed the fields, pummeling every form of life encountered. Soon these same mobs would be waylaying grain shipments, leading to disruptions and unrest in Paris. The rest, as the cliche goes…

Citizens ought to be the final book on the subject of the French Revolution. But you know it won't be. The French Revolution will always be a big deal because it raises in pure form many of the classic political questions: How should representation be determined? What is the relationship between violence and legitimacy? Is the good man the same as the good citizen? To what extent can or should government work to mold the virtue of its citizens? Is totalitarianism just an updated form of ancient tyranny, or is it something new?

The French Revolution also raises great historical questions. Cause and effect, always problematic for historians, are even more elusive for the French Revolution. The most basic themes remain controversial. Was it, as R.R. Palmer and many other historians have argued, "the great turning point of modem civilization," the crucible of modernity, and, as Jules Michelet had it, the heir of the Christian epoch? Or was it in fact chiefly antimodern at its core? For intellectual history, the place of Enlightenment philosophy has always been hard to fix. One school of thought, spawned by Burke and De Maistre, has the Revolution as a natural product of the Enlightenment, thereby setting the stage to deplore both, while the Marxist-inspired historians explain events not as the result of ideas at all, but of those hoary impersonal forces.

For Americans and democrats everywhere, the comparative question remains lively: Next to the French Revolution, the American Revolution pales, giving rise to a predominantly liberal school of thought that argues that the American Revolution was not revolutionary at all but should be regarded as a mere War of Independence. (The next step in the argument, of course, is that America needs a genuine egalitarian revolution.) And because of the similar phrasing of Jefferson's Declaration of Independence and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, many American conservatives argue that our Declaration is "tainted" by French influence and therefore not to be regarded as a vital part of the American tradition and certainly not to be accorded any theoretical authority.

There is finally the enormous popular legacy of the French Revolution. It is the standard by which other upheavals are measured. And this historical controversy over its nature has huge popular overtones, as was made evident by the furor that followed Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's denigration of the Revolution's significance. The French Revolution stands among the handful of historical moments fraught with contemporary importance.

So the historical debate has converged with the political debate. Indeed, it can be said that modern conservatism was generated out of the French Revolution, with Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France being the chief scripture right down to the present day. The Burkean critique is in one respect not necessarily helpful: Its ideological analysis provides ironic sanction to the liberal view that the French Revolution was a modernizing force and to the Marxist view that the Revolution was an important milestone on the Inevitable Course of History, in which bourgeois capitalism displaced relic feudalism. Many historians argue that it was neither of these, and they have to overcome Burke as well as the liberals and the Marxists.

Citizens addresses itself to all of these controversies, in a narrative form that provides interpretations as events unfold before the reader. Schama deliberately chooses the narrative form, because in recent historical inquiries "the causes of the French Revolution were depersonalized, cut loose from the speech and conduct of Great Men and instead located deep within the structure of the society that preceded it.…Scientific—or at least sociological—history had arrived and with it, the demotion of chronicle to anecdotal unimportance." It is Schama's purpose to revive this style and yet still offer the reader broad conclusive themes.

Citizens comes down squarely on the side of the recent revisionists, such as François Furet, who see the French Revolution generally as a catastrophe proceeding from rather unremarkable political causes. Although a great many factors combined to give the Revolution its character, the principal cause of the crisis of 1789 was the fiscal insolvency of the French government. Early on, Schama disputes the histories that stress institutional and social forces at the expense of politics. In fact, Schama writes, Tocqueville was right when he argued that the obsession with reform prior to 1789 contributed mightily to the growing disarray.

Many are the historians who hold that the French Revolution was the direct outcome of the Enlightenment, which was carried on nowhere more vigorously than in the salons of Paris. Schama yields some ground to this view. "Rousseau's works dealing with personal virtue and the morality of social relations sharpened distaste for the status quo and defined a new allegiance," Schama writes. But the obscurity of Rousseau's political philosophy made its precise application—as well as precise evaluation by historians—difficult. Schama identifies Rousseau's rhetorical style as his most important bequest: "What he invented was not a road map to revolution, but the idiom in which its discontents would be voiced and its goals articulated." Later on Schama describes the rhetoric of the Parisian Jacobin clubs as "Rousseau with a hoarse voice."

The main reason for Schama's restraint about the place of the Enlightenment in the catalogue of causes is his equal appreciation for the other intellectual currents and images. Even as radicals invoked the General Will and other Rousseauian ideas, there was equally prominent in the revolutionary consciousness a strong element of classical Roman republicanism. Just as the Americans adopted the Latin slogan "Novus Ordo Seclorum"—A New Order for the Ages—Mirabeau made popular the slogan "Novus Rerum Nascitur Ordo"—A New Order of Things Is Born. "Their France would be a Rome reborn," Schama observes. In both speech and popular art, the Revolution as Horatian spectacle is common.

And finally, notes Schama in his epilogue, "it was perhaps Romanticism with its addiction to the Absolute and the Ideal; its fondness for the vertiginous and macabre; its concept of political energy as, above all, electrical; its obsession with the heart; its preference for passion over reason, for virtue over peace, that supplied a crucial ingredient in the mentality of the revolutionary elite: its association of liberty with wildness."

Citizens illuminates many of the basic political questions the Revolution faced. Schama's narrative is especially useful for political scientists interested in comparing the French and American solutions to basic problems such as representation, voting privileges, separation of powers, good citizenship and patriotism, and so forth. Abandoning the historical precedent for the composition of the Estates-General was, according to Schama, the first great turning point of the Revolution. The debate over how to compose the general assembly raised the theoretical question that often dogged the American Founding: What is representation, and how is it provided for? (That there is no satisfactory practical answer is evident from James Madison's remark in The Federalist that one "should not dwell overlong" on this question.) The large electorate in the regional assemblies generated, Schama writes, "the most numerous experiment in political representation attempted anywhere in the world." But later in the Revolution, landholding and taxpaying qualifications disenfranchised large sections of the population, resulting in "a narrower electorate at the levels where it really counted."

The Revolution also failed to solve the problem of dividing legislative and executive power. It is precisely this issue where Rousseau's notion of the General Will, with its implication of unitary power, did the most disservice to French political thinking. By invoking Rousseau, the revolutionaries turned away from their most valuable intellectual patrimony: Montesquieu and the doctrine of the separation of powers. (It is worth noting that Montesquieu—not Locke—was the most frequently cited European thinker in American political writing of the Founding era.)

And then there is the question first raised in classical Greece: the relationship between citizenship, morality, and patriotism. The one indisputable transformation of the Revolution, according to Schama, was "the creation of the juridical entity of the citizen." But the free citizen and his natural rights were quickly subsumed by what Schama rightly calls "The Dictatorship of Virtue," an all-consuming patriotism that saw all dissent as not just unpatriotic, but unvirtuous. Here again Rousseau's doctrine that government was a form of educational trust, responsible for the moral regeneration of the people, was given active form.

One might posit a general lesson: Where there is undue veneration of the patrie, paternalism will not be far behind. The economic dimension of the French Revolution is perhaps the most ironic. Schama points out that, although there was widespread rural poverty, France in the 1780s was prospering and increasingly capitalistic. The economic damage inflicted by the Revolution took decades to repair. The rural poor never benefited from the confiscation of church property, and the inflation and price controls that followed the introduction of paper money were worse than the state bankruptcy that triggered the whole mess.

A segment of the radicals wanted it this way. As Schama tells it, "They wanted paternalism rather than economic liberalism, the regulation of prices rather than free markets." Most surprisingly, Robespierre made it a staple of Jacobinism that the rights of property were not absolute, and Schama concludes, "their [the Jacobins'] war was a war against commercial capitalism."

The truth about the economic interests in the Revolution belies the class-based analysis. Schama frequently breaks off from his steady and careful narrative to deliver much-deserved whacks at historians who have misrepresented this and other aspects of the Revolution. In most instances these demurrers are done politely and without mentioning specific historians by name, but Schama erupts with vituperation when considering the historiography of one issue: The Terror. Schama rejects outright the common view that the French Revolution had two distinct phases, an early "liberal" period lasting until 1791, and then The Terror. To the contrary, "The Terror was merely 1789 with a higher body count. From the first year it was apparent that violence was not just an unfortunate side effect from which enlightened Patriots could selectively avert their eyes; it was the Revolution's source of collective energy." Schama returns to this theme often, and at one point singles out historian Pierre Caron, censuring him for "intellectual cowardice and moral self-delusion." Caron's downplaying of the violence against the rebellious province of Vendée, Schama writes, amounts to "the scholarly normalization of evil."

Schama has received some criticism for breaking off his narrative with the execution of Robespierre in 1794, but this criticism fails to appreciate how Schama's purposes are completed by this point. "What occurred between 1789 and 1793," Schama writes at the last, "was an unprecedented explosion of politics—in speech, print, image and even music—that broke all the barriers that had traditionally circumscribed it." And although Schama is moved by the grandeur of the spectacle, he clearly sees that the logic of utopian revolution is to devour the very people it seeks to free. The difficulty of returning the revolutionary genie to the bottle of state power (Schama's phrase) reminds once again that prudence is the highest political principle of the statesman.

Here the comparison with America tells. In 1791, Thomas Jefferson (who departed from his ambassadorship in Paris in September 1789) wrote to a friend: "I still hope the French Revolution will issue happily. I feel that the permanence of our own leans in some degree on that, and that a failure there would be a powerful argument to prove that there must be a failure here." Jefferson should have known better. What Jefferson the idealist failed to discern was the absence of any prudence and moderation in France that would have led to establishing the principle of limited government. What Americans understood was that only limited government can provide for the equal rights of free men; what the French should have learned (it's not clear whether they have) is that unlimited ideals combined with unlimited government must quickly obliterate those ideals. Compare the rhetoric in the French assemblies with the rhetoric in American assemblies. Even though our Declaration of Independence sounds like their Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, the similarity ends there.

Contributing Editor Steven Hayward is director of the Claremont Institute's Golden State Project.