A veteran chronicler of French history follows the wild-eyed forces that impelled the Revolution as well as the troubling aspects that kept them from meeting their goals.
Wisely, in order to help readers grasp the enormity of historical currents converging at this moment in the late 18th century, Popkin (Chair, History/Univ. of Kentucky; From Herodotus to H-Net: The Story of Historiography, 2015, etc.) uses two real characters to help illustrate his points. On one hand, Louis XVI was the “living symbol of the hereditary privileges and social inequalities the revolutionaries were determined to overturn.” He grew up to believe he was the country’s patriarch and that, as he said, “every profession contribute[ed], in its own way, to the support of the monarchy.” On the other hand, a young glazier named Jacques-Louis Ménétra would have been lumped into what became the powerful force of the “Third Estate”—i.e., everyone who was not royal or clergy. In contrast to the upper classes, who focused intently on maintaining the rigid status quo, commoners such as Ménétra seemed at the mercy of erratic fluctuations in received ideas from the press as well as yearly harvests, the whims of landlords, prices of food, and collective violence. Yet, as Popkin astutely points out, “even if few of them could read and write, peasants had a strong sense of their rights.” The growing crisis of the country’s bankruptcy, thanks in large part to Louis’ insistence on financing the American Revolution to spite rival England, meant forcing the king into reluctant, seesawing measures. The fomenting ideas of the Enlightenment, as epitomized in Diderot’s Encyclopédie (which Louis owned), were the same as those that spurred the Americans, but the outcome was violently different. The author underscores how the French example might have “foreshadowed totalitarian excesses more than social progress” and how liberty for some did not spell liberty for all, especially slaves and women.
A fresh, welcome new interpretation of the French Revolution.