British scholar Price (History/Univ. of Bradford) scrutinizes a little-studied episode of the French Revolution and solves a couple of minor mysteries in the bargain.
Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette may have lost their lives to the guillotine, but they didn’t go down without a fight. Price takes up a challenge posed by 19th-century German historian Max Lenz to “continue what I have begun” in tracking down documentary evidence of the life and work of one French aristocrat who tried to save the monarchy. Baron de Breteuil’s appointment as prime minister seems to have touched off the storming of the Bastille, but Price reckons he was a fairly decent chap all the same. In the early days of the revolution’s triumph, the baron and a handful of capable royalist associates undertook a series of negotiations with more moderate members of the new government in the hope, it appears, of coming to a constitutional accommodation whereby Louis and his queen would be allowed some sort of figurehead role, or at least could keep their heads. Those negotiations were underdone on both sides, the moderates having been chased into hiding by more radical revolutionaries, and the hidebound conservatives among the royalists insisting that any constitutional monarchy be one “in partnership with the privileged orders, not the third estate”—in other words, one that would deprive the people of any share of power. The revolutionaries, naturally, rejected this option. “Under the circumstances,” Price writes, “the royal authority could only have been restored by civil war or foreign invasion”—and, indeed, de Breteuil did try to forge an alliance of European powers to invade France, get rid of the pesky sans-culottes, and restore the king to the throne. All of which soon happened, but with a different cast of characters and for entirely different reasons.
Drier than dust—a shame, given the inherent interest of the materials—but nonetheless useful to historians of the period.