Power, Property and History
History in Geographic Perspective: The Other France
All three books under review are about revolution and change, though the first is concerned with only fifteen years at the turn of the eighteenth century, while the last two deal with the subject in a general way.
The theme of Professor Godechot’s book, which was first published in French in 1961 and now appears in an (unfortunately very careless) English translation, is the counterrevolution in thought and action between the meeting of the States General in 1789 and the end of the Consulate in 1804. Professor Godechot points out that this is a subject to which French academic historians, most of whom are on the left, have rarely felt attracted. Its appeal has been principally to amateurs with right-wing sympathies who have lacked the historical techniques for dealing with it. Professor Godechot himself gives no reasons for choosing it except the desire to fill a gap. The years that he covers were, he says, dictated to him by the needs of candidates for the Agrégation for whose benefit his book was originally written in the form of lectures.
Apart from the light they throw on the nature of the societies in which they occurred, revolts that failed are only interesting if their cause triumphed later, or if they stood for principles, however impracticable, that command our allegiance. The revolts that Professor Godechot describes do not come into either category. As he says, they were the unplanned and uncoordinated protests of people most of whom were driven desperate by material hardship or by the massacres of the Terror, which inevitably bred a desire for revenge. Those who participated in them were mainly peasants. Even among the 150,000 émigrés, peasants accounted for 20 percent and composed, after the priests, the second largest category. For, contrary to what is often popularly supposed, it is by no means necessarily the beneficiaries of the previous regime who suffer most in a revolution.
As an illustration of what happens when law and order break down in primitive communities, for the greater part violent and brutal at the best of times, these counterrevolutionary protests are an interesting source of study. In eighteenth-century France the counterrevolutionaries provided as cogent a proof as the revolutionaries of Riva-rol’s maxim: “Malheur à ceux qui remuent le fond d’une nation.” It is nevertheless hardly surprising that historians who have been concerned with the main course of European or even of French history should not have interested themselves in detail in the series of melancholy failures, incurred on behalf of a hopeless and undeserving cause, which is all that the counterrevolution amounted to in the years covered by Professor Godechot’s account.
The revolts that failed between 1789 and 1804, however, are not Professor Godechot’s only interest. The first section of his book is devoted to the thinkers of the counterrevolution and their precursors in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries—Fénélon, Boulain-villiers, Montesquieu, and others. But this incursion into intellectual history, as he himself admits, has very …