Four French Revolutions

Le Coût de la Révolution francaise

by René Sédillot
Perrin, 285 pp., fr95

Festivals and the French Revolution

by Mona Ozouf, translated by Alan Sheridan
Harvard University Press, 378 pp., $37.50

Necker and the Revolution of 1789

by Robert D. Harris
University Press of America, 805 pp., $38.75

The People’s Armies

by Richard Cobb, translated by Marianne Elliott
Yale University Press, 776 pp., $17.95 (paper)

In 1989 historians throughout the world will be celebrating the bicentenary of the French Revolution. The Revolution itself was an immensely divisive experience, splitting Frenchmen into royalists and republicans, Catholics and anticlericals, in ways that have survived until the present day. It was the legacy of these revolutionary conflicts, more than the consequences of industrialization and urbanization, that made France a very difficult country to govern in the nineteenth century. Naturally enough, the history of a revolution that left such deep fissures in French society has reflected the divisions that it set out to explain. French historians saw themselves as crusaders for political causes in their own times that perpetuated the conflicts of the revolutionary period. Defending a particular point of view about the French Revolution was one way of legitimizing the monarchy before 1848, or the Republic in 1848 and again after 1870, or the Empire from 1851 to 1870.

The most dramatic example of the perennial relevance of the French Revolution came as late as 1940, when the Vichy government substituted Travail, Famille, Patrie for the republican Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité. Since 1945 France has changed its constitution twice more, but the successive regimes have all been republics. It was this that led the French historian François Furet, when he published Interpreting the French Revolution in 1978, to entitle his first chapter “The French Revolution Is Over.” What he meant was that universal acceptance of the democratic republic allowed French historians, for the first time, to become detached observers of the Revolution, rather than partisans committed to fighting its battles all over again.

Furet’s assertion always looked optimistic, and the bicentenary of the Revolution, instead of providing an occasion for universal celebration, has reopened old wounds. In Le Coût de la Révolution française, the popular French writer René Sédillot sees no good in anything that the revolutionaries did. His argument is that they wasted France’s resources in civil war and foreign conquest, while the British took advantage of the opportunity to press ahead with their industrial revolution and become the temporary masters of the world. There is some truth in this, but Sédillot inflates it into a general condemnation of everything that the revolutionaries achieved. His book is about the “cost” of the revolution in the sense that it is half of a balance sheet, recording all the losses and none of the profits. Consistency is not his strong point: for example, he includes in his reckoning of the human casualties all those who died in the Napoleonic Wars, although he endorses the old argument that Napoleon wanted nothing but peace and it was British belligerency and blockade that drove him to try to occupy the entire European coastline. When his armies ranged from Madrid to Moscow he was really on the defensive.

Sédillot’s purported assessment of the cost of the Revolution is actually a pretext for reviving the conservative arguments of French nationalists. When the revolutionaries did anything to which he cannot take exception—for …

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