The reviewer of Colin Jones’s new history of eighteenth-century France is faced with a problem. Readers of a review might have hoped that it would deal with history, and the reviewer too might have liked this; but, instead, it has to be in large part about historiography. There is no avoiding this. In his introduction, Colin Jones is insistent about his aims and the novelty of his approach, and throughout his long and learned book we are never allowed to forget them.

He argues that “the hegemony of social history,” of the Annales1 type, has continued long enough. It has involved a “neglect of high politics” and “a certain disdain for diplomatic history,” and moreover a disparagement of l’histoire événementielle and of narrative as a mode of description.

Jones, in this last, is echoing a well-known essay by Lawrence Stone, “The Revival of Narrative: Reflections on a New Old History.”2 As for his own book, he is explicit that “a thread of political narrative provides the work’s organizing principle.” He has “highlighted political history, which provides an essential framework for understanding both the achievements and the problems about French society over the period as a whole.”

Let us pause to make a distinction here. Stone writes as if historical narrative were much the same sort of thing as fictional narrative, which it is very far from being. A novelist is free to invent whatever events he or she may choose, thus being in a position to suggest causality. (Novels indeed are imaginary exercises in causality.) By contrast, the facts that a historian has to deal with are “given” and recalcitrant to manipulation, and any serious effort to arrange them in a causal sequence is likely to come to grief. But this does not mean that a historian cannot employ other storytelling devices: vivid scene-setting, appeal to the emotions, suspense, peripeteia, climaxes, and poignant ironies. They did so in the days of Michelet3 and Macaulay, and Simon Schama still does so in Citizens (1989), with all sorts of new and imaginative devices. But these are out of place in Jones’s conception of “political history.”

Jones complains, very rightly, of the habit of past historians of telling the story of eighteenth-century France proleptically, i.e., from the perspective of what happened in 1789. This is not because of any objection to searching for the “cause” or “causes” of the Revolution, for he says that they “constitute an important historical question,” but rather because it does not pay sufficient attention to France’s achievements, its “acknowledged strengths,” in the pre-Revolution period. It is to listen too credulously to what the Revolutionaries had to say. Jones sees it as symbolic of this prejudice that historians cherish the term ancien régime, as though the social and political system of pre-Revolutionary France were a recognizable unity (whereas by ancien all that was meant by the Revolutionaries, who coined the phrase, was “former”). Accordingly, in his present book, Jones makes no break at the Revolution, choosing instead to end with Napoleon.

This indeed, he says, is what writing political history in the new style would prescribe:

One particularly important side-effect of the revival of political history has been a kind of flattening-out of the century as a whole. The Revolution no longer rules the eighteenth-century roost, and pre-1789 politics is no longer the country cousin of Revolutionary developments.

But there is something jarring in his tone here—I mean in his facetiousness about an event, the Revolution, which still has so much power over our feelings. It is as if it had come to be no more than academic fodder.

What comes home to us in Jones’s comments is that there are two meanings to the phrase “political history.” In the loose sense that it has for Lawrence Stone it means what you might call conventional nineteenth-century historiography, where there is plenty about politics and about personalities, but plenty also about “events,” such as wars, for which purpose the author would adopt a more story-like style; and then—but this was its weakness—there would be essays dutifully tacked on about “Economic Tendencies,” “The Arts and Social Life,” “The Law,” etc.

But for Colin Jones the term “political history” is far stricter and means fairly literally or narrowly what it says. He lists a number of “domains” where the “refocusing of political history” has been visible in the last few years:

å?”Analysis of factional alignments at court and in ministerial politics.”

å?”A revival of interest in diplomatic history.”

å?”Neo-ceremonialist” analysis of issues raised by royal ritual and ceremony. Study of national “sites of memory” (among them, for example, textbooks and monuments, as in Pierre Nora’s volumes Les Lieux de mémoire).

å?Microhistory, i.e., intensive focusing on some tiny historical phenomenon (e.g., Louis XIV’s legs).


å?Study of religious, cultural, and intellectual history as a domain of politics.

å?Development of the notion of “political culture.”

Jones himself practices most of these approaches—apart, so far as one can see, from the “sites of memory” and diplomatic history. (Nothing here of the web of exchanges between half a dozen chancelleries that we used to get from Wolfgang Michael.4 ) But a serious difficulty arises in one’s mind. For it is hard not to think that in life, if not in historiography, politics are never more than secondary. The primary motive force in history comes from inventions (gunpowder, the automobile, the nuclear bomb), discoveries (e.g., of America), systems of belief, works of literature, personalities, famines, plagues, and wars. For even wars (and certainly not the War of the Austrian Succession and the Seven Years’ War, with which Jones deals) are not just reducible to politics.

Let us consider works of literature. Jones writes, “It is certainly not my intention to deny the irreducible elements of ideological novelty associated with the impact of the Encyclopédie, and the writings of Voltaire, Rousseau and the other philosophes.” One feels an urge to boil this cumbrous sentence down to “It is certainly not my intention to deny the ideological novelty of the Encyclopédie and the writings of Voltaire, Rousseau and the other philosophes“; but this would be to leave out a crucial word, “impact.” “Political history,” as Jones defines it, is really only concerned with the impact of literary works and not with the works themselves, and equally so with the impact of philosophic or religious systems. This, indeed, is the trouble with much cultural history, and Jones is far from alone in it. Here is how he discusses eighteenth-century French ideas about “Nature”:

“Nature,” the Encyclopédie noted (supplying no fewer than eight separate meanings to prove the point), was a “vague term,” and vagueness was part of its appeal. While semi-atheists might rejoice in God’s displacement by Nature, a great many orthodox Christians also held that Nature constituted a transcendent source of goodness which offered guidance to right living.

This is all perfectly true, but it fosters in us the prejudice that eighteenth-century readers were naive and that we know better now. The remedy for this is to put in the forefront of our mind certain profound and utterly original literary masterpieces of the period, such as Diderot’s Le Neveu de Rameau, Voltaire’s Candide, Rousseau’s Confessions, and Laclos’s Les Liaisons dangereuses, works which humankind will never grow out of. These are the works that really count, and they cannot be classed as representing a trend, nor is it very clear what one can say about their “impact.” (Indeed, La Neveu de Rameau could hardly have had one, since it did not reach the general reading public till twenty years after Diderot’s death.5 )

It is somewhat the same, in Jones’s book, in regard to systems of thought. He rightly devotes a great deal of space to Jansenism, that is to say to its “impact” on the French government’s struggles with Parlement, but he never gives any exact account of its theology. Admittedly, the tenets of Jansenism were first formulated in the preceding century, but a history which does not allow them their full force seems slightly skewed.

Jones is extremely illuminating about the “bubble” which the Scottish financier John Law promoted in France in 1718–1720 (just before Britain’s South Sea bubble), and a number of points in his account were new at least to me. Though no doubt Law’s theories were not exactly a “system of thought.” What grips us in his story is his brilliant but increasingly desperate improvisations.

Law was the son of an Edinburgh goldsmith and, in his early youth, he killed a man in a duel and had to flee Scotland in consequence. He traveled widely through Europe, gaining a reputation as a successful gambler and making a firsthand study of various newly developed banking systems. He got to know the Duke of Orleans, nephew of Louis XIV, in the late 1690s; and when, at the death of the grand monarque, Orleans became regent of France he took Law on as a financial adviser.

France was in dire financial straits, suffering from a shortage of currency and from enormous state debts, the result of King Louis’s expensive wars, which meant offering very high interest rates to investors in government stocks. What Law first advised was, quite simply, a state bankruptcy. The regent flinched at this, but in 1716 he authorized Law to set up a private bank, which could receive deposits, discount bills of exchange, convert foreign currency, and issue its own banknotes. It prospered, its shares soon rising in value; and in 1717 Law proceeded to launch a scheme for a Mississippi Company, to exploit the wealth of a vast and ill-defined area called “Louisiana,” which stretched from the Mississippi delta to the Great Lakes. This, helped by seductive propaganda, prospered too.


The drift of Law’s “system” now became clear; it was to demystify and discredit the cherished tenet of “mercantilist” orthodoxy: that gold and silver were, intrinsically, “wealth,” so that any trade arrangement with a foreign country was to be judged according to whether it produced a surplus of, or a drain on, bullion. Against this, Law offered the eminently sensible and forward-looking doctrine, “Money is not the value FOR WHICH goods are exchanged, but the value BY WHICH they are exchanged.” Currency, he argued, might actually be more effective by taking the form not of specie, but of fiduciary paper money.

The Paris Parlement (essentially a judicial body, an assembly of magistrates) showed resistance to Law’s schemes, partly because of the fear, a well-founded one, that he aimed to abolish the buying and selling of offices, including parlementaire ones. It also began to claim the right to intervene in the state’s financial affairs. But this led the regent to stage a royal lit de justice, in which he not only rejected this pretension but severely limited the Parlement’s general right of “remonstrance” against state measures and undid the measure by which the late king had attempted to legitimize his bastard sons, the Duc de Maine and the Comte de Toulouse.

Law’s rise in power was spectacular. In July 1719 his Mississippi Company was granted the monopoly of coining and issuing money, and in October he was entrusted with the collection of the state’s direct taxes. Soon after this, he was allowed to float a new Indies Company (a rival to Britain’s East India Company). In January 1720, after agreeing to convert to Roman Catholicism, he was appointed controller-general of finances, and in the following month his bank and the Mississippi Company merged into a single institution.

The success of Law’s system was dazzling, and this very success endangered it. There began to be runaway inflation. Stupendous freak fortunes were made, Paris became swollen with frantic would-be investors, and the lineaments of a “bubble” began to be visible.

Meanwhile the attempt to demonetarize the economy ran into trouble. It became necessary in April 1719, for instance, to issue a decree stating that Law’s banknotes were not subject to devaluation. It was the symptom of a decline which by the mid-1720s had become catastrophic. The government was forced to decree an emergency 50 percent devaluation of share prices and banknotes; Law was dismissed as controller-general; his bank was closed; there were riots outside his company’s office, in which a number of people died; and he himself was in great danger from mob violence and was forced into exile.


What is excellent in Colin Jones’s account of these events is his success in displaying the logic, or shall we say the symmetry, of Law’s rise and fall. The story turns, as Jones makes clear, upon the all-important but elusive concept of credit, which only now (in France, but also in Britain and elsewhere) was preoccupying financial thinkers. At the outset of his career Law’s doctrine was that credit, a semi-magical entity, was intertwined with liberty. I will quote Jones:

Constraint, [Law] argued, “is contrary to the principles on which credit must be built.” A new blast of freedom was necessary in the state’s affairs—a freedom which was an implicit renunciation of many of the axioms of economic policy in place since Colbert.

But a year or two later, what do we find? The decree that Law’s banknotes were not subject to devaluation was only the first of a long series of constraining measures, and Law began to speak with enthusiasm of “forced credit” and to argue that absolutist regimes were really in a better position than democratic ones to extend credit. The vision of credit which had come to Law, a highly intelligent thinker, was not false, but it retained its elusiveness. It escaped all efforts to domesticate it or bend it to the exigencies of clumsy hand-to-mouth politics.

It is plain that “political history,” as Jones practices it, holds the most deeply human experience at a certain distance. He is, for one thing, not greatly interested in personalities. It is a curious experience to read him beside Michelet, who is so obsessed with them (no doubt too much so). Jones aspires to give a “more dispassionate perspective on the eighteenth century,” and his wish to “flatten out” the break at the Revolution evidently forms part of this aspiration. He even questions whether the Revolution “necessarily formed part of one of the founding grand narratives of Western modernity.” Though which can these “grand narratives” possibly be, if the Revolution is not one of them?

It has to be said, too, that Jones sometimes plays fast and loose with the English language. What shall we say to the following, about the Scot John Law, as a weird mixing of metaphors? “Financial figures such as [Pâris-Duverney]…had had their heads temporarily below the parapet, but were on the qui-vive for chinks in the Scot’s armour.” Or “The government and church were singing from the same hymnsheet as they girt their loins for a renewal of the Jansenist struggle”—not too easy to do. Further, he has an odd habit of putting things back to front. He refers to “the individuals entrusted with farming indirect taxes (the fermiers),” whereas it was the government that was farming tax collection out to such people.

He uses the word “demography” in bizarre ways (“Other diseases would take up the demographic slack left by the disappearance of the plague”), and likewise the word “diplomatic.” Thus he speaks of the British navy’s destruction of a Spanish fleet off Sicily, in August 1718—the two countries not then being formally at war—as “a satisfying token of diplomatic success.” But considering the furious outcry it provoked, as a violation of in-ternational law, you might be more inclined to call it a diplomatic fail-ure. He posits a “systematic ignorance of contraception” among the French peasantry; but can ignorance be systematic? He says of Charles-Nicolas Cochin’s design for a frontispiece to the Encyclopédie that it “depicted Reason pulling a veil from the eyes of Truth.” But one would hardly attribute eyes to Truth. Diderot’s own interpretation was: “One sees Truth between Reason and the Imagination: Reason is striving to strip her of her veil, and Imagination preparing to embellish her [with garlands]…. The philosophes have their eyes fixed upon Truth.”6

There is no one way of writing the history of a nation. (Historians make things easier for themselves by carving out some particular story: The Rise of the Dutch Republic, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.) Thus to do it from the perspective of “political history” may have its own value, and Jones’s book is certainly extremely well informed and well constructed. Some of his best pages are concerned with the “thaw,” or Thermidorian reaction, which followed the Revolutionary Terror, and he sets out this political process in more detail and more clearly than I can remember seeing it done elsewhere. Though one says to oneself that if it had not happened this way, it would most likely have happened in another, the end result being much the same.

The progress of the “thaw” was shaped, as might be expected, by a mixture of predictables and unpredictables. Among the predictables was the immediate repeal of the law of 22 Prairial (June 10, 1794), a speeding up of court procedure which, during June and July, had been responsible for as many as 1,584 executions. Also, the release of many political prisoners, Girondins and others; the confiscation of some of the powers of the Paris Commune; the emergence of murderous royalist street gangs; and the defeat suffered by the remaining Jacobins in the Convention when—crowds having intruded into the hall, brandishing the severed head of the deputy Féraud—they proposed appeasing popular demands and, instead, went to the guillotine themselves. In the provinces meanwhile there were grisly massacres of less fortunate political prisoners and much paying-off of old scores. From June 12, 1795 (25 Prairial III), it was made a crime to use the word “revolutionary” in regard to any government institution.

Among the unpredictable events, on the other hand, and perhaps the most important of them, was the astonishing success of the Revolutionary armies, especially Napoleon’s, in his campaign in Italy, where the spirit of 1789 was still potent. Conquest and national aggrandizement on this scale were like a revival of the “great nation” of the Sun King.

But the point that Colin Jones rightly emphasizes most is the revaluation of the very concept of “politics.” In its beginnings the Revolution made a fetish of representation and elections: there were elections to the National Assembly in the summer of 1791, and before that elections for communal, municipal, district, and departmental administrative officials, as well as for bishops, priests, and judges. But by the time of the Jacobin ascendancy there were no elections at all, and this was an expression of pure Revolutionary principle. The Thermidorians inherited, so writes Jones, a thorough rejection of the very notion of politics:

Politics might have been, for Revolutionary legislators (to misquote W.H. Auden), their noon, their midnight, their talk, their song—but it was also something they thought was wrong, a morally indefensible notion which dared not speak its name. No harsher term existed in Revolutionary political life than “the spirit of party,” which denoted an un-Revolutionary attachment to sectional interest and private passion…. Throughout the decade, Revolutionaries were certain that what they were doing transcended politics.

The result was that, when in 1795 the Convention organized a plebiscite, followed by elections, over a new liberal constitution (involving a bicameral legislature, a property franchise, and an executive consisting of five directors, one to be replaced each year), together with a law that two thirds of the new legislature should be drawn from the Convention, very few citizens could bring themselves to vote, or would do so in the two following years. The effect was to let in royalists; and this in turn led on September 4, 1797 (18 Fructidor V), to the directors ordering the military occupation of Paris, the deporting of some sixty royalists, and the annulling of the Year V elections in forty-nine departments in which the right had triumphed. It was, though on a small scale, a new Terror. As Jones puts it, “The regime of the rule of law had turned lawless.” The stage was set for Napoleon.

In reading Jones, however, one questions his fondness for the term “political culture.” “Culture” suggests something of long standing, in which habits of mind and behavior have had time to root themselves and mature. Thus one balks a little when he asserts that Napoleon exploited “the political culture he inherited from the Revolutionary decade.” A decade seems a very short time to create a culture; and anyway how shall we reconcile this with Napoleon’s establishing, as Jones puts it, “a new, Bonapartist political tradition” (even if one allows him his oxymoron, “a new tradition”).

But further—the term “political culture” helping—Jones wants also to suggest that Napoleon cashed in on grand siècle ideas of monarchy and of the state as incarnated in the king’s body. “An early portrait—by Gros in 1802,” writes Jones—“even showed Bonaparte flaunting as fine a set of legs as the Sun King.” This is neat but unconvincing. There was very little of the medieval or the mystical in the Napoleon cult. At his coronation as emperor, though the Pope anointed him, did he not impiously seize the crown and put it on his head himself?

This Issue

June 12, 2003