‘The French Lawyer in London’; caricature of Charles Théveneau de Morande, 1774

Yale University Library

‘The French Lawyer in London’; caricature of Charles Théveneau de Morande, 1774. Morande was a publisher of scurrilous pamphlets attacking King Louis XV, his mistress Madame du Barry, and high-ranking French nobles and officials. On his head are pamphlets with writhing serpents; in one hand he holds du Barry’s head and in the other a scale loaded with coins, representing money the French government paid him to destroy all copies of his Mémoires secrets d’une femme publique, another attack on du Barry.

Some events refuse to wither and die in our collective memories. The French Revolution is one of them. It prompted admiration and loathing—many observers felt both at once—because it linked the dazzling new dreams of democracy, human rights, and universal education with the equally novel nightmares of the Terror and the inexorable guillotine. No wonder, then, that novelists and filmmakers still find the revolution rich in material and that scholars continue to wrestle over understanding it.

These epochal events have always hovered on the edge of the historian Robert Darnton’s concerns. Rather than make his way through the frequently down-and-dirty disputes and polemics about the revolution of 1789, he has chosen to dig up information about earlier, lesser-known developments that nonetheless had a striking effect on what was to come. Mesmerism, for example, the subject of his first book and of one of the chapters in his latest, The Revolutionary Temper, burst onto the Paris scene in 1778 when the Viennese doctor Franz Anton Mesmer claimed to cure patients who sat in his specially constructed tub with water, salts, and rods that removed the obstacles to the flow of “animal magnetism.” While the medical establishment railed against Mesmer’s claims, his supporters set up the secret Society of Universal Harmony to promote the practice.

The episode might be written off as minor, especially since a government commission that included Benjamin Franklin, then the American ambassador to France, denounced mesmerism as a fraud in 1784. Yet Darnton shows that several of the future leaders of the French Revolution, including the Marquis de Lafayette, were members of the society and that the public avidly snapped up the scores of pamphlets published by contending sides.

Mesmerism is just one of many episodes that Darnton covers in the short and lively chapters of The Revolutionary Temper. He ranges from battles in war to battles over books; from the abduction by the French king’s men of “Bonnie Prince Charlie,” the pretender to the British throne, to the rumored kidnapping of children by the Paris police; and from conflicts over Catholic doctrine to clashes over tax reform. His aim is to

show how the French Revolution happened—not by tracing a clear line of causality, but by narrating events in such a way as to describe the emergence of a revolutionary temper that was ready to destroy one world and construct another.

His subject, then, is not so much the events themselves as the public opinion produced by print and other forms of media, including songs, poems, handwritten newsletters, and even gossip and graffiti.

In the days before polling, gauging public opinion was challenging. France did not even have a daily newspaper until 1777. Paris did have police spies who frequented the cafés and other public places where news circulated. These mouches (flies on the wall), as they were called, sought out the names of the editors and copyists of underground newsletters and on occasion even planted progovernment rumors in them. They reported on the influence of foreign newspapers published in French in neighboring countries and mailed to French subscribers. They confiscated pamphlets, poems, and posters, and recorded the words of songs if they contained any criticism of the monarchy. Literally nothing escaped their notice, since government censorship diverted much of the flow of information into these back channels. As Arlette Farge, one of the pioneering scholars of this world, has written, “The news was a war in which everyone was involved.”1 Eagerness for news amounted to a form of political resistance to a regime that wanted to keep information to a minimum and under control. Farge nevertheless maintains that no one could fully trust the news gained in this way, since its sources were necessarily secret and anonymous.

Darnton has always been fascinated by the French version of Grub Street, in which impecunious writers filled pages with just about anything that would sell, however outlandish or salacious. In his chapter on the failed attempt in the early 1770s to restructure the French justice system, he presents one of his favorite examples, Charles Théveneau de Morande, a pamphleteer whose version of the news gained extraordinary notoriety. In 1771, in the throes of the judicial crisis, Morande published a screed with the title Armored Gazetteer, or Scandalous Anecdotes of the French Court. Its stated place of publication typified the genre: “Published 100 leagues from the Bastille at the sign of liberty.” He had the distance about right: it was printed in London.


In his opening pages Morande made clear that entertainment would take precedence over truth:

I have to warn the public that some of the news items that I am presenting as true are at most plausible and in some cases their falseness is obvious; I do not take responsibility for disentangling them.

Darnton focuses on Morande’s news flashes about Louis XV’s latest mistress, Madame du Barry: she was accused of infecting the king with venereal disease and protecting her former pals in brothels by keeping the police out of them. But Morande also went after the ministers in charge of the judicial reform and any number of high-ranking nobles and officials. The French government was so vexed that it sent an agent to London to kidnap him, and when that was botched and he published even more vitriolic pamphlets against Madame du Barry, it dispatched the playwright Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais, the future author of The Marriage of Figaro, to negotiate a blackmail payment. He succeeded, and Morande destroyed his latest effort; Beaumarchais’s reward was relief from his own legal troubles.

Darnton’s flair for unscrambling such intrigues makes him an ideal guide to the ins and outs of the critical decades that preceded 1789. Having long studied and written about the publication and circulation of forbidden books, he knows better than anyone how the system worked and how its operation created a farrago of unintended consequences. To gain an official royal privilege—“the early-modern equivalent of copyright”—the publisher of a book had to vault a succession of obstacles set up by the guild of booksellers and printers, police inspectors of bookstores, and official censors of the book trade. Many of the now classic texts of the French Enlightenment by Voltaire, Rousseau, and the like were condemned and publicly burned as late as the 1780s. Yet the official in charge of the book trade and therefore censorship between 1750 and 1763, Chrétien Guillaume de Lamoignon de Malesherbes, developed a procedure of tacit permissions that allowed publication with secret approval that could be quietly withdrawn if objections arose. As he explained later,

A man who would have read only those books that originally appeared with the specific approval of the government, as the law prescribes, would be behind his contemporaries by nearly a century.

In his previous work, Darnton showed how those forbidden books were published, often abroad, then smuggled into France in heavy crates carried by porters, and finally sold under the counter in bookshops in many good-sized towns. Publishers even mailed catalogs of “philosophical books” to their prospective clients. One of the many contradictions created by censorship was its inflation of demand for illicit writings. Darnton has always been more interested in the production and distribution of such books than in their content, and he now takes that a step further, arguing that most people knew about the importance of Enlightenment ideas only from the scandals provoked by their publication. He is surely right that

nothing worked better than official opprobrium, expressed in edicts, mandements, sermons, posters, and the bawling of street peddlers, to spread the knowledge that a new force had been set loose in the world.

As this passage’s reference to sermons and street hawkers demonstrates, print was only one possible medium for getting out the message. Some of the most captivating pages in The Revolutionary Temper present poems and songs that were cobbled together in response to perceived outrages. When Louis XVI’s finance minister tried to get an Assembly of Notables to agree to new taxation in 1787, for instance, the notables refused, and the minister was lampooned in songs as well as pamphlets and crude caricatures. One of the most popular ditties complained that the proposed program would do nothing for the common folk:

What a reduction [of taxes]!
They are asking for a new tax
In place of the promised chicken
Alas! We won’t have the pot
Nor even shirts.

(King Henry IV had famously promised a chicken in every pot two centuries earlier.) Although most adult Parisians, even in the lower classes, could read at least a bit, oral transmission was still pervasive, whether in the form of heralds reading out royal proclamations, public readings of pamphlets or papers in cafés and gardens, peddlers announcing edicts or selling brochures, or the volatile exchange of rumors among people standing in line for bread or watching a church procession or official parade.

Spreading information is not necessarily revolutionary, however. Darnton claims that “the experience accumulated during the previous four decades made Parisians ready to overthrow the regime in 1789.” He concludes that they had come to hate despotism, love liberty, feel indignation at the depravity of the aristocratic elite, value virtue as a moral force, lose faith in the monarchy and the church, believe in the power of reason, and resist taxation while also demanding a greater say in politics. This “revolutionary temper,” combined with their familiarity with violence, official and unofficial, made them ready to take action in 1789. How do we know that these changes in outlook made Parisians inclined to overthrow the ancien régime? Because they did overthrow it.


But a revolution cannot be explained by simply adding up all the changes that came before. While there is no doubt that losses in war, the monarchy’s debt accumulated during the American War of Independence, court scandals, and conflicts over censorship all played a part in the coming of the French Revolution, such events only stand out so vividly in retrospect. Other monarchs lost wars, ran up debts, experienced scandals, and exercised much more rigorous censorship yet did not lose their crowns or their heads.

To make his case, Darnton highlights the most subversive words. In his beguiling chapter, for example, on the abduction in 1748 of Bonnie Prince Charlie (Charles Edward Stuart), who with French support had led a failed uprising in Scotland to restore the Stuarts to the British throne, Darnton recounts the popular disdain aroused by Louis XV’s decision to arrest the would-be Prince of Wales and expel him from France under the terms of the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle (1748), which had ended the War of the Austrian Succession and required France to recognize the Hanoverians as the legitimate rulers of Britain. From the poems and songs contrasting Charles Edward’s heroism with Louis XV’s fecklessness, Darnton determines that the seizure of the prince on his way to the opera represented a “turning point in the relations between Parisians and the king.”

Yet as Darnton notes, the French public soon lost interest in Charles Edward, who settled in Rome, and turned its attention to Clara, an Indian rhinoceros on tour around Europe. Others have recounted how Louis XV greeted Clara personally at Versailles in early 1749, just weeks after the abduction. She was exhibited for five months in Paris, where she became the subject of innumerable poems, songs, and various marketing ploys ranging from ribbons to clocks.2 Louis XV died in his bed twenty-five years later. He was no longer “Louis the Well Loved,” as he had been known earlier in his reign, but that only boosted the expectations for his grandson and successor, Louis XVI.

It may well be, as Darnton argues, that Parisians learned to hate despotism and disdain the “depravity” of court nobles, but it is far less obvious that these sentiments inevitably undermined the standing of the monarchy in general or of Louis XVI in particular. The despotism in question was almost invariably ministerial. The ministers invented new taxes, freed the grain trade with disastrous results, ran up the crown’s debt by failing to rein in the court, and agreed to unfavorable treaties. If a policy turned out to be deeply unpopular, the minister in question would be shown the door. The police did report isolated instances of placards threatening the king with assassination, almost always when bread prices soared, but most people kept their faith in the monarchy right into 1789 and even as late as 1791. Radical opinion in 1789 demanded a constitutional monarchy, not a republic. When the new National Assembly decreed the abolition of the “feudal regime” and most privileges of the nobility in August 1789, it included in its decree a solemn proclamation of King Louis XVI as “Restorer of French Liberty.” The suggestion to do so elicited rapturous cries of Vive le roi!

Public opinion did frequently turn against Queen Marie-Antoinette, nonetheless, and Darnton devotes many pages to the attacks on her. Parisians deplored her extravagant taste for luxuries of all kinds, and scurrilous pamphlets denounced her supposed affairs with the king’s brother and many other lovers. Darnton judges that “the public’s hatred of the queen compounded the desacralization that sapped the power of the Crown and undercut the legitimacy of the political system.” Can we assume from the venomousness of some clandestine writings and gossip against the queen that most members of the public hated her? The historian Timothy Tackett, in a fascinating study of one ordinary lawyer’s views, maintains that many did not; before 1789 the lawyer “revealed nothing but respect and affection for Louis XVI and no animosity toward Queen Marie-Antoinette.”3 Darnton cites opposing views yet also reveals that two of the police inspectors charged with repressing the libels against the queen collaborated in their publication. Malicious rumors about her often originated in the court as part of internecine contests to gain the king’s favor, and ministers or high officials who found themselves on the losing side sometimes encouraged the more public condemnations of the queen, as a way not of undermining the monarchy but of weakening their opponents.

In other words, the information war involved much more than purveyors trying to sidestep censors in order to enlighten the public. Everyone got into the game. As Darnton makes clear, in the 1780s past and present finance ministers used competing publications of state budgets, officially top secret, to make the case for their own policy prescriptions. Those selling short on the market employed brilliant polemicists to denounce those speculating on rising share prices as examples of ministerial corruption. An inevitably imperfect censorship created a clandestine space that opened the way for contending interests attempting to rouse the public. Although Darnton’s efforts to recapture the voices of the people deserve great credit, the link between this underground cacophony and the actual outbreak of revolution remains tenuous.

Revolution erupted in 1789 because the people with direct access to power could no longer agree among themselves about how to finance the government and how to share authority. The nobles in the high courts and in the Assembly of Notables refused to sanction new taxes without calling the Estates General—an assembly with representatives of the nobility, clergy, and commoners that had not met for 175 years—whose proceedings they hoped to dominate as they had in the distant past. The nobles had many surprises coming their way, including the abolition of nobility itself in June 1790, but no one saw these transformations on the horizon, not even those who eventually proposed the many changes that ensued.

Public opinion gained in importance because those in power had learned that it could serve their purposes, but it had a dynamism that could not be kept in check. It also had a reciprocal influence, most significantly in the case of the Enlightenment. The public learned from the scandals surrounding the publication of Diderot’s Encyclopédie, among other Enlightenment works, that “a new force had been set loose in the world,” according to Darnton, and in return the brouhaha surrounding the scandals confirmed the hopes (or suspicions) of those who actually read them. The ideas of Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, and a host of others gained even more momentum from the public’s reactions to the attempts to suppress them. Those ideas—of the social contract, sovereignty of the nation, religious toleration, freedom of the press, etc.—dissipated the aura of inevitability of the monarchy by making alternatives conceivable, or at least alterations in the status quo.

The conceivability of those alternatives was taken up in the first instance by the educated classes and even by some in the highest reaches of government, like Malesherbes. They did not think they were undermining the monarchy; they aimed to improve it. But the ideas worked like thousands of small chisels to create ever-widening cracks in the edifice of power. The loss of confidence in the way things had been started at or near the top.