Simon Schama

'Rationalists'—exponents of modernity, of a popular monarchy, of a liberal economic and legal order—like Barnave, Talleyrand, the Marquis de Condorcet and the astronomer Sylvain Bailly were all products of the late Enlightenment. Believers in liberty, progress, science, capitalized property and just administration, they were heirs to the reforming ethos of Louis XVI's reign—and authentic predictors of the 'new notability' to emerge after the Revolution had run its course. Their language was reasonable and their tempers cool. What they had in mind was a Nation vested, through its representatives, with the power to strip away the obstructions to modernity. Such a state (in all likelihood, a monarchy) would not wage war on the France of the 1780s but consummate its promise.

Rationality, however, did not have a monopoly of utterance in 1788 and 1785. The kind of eloquence needed to mobilize popular anger to the point at which it could be used as a lever of power was not cool but hot. And the stokers of revolutionary heat were not prepared to allow it to cool off for the benefit of moderate constitutional change. They were guided neither by rationality nor by modernity but by passion and virtue. For them the Enlightenment, like much of modern France, was at best a mixed blessing. 'We have acquired enlightenment,' wrote the lawyer Target,
but it is patriotism, disinterestedness and virtue that are needed to seek and defend the interests of a great people. Each man must forget himself and see himself only as part of the whole of which he is a member, detach himself from his individual existence, renounce all esprit de corps, belong only to the great society and be a child of the fatherland [un enfant de la patrie].
A society that could be measured, informed, administered, capitalized and individualized was less important than one that would be simplified, moralized and made more innocent. The keystone of its government should not be rationality but justice, and for the arch of culture they proposed to substitute the dwelling of nature. This patrie would be a community of citizens, tender to its children and pitiless to its foes. A society of friends, it would, like Rousseau, its moral originator, be beset by enemies—some of the worst of them dressed up in the appearance of amity. One of the noblest tasks for a citizen would be to unmask those dangerous insincerities. From the beginning, then, revolutionary rhetoric was tuned to a taut pitch of elation and anger. Its tone was visceral rather than cerebral; idealistic rather than realistic; most powerful when it was dividing Frenchmen into Patriots and traitors, most stirring when it was most punitive.

The prospect of satisfaction—in the eighteenth-century sense of redress—was what pulled ordinary Frenchmen into politics for the first time. And it was their participation that turned a political crisis into a full-blooded revolution. Protecting the poor and punishing traitors were, after all, the tasks that the monarchy was traditionally supposed to perform. But as the handmaid of modernity, its government seemed to have abdicated that protective role. For example, instead of ensuring grain supplies at a just price, it had—most recently in 1787—committed itself to the modern principle of free trade. The result for many seemed catastrophically high prices and opportunities for speculative hoarding that went unpunished. In the name of some sort of incomprehensible principle it had done other unconscionable things that gave comfort to the very enemies it was supposed to pursue. Protestants had been emancipated who could now lord it over decent, poor Catholics in the south and southeast. British textiles had been let into France, robbing Norman and Flemish spinners and weavers of work. All this must have been the product of some sortof conspiracy against the People.

With considerable rhetorical skill, these grievances were fed into a great furnace of anger by the radical politicians of 1789. And from the other end issued a language of accusation, which was also a means of classifying enemies and friends, traitors and Patriots, aristocrats and the Nation. Surprisingly, it mattered little that those same politicians endorsed many of the reforms which so affronted the common people—freedom for internal trade and religious emancipation, for example. These contradictions were (for the time being) masked by the conviction that an assembly of the Nation would be the tribunal in which those grievances would be satisfied and those responsible for them judged. Consequently, all those who declared themselves against such an assembly were, by definition, unpatriotic, and all those who advocated it, identified as the People's friends. The fact that the King himself had asked his people to submit their grievances at the same time they elected representatives to the Estates-General only reinforced these primitive convictions. For it appeared to be an invitation to assist him in distinguishing the false Patriots from the true.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.