Before the Deluge: Public Debt, Inequality, and the Intellectual Origins of the French Revolution

Before the Deluge: Public Debt, Inequality, and the Intellectual Origins of the French Revolution

by Michael Sonenscher


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691143262
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 08/30/2009
Pages: 432
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Michael Sonenscher is a fellow and Director of Studies in History at King's College, University of Cambridge. He is the author of The Hatters of Eighteenth-Century France, Work and Wages, and, most recently, Sans-Culottes.

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Before the Deluge

By Michael Sonenscher


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ISBN: 978-0-691-12499-5

Chapter One



The revolution began with deep divisions at the royal court. The first signs of political instability took the form of a number of vicious personal disputes among members of both the royal family and the high nobility over the status and character of the reigning queen. She, it was said, had succeeded in building up a party of her own, barely disguising her indifference to the established institutions and formal procedures of the kingdom's government in her eagerness to promote the interests of her favourites and clients. Her foreign origins and the aura of religious scepticism that surrounded her circle served to arouse the resentment of patriots and to awaken the anxieties of the devout, giving the growing number of her enemies many easy opportunities to add fuel to rumours of libertinism at home and treachery abroad. Relaxation of the censorship laws added to the sense of unease. Wave upon wave of satirical, libellous, or crudely pornographic pamphlets, prints, and songs, concerned as much with the queen's sexual affairs as with the political, economic, and moral damage done to the kingdom by a widely hated minister, caused political legitimacy to crumble. As it did, royal legislation became easier to challenge and more difficult to enforce, turning even minor infractions of the law into opportunities for theatrical legal trials and florid appeals to public opinion. The drift towards disaster was marked by growing hostility in the face of a series of controversial reforms to the kingdom's military, legal, and fiscal establishments, hostility that was reinforced by widespread suspicion of an unprecedented set of changes to the kingdom's traditional system of diplomatic alliances. The sequence of events that led to the final explosion took place quite slowly, filling the better part of three tense years. But when the crisis at last occurred, things were all over in a matter of days. "It is surely," wrote one contemporary, "one of the most rare revolutions that history can offer for our observation."

The revolution in question was not the French Revolution of 1789 but the Danish Revolution of 1772. The queen was not Marie Antoinette but Caroline Matilda, the sister of Britain's King George III and wife of the very much more irretrievably insane Danish king Christian VII. The minister was not Charles-Alexandre de Calonne, or Etienne-Charles Loménie de Brienne, or even Jacques Necker, but Johann Friedrich Struensee, the court physician who became the queen's lover and, until his grisly death in January 1772, the most powerful man in Denmark. The Danish Revolution was not the French Revolution. But, as a number of historians have recently shown, the French Revolution began where it might have been expected to begin-in the high politics of an eighteenth-century monarchy and in the many dimensions of indeterminacy involved in political decision-making and choice. In this respect, the parallel is not entirely fanciful. Knowing something about the Danish Revolution of 1772 makes it easier to see why events in France were registered in the way that they were in the diplomatic correspondence dispatched from Versailles and Paris to Vienna, St. Petersburg, Berlin, London, Venice, or Philadelphia between 1787 and 1789. From the perspective of eighteenth-century political science, the French Revolution of 1789 could, and still does, look a bit like the Danish Revolution of 1772. It could, and still can, be taken to be something like the type of revolution generic to the kind of absolute monarchy that both the French and Danish monarchies were.

By the first decade of the nineteenth century, however, it had become clear that the French Revolution was not at all like the Danish Revolution of 1772. Instead, it became usual to describe it as a different kind of revolution, one generated not by the vagaries of factional infighting under an absolute government, but by a deadly combination of international power politics, war finance, and republican government. This characterisation of the French Revolution also owed something to eighteenth-century political science. Many years before 1789, wrote an American commentator on political affairs named Robert Walsh in 1810, "it was predicted 'that the continent would be speedily enslaved should a nation, with the resources of France, break through the forms and trammels of the civil constitutions of the period; shake off fiscal solicitudes by a general bankruptcy; turn her attention exclusively to military affairs and organize a regular plan of universal empire.'" That prediction, whose words Walsh quoted, had been made in 1772 by a precociously talented French writer on military affairs named the comte de Guibert, whose Essai général sur la tactique (A General Essay on Tactics) was published when Guibert was little more than twenty years old. Walsh immediately went on to quote another prediction of revolution that, he claimed, also amounted to a remarkably accurate description of the French Revolution. This one was to be found in the Scottish Jacobite Sir James Steuart's Inquiry into the Principles of Political Economy, a book that had been published in 1767. In it, Steuart had outlined a speculative scenario to show how the modern system of war finance had the potential to revive what he called "the most perfect plan of political oeconomy ... anywhere to be met with, either in ancient or modern times," namely, the political economy of the republic that Lycurgus had founded in Sparta. It was "perfect" because everything in Sparta was done for the service of the state, leaving no room at all for any sort of private interest.

At first sight, Steuart had written, the prospect of reviving the ancient Spartan political economy in the modern world appeared to be extremely far-fetched because it seemed to call for the wholesale renunciation of landed possessions and every other kind of private property. But if, he continued, "that supposition should appear too absurd," there was still no reason to rule it out. All that was needed to reestablish the "most perfect plan of political economy" was for a prince "to contract debts to the value of the whole property of the nation; let the land-tax be imposed at twenty shillings in the pound, and then let him become bankrupt to the creditors."

Let the income of all the lands be collected throughout the country for the use of the state; let all the luxurious arts be proscribed; and let those employed in them be formed, under the command of the former land proprietors, into a body of regular troops, officers and soldiers, provided with everything necessary for their maintenance, and that of their wives and families at the public expence. Let me carry the supposition farther. Let every superfluity be cut off; let the peasants be enslaved, and obliged to labour the ground with no view of profit to themselves, but for simple subsistence; let the use of gold and silver be proscribed; and let all these metals be shut up in a public treasure. Let no foreign trade, and very little domestic be encouraged; but let every man, willing to serve as a soldier, be received and taken care of; and those who either incline to be idle, or who are found to be superfluous, be sent out of the country. I ask, what confederacy among the modern European Princes, would carry on a successful war against such a people? What article would be wanting to their ease, that is, to their ample subsistence? And what country could defend itself against the attack of such an enemy?

From the vantage point of the first decade of the nineteenth century, there was enough similarity between the course taken by events in France and Steuart's projection-one that he had called a "relaxation to the mind, like a farce between the acts of a serious opera"-for Robert Walsh to be able to cite it as evidence both of the devastating political and military power of the resources made available by the modern funding system and of how, deliberately or inadvertently, the French had managed to tap that power in an utterly unprecedented way. The French Revolution was Steuart's "farce" made real. "Nothing, indeed," Walsh commented, "but a total revolution in the internal constitutions of the other states could have prepared them to meet France on equal terms."

This kind of prescience is now usually associated with Edmund Burke (a writer whom Walsh also greatly admired) and his grim prediction in the penultimate paragraph of his Reflections upon the Revolution in France, published three years before the Jacobin Terror of 1793-4, that the new French regime might have "to be purified by fire and blood" before the form of its government came to "its final settlement." But for all its vivid power, Burke's prediction belonged to a form of speculation about the nature and future of the modern world that was quite common in eighteenth-century thought. Burke himself had published conjectures of a similar sort well before 1790. Nearly twenty years before the French Revolution, he had made another, equally striking prediction in the wake of the royal coup against the French parlements in 1771 and the partial debt default that preceded it. "In a word," he wrote in the Annual Register of 1772, after reporting that the indications of an accommodation between the French royal government and the princes of the royal blood signalled the end of all serious opposition to Maupeou's coup,

if we seriously consider the mode of supporting great standing armies, which becomes daily more prevalent, it will appear evidently that nothing less than a convulsion, that will shake the globe to its centre, can ever restore the European nations to that liberty by which they were once so much distinguished. The western world was the seat of freedom, until another, more western, was discovered; and that other will probably be its asylum when it is hunted down in every other part. Happy it is, that the worst of times may have one refuge still left for humanity.

The prediction followed the same logic as Steuart's. "The mode of supporting great standing armies," as Burke put it, supplied them both with the starting point for their respective projections about both Europe's and France's future and the bleak probability that it would consist either in liberty's being "hunted down," or in "a convulsion that will shake the globe to its centre," or in "the most perfect plan of political economy," or simply in "fire and blood." From the point of view of a strong admirer of Burke like Robert Walsh, writing in the light of the events of the previous twenty years, the terms were almost interchangeable.

But the terms also have a more interesting historical and historiographical significance. They suggest that, from the vantage point of eighteenth-century political speculation, the Terror came first. This aspect of eighteenth-century political thought has been largely forgotten by modern historiography, partly perhaps because many of the intimations of revolution that it contained soon found their way into royalist indictments of the new French regime and were carried through into the early nineteenth century in the works of critics of the Restoration settlement like Antoine Ferrand, Alphonse de Madrolle, Joseph de Maistre, Charles-Louis de Bonald, and the Swiss political theorist Karl Ludwig von Haller, or on the now largely unread pages of Le Catholique and the Gazette de France. There, they were subsumed into an increasingly nostalgic historiographical subgenre centred upon the putative failure of the French monarchy to avert a widely predicted catastrophe, with the accompanying message that its restored counterpart could not afford to make the same mistake again. The dark side of eighteenth-century political speculation thus came to have a more narrowly French focus than it had originally had, and, as it did, its content came to be associated more emphatically with a distinctively Francophone characterisation of what, in the nineteenth century, came to be known as the Enlightenment, the substantive noun (or, in the twentieth century, project) that replaced the weaker, usually theologically derived, eighteenth-century concept of enlightenment. In this new, postrevolutionary guise, the broad range of eighteenth-century concerns with the nature and future of the modern world (including its enlightenment), and the possibility that it might repeat the cycle of decline and fall that had destroyed the ancient world, gave way to a number of more strongly future-oriented forms of political and historical speculation, generated in large measure by the ongoing argument over the causes and historical significance of the French Revolution itself. As it did, the concept of revolution underlying eighteenth-century speculation about the future gradually disappeared from historical view.

The concept of revolution in question referred to a volatile combination of ancient republican politics and modern war finance. The ancient part of the combination was made up of evocations of the conflicts between the rich and the poor that had heralded the onset of decline and fall in the Athenian, Spartan, and Roman republics. Here, the history of the Gracchi in the Roman republic served as an enduring emblem of the dilemmas involved in reconciling political power with social justice once states began to grow. The modern part was connected to the military, financial, and commercial resources that had come to govern the destinies of sovereign states in the wake of the long reign of Louis XIV. The revolution that gripped political imaginations in the eighteenth century involved a fusion of the two. Well before the Bastille fell, something that looked very like the Jacobin phase of the French Revolution was the revolution that the eighteenth century had long foretold. "Through the whole of the last century," wrote an American diplomat named Alexander Hill Everett in 1820, "there prevailed among the reflecting men in France, not a vague conjecture, but a settled conviction, which may be now found in a thousand passages of their writings, that the existing institutions could not stand." There was, therefore, no reason to be surprised that, as he put it, "the period in which we live" was "naturally to be looked to as the Age of Revolutions." Everett's remark, made at the beginning of a survey of the situation and future prospects of the major European powers after the Napoleonic Wars, captures something of the generic quality of the predictions by Guibert and Steuart that Robert Walsh rehearsed. As it suggests, eighteenth-century anticipations of revolution are not hard to find. The best known, and the one that gave Everett the phrase that he used to describe the age, was Jean-Jacques Rousseau's claim, published in his Emile in 1762, that "we are approaching the state of crisis and the century of revolutions," because, he added in a note, it was "impossible for the great monarchies of Europe to last much longer." It was a claim that he repeated in his Considerations on the Government of Poland of 1772. "I see," he wrote there, "all the states of Europe rushing to their ruin. Monarchies, republics, all those nations with all their magnificent institutions, all those fine and wisely balanced governments, have grown decrepit and threaten soon to die." Nor was Rousseau's prediction unusual. "The singular revolution with which Europe is threatened," wrote the journalist Simon-Nicolas-Henri Linguet in 1777, either would result in the total collapse of modern civilisation or would throw up "some new Spartacus" to establish an "absolute division of the goods of nature" after destroying the "murderous and deceitful" system of laws and government underlying the property-based regimes of the modern world. "One or other of these two calamities," Linguet warned, "is inevitable."


Excerpted from Before the Deluge by Michael Sonenscher Copyright © 2007 by PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgements     ix
Introduction     1
Facing the Future     22
Three Descriptions of the French Revolution     22
The Terror and Its Causes     34
Balanced Government and the English Constitution     41
England's Future in a French Context     52
Sieyes and His Contemporaries     67
True Monarchy, or the Idea of a Modern Republic     75
Montesquieu and the Idea of Monarchy     95
The Troglodytes and the Morality of Monarchy     95
Law's System, the Abbe de Saint-Pierre, and the Grand Design     108
From The Persian Letters to The Spirit of Laws     121
The Inheritance of Property and the Inheritance of Thrones     131
The Problem of Sovereignty and the Nature of Monarchy     149
Jansenism     153
Fenelon and His Legacy     159
Trade, the System of Ranks, and the Alternative to Public Credit     166
Morality and Politics in a Divided World     173
Montesquieu's Legacy     173
Francois Veron de Forbonnais and the Limits of Trade     179
Physiocracy, or The Natural and Essential Order of Political Societies     189
From Friendship to Mankind to Political Economy     199
Rousseau and Physiocracy     222
Rousseau and Mably     239
Industry and Representative Government     254
Agriculture, Industry, and Inequality     254
Helvetius     266
Turgot     281
Chastellux     290
Jacques Necker and Burke's Paradox     302
Joseph Fauchet and Pierre-Paul Gudin de la Brenellerie     311
Pierre-Louis Roederer     322
Jean-Baptiste Say     334
Conclusion     349
Bibliography     373
Index     403

What People are Saying About This


Michael Sonenscher's clear, lean, and jargon-free history of eighteenth-century France's coming to terms with the crisis of modernity is important, erudite, and imaginatively conceived. His consideration of what in less able hands would be an almost impossibly daunting array of prominent and lesser-known political thinkers is the product of deep immersion in the sources and of a considered reflection on the modern historiographical tradition of the French Revolution. Complex and multilayered, this book asks for and richly rewards careful study. This is the way intellectual history should be written.
E. J. Hundert, Professor Emeritus, University of British Columbia

Keith Michael Baker

Before the Deluge could be a paradigm-shifting book for the history of eighteenth-century political thought. Sonenscher's knowledge of the subject is amazing. Highly original in its arguments, the book is also unusually ambitious in the way it links history to current issues.
Keith Michael Baker, Stanford University

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