The French Army, 1750-1820: Careers, Talent, Merit (review)
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The French Army, 1750–1 820: Careers, Talent, Merit. By Rafe Blaufarb. Manchester, U.K.: Manchester University Press, 2003. Distributed by Palgrave, St. Martin’s Press, New York. ISBN 0-7190-6262-4. Illustrations. Tables. Glossary. Notes. Bibliography. Index. Pp. xii, 227. $69.95.

One of the most enduringly powerful myths of the French Revolution is that of the career open to talent, most particularly in the realm of the military. Rafe Blaufarb's book examines that myth as manifested in the French officer corps between 1750 and 1820 and demonstrates that this most fundamental of revolutionary ideas emanated from Old Regime aristocratic reformers, not from bourgeois aspirants. He concludes that attempts by successive revolutionary regimes to implement merit as the guiding principle for the choice and advancement of officers definitively ended the aristocracy's dominance of the officer corps, but institutionalized a concept of merit that combined talent with social rank and family ties.

Blaufarb joins a growing number of scholars whose work places the French Revolution and Napoleon in the context of a longer period stretching from the mid-eighteenth century to the restored Louis XVIII. This broader view allows Blaufarb to demonstrate a surprising consistency between the reformist proposals of prerevolutionary military aristocrats and many of the policies adopted during the revolutionary era. With the abolition of privilege, merit could no longer be defined in terms of the hereditary nobility's obligation to serve the monarchy, at least in theory opening the officer corps to new classes of men. However, the system of awarding commissions by a combination of examination and promotion from the ranks left an educated and well-off elite and a smaller group of older career soldiers in command of the army. The wave of mutinies in 1790-91 that led many officers to emigrate may have ended aristocratic domination, but it did not end social distinctions.

Blaufarb characterizes the brief period of republican egalitarianism from 1792 to 1794 as an anomaly, with policies distinct from either preceding or following governments. The power struggle between revolutionary factions for control of the army determined the nature of the republican institution. Robespierre and the Montagnards inveighed against meritocracy because it reflected a desire for individual glory rather than republican virtue. They replaced the examination system of direct commission with the insistence that all officers begin as ordinary soldiers, giving primacy in promotion to regular officers over their volunteer counterparts. The purpose, Blaufarb tells us, was as much to secure the central government's control of the army as it was to enforce equality.

After the fall of Robespierre, the politicians of Thermidor and the Directory turned back toward a professional officer corps. Some 25,000 officers were made supernumeraries in a drastic reorganization of the army, and for those who remained, Blaufarb argues, professionalism served as protection from the tumult of French politics under the Directory. He disagrees with Jean-Paul Bertaud's contention that in this period the army escaped civilian political control. Instead, Blaufarb interprets its conduct as choosing silent [End Page 953] loyalty to the executive out of professional duty. That dissociation from politics may have made Napoleon's coup easier, but was not responsible for it.

Blaufarb describes the Napoleonic officer corps as an "improbable synthesis" of monarchical and revolutionary elements in which positions remained open to men from relatively humble backgrounds, and the Legion of Honor and a hereditary service nobility coexisted with the revolutionary legacy of merit. This chapter and the conclusion serve more as a postscript, outlining the ways in which military meritocracy played out over the nineteenth century and led to a professional officer corps whose "bureaucratic professionalism" replaced the traditional notion of service to the sovereign.

It is unfortunate that the title promises something different from what this book delivers. It is not a history of the French army: the wars of the period appear only in brief references, and the experience of ordinary soldiers is completely absent. Nevertheless, this is a fine and provocative treatment of the development of military meritocracy within the French officer corps from the Old Regime through the Revolutionary era. It reminds us that merit is not...