On Their Tiptoes: Political Time and Newspapers during the Advent of the Radicalized French Revolution, circa 1792–1793
In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

On Their Tiptoes
Political Time and Newspapers during the Advent of the Radicalized French Revolution, circa 1792–1793
Keywords

French Revolution, Time, Contingency, Newspapers, Benjamin Russell, Columbian Centinel, Democratic-Republicans, Federalists, Politics, Political parties, Rumors, Millennium, Acceleration, 1790s, United States, John Melcher, Thomas Adams

In his 1937 magnum opus, The Historical Novel, Hungarian literary critic Georg Lukács suggested that new ideas about history—and implicitly, about time itself—laid the foundation for the development of the historical novel. According to Lukács, “the quick succession of . . . upheavals” associated with “the French Revolution, the revolutionary wars and the rise and fall of Napoleon . . . for the first time made history a mass experience.” Whereas individuals during the Enlightenment viewed “Progress . . . as an essentially unhistorical struggle between humanist reason and feudal-absolutist unreason,” the succeeding generations came to think of time in terms of “the inner conflict of social forces,” so that “history itself is the bearer and realizer of progress.” Lukács wrote from a Marxist perspective and was therefore deeply concerned with showing the diverse ways in which writers in the post-Napoleonic era addressed the question of “how modern bourgeois society arose out of the class [End Page 191] struggles between nobility and bourgeoisie.” No matter how one views Lukács’s politics, it is hard to deny the potential explanatory power of his insight that “the huge, rapidly successive changes” of the French Revolution and Napoleonic rule pushed humans “to comprehend their own existence as something historically conditioned.”1

That insight was fully explored only as a generation of revisionist scholars began challenging the Marxist interpretation of the French Revolution. More specifically, historians like Mona Ozouf, Lynn Hunt, and Jeremy Popkin revitalized scholarship on the French Revolution by paying close attention to previously understudied elements like festivals and the press. The collective emphasis on textual analysis and cultural symbols brought into relief French revolutionaries’ dynamic understanding of temporality. New ideas about time and history, it seems, were intimately related to far-reaching transformations in political culture, and any attempt to explain either of the two phenomena must necessarily consider the other.2 [End Page 192]

Taken together, the prescient analysis of Lukács and the wave of innovative work on the French Revolution invite new ways of evaluating various aspects of the early United States. In particular, they draw attention to the way in which the advent of the radicalized French Revolution—the series of international events taking place between the imprisonment of King Louis XVI (August 10, 1792) and the onslaught of the Terror (September 5, 1793)—prompted American newspaper writers and readers to address concepts of contemporaneity in a more rigorous fashion than ever before. This sustained engagement with notions of time did not materialize without problems, and partisan discussions of the proper mode of interpreting recent events and newspapers ensued. The resulting cacophony, which revolved around Federalist challenges to Democratic-Republicans’ belief that revolutionary time moved more quickly than regular time, destabilized traditional efforts to pinpoint the present moment on a preordained timeline. French Revolutionary intelligence thus assumed prominence as both cause and reflection of initial American encounters with a concept of political time divorced from inherited notions of Protestant providence, Whig cyclical history, and Scottish enlightenment progress. In a halting, unintended manner, American newspaper writers and readers broached the subject of contingency.3

A study of newspapers in 1792–1793 also reveals, more broadly, how profoundly the radicalized French Revolution molded American political culture. Historians have known for years that the French Revolution influenced the United States, but too often they have been content to assert the existence of that influence without probing its nature in full. That is unfortunate because certain parallels between Gallic and American political development are sufficiently striking that they provide a case study of [End Page 193] transnational history, of the way in which various forces cross over political boundaries and spur the same type of change in multiple national entities. An investigation of American political culture in 1792–1793 shows that the midpoint of George Washington’s presidency was not only a crucible for preexisting domestic tensions but also an instructive and integral episode...