- Aristocracy and its Enemies in the Age of Revolution
One of the most radical acts of the French Revolution was the abolition of hereditary nobility and the range of rights and privileges that since time immemorial had accompanied noble status. That the Revolution was the product of an age of social and political experimentation was underscored. That France was a state transformed was underlined by Louis XVI’s refusal to use his veto against the levelling Revolutionary legislators — against the advice of ministers such as Jacques Necker and facing a chorus of protest from increasing numbers of émigrés. William Doyle explains that the actions of the members of the National Assembly in 1789 need to be related to a historic critique of nobility in France, which grew more vocal as the nation was deemed to have declined relative to more successful European monarchies with different approaches to nobility, and above all Britain. Ironically, at a time when France was widely seen to be recovering its status as Europe’s greatest state, during the years of the American Revolution and immediately after, Honoré Gabriel Riqueti, comte de Mirabeau published his Considerations on the Order of Cincinnatus (1784), a vitriolic attack on aristocracy and its effects in North America and Europe. Only five years later, Mirabeau was among the opponents of the Revolutionary abolition of nobility in France and wanted the king to prevent the ascent of such legislation into law. Mirabeau remained an opponent of aristocracy in government and economic affairs, but felt that the Revolutionary abolition would simply lead to the establishment of an anarchic democracy, itself the surest means to the creation of a new and more brutal aristocracy, most likely in the aftermath of the rise of a Caesar figure. Mirabeau was long dead by the time Napoleon Bonaparte came to power, but it was natural for [End Page 354] those who had opposed the abolition of aristocracy to link the two events. Doyle has always had the gift of writing clearly, and this has contributed to making so many of his books classics. Aristocracy and its Enemies is another splendid work, the most successful overview of the subject to date, providing a wide-ranging narrative that is at its best guiding the reader through the turmoil of the early 1790s, through the years of antagonism towards nobility that followed, and up to the re-establishment of old orders when the Revolutionary projects had either failed or been forced to adapt to new times. Doyle seems to have read every secondary work on eighteenth-century French politics and intellectual life, and the result is hugely informative for scholars and invaluable for students coming to the subject for the first time. If the book has a weakness, it is that a lot more could be said. Aristocracy and its Enemies concentrates on France, but it would have been helpful to know what the difference was between French attacks on nobility and classical or Renaissance precursors, who were also faced with declining states and found the source of the problem in their noble or senatorial classes. The other part of the story that is underplayed is the link between arguments about the future of nobility and speculations in political economy. Many authors, and perhaps Montesquieu himself, envisaged a noble class emerging from a meritocratic social order, the question being how to replace the existing system without getting rid of nobility altogether or sparking civil war. None of these points detracts from the value of Doyle’s book, but it is usefully read alongside studies of French speculators and projectors, and especially Michael Sonenscher’s Before the Deluge (2007) and Sans-Culottes (2008).