That the institution of the nobility in France was not simply a relic of the past, ready to be tossed on the rubbish-heap of history when the Revolution occurred, has been made clear in much recent scholarship. Among others, Jay Smith has shown the importance of French debates about the nobility in the second half of the eighteenth century, and Patrice Higonnet has provided a provocative study of the campaign against the group during the Revolution.1 In Aristocracy and its Enemies, William Doyle, known for his many contributions to the history of the late Old Regime and the Revolution, follows debates about the nobility from the mid-eighteenth century to the half-hearted attempts to revive the status of nobles in France in the nineteenth century. He also gives the story a trans-Atlantic dimension by pointing out the impact of French reactions to the debate about the establishment of the Order of the Cincinnati in the United States. Above all, Doyle emphasizes the unexpectedness of the quick abolition of noble status in 1790, “one of the most ambitious measures ever undertaken by the French Revolutionaries,” which constituted “a renunciation of centuries of history.” (6, 7) At the same time, however, Doyle points out that belief in the reality of distinctions between nobles and non-nobles was not easily eradicated. Although no post-revolutionary regime would restore their legal and political privileges, bearers of noble names continued to form a self-conscious caste in post-revolutionary France.
Like most recent historians, Doyle emphasizes that French nobles were by no means ceding ground to an ambitious bourgeoisie as the Revolution neared. They continued to enjoy a virtual monopoly on key posts in the church, the state, and the military. Wealthy commoners still eagerly sought noble status until the eve of the Revolution, and indeed, Doyle claims, the French nobility was the most open of all European privileged elites. At the same time, however, the nobility was splintered by divisions between the great courtier families, the influential parlementaire dynasties of the major cities, and the mass of provincial nobles who often had to struggle to maintain an “honorable” lifestyle and provide for their children’s careers. Although individual nobles played key roles throughout French society, the nobility as a group had no defined political role. Noble authors such as Montesquieu, even when they argued for the positive contribution that their class could make to the kingdom, undermined the belief [End Page 291] in inherent difference that justified noble privileges by justifying those advantages in utilitarian terms.
As in his more general work on the Origins of the French Revolution (1980), Doyle argues that it was the acute crisis of 1787–1788, rather than the scatter-shot criticisms of nobility advanced in earlier decades, that truly changed things. He crosses the Atlantic to follow the Cincinnati controversy because the American example showed for the first time that a society could exist without a privileged class and because Mirabeau, the leading French opponent of the group, brought together all the various arguments against nobility that would be advanced in 1789. (137) The summoning of the Estates General in 1788 suddenly put the status of the nobility in the center of political debate: if the three Estates met and voted separately, the nobles would finally gain the distinct political role some of them had long sought. In response, pamphleteers linked the issue of noble status to the question of feudal rights, even though many of these were held by non-nobles and the abolition of seigneuries did not necessarily imply the abolition of nobility. At the same time, the revolutionary crisis led some nobles to make intransigent defenses of their caste’s privileges, inflaming the campaign against them. (202)
In the wake of the storming of the Bastille, increasingly radical legislation steadily whittled away at noble privileges and power. The protests of some nobles against revolutionary reforms made it easy to claim that the group as a whole was hostile to the Revolution, although...