- The Abbé Grégoire and the French Revolution: The Making of Modern Universalism
Alyssa Goldstein Sepinwall, an assistant professor at California State University in San Marcos, has written an illuminating and thought-provoking biography of abbé Henri Grégoire, a French Catholic cleric whose enlightened ideas espoused religious tolerance, racial equality, and republicanism and who participated in both the early stages of the French Revolution and the founding of the First Republic. Of particular interest to the author is abbé Grégoire's advocacy for the integration of Jews into French society. More than a biography, this work examines broader historical implications than the life and thought of one individual. As the author explains, "While this study has a traditional narrative form, it analyses Grégoire in three modes—as window, as agent, and as symbol" (6).
The abbé Grégoire, although less remembered than many of his counterparts who participated in the tumultuous events of the French Revolution, nevertheless made a significant contribution to the social and political thought of that period. The abbé Grégoire's life spanned the period from the ancien régime to the beginning of the July Monarchy (1750–1831). Because of his longevity and the fact that he was productive throughout the span of his adult life, Grégoire's influence could be felt in three distinct periods: prior to the Revolution, during the Revolution itself, and during the period when, following the aftermath of the Revolution and, in particular, the Terror (1793–94), people were reflecting on the implications of these monumental events and when even supporters of the overthrow of the ancien régime were reexamining the merits of the Revolution.
The author has divided the book into three parts that not only correspond to the three distinct periods of Grégoire's life but also emphasize the three large sets [End Page 122] of issues that have wider implications for the understanding of modern French society and culture than the political activities or philosophical writings of one historical figure. Thus, the first part of this book examines the intellectual origins of the French Revolution and the relationship of the Enlightenment to Christianity in prerevolutionary France. The second part explores issues concerning the Revolution's idea of universalism and the revolutionaries' hope for the regeneration of society. Finally, the third part discusses the Revolution's legacy from the nineteenth century until today.
In her many acknowledgments for this book, Sepinwall states that, "as the abbé Grégoire himself recognized, historical research would be impossible without librarians and archivists" (241). In researching this biography, the author had access to a rich array of archival and library materials. While much of her research was conducted at university libraries, the Bibliothèque nationale de France, and various French municipal and departmental repositories, she also discovered primary sources in more unexpected places, such as the University of Pennsylvania's Center for Advanced Judaic Studies and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at the New York Public Library. Moreover, although she provides a wealth of citations to primary sources and a thorough examination of pertinent secondary sources, the author does note that one limitation to her research on the life of abbé Grégoire was the fact that during the Terror he destroyed nearly all of his prerevolutionary personal papers (255).
As noted, one of the central themes of this book is the author's examination of the various strands of philosophical and theological ideas that shaped eighteenth-century France and created the intellectual milieu that influenced Grégoire's outlook on society and the state. The author coherently argues that the intellectual environment of the ancien régime was not solely dominated by the ideas of the philosophes, ideas that became identified with the French Enlightenment. Also, even within the intellectual contours of the Enlightenment there were many strains of different philosophical conceptions and even ideas that were derived from theological understanding. Moreover, the intellectual history of...