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Reviewed by:
  • Contesting the French Revolution
  • William S. Cormack
Contesting the French Revolution. By Paul R. Hanson. Malden, Mass.: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009. 248 pp. $89.95 (cloth); $34.95 (paper).

This book's title refers to the historical debates regarding the French Revolution of 1789 and its aftermath. Historians have debated not merely the revolution's causes and accomplishments, but the importance of the entire period for the modern world. In the mid twentieth century a consensus emerged, culminating in the work of Georges Lefebvre and Albert Soboul, that saw 1789 as the political triumph of the bourgeoisie who abolished feudalism to clear the way for the full development of capitalism. All aspects of the revolution could be understood in terms of class conflict. Yet by the time of the revolution's bicentennial in 1989 it appeared that revisionists had overthrown this Marxist orthodoxy. Empirical studies of France's society and economy (many of them by historians from Great Britain and the United States) had demolished the traditional picture of the revolutionary bourgeoisie, while new investigations of language and ideology pioneered by François Furet and Lynn Hunt suggested that the emergence of modern political culture, rather than class conflict, was central to the revolution's meaning. This revisionism did not result in a new consensus, as Paul Hanson demonstrates in this brief but wide-ranging examination of recent scholarship, and the French Revolution continues to be hotly contested. This book is no neutral survey of historiography, but an engaged contribution to the debate. Hanson challenges older revisionism by endorsing recent studies that emphasize social conflict as key to the French Revolution, and he contests interpretations of the Terror or of revolutionary violence as the outcomes of revolutionary ideology.

The book begins with a chapter on the revolution's origins. Hanson [End Page 517] discusses the difficulties of determining any direct relationship between the Enlightenment and the revolution, and points out that recent studies have examined broader cultural origins rather than formal intellectual ones. Arguing that the assertion of universal human rights was central to the revolution, however, he suggests that Enlightenment thought must be considered among these origins. With regard to social and economic origins, Hanson undermines the revisionist critique by highlighting the work of Colin Jones, William Sewell, and Timothy Tackett, who argue that the bourgeoisie, in the sense of a nonnoble property-owning elite, did in fact lead the revolution of 1789. In examining structural and institutional origins, Hanson insists that neither could royal reforms have succeeded nor can the revolution be seen as the result of a purely political crisis. Chapter 2 looks at major developments in 1789 from the convocation of the Estates-General to the October Days, while chapter 3 is devoted specifically to considerations of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen and the abolition of feudalism. Hanson discusses the possible inspirations for and interpretations of the declaration, but he is concerned chiefly with pointing out how the revolutionaries failed to live up to their universal principles not only with the distinction between "active" and "passive" citizens, but with the exclusion of Jews and women, as well as black slaves and free people of color in the colonies, from the full rights of citizenship. As for the National Assembly's abolition of feudal dues and all forms of privilege, Hanson suggests that John Markoff's emphasis on the deputies' fear of peasant insurrection is more persuasive than Michael Fitzsimmons's stress on their idealism. Chapter 4 examines the National Assembly's other reforms, including the creation of a new administrative geography and the Civil Constitution of the Clergy. By discussing tensions between Catholics and Protestants, Jacobin and monarchist clubs, and turning points such as the October Days, the clerical oath and the flight to Varennes, Hanson disputes the argument that ideology drove the revolution in an ever more radical direction. He attributes this position to scholars such as Furet and Keith Baker, quoting Baker's essay on the constitutional debates of September 1789, which states that the assembly "was opting for Terror" (p. 74). Yet Hanson provides no summary of Baker's argument that the deputies' decision to give the king...


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