- Non-violence and the French Revolution: Political Demonstrations in Paris, 1787–1795 by Micah Alpaugh, and: Stuff and Money in the Time of the French Revolution by Rebecca L. Spang, and: The Smile Revolution in Eighteenth Century Paris by Colin Jones
Four decades ago when François Furet proclaimed that the French Revolution was over, his was a clarion call that modern politics should no longer dominate its study. Specifically, he blamed Jacobin-inspired scholars for enforcing orthodoxy. But if he wished to remove present politics from revolutionary historiography, his intervention accomplished the opposite. In fact, by emphasizing instead a connection between 1789 and the Terror, Furet and those agreeing with him created a sharper division between scholars who attacked and those who defended the revolution. Although passions have somewhat cooled, much scholarship still pivots around these points. Nonetheless, the field opened its doors to works inspired by other tendencies, perhaps most strongly cultural history. Few would describe this new impulse as lacking a political perspective, but its political leanings are of a broader sort, less tied to modern electoral politics. While the first of the three books reviewed here brings new material to the traditional controversy, the other two books essentially explore other directions.
Micah Alpaugh’s Non-Violence in the French Revolution provides a stout defense against those who link the Terror with popular violence in Paris. His is no easy position, as doubtless much extraordinary violence occurred. Particularly striking were the four murders of officials after Bastille Day, in which the heads of executed officials were paraded around the city to a cheering crowd. Likewise in 1792, rioters thrust the severed head of Princesse de Lamballe on the pike to her friend Marie-Antoinette; and other outrages occurred. George Rudé (1910–93) provided the basic defense of these activities by connecting the riots to spikes in the price of bread and explaining anger as a visceral response to this life threatening situation. Scholars have justified the activities of laboring classes beyond the capital to include the violent actions of the peasants, especially when attacking chateaus and burning records in the summer of 1789 that they believed included economically unfair provisions. While concurring that these events were violent, John Markoff, in his massive work on rural disturbances, confirmed the essential [End Page 999] rationality and structure of these deeds. Markoff stated that the peasants had a complex understanding of the social hierarchy that they deliberately sought to undermine. Alpaugh adds to the defense of popular action in the cities by providing the most thoroughgoing analysis to date of the Paris demonstrators. Alpaugh distances himself from many of his predecessors, even Rudé with whom he only broadly rather than specifically agrees. Moreover, Alpaugh works hard to define the subject and systematically discover and analyze the evidence available.
Alpaugh carefully examines the political pressure that the Parisians exerted on various governments from 1789 to 1795. Excluding the horrific September massacres of 1792, he exculpates the crowd from the accusation that it eagerly embraced violence. Without relying on any single explanation, the book repeatedly invokes some themes: violence erupted only when protesters had no choice; protesters might have been considerably more violent but held back; and violence was, in fact, very uncommon. Moreover, the crowd observed norms that authorities recognized and accepted. In fact, in 1793 Parisians were able to achieve their goals by relying on the political system. And though the September massacres violated usual practice, extraordinary peril explains that exception.
Undeniably, Alpaugh has investigated Parisian protest more carefully and encyclopedically than any predecessor. Within his own assumptions—particularly that the crowd relied on violence only when other options closed—the author can reasonably defend its...