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  • Liberty or Death: The French Revolution, 1789–1799 by Peter McPhee
  • Cindy Ermus
Liberty or Death: The French Revolution, 1789–1799 by, Peter McPhee. New Haven, Yale University Press, 2016. xiii, 468 pp. $35.00 US (cloth), $20.00 US (paper).

In Liberty or Death, historian of revolutionary France, Peter McPhee, provides a welcome new survey of the French Revolution that engages the latest scholarship in the field. In this highly readable narrative, McPhee does not merely look at Paris as ground zero of the revolution but across France, at events and attitudes in the rural countrysides, cities, and small towns, which were frequently no less swept up by revolutionary events than the capital itself. Weaved into the history, moreover, are primary-source accounts, quotes, poems, lyrics — cultural products of the revolution. The reader encounters numerous contemporaries, from the lesser-known Léon Dufour, who was nine years old in 1789 and later reflected on his experiences, to the famed Marquise de La Tour-du-Pin (Henriette-Lucy Dillon), whose memoir, Journal d'une femme de 50 ans, was published in the nineteenth century. These vignettes give the reader a sense of the diversity of experience during the Revolution.

The text begins with an examination, in the first three chapters, of all of the well-known mainsprings of the French Revolution: Enlightenment, financial and political crises, desacralization of the monarchy, the American Revolution, the disastrous harvest of 1788, social inequality and uneven taxation and collection methods, and so on. But revolution was not inevitable in 1789. In fact, as the author observes, "regimes are in crisis far more often than they are overthrown" (57). For McPhee, then, the collapse of the Old Regime resulted from the failure of the royal government to manage the political crisis in 1788–1789.

Adding to the book's fundamental strengths is its emphasis on the disparities and divisions that characterized the social fabric of France both [End Page 592] prior to and during the revolution. From the beginning, the reader gets a strong sense of the "patchworks of power and privilege" (1) that characterized French society in the years leading up to revolution, from its uneven and disjointed economy, to the diversity of languages and loyalties from one region to the next, to the scandals and political crises that had been chipping away at the legitimacy of the royal household for decades. McPhee also presents clearly the myriad rifts that formed during the revolution between various groups and individuals, as opposing interests and intractable personalities combined with mounting pressures, war, and fear to mar the revolution with violence, and eventually, counter-revolution and Terror.

Certain issues were more fracturing than others, among them, the "gulf of incomprehension" (128) caused by the Civil Constitution of 1790 and the notorious failed flight of the royal family (both covered in chapter seven titled, "Fracturing Christ's Family"), or the polarization of war and the question of what to do with the king (covered in most detail in chapter nine, "Republicans at the Crossroads"). McPhee skillfully surveys the countless factions that developed throughout the revolution, especially as the revolutionary government radicalized, causing members of one political club or bloc to break off and form others. In chapter ten, "Liberty or Death: Choosing Sides in Violent Times," McPhee examines what these divisions looked and felt like for French men and women on the ground, considering such factors as family, occupation, location, and gender. McPhee captures the anxieties on the ground that drove wedges into the revolution, and concludes that "[u]ltimately, self-perception — spiritual, civic, familial — seems to have been crucial in individual choices" (202).

Notably, women are more present in McPhee's book than in most previous survey histories of the revolution. Rather than dedicate separate chapters or sections to the experiences, views, and active participation of women, McPhee weaves them into the narrative from beginning to end, rightly observing that "[d]ebate and divisions engulfed women as much as men, despite the exclusion of women from formal politics" (111). Much less attention is paid to the colonies and the Haitian Revolution, and while this should not detract from the book's many strengths, instructors considering...


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