- A New World Begins: The History of the French Revolution by Jeremy D. Popkin
The history of the secularization of modern culture is yet to be written." So wrote Christopher Dawson in 1972. It is doubtful he could say that today. The latest attempt to write that history is that of Jeremy D. Popkin, whose A New World Begins: The History of the French Revolution was published in late 2019. Dawson himself, in several essays, addressed the intellectual revolution that he believed had taken place in France decades before the political one. He followed a minority movement composed of philosophers and literary intellectuals that gradually claimed wider circles until its adherents won key positions of social and intellectual influence. Popkin confirms Dawson's supposition with historical detail and vivid portraits of the principals.
Jeremy Popkin began his studies in history at Harvard and later earned in 1977 a Ph.D. in history from the University of California at Berkeley. Over his long career he has authored more than a dozen books as well as numerous articles. He has been honored by prestigious lectureships in North America and Europe. Popkin's recent works include From Herodotus to H-Net, The Story of Historiography and Revolutionary News, and The Press in France, 1789-1799. He presently holds the William T. Bryan Chair of History at the University of Kentucky.
As Popkin's narrative develops, names run by: Diderot, d'Alembert, Voltaire, Montesquieu, Rousseau, Danton, Robespierre, Carnot, Duchene, Montagne, and Saint-Just. Most were contributors to the Encyclopedie (1751-1772). They comprised a generation of thinkers who rejected much of the political and religious assumptions of their day. In Popkin's words: "The subversive originality of the Encyclopedie was to present the ideas of the great minds of eighteenth-century French letters as if they were simply common sense." Additionally, Voltaire campaigned against revealed religion, Montesquieu's Spirit of the Laws challenged the established political order, and Joseph Fouche, a leader of the Jacobians, typified those who wished to de-Christianize France.
Popkin offers a sympathetic portrait of Louis XVI and his efforts to maintain a tradition that he believed was his sacred duty to preserve against the claim that "everything must change." With the Royal Treasury in bankruptcy, the monarchy was on the verge of collapse. On the advice of Charles Alexander Calonne, the king consented to call in 1786 an Assembly of Notables. Calonne offered tax-paying landowners a vote in decision-making. They would be allowed to participate in the deliberative process and on their own elect provincial assembles. The Notables at that time included seven princes of the blood who stood in the line of royal succession, fourteen prelates, an impressive contingent of dukes and peers representing the military, and marquis, including the young Lafayette. When Calonne proposed new taxes, the Notables were wary. His sweeping proposals threatened the special interests of the privileged groups from which the Notables were drawn. It would require the Estates General to approve new taxes. Given the stubborn opposition to Calonne's proposed reforms, the king dismissed the Assembly. [End Page 623]
The organization of a Third Estate soon followed. The Third Estate represented commoners and the lower clergy and met in defiance of the king's orders to disperse. On the tennis courts of Versailles, deputies attending took an oath not to disband until a new French constitution had been adopted. The Third Estate declared itself to be the National Assembly. Louis recognized the legitimacy of the National Assembly, but then surrounded Versailles with troops and dismissed Jacques Necker, a popular minister of state who was a leader of the reform movement. In response Parisians stormed the Bastille, thus setting the revolution in motion.
Popkin writes, "Virtually all historians agree that [the Revolution] resulted from frustrations of a rising bourgeois class determined to challenge a feudal order that stood in the way of political and economic progress." He goes on to identify three stages of the revolution: (1) the session of June 17, when the deputies named...