- 1789: The French Revolution Begins by Robert H. Blackman
Blackman compellingly re-assesses the dynamics of the first French National Assembly in 1789, demonstrating how many of the era’s striking shifts were the result of compromises made amid a political crisis, rather than extreme proposals forced through by doctrinaire radicals. His analysis successfully challenges that of prominent “post-revisionist” historians, including Baker and Friedland, who argue that the decision making during the Revolution’s first year paved the way for the Terror of 1793/4.1 [End Page 142]
Whereas previous scholars like Tackett, Linton, and Shapiro researched the backgrounds, culture, and psychology of the deputies to understand their decision-making process, Blackman instead focuses on several important debates about turning the Estates General into a National Assembly, abolishing the obligation of deputies to follow the instructions of their constituents, and selecting the form of veto accorded to the king under the new constitution.2 In so doing, he develops an unprecedented source base of newspapers and deputy writings to find additional perspectives on debates’ content and reception alongside the reconstructed nineteenth-century Archives parlementaires records. Where-as post-revisionists typically highlighted the influence of the radicals among the Third Estate, Blackman focuses on the centrists who engineered compromises with conservative noble and clerical deputies. Rather than considering unmodified doctrinaire radicalism the driver of the early Revolution, Blackman delves into the political process to show the evolution of debates and proposals, detailing the many negotiations—with forces both within and outside the National Assembly—that became necessary to craft a workable new political order.
Upon arriving at Versailles in May 1789, the new legislature had no clear models to guide their work. Blackman argues that given the already pronounced collapse of royal authority throughout the kingdom, Third Estate deputies moved (after initial reluctance) toward the formation of a National Assembly, seizing legislative power under the justification of “the needs of the nation.” They nevertheless sought reconciliation with the privileged orders, hoping to build consensus for their grand projects and to avoid further social breakdown. The king remained a powerful symbol, motivating the Third Estate to seek alliance with him throughout 1789’s long summer.
Rather than striving for self-aggrandizement in the constitutional debates of August and September, the Third Estate looked to British models to establish a constitutional monarchy sharing power with the king. The adoption of a royal suspensive veto allowed disagreements between the king and the assembly to be resolved without the need for a new revolution. Contrary to Baker, Blackman insists that at no point in this period were the legislators “opting for terror.”
Blackman’s work, based on decades of detailed study of the French Revolution’s first months, is a useful and necessary corrective to the post-revisionists who sought to make facile connections between the legislative debates of the early revolution and the complex forces that unleashed the Terror of 1793/4. Instead, he depicts a complex revolution that held [End Page 143] untold possibilities for all involved—led by practical men trying to establish a peaceful and just solution to their nation’s political woes. Compromise could have typified French Revolutionary political culture if the fraternal and reconciliatory trends of summer 1789 had held. Blackman’s book will become required reading for anyone wishing to understand the complex political dynamics of the early French Revolution.
1. Keith Baker, Inventing the French Revolution (New York, 1990); Paul Friedland, Political Actors: Representative Bodies and Theatricality in the Age of the French Revolution (Ithaca, 2002).
2. Timothy Tackett, Becoming a Revolutionary: The Deputies of the First French National Assembly and the Emergence of a Revolutionary Culture (1789–1790) (Princeton, 1996); Marisa Linton, Choosing Terror: Virtue, Friendship, and Authenticity in the French Revolution (New York, 2015); Barry Shapiro, The Deputies and the King in the Early French Revolution (University Park, 2009).