Lucy Moore

Why the revolution went off the rails

Ian Davidson blames the notorious assignats, and makes the mismanagement of these National Assembly bonds — the bane of all history students — actually quite interesting

Why the revolution went off the rails
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The French Revolution: From Enlightenment to Tyranny

Ian Davidson

Profile, pp. 314, £

Assignats are the bane of every student of the French revolution without an economics background. They were the bonds issued by the National Assembly from 1789, underwritten by the sale of newly nationalised church property, and all I ever really grasped about them was that they contributed to rampant inflation. In fact, as Ian Davidson shows in his new account of the revolution, their issue and ‘reckless mismanagement’ were as essential to the revolution’s initial success as to its ultimate failure. They may even have been ‘the single most important factor that caused the revolution to go off the rails’. At last someone has not just explained

assignats but made them interesting.

It is all too easy, with a subject as vast as the French revolution, to be distracted by the multiplicity of sources and individual narrative trails one can follow. But Davidson’s book is cool, concise and utterly compelling, driven not by personalities but by the relentless momentum of the revolution itself. This is the clearest and most comprehensive account I’ve read of the economic imperatives and systems of the revolution — the ‘operational perspective’, as he puts it in another context — and how they were conceived and then corrupted over the dramatic five years from the first meeting of the Estates General to the fall of Maximilien Robespierre, architect of the Terror.

This is not to say that Davidson ignores the people who starred in this drama. On the contrary, he draws neat and revealing portraits of all the leading and many of the supporting players, memorably describing the Marquis de Lafayette as ‘something of a comic-opera hero’. But it is typical of his approach that when he introduces the young soldier Lazare Hoche, he tells us that an avenue in Paris was named after him but not that during his time in prison he was the lover of the future Empress Josephine. Women barely feature in this very masculine world of government and power.

As his subtitle, ‘From Enlightenment to Tyranny’, makes clear, Davidson tries to tease out where and how the initial ideals of the revolutionaries — the group of (mostly) young bourgeois lawyers who shaped the extraordinary events of 1789–1794 —were corrupted. He offers a scrupulously neutral account, a feat few chroniclers of this extraordinary period have attempted, striving to avoid revelling in bloodshed or being outraged by it (other historians of the period have managed to do both at the same time), as well as avoiding an overtly political stance.

In his introduction he refuses to proclaim his allegiance to either Robespierre or Georges Danton. ‘In my book, there are no heroes… François Furet was surely right when he said that the French revolution was a great event but that it did not produce any great men.’

Davidson’s impressively impartial efforts to explain the descent from idealism to realpolitik made me look with fresh eyes at the contemporary relevance of the events he describes. Again and again he shows us the hungry and disenchanted majority of the French population, numbly turning away from the scaffold and the ballot-box and willing the revolution to be over while their fanatical leaders, to whom the revolution had become a kind of alternative religion, plunged to further depths of tyranny, holding up, as a revolutionary imperative, government without democratic legitimacy. As Robespierre said, ‘the despotism of liberty’ was necessary to crush ‘the despotism of kings’. The police state with its midnight visites domiciliares, the ravenous war machine, the idea of the revolutionary state having no frontiers, the casual, almost gloating attitude to death and violence — all these seem dreadfully familiar today, in different guises.

And yet the revolution and its protagonists remain tantalisingly elusive, as

Davidson also repeatedly acknowledges. Danton, the charismatic, bull-headed, rabble-rousing lawyer, never accounted for secret Ministry of Justice funds spent during his tenure in office, and his behaviour in late 1792 and 1793 was decidedly murky; his colleague General Dumouriez conquered Belgium and then turned his army on France.

Similarly when Robespierre, a sphinx in a powdered wig, went missing for three weeks in July 1794 at the sweltering climax of the Terror, Davidson can only speculate about his motives:

No one knows why he went absent, nor what he did… That is how secret he was determined to be, and how effective his secrecy was. My guess is that while the Terror was feeding on itself, everywhere generating wild, unlimited fears and suspicions, similar forces were working on Robespierre’s mind; but that is just a guess.

It’s marvellous stuff and an indication of the perennially absorbing nature of the revolution. Davidson’s book is a worthy addition to the canon.

Lucy Moore’s books include Liberty, about women during the French revolution, and Anything Goes: a Biography of the Roaring Twenties.