Dale Van Kley

The French Revolution and the Radical Enlightenment

A cautionary lesson for Christian historians.

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Nor—the second of Israel's criteria—is it demonstrable that even the most politically radical members of Israel' putative committee had been so in both an anti-royal and anti-aristocratic sense before late 1788, as though they had entered the events of the pre-revolution with a set scenario for how they wanted France to look by October 1789, and plotted and planned to make it happen. Since the Revolution began with a classic Old Regime-style set-to between the monarchy trying to promulgate fiscal reforms at the expense of noble and clerical privileges on the one side and the chief royal court, or Parlement, invoking the principle of national consent on the other, most of Israel's protagonists became "revolutionaries" dialectically, entering the maelstrom either on the anti-aristocratic or anti-despotic side of the debate until the mutual discrediting of both of these institutions forced a synthesis between these two positions. Thus Condorcet entered the lists in 1788 on a reformist monarchy's side and against the convocation of the Estates General, and only embraced the principle of national sovereignty later; while Brissot broke into print on the side of the Parlement and against a royal propagandist's proposal that the monarchy get rid of its debt by declaring bankruptcy. And in this situation, figures who subsequently divided along numbers of political fault lines, and not just Israel's radicals, felt the historical ground shake beneath their feet and the need to explore terrae incognitae.

Stated baldly, the method used by Israel in order to fill out his revolutionary "steering committee" with members who meet his "radical" criteria would therefore seem to consist in finding evidence of either anti-royal or anti-aristocratic political radicalism or of radical ontology and then extrapolating from this one criterion to the necessary existence of the others. Given a method that efficient, research can be economized.

With his cast of radical architects of the Revolution thus constructed, Israel attributes to them an influence over events and deliberations by the National Assembly in 1789 out of all proportion to the evidence. At no point, for example, can Paris's street-level speechifying or pop-up periodicals be said to have dictated the decisions reached by the National Assembly at Versailles in July through September 1789, unable as they were even to prevent the Assembly from giving the king a suspensive veto in the new constitution. Yet Israel attributes to his "radical" few the Assembly's decision to precede a new constitution with the a declaration of rights, as though such a declaration did not command support from a wide array of political positions and may be said to be the product of a century and a half of political philosophy and experience culminating in the examples of the American states' declarations, little of it atheist or materialist. Among Israel's radicals, only Mirabeau, Jérôme Pétion, Sieyês, and the comte de Volney took part in the debates leading to the final draft of the declaration; Mirabeau contributed a "physiocratic" preamble, Sieyes perhaps the phrase "general will," and Pétion and Volney nothing. Far from being allies on the constitutional committee, as Israel suggests, Mirabeau held out for a royal absolute veto that SieyÈs opposed while Sieyès proposed a very "absolutist" and elitist conception of representation that Mirabeau opposed.

At street level, Desmoulins indeed mounted a chair in the Palais royal in the wake of the news of the king's dismissal of the popular minister Jacques Necker on 12 July, from which perch he effectively urged people on to demonstrations that led to the first clashes with royal troops in Paris, and indirectly to events culminating in the storming of the Bastille two days later. In such a hurry, however, is Israel to steer the Revolution in the direction he thinks his heroes steered it that he stumbles over the elementary narrative of the storming of the Bastille, making the collective intent of this action about the release of prisoners from a reputed citadel of "despotism" instead of obtaining powder for the defense of Paris and removing the threat that the fortress's cannons posed to the local Saint-Antoine quarter. If the storming of the Bastille saved the National Assembly, it was only by ricochet; if the event assumed the meaning of the "tomb of despotism," it did so in retrospect.

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