- Series: Penguin History
- Paperback: 292 pages
- Publisher: Penguin Books (1990)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0140138250
- ISBN-13: 978-0140138252
- Product Dimensions: 7 x 1 x 5 inches
- Shipping Weight: 5.6 ounces
- Average Customer Review: 5 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,664,820 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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A History of Modern France: Volume 1: Old Regime and Revolution 1715-1799 (Penguin History) Paperback – January 30, 1991
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In about 250 pages, Alfred Cobban gives us his vision of the reigns of Louis XV and Louis XVI and the French Revolution. His accents are sometimes very pronounced (e.g. 'the sinister shade of atheism'). His general position is that 'theory plays little part in the determining policies. The actions of the revolutionaries were prescribed by the need to find practical solutions to immediate problems.' The central theme of his book is 'bread' (famine) for the Third Estate and 'financial crisis' for the powerful in the Old Regime. The financial crises were provoked by war (e.g. the American War) and the refusal by the wealthy (aristocracy, Church) to pay taxes. Other factors were the weakness of the kings and the functioning of the Old Regime with its bureaucratic control of industry and trade. Louis XVI had to summon the States-General, which permitted the Third Estate to take power (normally it was always in a minority position of 2 against 1). But immediately, there were internecine fights between the different factions in it. The Committee of Public Safety eliminated the right (Danton) and the left, but the members of the Committee then fought among themselves: Robespierre was guillotined. In fact, 85 % of the guillotined belonged to the Third Estate. When the new revolutionary army became sufficiently professionalized, the political role of the people was finished. The well-to-do within the Third Estate, who had used the discontent of the peasants and the craftsmen, could lean on the army to take power, until one of the generals rose above everybody and became France's new autocrat. Of course, this small book cannot give detailed explanations of all events or insightful portraits of all important characters, but it is told with dash, insight and vision.
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I found Cobban's work rich with insights into French history. For example, he reminds the reader that what is often used as a term of derision, the "ancien regime" was, almost a century earlier, considered the "New Deal" of Louis XIV and Colbert. And the wars of religion: it was the revocation of the edict of Nantes (which foster "peaceful coexistence" among the Catholics and the Protestants,) that cost the French one-quarter of their population, and a majority of their commercial class. The devastating losses in the Seven Year's War, with Great Britain, which ended in 1763, provided the essential groundwork for a new age of reform. But as we now know, the reforms were not sufficient, and lead to the Revolution. The last decade of the 18th century, rich in horrors and bloodletting, composes one half of Cobban's account.
And up until that decade, as Cobban says: "It must be frankly admitted that the history of eighteenth century France as I have given it up to this point has been, apart from a few sentences, the history of one-tenth of the French people. Glacier-like, the rural masses of most nations before the nineteenth century remain anonymous and concealed, even from contemporaries..." And when the other nine-tenths were able to become actors on the political stage, it was a mixed scorecard. Consider Cobban's depiction of one of Robespierre's close associates, Saint-Just: "a terrifying young man, only twenty-one when the Revolution broke out...his arrogance surpasses all bounds... he carries his head like the Holy Sacrament...Pity and moderation were not in his vocabulary."
Change? Well, there was a bit. Cobban says: "Looking backward, the theme of eighteenth-century history is the rise of the Third Estate, (meaning mainly the middle class, or as the French say, the bourgeois), but how many could have guessed this before 1789? On the other hand, his overall evaluation of the revolution was, as the "revisionist view" described: "Out of the Revolution, therefore, there emerged a new and even stronger system of vested interests than had preceded it. Perhaps human capacity for change is limited: at any rate, the Revolution seemed to have effected changes so great that for a time they inhibited further progress. It did not inaugurate but brought to an end a great age of social transformation. The paradox of French history is that a revolutionary settlement was to provide the basis for a profoundly conservative pattern of society." 5-stars.
Cobban's narrative commences with the death in 1715 of Louis XIV after 54 years of personal rule. Louis XIV had used those five decades to perfect a system of absolutist monarchy and to exert French power and influence throughout the continent of Europe. However his unquestioned ascendancy over a traditionally proud and independent aristocracy had not come without cost. Cobban writes, "Louis had not so much suppressed the declining aristocratic elements in the state as bought them off at high price." In exchange for obedience, the wealthiest members of French society received broad exemption from royal taxation. Even so, vestiges of noble privilege persisted, in particular the "parliaments" - regional law courts responsible for registering royal edicts, traditionally dominated by the aristocracy, of which the Parliament of Paris was the most influential. For now, the parliaments lay quiescent; later under less domineering monarchs they would spearhead a reassertion of noble rights and privileges.
Louis XIV had sought French dominance over the continent through a seemingly endless series of wars. The War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714) had been fought among the great powers of Europe to determine who would succeed to the Spanish throne and, as importantly, what would be the parameters of the empire inherited by that successor. After more than ten years of conflict in Europe and the Americas, the Bourbon candidate favored by Louis XIV succeeded to the throne of Spain, but under condition of exclusion from the line of inheritance to the kingship of France, thus ensuring that Louis' dream of a union of the French and Spanish kingdoms would not come to pass. Moreover the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht effected a partition of the Spanish empire, with the Spanish Netherlands and territories in northern Italy awarded to France's traditional antagonist Habsburg Austria.
The War of the Spanish Succession, then, had concluded with meager political gains for France. It had also concluded at great financial cost. The mountain of war debt left behind by Louis XIV would occasion the first great fiscal crisis of eighteenth century France. The future Louis XV being only five years old in 1715, the governance of France fell to a regency under his cousin Philip of Orleans. Recognizing that a period of peace was essential for national regeneration Orleans embraced the settlements of 1713-1714, concluding an alliance with Britain which would persist until 1731, and even participating with Britain, Holland and Austria in a short war against Spain (the War of the Quadruple Alliance, 1718-1720) when that monarch attempted to challenge the new status quo in Italy.
For all his prudent management of foreign affairs, any fiscal dividends which might have accrued fell victim to catastrophic economic policy. Orleans entrusted the state finances to a Scottish adventurer named John Law, a man possessed of some singular theories of finance economics. Money, reasoned Law, had no value in itself but was simply the instrument through which trade is effected. Trade being not only the lifeblood of the nation but also a source of tax revenue which could plug the hole in the royal finances, it would be desirous to stimulate economic activity by maximizing the availability of currency. Law proceeded to consolidate the operations of the French overseas colonies into a great state monopoly trading company, including the slowly developing Louisiana territories in the Americas which brought the trade of the Mississippi region down to overseas markets via the trading post at New Orleans. Combined with a new state banking institution, the Mississippi Company began to produce currency in the form of shares backed by the presumed future profits to be generated by the trade of Louisiana. The resulting speculative bubble burst in 1720: the Mississippi Company collapsed and Law fled into exile. A French distrust of central banking would persist throughout the remainder of the 18th century; France would not again have a central bank until the reign of Napoleon.
Law's financial engineering did nothing to solve the ongoing fiscal crisis. True, the wars of Louis XIV had destabilized the royal treasury, but as Cobban makes clear, the essential problem of French finances was one of taxation, not of expenditure. France in the eighteenth century had very considerable resources available to her. It was a period of rapid expansion in trade overseas and population at home. The number of French ships engaged in overseas commerce quadrupled between 1715 and 1789, while the value of trade handled through the port of Bordeaux, France's richest, rose from 40 million livres in 1724 to 250 million livres in 1789. The population of France grew steadily through the course of the century, from about 17 million persons in 1715 to perhaps 26 million in 1789. Revolutionary France was the most populous country in Europe.
The expanding wealth of the highest tier of Frenchmen was on view throughout the 1700s in the construction of grand chateaux and manor houses, and the perfection of luxury items for nobles and beneficiaries of the commodity and slave trades with the rich sugar colonies of the French Antilles. The mid eighteenth century was "a period in which the cult of the lesser arts" - goldsmithing, tapestry weaving, chamber music, the culinary arts - "reached perhaps its height." Eighteenth century painting reflected the spirit of the times. The weightier themes of the seventeenth century - the enigmatic classical allegories of Poussin, the luminous seaport sunsets of Claude Lorrain, the brooding midnight portraits of La Tour - gave way to Watteau's whimsical minstrels, Pater's country fetes and the flirting shepherds of Boucher. Cobban's summation of eighteenth century French literature could as well serve for its painting: "it was an age of wit rather than wisdom, of optimism rather than a sense of tragic destiny."
To be sure, the economic expansion of France did not reflect a perfectly modern economic regime. In many ways France of the eighteenth century represents a curious hybrid of medieval and modern. It was for example, the high-water mark of guild influence over craftsmen and trades, complete with a tangle of rules and regulations governing work and innovation: "they prevented, and were intended to prevent, the development of new methods of manufacture." Consequently the pace of industrialization in France lagged far behind that of England: in 1789, Cobban relates, 900 spinning jennies operated in France, while England in that year boasted twenty thousand. Internal customs fees and tariffs further retarded trade. With the pace of industrialization thus stifled, population growth could not be translated to economic growth as it was in England; in fact population increases in these circumstances may have acted as a politically destabilizing force: by 1789, "It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that France must have been suffering from intense and increasing rural over-population." And in fact widespread starvation in the countryside motivated revolutionary mobs in the late 1780s and early 1790s.
The tension between the middle ages and modernity in France extended to the sphere of governance. As Cobban summarizes, "the great king [Louis XIV] had endowed France with a modern system of government while retaining a semi-medieval system of financing it." The taxation system was corrupt, inefficient and increasingly regressive. The single wealthiest institution, the Catholic Church, was entirely exempt (although the clerical government would customarily vote to the crown an annual "free gift", usually two to three million livres on revenues typically in excess of 120 million per annum). The diminished crown power of taxation hobbled France as a great power; an increasingly chaotic and faction-driven policy process at Versailles under the rule of Louis XV and his son and successor Louis XVI hastened her decline. The popular impression of an extravagant court spending the state into bankruptcy on palaces and finery is a misleading caricature - the greatest pressure on state finances came during wartime. Indeed, "The expense of even a small war was greater than that of the biggest palace." Furthermore, "war inevitably brought a fiscal crisis." In tracing the history of France's involvement in costly and unproductive wars under the personal rule of Louis XV and XVI, we trace also the slow drift of the ancien regime towards collapse and Revolution.
With only brief exceptions, the Orleanist regency and the succeeding premiership of Fleury (1726-1743) were periods of peace and recuperation for France. Fleury followed in the tradition of strong premier minstres in the spirit of Richelieu and Mazarin. If he did nothing to reform the revenue system, he did everything possible to avoid straining the state finances with unnecessary wars. Fleury continued the Orleanist policy of peace with Austria and Spain. With Fleury's premiership we see "the most prosperous and successful period in the history of eighteenth century France." When Louis XV plunged France into the War of the Austrian Succession in 1741, it was under the influence of an aristocratic war party at Versailles led by the Comte de Belle Isle and against the advice of an aged and fading Fleury.
Upon her father's death in 1740 Maria Theresa of Austria had succeeded to the crown lands of the Habsburgs. Seizing upon a moment of legalistic uncertainty surrounding the accession, Frederick William II of Prussia ("the Great") invaded and occupied the rich and populous Bohemian crown land of Silesia (now southwest Poland). Belle Isle and his confreres saw the opportunity to neutralize Austria if France could manage the installation of an ally as Holy Roman Emperor. Making common cause with Frederick in an anti-Austrian alliance, Louis XV was persuaded to support the imperial candidacy of the Elector of Bavaria. In 1741 a French-Bavarian force embarked upon the invasion of Bohemia.
For France, the war would prove an ill-fated venture. Frederick proved an unfaithful ally: no sooner had France joined the war than Prussia concluded a secret truce with the Austrians. Austria quickly occupied Bavaria and the French army was forced back behind the Rhine; Britain entered the war on the side of Austria. The year 1745 saw decisive battles in Germany, Bohemia-Moravia and the Low Countries: Bavaria was knocked out of the war at Pfaffenhofen; Frederick inflicted a crushing defeat on a pursuing Austrian force at Hohenfriedburg then secured his hold on Silesia with a follow-up victory at Kesselsdorf. The war concluded in 1748 with Prussian control of Silesia secured. The war had not been without battlefield victories for France especially for Maurice de Saxe, the victor of Fontenoy; overall, however, France "had gained nothing."
No sooner had hostilities concluded than trouble began to brew between France and Britain in their overseas colonies. Through the 1750s minor armed conflict simmered in the Indian subcontinent and in the frontier regions of the American colonies. Open war broke out in the Ohio Country in 1754; by 1756 colonial conflicts in India and the Americas had meshed and entangled with great power disputes in central Europe. By the outbreak of the Seven Years War (1756-1763), the network of alliances among the great powers of Europe had shifted. Maria Theresa, seeking a continental ally to support her effort to recover Silesia, abandoned the British alliance and effected a rapprochement with France. The British for their part looked to Prussia to help guard the security of Hanover. Sweden, Saxony and Russia allied with France and Austria. Frederick William II precipitated continental war in 1756 with a preemptive invasion of Saxony. French fortunes were mixed from the start: Frederick defeated a massive French invasion force at Rossbach in 1757 though French armies succeeded in forcing the surrender of a British army at Hastenbeck. Then in 1759 the French suffered a series of devastating defeats: two fleets were lost to the British at Lagos and Quiberon Bay, and Wolfe defeated Montcalm in Quebec. The 1763 Treaty of Paris resulted in the loss of Canada, Senegal, a handful of Caribbean islands, and all influence in India.
The continental wars of 1740-1763 had by and large yielded nothing for France save defeat and humiliation, particularly at the hands of the British. Furthermore, from 1763 the state experienced continual fiscal crisis under a crushing debt burden. Attempts at reform were made: in 1749 Machault's finance ministry proposed a universal income tax. By 1753 Machault was sacked under withering opposition from the clergy and the aristocratic parliaments. In 1771 the ministry of Maupeou attempted to restructure the royal finances. To overcome the objections of the parliaments to any reform, they were broken up and their members banished to exile in a "veritable coup d'etat." It might have succeeded but for the death of Louis XV and the accession of his son as Louis XVI in 1774; a partisan of the the aristocracy, the new king dismissed Maupeou and restored the former parliaments. Faced with the perpetual crisis of the royal treasury, however, even Louis XVI turned to a reformer for solutions, appointing Turgot in 1776 to implement physiocratic theories in the form of a general land tax. But under heavy pressure from the Parliament of Paris, Louis was forced to dismiss him.
The final fiscal crisis of the ancien regime arose from the War of the American Revolution. Since 1763 France had sought revenge against Great Britain for her humiliation in the Seven Years War. The French saw their opportunity with the revolt of the American colonies against British rule. After Burgoyne's defeat at Saratoga (1777) France began to provide money, troops and naval support. Spain and Holland soon joined the effort. But French support for American independence was not only produced by a thirst for revenge. Benjamin Franklin had captured the French imagination on his embassy to Paris, his carefully calculated rustic frontiersman image dovetailing nicely with the Rousseauist tenor of the era. It was a time when even Marie Antoinette had abandoned extravagant luxuries in favor of elegant simplicity and a strange simulacrum of rural peasant life at the Petit Trianon ("Luxury was becoming boring"). As well, and somewhat ironically, men such as Lafayette and Rochambeau found it natural to take up the cause of American independence having become accustomed to hearing the language of liberty and freedom from the parliaments in their remonstrances against royal demands for greater aristocratic contribution to the national finances.
With the British defeat at Yorktown in 1781, France had the satisfaction of seeing Britain humiliated by the loss of her American colonies. The finance ministry of Necker (1776-1781) had sustained the war effort through miracles of debt finance: "His great expertise, and the one thing he could do really well, was to borrow money." Interest payments on the royal debt skyrocketed: between 1774 and 1789 the total rose from 93 million to over 300 million livres per annum. Last-ditch reforms were attempted. Colonne's land tax proposal was no more successful than Turgot's. Brienne's pitch for tax reform in 1787 was the last straw for the parliaments. They refused to register any further royal loans unless the king convened the Estates-General, a representative body preponderantly weighted towards aristocracy and clergy which had last met in 1614. In 1788 Louis XVI's move to disband the parliaments en masse provoked open revolt throughout the country. His show of backbone had come all too late. Backed into a corner he was forced to call the Estates-General for May 1789. Truly, "the price to be paid for American independence was a French revolution."
In September 1788 the Parliament of Paris registered the royal decree convening the Estates-General at Versailles in May of the following year. At the same time they provoked the first of a long series of revolutionary moments by stipulating that the procedures governing the last meeting - in 1614 - would again apply. This was to marginalize the Third Estate - one third of the Estates, and collectively one third of the vote under the old rules. The new professional classes of the Third Estate had misinterpreted the parliamentary rhetoric of individual rights as applying also to themselves. Now faced with the revealed intention of the nobility to keep them marginalized, the Third Estate found leaders and entered open revolt. The Abbe Sieyes articulated the spirit of the professional classes: "What is the Third Estate? Everything. What has it been heretofore? Nothing. What does it seek to be? Something." In December 1788 Louis XVI decreed double representation for the Third Estate. Cobban writes, "at the very moment when the parliaments and noblesse thought themselves victorious, a new revolution, which was directed against them, had already begun."
In August 1789 the National Assembly issued the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen. Cobban finds the key influences of this seminal document of the French Revolution not so much in Rousseau's Social Contract ("little read and less understood") or Jefferson's Declaration of Independence ("American precedents are obvious but not fundamental") as in the remonstrances of the parliaments. The Declaration replaced the concept of monarchical sovereignty with that of national sovereignty, following on the parliamentary remonstrances and the declaration of Sieyes that "the Third Estate is the nation." Cobban sees in the Declaration, as he does in the Revolution itself, the culmination of a long process rather than the inception of a new one: "... in the history of ideas it belonged rather to the past than the future. The age of individual rights was not beginning but ending." Furthermore in the new assertion of national sovereignty Cobban identifies the first stage of a process which would find its fulfillment in the Napoleonic period and its ultimate expression in the dictatorships of the 1930s.
By year-end 1792, the revolutionary experiment with constitutional monarchy had collapsed and the revolutionary government was fighting a major war and an internal royalist revolt. The constitution of 1791 had retained Louis XVI as monarch despite his attempt to flee the country in June of that year and the open secret of his plotting with exiled aristocrats for restoration of absolutism. In April 1792 France declared war on Austria, simply because both the royalists at court and the radical party in the National Assembly, known as Brissotins after their leader Brissot or Girondists after the region from which many of them hailed, believed they had something to gain from it. For the Brissotins war with Austria might consolidate the opinion of an increasingly rebellious and ungovernable populace behind the new constitutional regime and therefore safeguard their own grip on power; for the king and his partisans a French defeat at the hands of Austria might lead to restoration of absolutist monarchy. The king's treason finally brought a revolutionary assault upon the Tuileries Palace in August 1792 and in the following month the abolition of the monarchy. Louis XVI's execution took place on the Place de la Revolution - formerly Place Louis XV - in January 1793.
Maximilien Robespierre, leader of the opposition Mountain party in the National Convention, had spoken against the invasion of the Austrian Netherlands in 1792, observing presciently, "No one loves armed missionaries." More ominously he had warned that revolutionary energies would be best spent fighting enemies closer to home. By the time of the June 1793 coup that displaced the Brissotins and brought the Committee of Public Safety to supreme power, the French state faced acute crisis. Austrian armies menaced her frontiers; a Catholic-Royalist revolt rose to a boil in the Vendee region; food shortages squeezed the restive populace. Clearly the time for strong leadership was at hand. This was found in the "great Committee of Public Safety" which ruled France from June 1793 to July 1794.
Beyond our understanding of the motivations for the revolt of the Third Estate in 1788-89 Alfred Cobban would also revise our appreciation of the Committee of Public Safety's period of ascendancy. The Committee, he writes, provided "a government of perhaps the ablest and most determined men who have ever held power in France." Of Robespierre himself, he writes that "the part he played in the Revolution has been reduced to nonsense and himself to a meaningless horror by the systematic blackening of his reputation after Thermidor." In fact, following the coup of June 1793, "for the first time since 1789 France had a real government." At the same time Cobban reserves all his contempt for the foot-soldiers of the Paris mob, the sans-culottes: "It is difficult to find anyone else in the whole history of the Revolution as completely contemptible as the leaders of the sans-culottes... professional revolutionaries who spent their time at the Section meetings, orating and denouncing in an alcoholic haze."
The "great Committee of Public Safety" may have saved France and rescued the Revolution but by July 1794 the excesses of the Tribunal of Paris had caught up with their orchestrator Maximilien Robespierre: he was guillotined in the revolt of Thermidor. The men who engineered his overthrow and organized the new regime of the Directory acted from no high ideals, but took for their object stability and security: "The Thermidoreans were united only in their fear of Robespierre... [they were] practical and limited men driven to ruthless action."
If the theme of the Revolutionary era is the exploitation of social forces by which one is in turn overmastered, Napoleon Bonaparte offers perhaps its best example. As challenges arose to the Directory, its leadership looked increasingly to the army, and the person of Napoleon, to guarantee security. In 1795 Bonaparte was called to Paris to suppress the revolt of Vendemiare ("Parisian revolts, whether of the right or left, were evidently out of date"). Campaigning in Italy during 1796-97 he drove the Austrians from Lombardy, then settled with them in the Treaty of Campoformio, in the process taking de facto control of French foreign policy. In 1797 he sent one of his own officers to suppress the threatened monarchist revolt of Fructidor. In 1798 he was dispatched on a rather mad empire-building scheme in Egypt which in the end redounded to his benefit: roused by the threat posed by a French army in the Middle East, Russia and the Ottoman Turks joined with the Austrians and British in the Second Coalition against Revolutionary France. Napoleon, with his fellow conspirators Talleyrand and Sieyes, could exploit this imminent threat to the republic to seize power as First Consul in 1799: "Then, and only then, did the logic of Bourbon absolutism finally triumph over the liberal ideals of the Constituent Assembly, and divine-right monarchy find, with Bonaparte, its historical sequel in the sovereignty of force."
More recent scholarship on the French Revolution has focused on the role of the mob, of women, and of the marginalized; in this respect _A History of Modern France 1715-1799_ is somewhat dated in its approach. As a precis for the study of the period, however, Cobban's work represents the best tradition of British scholarship: vast erudition worn lightly. It is a minor masterpiece of expository history, worthy of the attention of any student of the period.