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Liberty or Death: The French Revolution Kindle Edition
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The book makes the salient point that while Paris was the focus of the Revolution the French countryside was in flames due to Civil War in the Vendee monarchist area of the nation and the invasion by Austrian troops on the borders.
This is a good introductory and understandable to the layperson account of the momentous event which could be used a good textbook in a course on the French Revolution, European and eighteenth century history or world history. Good period illustrations, maps and extensive footnotes are included.
So I was surprised and disappointed in "Liberty or Death" by Peter McPhee. McPhee has written a national history of the French Revolution rather than focusing on the regular drivers of the action in the political Conventions and the military. McPhee succeeds in telling stories across the entire country so the reader hears voices not usually heard. Le Havre merchant Bonvoison, who keeps a diary of Revolutionary atrocities; Marie-Madeleleine Coutelet, a miller in Paris who is executed for letters that mock the government; Leon Dufour, twelve in 1793, who practices war with other revolutionary boys in the small town of Saint-Sever. This adds a level of depth and a variety of stories not usually heard. McPhee also does a wonderful job synthesizing the narrative motion of Revolution with statistics that provide a complete picture. Usually histories have strengths with one or the other but not both; McPhee uses the numbers so you know exactly how many priests fled the nation, the population levels of the port towns affected by the interruption of trade, how the 1789 drastically affected the revenues of the provinces and their leading men.
However, I would never recommend this book as an introductory book on the French Revolution. To me, Citizens by Schama is far superior in telling the story of the Revolution, of building the structure of the political decisions that drove the French to war with half of Europe and half of it's own country. McPhee, in telling a national (or even global) story, does not spend as much time on these figures and decisions that plunged France into the Revolutionary Wars and the Reign of Terror. The Insurrection Of August 10th, the overthrowing of the monarchy, is covered in a scant four paragraphs. The trial of the King and his execution gets a page and a half. One reason the Revolution captivates so many is the towering personalities: men who spoke like poets, who captivated the crowds, educated men who ended up steering their nation into rapids of political murder not seen in Europe since.......the Second Triumvirate? Except for perhaps Robespierre who gets some attention in Chapters 12 and 13, the other leading lights of the Revolution are thinly drawn shadows of themselves. By focusing on telling stories across all of France, McPhee sacrifices explaining the motivations and minds of the men (and women! Madame Roland is mentioned four times in the entire text!) that were the engine of the Revolution.
This is a useful addition to the shelf of a dedicated reader of the Revolution. The stories McPhee draws together from across France provide more context to how the Revolution was seen to normal Frenchmen across the country. However, I would not recommend this to a new reader. You would not get a full understanding of how the Revolution became the Terror, how the Terror became the Great Terror, how Barere became Anacreon of the Guillotine, how Vergniaud - who is not mentioned in the text - and his speeches captivated the Convention. This book does not do justice to the figures that made the Revolution. I would recommend "Citizens" by Schama for a better general history. I would recommend "Twelve Who Ruled" by Palmer or "The Terror" by Andress for a deeper analysis of the fight for power and control of the nation during the critical years.
Near the end of Chapter 12 McPhee covers the trial of the Indulgents - Danton, Desmoulins, and those associated with them that were in favor of slowing down the Terror. Danton, who (with Robespierre) WAS the Revolution - it was Danton who orchestrated the August 10th Insurrection and overthrow a seven hundred year old monarchy, who was Minister of Justice during the first spasms of extra-judicial killings in September 1792, who established the Revolutionary Tribunal, who Lenin called the greatest master of revolutionary tactics in history. It was Danton who rallied the nation, as the Austrians and Prussians marched west towards Paris, proclaiming before the Convention that "...The tocsin we are about to ring is not an alarm signal; it sounds the charge on the enemies of our country. To conquer them we must dare, dare again, always dare, and France is saved!" It is the greatness of Danton and so many others that McPhee sacrifices in his telling of the Revolution. McPhee writes that in March 1794 Robespierre "...agreed to support the arrest of these giants of the Revolution..." (pg 251). Upon reading this, I imagined I was reading the first history I'd ever read of the Revolution. It made me say out loud: "Then what makes these guys giants?" I would not want any reader to pick up a book on the Revolution and have the same reaction.