Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité ??
USA Today, 1989

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By Simon Schama
945 pp; Knopf; $29.95

FOR MONTHS LA BELLE FRANCE has been feverishly decking herself out in red, white and blue, stirring patriotic passions and luring tourists, the better to celebrate the bicentennial of the fall of the Bastille and the five-year political convulsion and orgy of terror known as the French Revolution. On both sides of the Atlantic an avalanche of books, in praise or blame, has already started. But it is hard to imagine any that can match Simon Schama's mesmerizing chronicle.

Except for a brief epilogue, telling what happened afterwards, particularly to Lafayette (America's favorite Frenchman) and Talleyrand (history's most famous cynic), Professor Schama stops in 1795, shortly after the Terror and the Death of Robespierre. The Directory has yet to come. The young Napoleon, who took over as military dictator in 1799, has been notable mainly for a victory over "rebels" in the city of Toulon.

Naturally the account roughly resembles the one that everyone remembers, however vaguely, from school. France impoverished by her help for the American Rebels. The monarchy, helpless to pay bills or work reforms. The Estates General. The Fall of the Bastille. The failure of attempts to create a constitutional monarchy. The flight and beheading of Louis XVI. Various constitutions guaranteeing on paper rights already, or soon to be, suppressed. And through it all, the rush of savage suspicions and spasms of bloodshed as the Revolution ate its most brilliant children - Mirabeau, Danton and Robespierre himself. Just before Danton is guillotined, he stands, his shirt splattered with the blood of his friends, and says to the executioner, "Don't forget to show my head to the people. It is well worth the trouble." Progressive historians have tended to believe a volcanic revolution was inevitable in France, and to excuse - or largely overlook - its bloody aspects. They deal with the terror and the thousands of people killed by guillotine (or in more painful, informal ways), either as sideshow or a late Revolutionary aberration, somehow justifiable because it was often done in the sacred names of Liberty and The People. You can't make an omelette, so the complacent argument goes, without breaking eggs.

Sans culottes: originally a term of contempt applied by the aristocrats to the poor, referring to the fact that the poor did not wear the fancy britches worn by the rich, later proudly adopted as a popular name for the revolutionaries, fancypantsless or otherwise.

Schama does not share these views. With relentless clarity he traces the chain of chance and circumstance that set the Revolution in motion in 1789, following the pattern of violence built into it from the start. As he sees it, a few thousand sans culottes from a handful of Paris quartiers, whipped up into a frenzy of hate by ambitious journalists and politicians, were used by the Paris Commune to intimidate the Convention through acts that even two hundred years later one can barely read about with equanimity. The Revolution, he feels, drowned in blood and chaos precisely because this manipulated mob never permitted any of the various representative bodies, none of them much inclined toward responsible government, enough power to establish even a brief working balance between liberty and order.

It is not this thesis, though it leads to some of his most heartbreaking recreations of the past, which makes Citizens a great book. A Professor of History at Harvard, Schama has been lately acclaimed for The Embarrassment of Riches a detailed study of the prosperous Dutch in the 17th century. Citizens shows the same remarkable mixture of narrative sweep and precise analysis. With the grace of a witty essayist and the narrative power of novelist, he explores not only politics and finance, but the cultural texture of an age. Using street songs, plays and pornography, as well as books and works of art (an astonishing number are reproduced for the reader's amusement and instruction) he lays bare the follies and passions of the ancien régime which laid the groundwork for revolution and collaborated in its own downfall. Even more tellingly, he then turns to the delusions of the
Rousseau-struck utopians who made bloody hash of what followed. The hundreds of people carried along in his narrative help give the flavor of a leisurely 19th century novel, something rarely seen today when many historians have ceased to believe (as Schama still does) that history is the product of character.

Many characters have been worked over in the past - the hapless watchmaker King, the queen, treated with unimaginable (and undeserved) savagery by the pornographic press long before the Revolution, rabblerousing, human horrors like Marat (murdered in his bath) and Jacques Hébert. There are also moments of kindness and heroism: the aged Malsherbes volunteering to defend Louis at his trial; Camille Demoulins challenging the Committee of Public Safety to halt the Terror in name of the Revolution and, like all the others, being guillotined for his pains.

As tragic drama, of course, the French Revolution has everything, including an historic significance, that can scarcely be overstated. For Americans, particularly, who have just lived through the 200th anniversary of our Constitutional Convention, and who still tend to believe, blindly or sublimely, that human nature, given free reign, may somehow prove benign, this is a good time to take a look at how the French mismanaged their attempt to create a Republic. The issue has divided Americans since 1789. Thomas Jefferson, who paid less attention to France's actions than to their egalitarian rhetoric, was a fan of the Revolution. John Adams feared the self-righteous violence would swiftly graduate to dictatorship. Adams was right, of course. Readers of Schama will understand why.