The Life of Louis XVI, by John Hardman (New Haven, CT, and London: Yale University Press, 499 pp., $29.00). This sympathetic, indeed deeply moving, biography of the ill-fated king is dramatic and mostly well written, save in certain instances where I found the presentation of particular events (such as the controversy at the immediate start of Louis XVI’s reign regarding the Parlement Maupeou and the old one, which the 20-year-old king resolved with consequences ultimately fatal to the Ancien Régime and to himself) unclear. Hardman, the author of Louis XVI, first published in 1993, has drawn for the present volume upon much new material, including Louis’s correspondence with Vergennes, his foreign minister during the American Revolution, and others of his letters written before the French revolt. Louis had real expertise in foreign policy and a firm and sophisticated grasp of finance. Far from being the lazy, unintelligent fop of popular history, the king, as Hardman shows, was a conscientious and hardworking monarch, whose indecisive streak was often attributable to his ability to see and to grasp too many aspects of a complicated situation, and a sense of fatality in facing them owing to his intuition and gift of historical foresight. Hardman claims that Louis was probably the best-read of all the French kings, a dévot philosophe. He studied history, geography, and naval affairs, taught himself English (he was a conflicted Anglophile) and Italian, and his library numbered 7,833 volumes. (While in prison awaiting trial and execution, he read 250 books.) Hardman rightly argues that a fair assessment of the king’s reign depends on whether one believes in the inevitability of the Ancien Régime’s collapse, or not. Louis’s attempt to resolve the deficit revealed to him the truth that the political underpinnings of absolute monarchy had been eaten away, partly by the influence of the philosophes, partly to the remonstrances of the Parlementaires. Louis had begun as a reformist king, but by 1789 not even the reformers were any longer interested in reform; and his about-face in seeming to betray his promises to the Third Estate was never forgiven. Finally, his insistence on the “free renunciation” of much of his prerogative power, which he thought both fair and likely to be lasting, was unacceptable to the enemies of the Ancien Régime. “Since I must die,” he said after his sentencing, “I must die well.” On the scaffold, he rushed to the edge of the platform to pardon his subjects and express his wish that his death might benefit the French people, having been exhorted by his confessor, “Fils de Saint-Louis, ascendez au ciel!” This is biography at its finest, by one of the greatest authorities on the subject.
Liberty or Death: The French Revolution, by Peter McPhee (New Haven, CT, and London: Yale University Press, 468 pp., $35.00). In 1798, Kant credited the French Revolution with having “revealed at the base of human nature a possibility for moral progress which no political figure had previously suspected.” Professor McPhee offers this quotation on the first page of his book as a sort of epigraph, and proceeds throughout to confirm it, his sympathies lying primarily with the revolutionaries.
Most histories of the French Revolution have been written as if it was purely Parisian, and imposed on a recalcitrant, increasingly hostile, countryside. Paris made the Revolution; the provinces reacted to it. In contrast, the underlying approach of this book is that the Revolution is best understood as a process of negotiation and confrontation between governments in Paris and people across the country, in cities, towns, and villages. So readers of this book will find much about how the ordinary people of town and country made, opposed, and experienced revolutionary change, as well as about the history of political struggle in Paris.
As a progressive, McPhee finds most of this change to his liking: the centralization of the national government, the imposed uniformity in public administration, weights and measures, language, and other matters in the name of equality and efficiency. (Reading McPhee, I found myself recalling Graham Robb’s wonderful The Discovery of France, which in a wholly nontendentious way shows the less attractive effects of these and similar “reforms.”) McPhee approves the liberating economic, social, sexual, and other consequences of the Revolution, though he does concede that “There was always an uneasy tension between the military rhetoric of defending the Revolution and the universal mission of revolutionary change.” (“Frenchmen . . . [y]ou will pursue all tyrants to the other side of Hindustan,” a revolutionary brochure of 1793 read.)
—Chilton Williamson, Jr.