Over there in France

I enjoy doing posts where I ask simplistic questions about important intellectual developments, both because I like the abuse I incur and because sometimes I learn something.

So…what was the deal with the French Revolution? Did it have the effect of scaring despots in other countries into giving the peasants a bit more out of fear of being overthrown and executed? Is a reign of terror something we should be seriously considering now? Any thoughts would be welcome.

I know what Mao said so don’t bother with that one, smart guys.

141 replies
  1. 1
    Adam L Silverman says:

    Which one? They’re on the 5th Republic. Please specify by name of the actual revolution and dates.

  2. 2
    Cataphract says:

    Check out Mike Duncan’s 55-episode series on his Revolutions podcast. You’ll get some answers there, as well as hours upon hours of entertainment.

  3. 3
  4. 4
    danielx says:

    Okay, to which Mao quote are you referring?

  5. 5
    Yutsano says:

    @danielx: I think he’s thinking of Ho Chi Minh.

  6. 6
    Doug! says:


    What do you think of the French Revolution?

    It’s too early to say.

  7. 7
    raven says:

    @danielx: I just don’t want to talk, I just don’t want to talk about it naow. . .

  8. 8
    Jim, Foolish Literalist says:

    @Cataphract: I listend to his History of Rome and loved it. Haven’t started on Revolutions yet. In fact I’m tempted to restart Rome

    @Adam L Silverman: “When France sneezes, all Europe catches cold” was about 1830, wasn’t it? I’ve read a fair bit about 1789-92, but I can’t remember how many foreign reactions there were that didn’t involve armed missionaries. I think the Spanish Bourbons clamped down and the Brits drew themselves up in righteous horror. And does Bonaparte count as part of “the Revolution”?

  9. 9

    Both the French and American Revolution – in particular the former’s Declaration of the Rights of Man – directly informed the Haitian Revolution (which Washington and Jefferson adamantly opposed). Though the island’s black population realized it wouldn’t mean much if the leaders were white.

    Of course, the Dessalines-helmed massacre of 1804 helped inform later colonial powers’ fear of post-independence swart gevaar (i.e., once we free them they’ll kill us all as payback).

  10. 10
    Villago Delenda Est says:

    Well, between the Revolution itself and Napoleon spreading a lot of its ideas across Europe, it had a profound impact. It also created “Conservatism” as we know it today, with Burke actively adopting the revolution’s tactics in the name of preserving privilege for parasites.

  11. 11
    Zelma says:

    Actually the French Revolution probably had the opposite effect from what you suggest. Yes, it scared other rulers/ruling classes but the result was greater repression of what we might call the forces of liberalization in the rest of Europe. A small but telling example: in Britain in the years before the Revolution there was a movement for some kind of reform to make Parliamentary more representative. Indeed, the PM William Pitt the Younger proposed some changes. However, once the revolution occurred, any kind of reform was viewed as dangerous. It took until 1832 for there to be any reform. There are other examples like the sedition laws, etc. So the impact of the Revolution in Britain was reactionary.

  12. 12
    Adam L Silverman says:

    @Jim, Foolish Literalist:

    And does Bonaparte count as part of “the Revolution”?

    Counter, counter revolution. I think.

  13. 13
    Villago Delenda Est says:

    Dammit, the edit button is malfunctioning.

  14. 14
    Barbecue Swinger says:

    My hot take as a passing Victorianist: while it interested the Brits generally, it freaked out the British money/landed classes and led to repression such as the Peterloo Massacre.

  15. 15
    stinger says:

    The French Revolution has done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more, I notice.

  16. 16
  17. 17
    Calouste says:

    The French revolution scared the monarchs of other countries, but only to the point that they wanted to fight the French (see the wars of the First through Seventh Coalitions).

    Anything that happened during that time came because they were beaten by the French armies.

  18. 18
    Schlemazel says:

    @Jim, Foolish Literalist:
    Napoleon came about because of the failures out of the revolution.

    I admit my world history is a bit limited but I can’t think of a single revolution outside of the one in the US that went anything like I would call smoothly. Even the American on was followed by a few years of upheaval though it falls quite short of the French revolution. Most are followed by years of bloodshed, generations of dictatorships and widespread economic dislocation.

  19. 19
    raven says:

    Cause he looks so fine upon that hill
    They tell me he was lonely, he’s lonely still
    Those days are gone forever
    Over a long time ago, oh yeah

  20. 20
    chopper says:


    It’s too early to say.

    i think the next 6 months will be critical.

  21. 21
    Adam L Silverman says:

    @Schlemazel: Between the end of the Revolutionary War and the 1960s there were over 90 different rebellions all across the US. From small ones that occurred along the frontier in Carlisle, PA in the 1790s to small ones that occurred in urban areas like Philadelphia (Gilbert’s Rebellion) also at the beginning of the Republic to large scale ones like the Great Rebellion aka the Civil War.

  22. 22
    Adam L Silverman says:

    @chopper: Tom Friedman? Is that you?

  23. 23
    Sherparick says:

    It was supposedly Chou en Lai, not Mao. And it was a joke. The Russian Revolution & 70 years of A Communist State motivated Western Capitalists to ameliorate Western working class living conditions & tolerate non-communist unions. With the decline of the Soviet Union, it was time to let the Ayn Rand freak flag to fly.

  24. 24
    Librarian says:

    The French Revolution followed the dynamic often seen in revolutions- it started with the fall of a repressive government, in this case an absolute monarchy, continued with an attempt by moderates to install a constitutional government, who were then replaced by radicals (the Jacobins), who in turn fell and were replaced by weak moderates (the Directory), who were then overthrown by a military hero (Napoleon) who proceeded to establish his own dictatorship. So it began with a tyranny and ended with a tyranny. France did not have a tradition of parliamentary constitutional government, unlike England, and so it was easy for Napoleon to establish a dictatorship.

  25. 25
    Steeplejack says:

    I’ll deny this in court later, but lately I have found myself wondering how soon things are going to get so bad that some beaten-down, desperate individuals start taking “direct action” against the oligarchs, the 0.1%’ers and the politicians who are gleefully dismantling our society and stealing everything for their masters (and themselves, apparently, according to the latest version of the tax bill).

  26. 26
    Schlemazel says:

    @Adam L Silverman:
    yes, but by and large the central government maintained control (that brief nastiness in the 1860s being a partial exception) and business kept moving. That is a far cry from the reign of terror, the purges after the Soviet, Chinese, Cuban, Iranian and several others I can think of.

  27. 27
    Adam L Silverman says:

    @Schlemazel: I’m not saying they’re the same thing. I’m just saying that the political history of the US isn’t as neat and clean as our mythologized and sanitized history makes it out to be.

  28. 28
    Mart says:

    My recollection from touring the Karl Marx museum is the French Revolution did not help him make friends with governments while proselytizing about the benefits of the coming commie revolution. He was booted out of all sorts of Western European countries.

  29. 29
    mdblanche says:

    @Sherparick: Zhou misunderstood the question because whoever asked it forgot to take @Adam L Silverman‘s advice.

  30. 30
    matt says:

    France had national conscription and had a much larger army than the other countries of Europe until they followed suit. Those countries had to create more political buy-in to be able to build effective armies that way. So you could say that military necessity drove the reforms of the various states of Europe in the wake of the French Revolution.

  31. 31
    oatler. says:

    Shut up and grease my guillotine!
    Happening now even if we don’t know it

  32. 32
    Radiumgirl says:

    Allow me to jump to my favorite topic, the role of inequality in taxation in fomenting rebellion:

    Per Wikipedia:

    The system also exempted the nobles and the clergy from taxes (with the exception of a modest quit-rent, an ad valorem tax on land). The tax burden, therefore, devolved to the peasants, wage-earners, and the professional and business classes, also known as the third estate. Further, people from less-privileged walks of life were blocked from acquiring even petty positions of power in the regime. This caused further resentment.

    In France circa 1780-something the aristocracy was largely exempt from tax, while the burden of supporting the government fell to the lower classes.

    Witness the current atrocity working its way through Congress.

    Connect the dots.

    Thank you.

  33. 33
    Schlemazel says:

    @Adam L Silverman:
    And I agree but can you name another violent, armed, revolution that ended as well? Despite a lot of problems the end result was a lot safer and prosperous than any I can think of.

  34. 34
    Matt McIrvin says:

    @Sherparick: People often say that, but it seems to me that the rise of Reaganism/Thatcherism preceded the point where it was obvious to people in the West that the Soviet Bloc was in decline by several years. In fact, much of the initial attraction of Reagan was the idea that the Soviets were strong and on the march and needed to have strong opposition. (And when it did become clear that the USSR was in decline, that perception created the illusion that Reagan had somehow caused it.)

  35. 35
    Adam L Silverman says:

    @Schlemazel: No, most of them don’t. But most of them aren’t led by the economic and political elites and notables though. The American revolution was one of the only ones I’m aware of that had this dynamic. Even Sam Adams, who is often portrayed as a rustic, rube like figure was highly educated, well off, well connected. In many ways the American revolution was closer to a civil war, where two different groups of elites are vying for control of state and society, than an actual revolution. This includes many of the Founders asserting that they were fighting to secure their rights as Englishmen.

  36. 36
    Lyrebird says:


    Despite a lot of problems the end result was a lot safer and prosperous than any I can think of.

    Might also be instructive to compare to non-revolutions, e.g. Canada!

  37. 37
    Matt McIrvin says:

    @Librarian: It was eighty-something years after 1789 before France had anything like a stable democratic republic. And that only lasted for 70 years until the Nazis invaded.

  38. 38
    Schlemazel says:

    Given how heavily armed many of the deeply insane wingnuts are, how the III%’ers have infiltrated the police and military of the US and how much of the nations law enforcement would stand against a revolution I am not convinced that a popular uprising would net the results a lot of dreamers think it would. I could see an insane gangocracy like Libya or a wasteland like Syria or the bloody dictatorship of a Mao or Lenin happening very easily. I don’t see how there could be any sort of healthy vibrant democracy on the other side.

  39. 39
    NotMax says:

    I enjoy doing posts where I ask simplistic questions about important intellectual developments, both because I like the abuse I incur


    Please don’t neglect to shave your palms before going out in public.

  40. 40

    I am sure the towering intellect of our time, David Brooks has said something about French revolution, you should go and find a column of his that deals with the subject and you will be rewarded.

  41. 41
    Schlemazel says:

    Doug! is talking about a revolution here in the US, now, today. This has become a popular fantasy in certain circles. Canada had no revolution, they had a peaceful transition of power from the crown to their own government.

  42. 42
    Doug! says:


    I did but it was actually all about Applebee’s.

  43. 43
    Mnemosyne says:

    @Butthurt Jordan Trombone (fka XTPD):

    (which Washington and Jefferson adamantly opposed)

    I am banned from naming the person who helped the Haitians write their initial constitution, but it was that guy who got himself shot in a stupid duel a couple of years later.

  44. 44
    Sask_Ex_Pat says:

    One thing the French revolution changed was how people think about revolutions and political change. The idea that a revolution leads to a permanent change in society grew out of the French revolution. Hannah Arendt has an interesting book (On Revolution) that argues that, while the American revolution was in theory a classical revolution that restored a previous constitutional ideal, the consciousness of the participants in the framing of the new system made the effects more lasting and impactful.
    I have read some descriptions of the French revolution that claim it merely accelerated trends of centralization and removal of noble privileges that were already in play.
    An interesting parallel to now is that the governmental crises that led to it was financial, and caused in part by the huge number of wealthy, tax exempt bourgeois nobility. Simon Schama’s Citizens is a great account of it, but it’s really long.

  45. 45
    chopper says:

    @Adam L Silverman:

    you got the joke!

  46. 46
    Adam L Silverman says:

    @chopper: I sure did.

  47. 47
    Villago Delenda Est says:

    @Schlemazel: England’s Glorious Revolution of 1689 went just fine, although it was sort of a Dutch Invasion that the English didn’t bother to resist, because it happened to get rid of James II.

  48. 48
    lurker dean says:

    your question about the revolution reminds of this article i read yesterday. you’re not alone.


    a comment to the article quotes howard zinn:

    “Civil disobedience is not our problem. Our problem is civil obedience. Our problem is that people all over the world have obeyed the dictates of leaders…and millions have been killed because of this obedience…Our problem is that people are obedient allover the world in the face of poverty and starvation and stupidity, and war, and cruelty. Our problem is that people are obedient while the jails are full of petty thieves… (and) the grand thieves are running the country. That’s our problem.”

  49. 49
    Matt McIrvin says:

    @Schlemazel: But the real reign(s) of terror going on in the colonies–slavery and the extirpation of Native Americans–continued unabated under the new regime. And when the former was (sort of) eliminated, it was in a cataclysm that was far bloodier than the American Revolution and had a more violent and unresolved aftermath. So maybe there’s a correlation between the success of a revolution and how un-revolutionary it really is.

  50. 50
    Adam L Silverman says:

    @chopper: So, funny story. My last year at USAWC I was leading the seminar I was assigned to on economics. I was actually, for a while, the lesson author for the economics and economic power lessons in the National Security Strategy and Policy core course. I had been fighting for four years with the different course directors that we needed to give the students more baseline instruction on macro economics as the students seem to have problems differentiating between macro and micro economics. Anyhow, about ten minutes in it became clear that almost all of my American students (I had three International Fellows in the seminar that year) had no idea about the basics of fiscal and monetary policy. So I stopped the discussion and did a 20 minute block of directed instruction to get everyone on the same page. I went through Keynes and basic fiscal concepts and policy and moved on to Friedman. I asked if anyone knew who Friedman was and one of my students (lieutenant colonel promotable) put his hand up and said: “do you mean the columnist with the NY Times?”

    Good times!

  51. 51
    Villago Delenda Est says:

    @Radiumgirl: Tumbrel rides for everyone who votes for “tax reform” in 2017.

  52. 52
    JR says:

    what was the deal with the French Revolution?

    The monarchy was broke thanks to their disastrous involvement in the Seven Years War and the War for American Independence, among other factors. They also had an inefficient, patently unfair tax system that depended on private tax collection and did not directly tax the clergy (first estate) or nobles (second estate). In other words, the rich paid less in taxes than the poor and middle class.

    Did it have the effect of scaring despots in other countries into giving the peasants a bit more out of fear of being overthrown and executed?

    Well, no. Not really. Think about it this way: the French were the dominant power in Europe since at least the reign of Louis XIV. A lot of these other monarchs were pretty happy to see the Bourbons get their asses handed to them. Besides, shit didn’t get real until the royals tried to escape in 1791. Up until then, the French were on the path towards something resembling a British-style constitutional monarchy. After the failed flight to Varennes, the royals were pretty well fucked. It didn’t help matters that the reforms up to that point hadn’t alleviated ongoing bread shortages and other problems.

    The reign of terror didn’t begin in earnest until after Louis XVI was executed in 1793. It didn’t help matters that the Austrians had been saber-rattling with the explicit intent on *preventing* said execution from occurring. Once said Austrians (and their allies) were forced to follow through on their threats, all hell broke loose.

    Seven wars and about twenty years later, Napoleon was defeated for good and pretty much all the monarchies of Europe were restored to their original positions. The French had to undergo a few more revolutions before bona fide representative government would actually take hold.

    Is a reign of terror something we should be seriously considering now?

    No. That’s a terrible idea. Most of the victims of the purges were just regular folks who had crossed the wrong people. Many of the enlightened folks who endorsed the revolution were executed or driven into exile. This includes legendary scientists like Antoine Lavoisier and Jean Sylvain Bailly. They even executed the guy who wrote La Marseillaise. That’s setting aside atrocities that were committed in the Vendee.

    You should listen to the Revolutions podcast.

  53. 53
    Mnemosyne says:

    I’ve mentioned it here before, but I recently read Marie-Therese: Child of Terror, a biography of the only child of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette to survive the French Revolution. It’s very slanted towards the Bourbons, but it makes an interesting argument that the Duc d’Orelans, Louis’s cousin, was trying to manipulate events to depose Louis and take over the throne himself. Of course, like most people who think they can unleash the crazy and ride it to power, he ended up on the guillotine just a few months after Louis was executed.

    Also, there is no longer any doubt at all: the Dauphin died in prison at the age of barely 10 years old. They were able to identify his DNA from his preserved heart.

  54. 54
    LosGatosCA says:

    600K dead in the US Civil War against Traitors who wanted unlimited rights to own people,

    About 1/2 that dead in the French Revolution Reign of Terror.

  55. 55
    Villago Delenda Est says:

    @Mnemosyne: Interestingly enough, German industrialists thought they could control Hitler.

    That went really well.

  56. 56
    Lyrebird says:

    @chopper: Hey, I did too, but Adam’s got better riposte skills!

  57. 57
    Lyrebird says:


    Canada had no revolution, they had a peaceful transition of power…

    Yes. That was my point.

    Done studied more than I ever wanted to about Chinese & Russian history, in addition to French. Didn’t make me a fan of bloody revolutions.

  58. 58
    JR says:

    @LosGatosCA: Fair enough, but the Napoleonic Wars, a direct result of the revolution, lead to ~3.5 million military dead plus untold civilian casualties.

  59. 59
    gorram says:

    @danielx: That’s what I was going to say, Mao wrote A LOT. You have to narrow it down.

  60. 60
    Matt McIrvin says:

    @Mnemosyne: Though, weirdly, a sort-of-liberal Orléans-branch monarchy ended up ruling France from 1830-1848, before yet another revolution, a few years of republic, a coup and the Second Empire.

  61. 61

    @Mnemosyne: That was the same year, and he died seven months after that.

    Also, why are you banned from saying his name?

  62. 62
    bcw says:

    Maybe we should instead look at the last time inequality was this bad in the the United States, in the 1910-30’s. The result was the period of the anarchist riots, bombings and murder of the wealthy and powerful and eventually the election of FDR but not until after the Red scares and oppression with it.

  63. 63
    Steeplejack says:

    Glad to see a thread where reign is being used correctly—given free rein, as it were.

  64. 64
    gorram says:

    @Butthurt Jordan Trombone (fka XTPD): To be fair, armed slave uprisings in Haiti were occurring before the revolution in France really got off the ground (I’m thinking of the Tennis Court Oath part of it). The *sucessful* revolution happened just after the French got busy beheading nobles, sure, but that just demonstrates how new opportunities emerged at that time for French colonies (just like how the American Revolution reflected the financial insecurity and other internal problems to the British Empire).

    Also yeah, White slave owners around the world freaked out, and arguably engaged in counter-offenses to the Haitian state that, among other things, partitioned Hispaniola so that the Dominican Republic became a thing.

  65. 65
    Villago Delenda Est says:

    @Lyrebird: The Brits learned something from the American Revolution. Lord North paved the way for the Dominion system.

  66. 66

    @gorram: Was Mao mostly incompetent, mostly bloodthirsty, or about both in equal measure? (AFAICT the consensus on the Great Leap Forward was that its execution failed overwhelmingly due to sheer incompetence).

  67. 67
    mdblanche says:

    @Villago Delenda Est:

    England’s Glorious Revolution of 1689 went just fine

    Scotland’s and Ireland’s, on the other hand…

  68. 68
  69. 69
    CaseyL says:

    Canada had a peaceful transition, after nearly two centuries as part of the British Empire. I’m not saying that’s bad; but it is a distinctly different historical path from the US.

    For instance, Canada also didn’t have an economy, or a society, built on slavery. So they were also spared that particular convulsion. (Note that Britain abolished slavery in its colonies in 1833, though it continued to trade with and support the US South but there were hardly any slaves in British Canada in the first place.)

    I think the absence of slavery – or its close cousin, feudal serfdom – had an immense and incalculable effect on Canadian social evolution. They didn’t have a heritage of dividing their population into castes of haves and have-nots the way the US and Europe did, much less the racial aspect slavery embedded im the US.

  70. 70
    gorram says:

    @Schlemazel: For White people, to be specific. There was the possibility for abolition (effectively or actually) as a result of slaves uprising in the nascent US and defecting to the British, as well as the ways in which the Revolution accelerated the ethnic cleansing of the Midwest in particular and indigenous people generally. As expansion continued, the settler colonial dynamic expanded to target Latino/as with limited to no connection to indigenous culture as well as Asian immigrants too.

    The country’s White supremacist basis concentrated and disguised the anti-democratic dimensions to our failures to meaningfully reform as a society.

  71. 71
    Lyrebird says:

    @Villago Delenda Est: Point taken.

    I confess I am also biased in that I’m guessing that too much appeal to the glories of nearly-forgotten revolutions elevates the Bundys and the purity police who have targeted Sens. Harris and Booker rather than getting us more victories like the Virginia ones and that other Doug Jones’.

  72. 72
    Omnes Omnibus says:

    @Schlemazel: Ours wasn’t really a revolution.

  73. 73
    Lyrebird says:

    In general I agree, but…

    but it is a distinctly different historical path from the US.

    ..maybe one of the history buffs here can give an accurate estimate of how much the English-speaking population of eastern Canada grew due to dissenters (Tories?) leaving our 13 original colonies.

    ETA: my point is, their choice of a different path was not entirely independent from the US war of Independence, both due to what Villago pointed out and due to who stayed and who left the nascent USA for Canada.

  74. 74
    gorram says:

    @Butthurt Jordan Trombone (fka XTPD): IMO he was at least a competent military leader, a trait that I think is actually born out in parts of his writings, especially those that critiqued the USSR. The through-line is that he had a knack for recognizing structural weaknesses that could (and arguably would) be seized by an adversary. That’s not how you run a society though, that’s how you resist military occupation and end a civil war. The tools to reach power are not necessarily the tools for maintaining it.

  75. 75
    Mnemosyne says:

    @Matt McIrvin:

    Not so weird — as presented in the book, it was something the Orleans family had connived at for years.

    @Butthurt Jordan Trombone (fka XTPD):

    I got overenthusiastic about the play. Lots of times. 😊

  76. 76
    gorram says:

    On reflection, I guess that’s a vote for bloodthirsty, but I would also take a specific form of incompetence as the answer?

  77. 77

    @gorram: A quick review of the DR’s history shows the Spanish territory was unified via French treaty in 1795, returned to Spain after Napoleon’s invasion of same, declared independence in 1821, forcibly absorbed by Haiti’s Boyer a year later, and established as a fully independent Hispanic republic starting in 1844.

    The 22-year merger with Haiti also plays a pivotal role in Dominican relations vis-à-vis Haiti, adopting a racial self-perception more Latino than African. This has roots going back to the states’ colonial establishments – African Dominicans generally being semi-autonomous ranchers as opposed to field hands – but anti-African hostility not kicking into high gear until waves of immigrants/refugees from Pres. Wilson’s sacking of Haiti in the 1910s (and the “not-African” designation being fully codified by Trujillo Molina’s rule).

  78. 78
    Omnes Omnibus says:


    I got overenthusiastic about the play. Lots of times.

    This might well be the understatement of the year.

  79. 79

    @gorram: Apparently his writings are some of the premier writings on guerrilla warfare. Though this probably isn’t a clear answer to my question: Was his administration’s fuckups done primarily out of cruelty, tunnel vision or just incompetence?

  80. 80
    sharl says:

    @Adam L Silverman: This reminded me of someone – I think he’d place himself in the tradition of progressive historians – who has written extensively on The Whiskey Rebellion and Alexander Hamilton. That last name/topic has him feeling a bit down these days:

    Back when I started writing and giving talks on #Hamilton, many people had only a vague idea of who he was. Now, thanks to the musical, people have no idea.— William Hogeland (@WilliamHogeland) December 8, 2017

    😄 😢

  81. 81
    SgrAstar says:

    @Mnemosyne: are you referring to that guy who was actually in 🎶the room where it happened🎵

  82. 82
    Adam L Silverman says:

    @Butthurt Jordan Trombone (fka XTPD): @gorram: The major problem that Mao faced in terms of the socio-political and socio-economic components of what he was trying to do was, to a certain extent, a mirror of what Lenin faced in Russia. Neither Russia nor China were the ideal type that Marx had written about as having the necessary and sufficient conditions required to sustain a communist revolution. That necessary and sufficient condition was that capitalism had reached the point where it had enabled the society in question to overcome scarcity. Marx figured that the test examples for his theories would be someplace like Germany or, perhaps eventually, the US. Neither Russia nor China fit the conditions that Marx had delineated. They basically went from imperial, dynastic monarchies directly to variant Marxist based communist states and societies. No capitalism. No advanced and late stage capitalism that had overcome scarcity or had produced enough to do so. That’s why the non-military portions of both Lenin’s and Mao’s revolutions wound up being brutal.

  83. 83
    Viva BrisVegas says:

    @Villago Delenda Est:

    The Brits learned something from the American Revolution.

    Excuse my ignorance, but I’ve always wondered what the average American got out of the Revolution in the way of more freedom? The elites made out like gangbusters once restrictions on stealing Indian land and trade with Britain’s enemies opened up. What was in it for the little guy?

  84. 84
    Feathers says:

    I audited Neai Ferguson’s world history class at Harvard. Very glad to have done so. It is always interesting to see the differences in what the public intellectuals say in the classroom and on TV. But, anyway, one of the possible paper topics was: Which had a greater effect on world history, the French Revolution or th industrial revolution?

    The thought being that the French Revolution brought nationalism into the world. That the enlightenment and then Romantic ideal that “man” has rights endowed by the creator, or even just for being human, became degraded into the idea that one has rights which come from being French or German or a particular race or culture.

    A very conservative view, especially as it simply misses that feeling greater moral worth because one is white and Christian and European is as foolish as any of the other nationalistic delusions.

  85. 85
    SgrAstar says:

    @Sask_Ex_Pat: Hilary Mantel’s novel « A Place of Greater Safety » is a chilling and historically accurate account(according to some scholars I know who specialize in this) of the French Revolution. Brrrrrr.

  86. 86
    Adam L Silverman says:

    @Butthurt Jordan Trombone (fka XTPD): @Mnemosyne: @Omnes Omnibus: If you got any more overly enthusiastic we were considering an intervention.

  87. 87
    Adam L Silverman says:

    @Butthurt Jordan Trombone (fka XTPD): His and Giap’s. The good news is that People’s War, People’s Army is back in print. You can get a kindle copy for a decent price – its a 1.99 right now (Do it! Do it!). Or just go here if you want a pdf:

  88. 88
    Adam L Silverman says:

    @sharl: It is what it is.

  89. 89
    Mnemosyne says:


    So does Hogeland offer any substantive criticism of Chernow’s book, or just snark about it?

    ETA: The fact that Tea Partiers and sovereign citizens seem to love Hogeland (based on the Amazon reviews) makes me a little skeptical of him.

  90. 90
    Feathers says:

    @Viva BrisVegas: the American coloniets were actually wealthier than the British homeland by the time of the revolution. What they did not want to happen was to lose that through wealth extraction back to England. So what the average American (aka non-slave non rich man) gained was not being bound by the British class system and being a part of a wealthy nation that was able to keep its wealth.

  91. 91
    Omnes Omnibus says:

    @sharl: I have a hipster’s complaint about Hamilton. My reading of history caused me to see him as admirable long before the musical.

    Mnem will back me on this.

  92. 92
    Mnemosyne says:


    Shhh. You’re going to get me in trouble. 😂

  93. 93
    Mnemosyne says:

    @Omnes Omnibus:

    Yes — Omnes has fully established his bonafides as the OG, pre-musical Hamilton fan.

  94. 94
    Doug R says:

    @Schlemazel: Canada had a few revolts, including Louis Riel’s.
    The RCMP, back then the NWMP was formed to combat rebellions and massacres like the Fenian raids, the Cypress Hills Massacre and Riel’s Red River Rebellion.

  95. 95
    joel hanes says:


    the end result was a lot safer and prosperous

    For white people.
    It turned out rather less well for the first nations, and for the black slaves, and other non-whites.

  96. 96
    NotMax says:

    @Adam L. Silverman

    Yeah, for a while there was half expecting the specter of Ron Popeil to show up and suggest to some to take it down a notch or two.


  97. 97
    Omnes Omnibus says:

    @Mnemosyne: Thanks.

    ETA: I don’t get to be OG very often.

  98. 98
    Adam L Silverman says:

    @Doug R: Obligatory:

    No actual Mounties were harmed or placed in jeopardy in the filming of this motion picture. Eh.

  99. 99
    🌷 Martin says:

    @Viva BrisVegas:

    Excuse my ignorance, but I’ve always wondered what the average American got out of the Revolution in the way of more freedom? The elites made out like gangbusters once restrictions on stealing Indian land and trade with Britain’s enemies opened up. What was in it for the little guy?

    Guns and country music.

  100. 100
    joel hanes says:

    ask simplistic questions about important intellectual developments … because sometimes I learn something

    In Richard Powers’s astonishing Goldbug Variations, one of the main characters is a reference librarian who chooses a submitted question each day, finds the answer, and posts it on The Question Board in the library. I was immediately and deeply fascinated.

  101. 101
    Omnes Omnibus says:

    @🌷 Martin: Expansion to the west.

  102. 102
    Adam L Silverman says:

    @NotMax: I was considering recommending an electro-shock therapy system where every time she typed “Hamilton” or “musical” or “Lin-Manuel Miranda” she got a jolt.//

  103. 103
    sharl says:

    @Mnemosyne: I’d never heard of Chernow or his book – I only know of Hogeland because of my specific podcast listening habits – but quickly turned up a 2007 Hogeland review of Chernow’s (and Brookhiser’s) books on Big Al:
    Inventing Alexander Hamilton: The Troubling Embrace of the Founder of American Finance

    (Figured I’d include the title just to let you know what you’d be in for if you clicked the link.)

    As far as who you’ve identified as fans of Hogeland, I wouldn’t be surprised. War-bros of all political stripes and various levels of sanity – traversing the length of the curvy political horseshoe, so to speak – are probably fans.

  104. 104
    gorram says:

    @Adam L Silverman: And in my opinion, some of Mao’s most interesting takes specifically explore how Marx supposedly simultaneously was scientifically rigorous but so off-kilter in his predictions of where and how an anti-capitalist revolution would occur (successfully). I don’t think Mao necessarily has the right answers, especially ones that are still relevant now, more than half a century later, but he does at least try to grapple with this contradiction while most communist writers, well, didn’t (as much).

  105. 105
  106. 106
    NotMax says:

    @Adam L. Silverman

    Balloon Juice, the online stop for the instant Don King coif.


  107. 107
    gorram says:

    @Viva BrisVegas: The Companies, and later railroads (and hence, The Rich Whites) would get the bulk of the land initially, sure, for essentially if not literally free, but they would sell it to less wealthy White people for only so much of a mark-up (in part buoyed by government assistance). The benefits of the theft were pass on within White communities.

    Heck, that type of redistribution was only more common in the far west or Midwest. In the South and especially the Great Plains independent homesteading with no wealthy go-between was pretty common.

  108. 108
    Adam L Silverman says:

    @gorram: True. When I’ve taught economic theories, as well as revolutionary ones, I generally frame Marx with: a very good diagnostician, but a very bad prescriber. (prescriptor?)

  109. 109
    joel hanes says:

    @Omnes Omnibus:

    Free land ownership in the west, an irresistible concept to tenant farmers anywhere.

    Every (white, Christian or able to fake it) man a potentially a freeholder, for the work of claiming the land and working it.
    Endless forests, waiting to be converted to lumber. Game animals for the taking.
    Free mining claims. The Big Rock Candy Mountain.

  110. 110
    Omnes Omnibus says:

    @joel hanes: Exactly.

  111. 111
    Mnemosyne says:


    Link didn’t work. 😒

    Ron Chernow won a Pulitzer Prize for his biography of Hamilton, so I suspect that’s a bit of Hogeland’s sour grapes. Plus Chernow highlights the white supremacist weirdness of Jefferson championing the “common man,” as long as that common man was white.

  112. 112
    Doug R says:

    @Adam L Silverman: Canadian made propaganda, made to extract money from gullible Americans. Although it does show the military origins of that famous musical ride, and anything that gives Leslie Nielsen and Paul Gross jobs is good, eh.

  113. 113
  114. 114
    gorram says:

    @Feathers: @Feathers: What a surreally ahistorical take, in that the heyday of the Romantic Movement came in the wake of the French Revolution and explicitly drew inspiration from a lot of it’s propositions about abstract rights of (White) men. I don’t want to sugarcoat that it didn’t have some big problems with race and gender, but what?

    I knew Ferguson is absurd (I ‘love’ reminding people of that time he published articles about how Keynes was wrong because he was gay), but what even…

  115. 115
    joel hanes says:

    @Adam L Silverman:

    considering … electro-shock

    I’ve seen some theatre, including some good theatre.
    I’ve done a little theater, none of it good.

    My kids took me to see Hamilton at the Orpheum in San Francisco.
    It was easily the top theatrical experience of my life.
    Took ten minutes for the language to entrain ( like good subtitling, or like seeing good Shakespeare — I don’t really speak hip-hop). After that, astonishing and important.

  116. 116
    Omnes Omnibus says:

    @gorram: Dude, Niall Ferguson. Chill.

  117. 117
    Adam L Silverman says:

    @Doug R: The best part of the whole Ray 1 or Ray 2 debate is we now know that Ray 2 was ultimately revealed as a Cylon. And there are many copies… So it makes perfect sense now. Or something.

  118. 118
    Adam L Silverman says:

    @Omnes Omnibus: If not chill, then at least a modicum of pity.

  119. 119
    Adam L Silverman says:

    @joel hanes: I have no issues with the musical per se. This was solely in reference to a certain someone’s monomania for said musical.

  120. 120
    sharl says:

    @Mnemosyne: Link didn’t work.

    Oops, sorry about that; I usually check links while the editing window is open. This should work.

    As for sour grapes, always a possibility. But arguing is what academics and scholars do, and thank goodness for that! It’s the quality of the wrasslin’ that matters IMO. I’m in no position to judge primary content from individual scholars, at least not without spending a huge amount of time studying the issues myself. In lieu of that, these arguments are very educational for me, at least for learning something at a ground floor level.

    One thing I’ll say though, is that Hogeland shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near the playwrights or script writers for a musical of any sort, and certainly not for a lighthearted show. [Unless it’s some kind of dark, ironic ripoff of Mel Brook’s “The Producers” or something like that.]

  121. 121
    gorram says:

    @Adam L Silverman: What catches my eye is that a lot of the big mis-predictions seem to line up with “Western” particularly Enlightenment era presumptions about a kind of inevitable and yet incremental improvement of things. I can’t really think of any movements inspired by him that managed to do both, because inevitability often yields dramatic, equilibrium-punctuating changes (Mao, Stalin, etc), while incrementalism tends towards a death-by-papercuts kind of meandering (socialist democracy in Europe for instance). His predictions seem pretty idyllic with how they balance these pretty contradictory underpinnings.

  122. 122
    frosty says:

    @Adam L Silverman:

    I’m just saying that the political history of the US isn’t as neat and clean as our mythologized and sanitized history makes it out to be.

    90 rebellions? This is a history I’d like to read. The only one I knew about is the Whiskey Rebellion, which my family participated in. Or so I’ve been told.

  123. 123
  124. 124
    Mnemosyne says:

    @joel hanes:

    Did you see Michael Luwoye as Hamilton? I saw him twice here in LA and he was amazeballs. They’re going to have him replace Javier Muñoz on Broadway next year.

  125. 125
    Adam L Silverman says:

    @frosty: Some of them are considered to just be civil unrest, but others aren’t even included such as a lot of the labor revolts where local or state law enforcement or the Pinkertons or other private enforcers were brought in to put down the action.

    I’ve also never seen an attempt to do a singular treatment of them, comparing and contrasting them to each other. Trying to draw conclusions about what is says about American civic culture. Things like that.

  126. 126
    Omnes Omnibus says:

    @gorram: Marx was great at defining the problem He was an amazing historian and analyst of his time. But he did not anticipate Bismarck or FDR.

  127. 127
    Brachiator says:

    I’m going to have to mark this thread for later reading. Just got home and am worn out.

    If it has not already been noted, European monarchs may have feared Napoleon more than they feared the French Revolution.

  128. 128
    frosty says:

    @Adam L Silverman: Apparently I have a new hobby / book to pursue now when I retire.

  129. 129
    Mnemosyne says:


    I waded through the whole essay, and my reaction is: meh. It’s fascinating to me that Hogeland got through his entire essay accusing Hamilton of hating the common man and wanting to become a military dictator without ever noting one important contrary fact — Hamilton was a strong abolitionist, second only to Adams among the Founding Fathers in that. Hogeland does not even attempt to reconcile that fact with his thesis. He just ignores it as entirely as he accuses Chernow of ignoring his own preferred interpretations of history.

    So — meh.

    ETA: Also, to discuss Hamilton’s militaristic attitudes without even mentioning the concurrent French Revolution and influx of French refugees into Philadelphia seems bizarre to me. The Alien & Sedition Acts were aimed at refugees from France who seemed to want to try and have a similar violent revolt in the US. No mention of that at all.

  130. 130
    gorram says:

    @Omnes Omnibus: And with them the rise of capitalist states with robust welfare systems, which is tied into a not insignificant amount of Mao’s explanation for why the revolutionary urge “shifted East”. (To pseudo-translate, I think the modern writer would say “shifted to the Global South” instead).

  131. 131

    (Not the history, but about the history.)

    @Omnes Omnibus: That was from a play and a movie. The Peter Weiss play, The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade , usually called Marat/Sade in self-defense, or perhaps just to save column inches, is worth watching, though it is not an easy watch.

    It is exactly what the title says it is. The Marquis de Sade really did write plays when confined at Charenton, and he really did have inmates perform them. He did not write “The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat,” but he very well could have. There’s a lot there, and a lot of it bears on our current situation. In the filmed play-within-a-play, the Marquis (Patrick McNee) debates Marat (Ian Richardson), a nihilistic libertarian arguing with one of the great socialist rhetoricians, as the very simple plot tells the story of Marat’s rise to prominence and assassination by Charlotte Corday (Glenda Jackson), portrayed by a narcoleptic inmate. In the background, the insane cast of inmates act atrociously and, ultimately, revolt. And the lyrics of Adrian Mitchell’s “The People’s Reaction” might have been written as expression of the motivations of Trump supporters. There is a waterboarding scene (it was psychotherapy once, though I doubt it was used at Charenton during the Marquis’s time; the actual director of Charenton disliked torture.) There is even – yes! – a compulsive rapist.

    Weiss, who I judge one of the great artists of the 20th century, nailed our current situation. I think there is a Freudian subtext with the Marquis as ego (self), Marat as superego (conscience), and the inmate cast as id. Freudianism has not worn well, but Marat/Sade, connecting sexuality and political revolution, has. Ultimately, the inmate cast revolts, overturning all.

    And so, here we are.

  132. 132
    Feathers says:

    @gorram: I took a course on European Romanticism as well, and the romantic period spread across Europe in stages. The earliest German parts predate the Revolution, and were enthralled with the revolution, appalled by its betrayal into Bonapartism, which is where the nationalism really comes into play. So I think that the real question would be, the industrial revolution and all it spawned or the French Revolution and all it spawned. Is Bonapartism and nationalism the only possible outcome of the French Revolution or could it have maintained its ideals somehow?

  133. 133
    Villago Delenda Est says:

    @Viva BrisVegas: All that land beyond the Appalachians. Not only the big shots benefited. One of the benefits of the colonies that Adam Smith pointed out is that your birth station meant nothing in America.

    What North did do was show definitely how NOT to handle unrest in the white Colonial Empire. Thus you have the examples of Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. South Africa was a special case to to cultural clashes between Brits and Afrikaners.

  134. 134
    Villago Delenda Est says:

    @Villago Delenda Est: er, “due to cultural clashes”

  135. 135

    As to the original question, I don’t think La Terreur has a lot to offer us as a model; in many respects the response of our current crop of reactionaries are more akin to the French royalists or perhaps Bonaparte’s supporters than the ancien régime that ended with the revolution.

    I suspect better historical parallels might be found in the histories of Rome and China, but I note three huge differences between those ancient empires and our current situation: (1) the USA does not, mostly, use its vast military power internally; (2) telecommunications; and (3) modern medicine, especially contraception. I don’t know enough history to draw useful parallels there, except to note that restoring a republic is something that is very difficult. Adam? Any thoughts?

  136. 136
    sharl says:

    @Mnemosyne: Hogeland has been writing on Hamilton for many years, and it’s not surprising that he wouldn’t fit it all in one literary critique, even a lengthy one. For example, while Hamilton’s opposition to slavery was real, it could be trumped by matters more near-&-dear to his heart, as Hogeland explains here, starting at about the sixth paragraph. In that blog post Hogeland links to a discussion of Hamilton and slavery which provides more context and nuance to his abolitionism, which turns out to have been more situational than is suggested by current popular and adulatory treatments.

    Points to Alexander Hamilton for being on the right side of history. He was no early version of John Brown, but then there never were many John Browns (at least that stayed alive long enough for history to record their endeavors).

    Hogeland ain’t gonna win any popularity contests with this stuff. Nuance and context are routine components of the work of serious historical biographers, as far as I can tell. But there’s no time for that sort of thing outside of the academic environment – not on Broadway, not in a high school classroom, nor an undergraduate class for that matter. It’s the stuff of hardcore historical exploration, deep and complex and often leaving more questions as old ones get answered…maybe.

  137. 137
    sharl says:

    @Mnemosyne: Lots of hate reading material for you at Hogeland’s blog, which I just discovered this evening! It looks like there are many posts under the {Alexander Hamilton} tag.

    And what I said somewhere upthread – somewhat in jest – about Hogeland probably being unwelcome around playwrights or screenwriters? Maybe I was right, maybe I wasn’t: it depends on how successful Hogeland was in his previous endeavors:

    A graduate of Saint Ann’s and Oberlin, he began his career as a playwright, actor, and performance artist with shows at the Kitchen, the St. Mark’s Poetry Project, the Williamstown Theatre Festival, and elsewhere.

    Huh, I would never have guessed.

  138. 138
    Mnemosyne says:


    Interesting that Hogeland writes an entire screed pooh-poohing Hamilton vs. Jackson and never once mentions the Hamilton-Oneida Academy.

    You can read Hogeland if you like, but make sure to fact-check him frequently. He clearly has an axe to grind against Hamilton and is willing to distort or omit facts in order to do it.

  139. 139
    DHD says:

    @CaseyL: The transition in Canada wasn’t entirely peaceful since the whole story of “responsible government” which lead to Confederation starts with the revolts of 1837-1838, which at least in Lower Canada had some pretentions at being a full-on revolution.

    Given that if the Patriotes had won, we would probably have ended up in the USA, I guess they may have done us a favor by failing so badly.

  140. 140
    Bjacques says:

    I’m glad Chou En Lai apparently meant his comment as a joke. Aside from the obvious admiration for the current oligarchy, China gets undeserved credit for stability, just because it’s been called “China” for as long as Western historians can remember. Its history has been as cataclysmic as any other. Just since the time of the French Revolution, China have had tha two Opium Wars, civil war (Taiping Rebellion), the Boxer Rebellion, the overthrow of the Ching Dynasty, rule by successive warlords, Japanese invasion, another civil war, that power struggle that Lin Piao lost, the Cultural Revolution, and the Tiananmin massacre. And that’s just the events I can think of.

  141. 141
    Stan says:


    What do you think of the French Revolution?

    It’s too early to say.

    That was Chou Enlai, not Mao.

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