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Response to Review of French Revolution review article

Response of Timothy Tackett to the review by David Andress

The review by David Andress is somewhat curious. He provides a careful analysis of the fascinating new study by Rebecca Spang. But in the case of my work on The Coming of the Terror, he assumes a somewhat dismissive tone and chooses not even to present the book’s principal arguments and conceptual structure. Of course, the history of the French Revolution is a very contentious field. Professor Andress, who has written several fine books on the subject, invariably holds strong opinions, some of which differ from my own.

My book is criticized for devoting insufficient space to the popular classes. Yet as the Introduction makes clear, the focus is specifically on the Revolutionary elites (‘all those individuals who were elected to national, regional, or local offices after 1789 or who joined political clubs’) and how, over time, they came to tolerate and even embrace a political culture of violence. While in recent decades a great deal has been written on the popular classes, including a study by Professor Andress himself, the psychology and emotional structure of the political elite as a group remain, in some respects, far more mysterious. In any case, the book does give substantial attention to ‘the people’ – far more than the ‘three-and-a-half pages’ measured out by Professor Andress – as it explores their impact on and interaction with the Revolutionary leadership. So too it develops substantial sections on women and on the nobility.

Professor Andress also takes me to task for my supposedly naive treatment of emotions. He himself is strongly attracted to the work of William Reddy and to literary theories about the influence of ‘sentiment’ in the Revolution. In his view I give inadequate attention to ‘meta-cognition’ and to ‘thinking about thinking about feeling’. I can only say that I find this to be an extraordinarily daunting task for any historian, short of his entering into pure theoretical speculation. I remain utterly unconvinced of the existence of a unified cultural meta-structure in the late 18th century, supposedly constructed through the reading of novels or plays or other texts, structures that somehow predetermined the mental apparatus and perspectives of the whole generation of Revolutionaries. Most such conclusions are based on a very selective choice drawn from among the vast and extremely diverse corpus of 18th-century printed productions (post hoc, ergo propter hoc) and on a very simplistic understanding of the reading process (to read a text is not necessarily to understand it nor to believe it nor to internalize it). Indeed, as I note in the introduction, the Revolution was an extraordinarily innovative and protean period in which little if anything was scripted in advance. New perspectives and understandings were pieced together from a wide array of materials from the past or were entirely innovated. A great many leaders were themselves extraordinarily volatile, inconsistent, and vacillating in their positions from week to week and from month to month. Even social identities and the values on which those identities were based were frequently reexamined and sometimes reformed.

My own approach to elite emotions has been informed not by literary theory but above all by recent research in social psychology, political science, and sociology. It is critical for historians to explore the whole range of specific emotions experienced during the Revolution. They must take into account not only fear per se, but also joy, enthusiasm, and fraternity (a social manifestation of love); as well as anger, hatred, and shame: how such emotions were related to one another, how they were shaped by events and transformed by rumor and periods of panic, and how they played a role in generating the anxiety and mistrust that so characterized the mentalit√© of the Revolutionaries in the months leading up to the Terror. But in addition, it is essential to examine the sociology of emotions, the differing cultural rules and expectations within the relatively separate ‘emotional communities’ of the middle class elites, on the one hand, and the popular classes, on the other (to use Barbara Rosenwein’s helpful conceptualization). In the book I argue that during periods of great tension (such as July 1789, September 1792, or March 1793) there could be a certain merging of normally distinct emotional communities, entailing a greater impact of the values and attitudes toward violence of the popular classes.

Of course, any historical study that takes into account emotions invariably encounters a problem of sources. My approach in the study of the Revolutionary elites was to emphasize contemporary correspondence and diaries: testimonies written from day to day or week to week for friends, family, or oneself, in which individuals recounted the experience of the Revolution. Such documents, produced without foreknowledge of events to come, were particularly rich in insights into the doubts and uncertainties, the confusion and misunderstandings, the emotional reactions of individuals as they attempted to make sense of and react to the ongoing events of their day. It is obvious that no document – including the writings of Robespierre privileged by many authors – is ever ‘transparent’. But insofar as possible, I sought to read such letters ‘in series’: to compare and contrast accounts of specific experiences conveyed by as many different individuals as possible for whom I had substantial sets of letters or diaries covering significant periods of time (a total of around 80).

Professor Andress characterizes my book as being ‘essentially narrative history’ primarily of interest to ‘the general or student reader.’ I admit that one of my goals was to bring to life the drama and emotion of the Revolution and in this way to make the account more accessible, not only to the ‘advanced or specialized reader’ but also to a broader scholarly readership and, hopefully, to students as well. And clearly any study of the Revolution must take into account sequence and context – as Professor Andress himself implicitly recognizes in all of his recent books. Yet the reviewer might also have noted that The Coming of the Terror contains extensive analytical sections focusing on the multiple developments which, I would argue, contributed to the emergence of a political culture of violence. Successive chapters take up attitudes toward violence at the end of the Old Regime; the intensity and enthusiasm of Revolutionary commitment; the breakdown of authority and the emergence of a power vacuum; the impact of counterrevolution; the spread of a climate of fear and mistrust; the development of toxic factionalism; and the influence of the political and emotional culture of the Parisian working classes. There can be no doubt that the outbreak of war and of armed counterrevolution were pivotal moments in the Revolution. Yet ‘circumstances’ alone would have been insufficient without a prior transformation of the psychology and mentalit√© of the Revolutionaries, a transformation with a tragic inner logic that was integral to the process of the French Revolution – and that is perhaps, after all, integral to the phenomenon of revolution itself.

There can be no doubt that the book under review has its failings. Readers will judge whether I have written ‘better history’ in the past. But I do hope that those readers will be willing to take the book on its own terms and carefully consider its arguments and analysis before making their judgments.

Response of Rebecca Spang to the review by David Andress

I am very pleased to have this opportunity to respond to Dave Andress’s insightful and generous review. Since I understand that Tim Tackett has written his own reply, I will confine my remarks here chiefly to my own work, but I do want to mention both that I am honored that Stuff and Money has now been paired with The Coming of the Terror on two occasions and that I hope single-book reviews are not being gradually withdrawn from circulation.(1a) While the pairing speaks to the continued vitality of French Revolution historiography, it also necessarily limits the reviewer’s scope for considering each book within other contexts more relevant to it alone. Stuff and Money is a history both of the Revolution and of money. Andress notes its significance for the first (and what author could quibble with a review that ends, ‘I give a wholehearted recommendation to read Stuff and Money at your earliest opportunity’?) but has little to say about the latter. Yet it was my commitment to this double task that made the book especially challenging to conceptualize and write, since it effectively meant I had two variables (money, the French Revolution) and only a single equation (the book) with which to solve them!

Let me briefly comment on the book’s contributions to the history of money and then point to the effects these have for thinking about the Revolution. First, Stuff and Money rejects as ideological the very common model that narrates the development of money as a transition from substance to abstraction, from metals to Bitcoin. This way of thinking about money’s history is absolutely pervasive (it is shared by authors as otherwise dissimilar as Edmund Burke, Karl Marx, and Niall Ferguson) and it is appealing because it is an easy story to tell. This is how the fable goes: Once upon a time, there was only barter. Then some object (wheat, cattle, tobacco, beaver pelts, etc.) became the standard against which other values were measured. These perishable commodities eventually yielded to more durable metals which first circulated by weight and then, later, were minted into coins of uniform size and fineness. Then (the fable continues) some enterprising souls recognized they could lock the metals away and issue more easily transported paper money backed by gold and silver in the vault. After a time, inconvertible paper money (fiat currencies) became the norm and then, later, money became increasingly virtual. Historians over the past decades have become skeptical of unidirectional narratives, but this one – perhaps because it anchors extensive debate on whether these transitions show progress or decline – has proven extremely durable. Stuff and Money argues against it by showing that, in practice

monetary abstraction and physical coins had long co-existed (much as pennies and bills co-exist today with checkbooks, wire transfers, and debit cards). Their difference had (and has) more to do with social context than with historical change: a merchant in eighteenth-century Bordeaux conducted his transatlantic business with book debt and bills of exchange, while the working poor in the same city rarely saw any money other than copper coins. The faux-materialist framework structuring so many histories of money represses this social difference and marks it, wrongly, as change across time (pp. 10–11).

The book’s second major contribution to the history of money is hence to insist on social difference and to historicize class in terms not of relation to the means of production but to the means of exchange. Different people have different money. In Stuff and Money, we see this in recurrent debates about ‘the money of the poor’. Old Regime officials generally assumed that the very poor and vagrant needed to have some sort of cash (since they had no access to credit networks) and viewed a shortage of small change with nearly as much concern as a rise in bread prices. During the 1790s, many argued for enhancing the moral value of small change (such as the yellowish coin in David Andress’s collection) by embellishing it with patriotic slogans. At the same time, many revolutionaries opposed the issue of small-denomination assignats since paper had historically been used chiefly by the affluent. What would happen, the Jacobin Gabriel de Cussy asked, if ‘[we put] a written money in the hands of people who cannot read, a fragile money in the hands of people who are careless, an easily dirtied money in the hands of people whose condition is inseparable from filth?’ (p. 151) Anxiety about the money of the poor did not end with Napoleon or even with the Restoration. Instead, 19th-century liberalism’s notional political and economic equality intensified concern. (See chapter seven, ‘Taking the Old Regime out of Circulation’).

Thinking about money in these ways has obvious consequences for how we write the history of the Revolution. As Andress notes, I take seriously the Constituent Assembly’s description of the assignats as ‘land in a form that can circulate’ and pay as much attention to the bills’ manufacture and destruction as I do to what is usually called ‘the history of economic thought’. Money has always been both concrete and symbolic (high-speed trading today depends on physical proximity to network cables, silver has no monetary use if others are not willing to accept it). In other words, distinctions drawn between the material and the immaterial, the lived and the ideological, are important for understanding the societies that draw them, but they should not be mistaken for absolute truths. Challenging the division of materiality from ideas has important consequences for how we think about both the history of money and that of the French Revolution.


  1. For the other review that pairs these books, see Ruth Scurr in The Spectator (21 February 2015). My own review of The Coming of the Terror will appear in the Journal of Modern History later this year.Back to (1a)