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Response to Review of Liberty or Death: The French Revolution

Marisa Linton has written a model review, locating my book within her expert outline of the narrative of the Revolution and also evaluating it within a changing historiography. I am also gratified that an historian who has brought such depth and freshness to our understanding of the origins and course of the Revolution should be so generous about my overview.

There are two particular aspects that Linton notes about my book that I wish to highlight, not so much to respond to her discussion as to emphasise what I have tried to do. One concerns the renewed interest in the global origins and resonances of the Revolution, reflecting the enriched historiography of the past two decades. Historians can no longer make sense of the Revolution without understanding its international origins and consequences. But, while the Revolution was born in the heat of an international imperial crisis, France was the epicentre of that crisis and its repercussions. The shock-waves of its radical revolution were felt throughout Europe, and beyond. They reverberated across the Atlantic to the Americas, especially the Caribbean, along the shores of the Mediterranean, reaching as far as South Asia and even the South Pacific.

Just as important, this was a national upheaval in which the 98% of people who lived outside Paris in provincial towns and villages not only experienced the impact of change and conflict but were engaged in a process of negotiation and contestation with successive regimes. The most dramatic turning-points of the Revolution were Parisian, for obvious reasons, but the nature of the Revolution, the successes of its military defence, and the profound social changes it wrought were a product of France’s diverse regional cultures. So the book asks how rural and small town men and women adopted, adapted to and resisted change from Paris. The  men who governed France through a decade of revolution were overwhelmingly of provincial origin and brought to their nation-building the concerns their constituents communicated to them in waves of correspondence. The Revolution did not consist of Parisian political struggles alone, and still less of discursive dissonance analysed by studies of the printed and spoken word. The same point about going beyond the politics of national capitals and their elites holds true for understanding the revolutions and the consequent civil and international wars that have raged across North Africa and the Middle East since 2000.