one, was, according to the memoirs of his sister Charlotte, an ordinary provincial lawyer who played cards in the evenings, participated in musical gatherings, and courted his benefactor the archbishop in the provincial town of Arras in the predominantly Flemish region of Artois. He was interested in the ideas of the Enlightenment as were most other young men and some women who had been to school. But he certainly did not sit in secret dark rooms planning the overthrow of the government. Before the events of 1788- 1789, neither Robespierre nor the majority of his generation were overtly disaffected from society ( Schama 1989). In Robespierre's case there was no recorded crisis of alienation, no outward rebellion before 1788. Later, in revolutionary oratory and journalism, he would talk a lot about himself, but he never revealed details of his life before the Revolution ( Furet 1989; Jordan 1985).
It was the coming of the Revolution that released new political possibilities, a new political discourse unimaginable under the ancien régime. Just as the English Revolution discovered in Oliver Cromwell, an otherwise obscure and undistinguished landowner and parliamentary backbencher, a political and military genius equal to the great events of his century, so too did the Revolution reveal Robespierre ( Jordan 1985: 27-29). Only a tiny minority could envisage any other form of government than monarchy. The idea of republic was synonymous with the direct democracy of antiquity. It was only after the king's flight to Varennes on June 21, 1791, that it became conceivable to think in terms of a republic. As late as in the summer of 1791, Robespierre expressed outrage at the very notion of republicanism: "Accuse me if you will of republicanism. I declare that I abhor any kind of government in which the factious reign" ( Nora 1988: 794).
It turns out then, that the ideology of classic republicanism so often invoked by critiques of enlightened despotism as the only guarantee of civic liberty, when it came to social reality, was heavily tinged by aristocratic values. In contrast, the detested absolute monarchy, when it functioned, was more democratic in the modern social and egalitarian sense of the word. This is obvious to the modern observer, but it also came through in some of the theoretical treatises of the time. They have gone into oblivion because a new version of revolutionary republicanism came to dominate the world through the success of the French and the American revolutions. Those who thought in terms of reforms of absolutism from within were the more reasonable and well informed of their day. The problem is, alas, that history rewards not those who are right, but those who triumph.
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Publication information: Book title: The French Revolution of 1789 and Its Impact. Contributors: Gail M. Schwab - Editor, John R. Jeanneney - Editor. Publisher: Greenwood Press. Place of publication: Westport, CT. Publication year: 1995. Page number: 250.
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