Victims, Authority, and Terror: The Parallel Deaths of d'orlaeans, Custine, Bailly, and Malesherbes

By George Armstrong Kelly | Go to book overview

1.Introduction

Rethinking the French Revolution

Jacobinism is most often considered the doctrine of a centralizing and authoritarian political regime with a large component of populist and egalitarian appeal. How it comes to define itself in this way is less clear. The many thousands of pages written about the Jacobin regime of 1793-94 and its famous instrument of internal control, the Terror, still leave us dissatisfied and confused. This is especially true of the Terror. Was it a logical internal development or a prudential burst of fanaticism, a politics consummating morality or suspending it? Was it conceivably, as Merleau-Ponty writes, "the Terror of History" itself, history being terror and culminating in revolution "because there is contingency"?1 Both partisanship and deficiencies of historical recitation have been at fault in creating confusions of these concepts. I shall attempt here a new departure that will at several points clash with the received wisdom of French historiography. Since I can, for the time being, make only a partial offering, my interpretation will be vulnerable as such. What I shall do in this volume is examine the Terror per differentiam in its roots and sources: I shall be showing, in the context of both Old Regime and Revolution, what Jacobinism was not; what and whom it could not stomach in its transitory "republic of virtue." Gaining a theoretical and historical grasp of these issues and their anchorage in the French authority crisis of the eighteenth century will place us in a far better position to understand the texts, acts, and legacy of Jacobinism itself.

Not only do I regard this indirect route as the preferred approach to a vexing subject, but I have chosen to examine the cases of significant victims of the Jacobin Terror, rather than compose a synthetic account of the currents of reason and passion that converged on the Year II. The persons I have selected are: Louis-Philippe-Joseph, Duc d'Orléans; General Adam-Philippe de Custine; Jean-Sylvain Bailly; and ChrétienGuillaume Lamoignon de Malesherbes -- all of them executed by the Jacobin regime. This exploration should of course be accompanied eventually by a direct and searching appraisal of the positive doctrines of Jacobinism, a project I hope to conclude at some later date. For present purposes this chapter must assume the burdens of anticipating how such an account might proceed as well as introducing the framework for my treatment of Jacobinism per differentiam.

A pervasive mood of ferment and revisionism in French Revolutionary

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