Before the Deluge: Public Debt, Inequality, and the Intellectual Origins of the French Revolution

Before the Deluge: Public Debt, Inequality, and the Intellectual Origins of the French Revolution

Before the Deluge: Public Debt, Inequality, and the Intellectual Origins of the French Revolution

Before the Deluge: Public Debt, Inequality, and the Intellectual Origins of the French Revolution

Synopsis

Ever since the French Revolution, Madame de Pompadour's comment, "Apr's moi, le d luge" (after me, the deluge), has looked like a callous if accurate prophecy of the political cataclysms that began in 1789. But decades before the Bastille fell, French writers had used the phrase to describe a different kind of selfish recklessness--not toward the flood of revolution but, rather, toward the flood of public debt. In Before the Deluge, Michael Sonenscher examines these fears and the responses to them, and the result is nothing less than a new way of thinking about the intellectual origins of the French Revolution.

In this nightmare vision of the future, many prerevolutionary observers predicted that the pressures generated by modern war finance would set off a chain of debt defaults that would either destroy established political orders or cause a sudden lurch into despotic rule. Nor was it clear that constitutional government could keep this possibility at bay. Constitutional government might make public credit more secure, but public credit might undermine constitutional government itself.

Before the Deluge examines how this predicament gave rise to a widespread eighteenth-century interest in figuring out how to establish and maintain representative governments able to realize the promise of public credit while avoiding its peril. By doing so, the book throws new light on a neglected aspect of modern political thought and on the French Revolution.

Excerpt

The revolution began with deep divisions at the royal court. the first signs of political instability took the form of a number of vicious personal disputes among members of both the royal family and the high nobility over the status and character of the reigning queen. She, it was said, had succeeded in building up a party of her own, barely disguising her indifference to the established institutions and formal procedures of the kingdom's government in her eagerness to promote the interests of her favourites and clients. Her foreign origins and the aura of religious scepticism that surrounded her circle served to arouse the resentment of patriots and to awaken the anxieties of the devout, giving the growing number of her enemies many easy opportunities to add fuel to rumours of libertinism at home and treachery abroad. Relaxation of the censorship laws added to the sense of unease. Wave upon wave of satirical, libellous, or crudely pornographic pamphlets, prints, and songs, concerned as much with the queen's sexual affairs as with the political, economic, and moral damage done to the kingdom by a widely hated minister, caused political legitimacy to crumble. As it did, royal legislation became easier to challenge and more difficult to enforce, turning even minor infractions of the law into opportunities for theatrical legal trials and florid appeals to public opinion. the drift towards disaster was marked by growing hostility in the face of a series of controversial reforms to the kingdom's military, legal, and fiscal establishments, hostility that was reinforced by widespread suspicion of an unprecedented set of changes to the kingdom's traditional system of diplomatic alliances. the sequence of events that led to the final explosion took place quite slowly, filling the better part of three tense years. But when the crisis at last occurred, things were all over in a matter of days. “It is surely,” wrote one contemporary, “one of the most rare revolutions that history can offer for our observation.”

The revolution in question was not the French Revolution of 1789 but the Danish Revolution of 1772. the queen was not Marie Antoinette but Caroline Matilda, the sister of Britain's King George hi and wife of the

[S. O. Falkenskjold], Mémoires authentiques et intéressans, ou histoire des comtes Struensee et
Brandt
(London, 1789), p. 142.

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