The British Periodical Press and the French Revolution, 1789-99

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Andrews, Stuart. The British Periodical Press and the French Revolution, 1789-99. London: Palgrave, 2000. 280 pp. $65.

In popular memory, the French Revolution was a revolution gone wrong. In an instant, it degenerated into the anarchy of Madame DeFarge, the rattle of tumbrels on cobblestone streets, and heads rolling off the guillotine like bowling balls. Thanks to generations of British and American historians and the popularizations of their work, the French Revolution has provided ongoing warnings of the dangers posed by "mobocracy," that eighteenth-century word that so concerned America's founders.

This is Stuart Andrew's fifth book about the eighteenth century, but it is the first that focuses on the role of the political and literary press in promulgating the historiography that came to dominate the understanding of the French Revolution. Responding to the favorable views of the Revolution presented by the Unitarian Richard Price (who drew parallels to the American Revolution), Charles James Fox, and calls to put aside Britain's traditional animosities to France, Edmund Burke was the first to sound the doomsday theme. In his Reflections on the Revolution in France, he sanctified and romanticized the royal family that was "forced to abandon the sanctuary of the most splendid palace in the world, which was left swimming in blood, polluted by massacre, and strewed with scattered limbs and mutilated carcases." Loaded into carts, the "royal captives" suffered "the unutterable abominations of the furies of hell, in the abused shape of the vilest of women. After they had been made to taste, drop by drop, more than the bitterness of death, in the slow torture of a journey of twelve miles, protracted to six hours, they were under a guard composed of those very soldiers who had thus conducted them through the famous triumph, lodged in one of the old palaces of Paris, now converted into a bastile of kings. …