Skip to navigation – Site map

HomeIssues XXVII-2Book ReviewsRachel Rogers, Friends of the Rev...

Book Reviews

Rachel Rogers, Friends of the Revolution: The British Radical Community in Early Republican Paris 1792-1794

Londres Breviary Stuff Publications, 2021
Rémy Duthille
Bibliographical reference

Rachel Rogers, Friends of the Revolution: The British Radical Community in Early Republican Paris 1792-1794. Londres Breviary Stuff Publications, 2021.

Full text

1The purpose of the book is “to shed new light on the experience of the British community in early republican Paris” (4). Friends of the Revolution explores the life, writings, and contributions of a group of expatriates, from the journée of 10 August 1792 (the storming of the Tuileries which brought down the monarchy), to Robespierre’s downfall on 9 Thermidor, in July 1794. This two-year span was a formative, ebullient phase of the French Revolution, marked by the proclamation of the Republic, the start of the war with Britain on 1 February 1793, and the rise of emergency measures against suspects, including, increasingly, British and American people, some of whom, like Thomas Paine, narrowly escaped execution. The author uses the phrase “emergency rule”, eschewing the “Terror”, a term coined after Thermidor, which has served as a blanket condemnation of the Revolution ever since.

2Rachel Rogers uses the acronym SADH, for Société des Amis des Droits de l’Homme, rather than the ‘British Club’ (which earlier historians, and herself used in her doctoral dissertation), because of strong Irish presence in the group (7). She demonstrates the wide range of their political commitments. Far from being all Girondin, as the historiographical tradition would have it, they often leaned towards democracy, sometimes direct democracy. On the face of it, this is a book about very few people, who did not influence the course of the Revolution, during a short period of time. This description does not do justice to the breadth of the book, which in fact touches on many issues agitated by the French Revolution, from constitution-making to the maintenance of the rule of law, from the turmoil of factions to the safeguarding of individual rights, from gender- and class-based processes of inclusion and exclusion to the status of foreigners in revolutionary France and transnational channels of print and expression.

3Rogers analyses pamphlets by an American in Paris, Joel Barlow, and five Britons, Sampson Perry, David Williams, Robert Merry, John Oswald and George Edwards, plus the histories of the Revolution written by Helen Maria Williams, in epistolary and sentimental form, and by Mary Wollstonecraft, in philosophical mode. Those writings are little-known: Wollstonecraft’s history is under-researched, and some of the pamphlets have never been properly studied. Together they provided rich contributions to debates around the French constitution in 1792, at a crucial time of increasing divergence between élitist Girondins favouring political representation and economic liberalism and Montagnard proponents of popular participation and direct democracy. Despite differences on monarchical or republican forms of government, and on the nature of representation, most pamphleteers criticized the corruption of the British constitution and were committed to some form of internationalism, whereby France would take the lead in the liberation of mankind. Many of those Paris-based Anglophone pamphleteers are difficult to pigeonhole, like Robert Merry, who combined language drawn from Condorcet and the Girondins with arguments for popular sovereignty closer to the Cordeliers, who themselves drew on mid-seventeenth-century English republicans like James Harrington.

4The author points out that authors drew freely from many sources and combined several political languages available to them. Over the course of five chapters, she shows how the writings of Britons “appear contradictory and dissonant” (200). Mary Wollstonecraft’s history of the French Revolution – or rather, the first volume of an intended three-volume set – is “layered with complex narratives” (200). The different histories of the French Revolution are marked by “polyphony” (201), as they negotiated internal contradictions and incorporated extracts from heterogeneous sources. The author is original in showing how this dissonant kind of writing is linked to the lived experience of Britons in Paris in the crucial years of 1792-1794, marked by contradiction between revolutionary ideals, and the reality of mob rule and authoritarian measures.

5Sometimes, the author sketches tantalizing parallels which she does not follow up, suggesting for instance that ideas of George Edwards, an almost unknown but prolific writer, were reminiscent of Jefferson’s ideal agrarian society and were indebted to Franklin and Wollstonecraft. Similarly, she discusses Robert Merry’s arguments against the death penalty and his advocacy of the example of Tuscany (112-113), begging the issue of Cesare Beccaria’s influence. Such intriguing hints open up interesting prospects for intellectual historians. Rogers concludes that, in 1792-1793, British activists, far from being uniformly Girondin, defended “a wide spectrum of opinions” (134) over the French constitution, ranging from Girondin representation to Montagnard/Cordelier direct democracy. Sampson Perry, who eulogized Marat, explained (if not fully justified) the September Massacres and defended the guillotine, belonged to “a breed of radical who defied categorization” (221).

6The author proceeds to document the life of SADH members after the September 1793 Law of Suspects sent them into prison. Of particular interest is the combativeness of those Britons, who petitioned for their release, the support (of many kinds) they obtained from fellow foreigners and French citizens, from local sections to the upper echelons of politics. Rogers details the political and personal arguments the Britons brought forward in their petitions for liberation. A good command of French and a background of political activity were crucial factors of success.

7Both specialists and the wider reading public can learn from the book. It has the immense advantage of combining spotless scientific rigour (complete with precise footnotes and historiographical discussion) with immense accessibility. Its price (£17) is incredibly inexpensive for an academic publication, and for a book with numerous illustrations (manuscripts, engravings and title pages, giving a vivid impression of what the primary sources look like). One misspelling (Capel Loffe for Lofft, p. 70) does not mar a well-crafted book. The author made successful efforts to help the non-specialist reader. Appendices comprise a map, a timeline, a glossary of revolutionary terms, and biographies of French revolutionary leaders (they will help the specialist too: who knows Hérault de Séchelles’s bio inside out?), while some footnotes also provide information, for instance on E.P. Thompson’s main thesis in The Making of the English Working Class, something beginners in revolutionary history will find useful.

8Just one regret : the absence of William Wordsworth. Of course, the poet was not a member of the SADH, but he was in France during part of the period considered in the book (from November 1791 to December 1792). More importantly, his democratic extremism and later grovelling conservative recantation, chronicled in Nicholas Roe’s Wordsworth and Coleridge: The Radical Years (Oxford, 1988), are typical of the process of posterior rewriting and erasure of ‘Jacobin’ leanings that Rogers mentions at the beginning of her book. Wordsworth’s French experience, better known than that of the SADC members through the Prelude, could usefully frame some issues of the book. This regret aside, Friends of the Revolution is a precious addition to the dynamic field of Britain and the French Revolution.

Top of page

References

Electronic reference

Rémy Duthille, Rachel Rogers, Friends of the Revolution: The British Radical Community in Early Republican Paris 1792-1794Revue Française de Civilisation Britannique [Online], XXVII-2 | 2022, Online since 15 June 2022, connection on 06 October 2022. URL: http://journals.openedition.org/rfcb/9623; DOI: https://doi.org/10.4000/rfcb.9623

Top of page

About the author

Rémy Duthille

Rémy Duthille est maître de conférences à l'Université Bordeaux Montaigne et chercheur au laboratoire CLIMAS - Cultures et Littératures des Mondes Anglophones - UR 4196.

Top of page

Copyright

CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

Creative Commons - Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International - CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/

Top of page
  • Logo Crecib
  • DOAJ - Directory of Open Access Journals
  • OpenEdition Journals
Search OpenEdition Search

You will be redirected to OpenEdition Search