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A crowd at the Place de la Bastille listens to musicians performing, on Dec. 31, 2019, in Paris.

Kamil Zihnioglu/The Associated Press

  • Title: Marie-Antoinette
  • Author: John Hardman
  • Genre: Biography/ History
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • Pages: 363

  • Title: A New World Begins: The History of the French Revolution
  • Author: Jeremy D. Popkin
  • Genre: History
  • Publisher: Basic Books
  • Pages: 597

Whenever a revolutionary movement begins calling for the existing social order to be overthrown, it doesn’t take long for a reference to July 14, 1789, to surface – that’s when an angry mob dismantled a 14th-century Gothic prison in the centre of Paris. It wasn’t just a building that was attacked, but an idea.

For centuries, an aristocratic elite in France believed they had the God-given right to control the resources and finances of the majority. The Bastille’s fall meant that belief could no longer be defended. The long-term result is perhaps the most significant milestone in modern European history. In 1792, the Bourbon monarchy was abolished. The following year, King Louis XVI and his wife, Marie-Antoinette, were guillotined.

In his book on Marie-Antoinette (who seen here in a painting at Château de Versailles), John Hardman humanizes the reviled Queen while warning against the dangers of second-hand gossip.

FRANCOIS MORI/ASSOCIATED PRESS

In Marie-Antoinette, British historian John Hardman notes a difference between the trials of the King and Queen before their executions. Louis’s trial, based on accusations of establishing tyranny to destroy liberty, was politically motivated. But Marie-Antoinette was tried on charges of outright criminality. The accusations against the former Austrian princess from the House of Habsburg came down to three main points: squandering away the finances of France by sending substantial sums to her brother, Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II; maintaining correspondences with enemies of the republic, in which sensitive information about military affairs was openly exchanged; and setting alight the conditions for civil war. Hardman asserts that guilty verdicts for the first and second charges were spot on – while noting that the third accusation was ridiculous. The Queen was in prison, after all, when the expulsion of the Girondins – a loose coalition of moderate Republicans – caused a civil war.

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The most controversial charge brought against Marie-Antoinette was personal, though. It claimed she had incestuously interfered with her eight-year-old son, Louis-Charles, by teaching him how to masturbate. Hardman claims it was one of “the darkest moments of the French Revolution [and] the cruelest in Marie-Antoinette’s life." To date, most historians documenting her life have tended to side with the riotous rabble. The figure that typically emerges is thus more evil caricature than human being: a heartless megalomaniac who contemptuously dismissed everyone and everything but her own materialist interests and devious sexual appetites.

Hardman humanizes the reviled Queen while warning against the dangers of second-hand gossip. He insists it shouldn’t be confused with solid historical evidence. Accordingly, he backs up that claim with impeccable research.

Hardman builds his narrative around a seductive argument: Marie-Antoinette was far more politically astute than most historians would suggest. His first-rate, lengthy analysis focuses on two points: During the revolutionary period, the Queen “was markedly less reactionary than is generally thought,” and she was not wholly opposed to the growing demands of the revolution, at least during 1788 and 1789.

Burkean conservatives and loyal royalists will no doubt find themselves nodding their heads in approval of Hardman’s biography, which consistently and fervently sticks its neck out for class-based power and privilege.

A New World Begins, by contrast, is a comprehensive study of the French Revolution that predominantly veers left, toward progressive leaps in social history. Author Jeremy D. Popkin pays close attention to the fact that July 14 was largely a symbolic exercise – mainly because the fundamental ideals of the revolution had already been firmly established on June 17 with the formation of the National Assembly. It replaced the archaic Estates General, an advisory body whose raison d'être was ensuring that two of those estates, the nobility and the clergy, could separate French society into distinctive groups.

French Alpha jets of the Patrouille de France spray lines of smoke in the colors of the French flag over the Champs-Elysees avenue during the Bastille Day parade in Paris, France, on July 14, 2019.

Michel Euler/The Associated Press

The American historian also notes how the National Assembly – in theory, at least – meant royal absolutism was replaced by egalitarian democratic accountability. This monumental change was led by deputies from the third estate: the commoners comprising 98 per cent of the population. By firmly cutting the cord to the aristocracy and the clergy, they claimed independence while also asserting that they now represented the entire French community.

This vision of a more humane and egalitarian society was eloquently defined in the revolution’s authoritative statement: the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. Its progressive spirit was mostly gleaned from Enlightenment ideals, and the American Declaration of Independence of 1776 was particularly influential as well.

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Popkin stresses the Jeffersonian influence while placing both revolutions in a wider historical and geographical context. America was a western frontier of the New World. But Western Europe was the epicentre of global power. This ensured that the French Revolution’s legacy was far greater – politically, historically, culturally, intellectually and philosophically.

A striking example arose the day after the raucous action at the Bastille, when Louis XVI arrived at the National Assembly. The King no longer referred to the newly formed, democratic institution by its former, aristocratic name. He backed up that gesture by withdrawing troops from Paris. “Europe’s most powerful monarchy had been forced to bow to the people and to the authority of an elected assembly,” the historian writes.

But the misty-eyed celebration of democratic ideals doesn’t last long. Popkin maintains a sturdy and even-handed analysis of the revolution by dividing the book’s polemic sharply in two. One half praises the levers of opportunity the revolution gave birth to; the other looks at the violence it quickly unleashed.

The guillotine would become a potent symbol of the period after the first French Republic was established in 1792. The Reign of Terror sought to eliminate all enemies of the revolution. It was a paranoid world of lists, tribunals, surveillance committees, beheadings and massacres.

History has predominantly viewed its hard-left Jacobin leader, Maximilien Robespierre, as a murderous monster. Popkin calls him a “gifted politician” who ensured the revolution was preserved through the turbulent years of 1793 and 1794.

But “the Incorruptible” Robespierre would seal his own downfall through one fatal flaw: an unrealistic belief in a perfect moral order where equality would reign like a celestial force.

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When Robespierre went to the guillotine during the Thermidorian Reaction in July, 1794, a political vacuum appeared. Two important questions surfaced: Were the utopian ideals of 1789 still worth pursuing? And what values did the republic now represent?

When Napoleon Bonaparte seized power in a coup d’état in 1799, France’s political agenda shifted to the right. Respect for order and authority became the main concern. The French Empire tried to turn the page on the revolution’s earnest vision of universal egalitarianism. A one-man rule was imposed, freedom of expression curtailed, workers’ rights eroded.

For much of the 19th century, France became a volatile testing laboratory for competing systems of government, as monarchists, Napoleonists, republicans and revolutionaries tussled for power. But the birth of the Third Republic in 1870 saw the spirit of 1789 revived, with France tilting back toward republicanism.

If the French Revolution has a lasting legacy, Popkins says, it can be summarized as this: a heightened sense of political consciousness that allowed a new language of public discourse to emerge.

Subjects who once obeyed their masters became citizens who knew their rights.

Those rights are never permanent, however, and continue to be called into question. Sometimes, they even appear to be on the verge of extinction – especially in our age, when populism constantly bites at the heels of democracy. What matters, though, is that the forum for public debate still exists and still prizes human dignity, civic duty and collective responsibility ahead of self interest. Its built upon the three most inspirational words of the post-Enlightenment age: liberté, égalité, fraternité.

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