french revolution history
February 6, 2011 12:30 PM   Subscribe

Which Historian said of the French Revolution: "...it was not the product of poor people but of poor lawyers."
posted by clavdivs to Society & Culture (7 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
also refer to metafilter post
posted by clavdivs at 12:31 PM on February 6, 2011


I'm nearly positive the quote is apocryphal. Professional classes tend to benefit from revolutions the most, this is widely accepted and noted from early on:

"All the individuals he recommended were essentially men of the people. A good many of them were poor lawyers, a good many of them were journalists or pamphlet-writers, some were doctors or apothecaries, and there was a disproportionately large number of printers."

The French Revolution, Volume 1 By Charles MacFarlane (1844)

There was a large amount of lawyers involved in the French revolution (Pétion comes to mind), and in most Western revolutions you'll see an abundance of lawyers, poor or not. Just look at the amount of attorneys who signed the American Independence.

I guess no one is arguing against this fact, but I'm going to say that it is common knowledge and a witty remark by a professor one day that lead to this. If you search the phrase on Google, there's no mention of it before the last couple of days.
posted by geoff. at 12:56 PM on February 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


No direct quote but it's more or less the analysis of Alfred Cobban (The Myth of the French Revolution, 1970). He noted for instance an "impressive list of well over 400 lawyers in the Constituent Assembly".
posted by elgilito at 1:00 PM on February 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'd go with "paraphrase", but I wouldn't be surprised if Mason had been in touch with Simon Schama, whose Citizens takes many of its cues from Cobban's historiography.
posted by holgate at 1:14 PM on February 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


Closest I can find is this from Movement and Institution by Franceso Alberoni:

The members of classes threatened by decline and of classes which are growing in importance have in common a feeling of disillusionment toward an order they had believed in. Unable to realize their aims, they feel impelled to explore new roads. In the French Revolution, such frustration was experienced by the members of the lower nobility, impoverished and powerless, and by the members of the rapidly growing intellectual class who had no prospects either of bourgeois wealth or of access to office in the public administration, and it was from among them that there arose the most ardent protagonists of the revolution. As Burke pointed out, the third estate was composed of poor lawyers, the administrators of small local jurisdictions, provincial clerks, notaries, and the arbiters of municipal disputes -- all people who suffered from relative deprivation by comparison with the rising bourgeoisie.

This is footnoted to Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). The observation in question:

In the calling of the States-General of France, the first thing that struck me was a great departure from the ancient course. I found the representation for the Third Estate composed of six hundred persons. They were equal in number to the representatives of both the other orders. If the orders were to act separately, the number would not, beyond the consideration of the expense, be of much moment. But when it became apparent that the three orders were to be melted down into one, the policy and necessary effect of this numerous representation became obvious. A very small desertion from either of the other two orders must throw the power of both into the hands of the third. In fact, the whole power of the state was soon resolved into that body. Its due composition became therefore of infinitely the greater importance.

Judge, Sir, of my surprise when I found that a very great proportion of the assembly (a majority, I believe, of the members who attended) was composed of practitioners in the law. It was composed, not of distinguished magistrates, who had given pledges to their country of their science, prudence, and integrity; not of leading advocates, the glory of the bar; not of renowned professors in universities; — but for the far greater part, as it must in such a number, of the inferior, unlearned, mechanical, merely instrumental members of the profession. There were distinguished exceptions, but the general composition was of obscure provincial advocates, of stewards of petty local jurisdictions, country attornies, notaries, and the whole train of the ministers of municipal litigation, the fomenters and conductors of the petty war of village vexation. From the moment I read the list, I saw distinctly, and very nearly as it has happened, all that was to follow.


He then proceeds for two paragraphs to dissect his impression of humble rural lawyers and their motivations upon being granted political power. It's a little O'Reilly-esque, actually.
posted by dhartung at 9:35 PM on February 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


oh de Caloone...

August 4: Surrender of feudal rights: The August Decrees
August 26: The Assembly adopts The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen
September 11 The National Assembly grants suspensive veto to Louis XVI; Louis fails to ratify the August acts of the National Assembly.
October 5-6: Outbreak of the Paris mob; Liberal monarchical constitution; the Women's March on Versailles
October 6 Louis XVI agrees to ratify the August Decrees, Palace of Versailles stormed.
Louis and the National Assembly move to Paris.

November 2: Church property nationalised and otherwise expropriated
November: First publication of Desmoulins' weekly Histoire des Révolutions ...
December: National Assembly distinguishes between 'active' (monied) and 'passive' (property-less) citizens - only the active could vote
December 12 Assignats are used as legal tender
1790

January: Former Provinces of France replaced by new administrative Departments.
February 13 Suppression of monastic vows and religious orders
March 5: Feudal Committee reports back to National Assembly, delaying the abolition of feudalism.
March 29: Pope Pius condemns the Declaration of the Rights of Man in secret consistory.
May National Assembly renounces involvement in wars of conquest.
May 19 Nobility abolished by the National Assembly.


need alot of lawyers to undo history.

"paraphrase" would be the MLA winner IMO.
posted by clavdivs at 9:14 PM on March 5, 2011


Very very belatedly: it appears that Mason was drawing from Hippolyte Taine, the 19th century historian who wrote a huge series of sociological analyses on the origins of contemporary France (Project Gutenberg texts), as Mason mentions in his book length version of Why It's Kicking Off Everywhere:
The French historian Hippolyte Taine understood the essential danger of this social mix. When it comes to revolution, he warned, forget the poor and worry about poor lawyers: "Now, as formerly, students live in garrets, bohemians in lodgings, physicians without patients and lawyers without clients in lonely offices … so many Brissots, Marats, Dantons, Robespierres, and St-Justs in embryo. Only for lack of air and sunshine they never come to maturity."
So, ultimately not a direct quote, but an accurate paraphrase of Taine's argument, which is that the radicalism of young men entering the professions is 'a disorder of growing up', based upon entering a society that is organised by tradition and not logic, and that a stable and well-guarded public establishment generally either finds them a place or leaves them reconciled to their inability to do anything about it. When the establishment is weak, all bets are off, and Taine isn't celebrating this in the slightest: 'In this political hothouse wild dreams and conceit will assume monstrous proportions, and, in a few months, brains that are now only ardent become hotheads.'

(For what it's worth: in the last article he ever wrote, Cobban described Taine as 'perhaps the greatest of bad historians'.)
posted by holgate at 9:37 PM on February 2, 2012


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