The Coming of the Terror in the French Revolution

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9780674736559: The Coming of the Terror in the French Revolution
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Between 1793 and 1794, thousands of French citizens were imprisoned and hundreds sent to the guillotine by a powerful dictatorship that claimed to be acting in the public interest. Only a few years earlier, revolutionaries had proclaimed a new era of tolerance, equal justice, and human rights. How and why did the French Revolution’s lofty ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity descend into violence and terror?

The Coming of the Terror in the French Revolution offers a new interpretation of this turning point in world history. Timothy Tackett traces the inexorable emergence of a culture of violence among the Revolution’s political elite amid the turbulence of popular uprisings, pervasive subversion, and foreign invasion. Violence was neither a preplanned strategy nor an ideological imperative but rather the consequence of multiple factors of the Revolutionary process itself, including an initial breakdown in authority, the impact of the popular classes, and a cycle of rumors, denunciations, and panic fed by fear―fear of counterrevolutionary conspiracies, fear of anarchy, fear of oneself becoming the target of vengeance. To comprehend the coming of the Terror, we must understand the contagion of fear that left the revolutionaries themselves terrorized.

Tackett recreates the sights, sounds, and emotions of the Revolution through the observations of nearly a hundred men and women who experienced and recorded it firsthand. Penetrating the mentality of Revolutionary elites on the eve of the Terror, he reveals how suspicion and mistrust escalated and helped propel their actions, ultimately consuming them and the Revolution itself.

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About the Author:

Timothy Tackett is Professor Emeritus of History at the University of California, Irvine.

Review:

[A] grippingly written and deeply insightful book. (Robert Zaretsky Los Angeles Review of Books 2015-01-12)

[A] boldly conceived and important book...This is a thought-provoking book that makes a major contribution to our understanding of terror and political intolerance, and also to the history of emotions more generally. It helps expose the complexity of a revolution that cannot be adequately understood in terms of principles alone. (Alan Forrest Times Literary Supplement 2015-06-26)

With the instincts and passion of an experienced truffle-hunter, Tackett has snuffled his way through dozens of municipal, departmental, and private archives throughout la France profonde in a quest for letters and diaries from the Revolutionary period. He has discovered a hugely valuable hoard of new testimonies by men and women, Parisians and provincials. His focus is on the bourgeois class that drove the Revolution onward, ranging from individuals elected to serve in successive national assemblies, to local officeholders and functionaries, through to the broader pool of literate and vocal private citizens...The Coming of the Terror allows us into this maelstrom of emotion, highlighting individual reactions well beyond the range of historians’ usual suspects...By refreshing the sources of French Revolutionary history in a way that is likely to prove enduring, and placing his findings within a lively, robust, and up-to-date narrative, Tackett has put all historians of the Revolution in his debt. (Colin Jones New York Review of Books 2017-06-22)

Drawing on their day-to-day observations, Tackett argues that the revolutionary process fundamentally changed the people who watched and participated in its unfolding. As France careened in just four years from absolute monarchy to constitutional monarchy to democratic republic and then descended into the Terror, citizens veered too...By attending to the role of emotions in propelling the Terror, Tackett steers a more nuanced course than many previous historians have managed...Imagined terrors, as...Tackett very usefully reminds us, can have even more political potency than real ones. (David A. Bell The Atlantic 2015-05-01)

The work of Timothy Tackett on the French Revolution has made him one of its most influential recent historians. (William Doyle Literary Review 2015-02-01)

Drawing on contemporary accounts, Tackett vividly describes [the events of early 1789], showing how the excitement of political change was muted by fear of chaos...Throughout his book, Tackett shadowboxes with Tocqueville, who argued that the Revolution merely reconstituted the centralization of the old regime. Tackett’s more convincing argument is that there was an abrupt disjunction from past structures. (Gavin Jacobson London Review of Books 2017-03-16)

[Tackett] analyzes the mentalité of those who became ‘terrorists’ in 18th-century France...In emphasizing weakness and uncertainty instead of fanatical strength as the driving force behind the Terror, ...Tackett...contributes to an important realignment in the study of French history. (Ruth Scurr The Spectator 2015-02-21)

[Tackett] shows how fear engendered by countless disappointments, betrayals, invasion, insurrection, and numbing violence on all sides, especially from the revolution’s own militants, progressively turned fervent enthusiasts into conspiracy­-obsessed terrorists. Tackett succeeds brilliantly; his volume is now the starting point for all efforts to understand this episode. (G. P. Cox Choice 2015-07-01)

A wonderful book, a veritable masterpiece. Tackett finds new sources to answer one of the oldest questions about the French Revolution: why did the deputies of the National Assembly put the Terror in place? In a captivating synthesis of the entire Revolution, he captures its drama and emotion, the fluctuating joys, anxieties, and fears of those who lived through unprecedented events. (David Garrioch, author of The Making of Revolutionary Paris)

Essential reading for anyone interested in how revolutions devolve into terror. Beautifully written, superbly documented, and fair and balanced in its judgments, it will be a landmark of scholarship for decades to come. (Lynn Hunt, author of Writing History in the Global Era)

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