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Aristocracy and its Enemies in the Age of Revolution.

Aristocracy and its Enemies in the Age of Revolution. By William Doyle. (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2009. Pp. viii, 371. $60.00.)

This author has added to his impressive publications on the French Revolution and its origins with this thoughtful book on aristocracy. He initially conceived this work as a study of the Society of the Cincinnati, former officers who had fought in the American Revolution, but it morphed into a larger study on the revolutionaries' ambitious attempt to abolish nobility. Many, including Jefferson, opposed the heredity society on the grounds that it would create an American nobility that would "end in tyranny" (103). That opposition triggered "the first overt and direct attack on the nobility" in France, although the vitriol it generated seems, in author William Doyle's words, "wild and alarmist" (137).

This book is sophisticated, clever, and remarkably free from the jargon that bedevils academia. For example, in discussing Jean Baptiste du Val-de-Grace, Baron de Cloots's speech, Doyle describes it as "[A]t worst ah absurd pantomime, at best ah unfortunate embarrassment, ... chiefly remembered as an extreme of the Revolution's utopian posturing" (3). Doyle has the gift for finding the apposite quote, such as Jefferson on Lafayette: "His foible is a canine appetite for popularity" (108). He underscores the antagonisms that divided the aristocracy, the litigious infighting, the bitter jockeying for power and position, and its vulnerability, emphasizing how discussions about property as a basis for representation threatened traditional distinctions. He then shifts to a learned discussion of the ideologies of inequality, including the emphasis on virtue and merit and the emergent idea of a nobility of reward. The poor performance of the nobility in their definitional field of warfare undermined their position as surely as did their ineffectual attempts to defend the constitutional fabric of the old regime. The author's focus on public attacks on nobility allows him to rely on printed primary and a number of secondary sources.

The rest of the narrative sets the attacks against the nobility within the larger framework of the Revolution and casts new light on the so-called noble revolt. He chronicles the nobles' loss of wealth and privilege and the escalating onslaught on the nobility. Both specialists and nonspecialists will benefit from this nuanced discussion. To give but one example, he notes that the decision to convoke the Estates General as it had been in 1614 was an attempt to use precedent to check ministerial manipulation and not "to establish the permanent hegemony of the clergy and nobility" (169). He chronicles the ominous acceleration of attacks against the nobility, the vindictive violence, and the draconian laws enacted in the venomous atmosphere of the Revolution. The ambiguous aftermaths are analyzed, including the restoration of Monsieur and Madame as forms of address, the establishment of entailed fiefs in certain conquered territories, and the creation of a privileged elite, in effect a "titled aristocracy of service" (321). Ironies abound. For example, Emmanuel Joseph Sieyes, known for his hatred of the nobility, became an imperial count and even adopted a coat of arras.

Linda Frey

University of Montana

Marsha Frey

Kansas State University

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Author:Frey, Linda; Frey, Marsha
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2011
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