Navigating Feelings in the French Revolution

By David Andress

Emotion and revolution have always gone hand-in-hand. This relationship, however, has rarely been an easy one. The classic counter-revolutionary position has for centuries been that socio-political upheaval is the product of ‘irrational’ action by the gullible, led by the wicked. The response of radicals, and their sympathetic historians, has often been to deny the emotionality of great events. Thus classic Marxist histories of the French revolutionary crowd addressed themselves to people’s working lives, their access to political information, and the implicit logic of violent deeds. Great care was taken to show that ideas, not feelings, lay behind insurrection.

In more recent decades, the power of emotion has been viewed more sympathetically. In the French revolutionary context, historians have plumbed the extent to which the National Assembly was an emotional community – sometimes divided, frequently threatened, and perhaps traumatised. The sense in which popular violence should be evaluated positively, emerging from what the revolutionary firebrand Marat once called “the just anger of the people”, has been debated. More broadly, there has been a general recognition that the late eighteenth century’s culture of emotional expression was a historical phenomenon in itself, and not merely something to be scorned, as it was a century later, as the product of “bourgeois crybabies”.

Once we have begun to examine the emotional dimensions of historical experience, many explanatory possibilities open up. Timothy Tackett’s recent and substantial work on The Coming of the Terror in the French Revolution uses eyewitness testimony to invoke a process driven by fear: “fear of counterrevolutionary conspiracies, fear of anarchy, fear of oneself becoming the target of vengeance … the contagion of fear that left the revolutionaries themselves terrorized.” Marisa Linton has similarly shown, on the smaller canvas of interpersonal relations between leading radicals, how much fear blended with the idealism that drove them on.

But fear is a very crude and corrosive emotion. As with the invocation of trauma, one danger of over-emphasising its role in dramatic events is that of slippage towards the suggestion that historical actors could not help themselves. This removes agency from them as effectively as the old claims about irrational mobs, merely with a more sympathetic gloss. At the level of crowds, there is plenty of evidence that, in their choice of target, their mode of operation, and their sometimes-complex interactions with authorities, ordinary people in the French Revolution were articulating claims of punitive popular sovereignty as much as acting out of any simple emotional impulse.

My current research is attempting to broaden an understanding of how revolutionaries themselves understood their emotional landscape. I have written about the role of emotionally-structured narratives of heroism in revolutionary speechmaking and writing, and I am now beginning to explore a more quantitative analysis of the presence of emotional language in revolutionary communication.

For this study, I use the digitised version of the Archives parlementaires available through the French Revolution Digital Archive at Stanford. My first major case-study has been on the two French words for “hope” – espérance and espoir – in records for 1792 and 1793. By my calculations, these were used a total of 3,412 times over these two years. About one fifth of the time, a wide range of individual and general hopes were invoked, from future harvests to investment returns to inheritances. Perhaps unsurprisingly in a time of revolution, evocation of individual and collective patriotic hopes was the largest single category, representing 43.8% of utterances in 1792, 47.5% in 1793, and 46% overall. But this leaves another distinctive, and large, category, some 36-37%, over 1200 utterances over the two years: revolutionaries talking about the hopes of the counter-revolution.

L’Espoir de la France : Minerve près de Louis seize lui montrant le Sully de nos Jours et tenant son Egide dont la lumière fait voir au Roi la verité… : [estampe] / N. Trevisiani del. ; Verité sculpsit (1789)

Quite clearly, what their enemies hoped for occupied a significant place in the minds of the revolutionaries. On 13 May 1793, launching a debate in the National Convention on a new constitution, the philosopher Condorcet noted that “Now must finish both the prideful dreams of the kings leagued against us, and the absurd hopes of the aristocracy.” Setting out the stakes even more clearly, he added: “the enemy powers must lose the hope of seeing arrive the moment they have expected and prepared for, that moment of anarchy when France, tired of having no constitution, no longer having the hope of receiving one from you, and deprived of a centre of unity, would be delivered up, in every one of its parts, to all that error, mistrust, passion and treason can employ as means of dividing it and tearing it apart.” In this, he was unusual – so central was the idea of the counter-revolution’s hope for such destruction that most speakers could invoke it merely by pointing to the desire, not the outcome.

Such invocations, averaging one or two every day, suggest that we need to confront not only the moments when emotion turns to overt violence or soul-destroying terror. Thinking about the permanent place of beliefs about emotions and desires, everywhere from prepared speeches and official reports to off-the-cuff interventions and humble petitions, can open up new perspectives on how, and why, the actors in the great drama of revolution behaved as they did.

David Andress is Professor of Modern History at the University of Portsmouth. He has written extensively on the French Revolution, and particularly on its political culture as experienced from the seats of power to the fields and streets. He tweets (frequently) as @ProfDaveAndress and blogs (occasionally) at

Title image: L’Aristocratie écrasée : espoir de l’age d’or : A Louis XVI Pere des Français et Roi d’un Peuple libre : La Bastille, où la nuit sert des tyrans heureux ! … : [estampe] / [J.M. Mixelle] (1789-90)

Further reading:

Sophia Rosenfeld, ‘Thinking about Feeling, 1789-1799’, French Historical Studies 32 (2009): 697-706, is an excellent brief introduction to this topic.

Sophie Wahnich, In Defence of the Terror: Liberty or Death in the French Revolution London: Verso, 2012, vigorously asserts the legitimacy of popular fury.

Barry M. Shapiro, Traumatic Politics; The Deputies and the King in the Early French Revolution University Park: Penn State UP, 2009, explores the potential consequences of emotional trauma for the revolutionary constitution.

David Andress, ed., Experiencing the French Revolution Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 2013, collects several significant essays on revolutionary emotional life.

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