Experiencing the Glory and the Sorrow of the French Revolution: An Interview with Timothy Tackett

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The contingency, confusion, and many contradictions inherent in revolutionary moments are often hard to capture in written histories. As historians, after all, we know the outcomes; we can identify many constraints contributing to and consequences of decisions actors at the time were making with imperfect information. The benefit of a fuller perspective granted by time, distance, and access to many vantage points is one of the most crucial components of historical investigation. Yet, it can be hard to convey the truly tumultuous, chaotic, and downright intense nature of events in the past, especially as revolutions raged. As we grasp with living through times we can often sense are historically significant and yet hard to comprehend, thinking about the history of revolutions feels especially relevant and urgent.

Two recently published books on the French Revolutionary period experiment with different methodological and narrative approaches in ways that help highlight the uncertain and highly contingent course of events. Colin Jones’s The Fall of Robespierre walks readers through the 9th of Thermidor, hour-by-hour in the present tense, capturing the unpredictability and volatility of that pivotal day. Timothy Tackett’s The Glory and the Sorrow follows one man’s experience through the Revolution to bring to light the often-conflicting views and emotions of someone trying to make sense of unanticipated events. We connected with these authors to ask them more about how their approaches led them to think about the Revolution in new ways. Check out our interview with Colin Jones here.

In The Glory and the Sorrow: A Parisian and His World in the Age of the French Revolution, Timothy Tackett trains his lens on a resident of the Right Bank to reconstruct a picture of the revolutionary experience in all its complexity. Drawing on a rich cache of Parisian lawyer Adrien-Joseph Colson’s correspondence, Tackett traces the evolution of the often contradictory opinions and emotions of a man and his neighbors through a decade of unanticipated upheaval. The book’s focus on one individual’s experience over the course of the Revolution raises intriguing questions about how historians tell the story of revolutionary moments and the value of trying to inhabit a contemporary’s vantage point. The following is an interview I conducted with Tackett.

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Katlyn Carter (KC): Firstly, could you talk about how you came to write this narrative of Adrien Colson’s life?

Timothy Tackett (TT): I encountered the letters of Adrien Colson in a publication basically treating the French Revolution, and there were about a hundred letters published. At that point I was searching around for other letters relating to this period, so I wrote to the archivist at the archives of the department of Indre, which is in the center of France, and I asked were there any others? And he said: oh, yes, there are hundreds. So, I then went to Châteauroux and took the first of maybe six trips. It’s not the most interesting city but I hung around there for days, maybe even weeks, and I was fascinated by the letters. They’re mostly sort of business letters to his friend who was the local bailiff, I guess you might call him, of the lands of the Longaunay family that Colson represented in Paris as a lawyer. But in almost every letter there were two or three paragraphs at the end in which he talked about things going on in Paris, sometimes things about his life, sometimes sharing information concerning his friends. As you probably know, I subsequently made ample use of the letters in my book on the coming of the Terror. He’s maybe the single most common witness that I used. And then it just occurred to me that Colson was such an interesting figure that he would merit an individual biography. It would fulfill my interest of understanding better the Revolution in Paris, which I didn’t know very well, and, I have to admit, it would fulfill my interest in storytelling—because I think all good history has a measure of storytelling.

KC: On the book jacket you call it a “recreation of his world” and I wonder if you could talk about how this is different from a biography?

TT: Lots of biographies are in fact entitled “the life and times of so and so”—it’s not totally unusual. But in order to situate Colson, I thought it would be interesting and really necessary to try to learn as much as possible about his milieu: the apartment where he lived, the street where his apartment was located, his general neighborhood, who lived up and down and around the corner, and the general itinerary he followed in his almost daily trips about the city. And I came to realize that the letters revealed as much about his neighborhood as about his personal life. This also entailed a substantial amount of research to find out where he came from – and, by the way, that first published book [of some of his letters] is actually wrong about his biography, about an awful lot. It turns out he was born in of all places, Varennes—the place where the king was captured. He came from a relatively humble background of tanners. In Paris he lived in this really overall quite poor and densely populated neighborhood. So I thought: well, this is really interesting. It allows us to use him as a sort of social and cultural intermediary for people living on the Right Bank, many of whom were sans-culottes during the Revolution. I really need to add that in this contextualizing research, I was enormously helped by my research assistant Mary Kergall, who is a cousin by marriage and who is a professional genealogist and who really knows the archives in Paris.

KC: It struck me throughout the book the importance of the very local geography and the sense of place to understanding Colson’s interpretation of events. How do you think the importance of local geography is highlighted by focusing on an individual?

TT: I’ve always been interested in the influence on individual behavior during the Revolution of place and space. I explored this at considerable length in my book, Religion, Revolution, and Regional Culture, published in 1986. It seems to me that Colson was heavily influenced by the attitudes and evolving opinions of his neighbors through his local National Guard battalion, through his participation in his section, and through conversations in cafes. In fact, I probably did not go far enough in exploring how such neighborhood attitudes were in themselves formed and that’s really a more complex issue. I hope maybe someday someone will do a comparative study of several of the sections of Paris on just this problem. But yes, that was a fascinating dimension to the question.

KC: Speaking to this, there’s so much scholarship on public opinion during the Revolution and its importance. Looking at this one person’s letters and views, I wonder what you think it helps us understand about public opinion or how it helps us think about it differently?

TT: I have to say that I’ve always been a bit suspicious of this idea of a unitary public opinion—it just didn’t seem historical to me. Some historians, often those convinced of an outsized influence of Jean Jacques Rousseau and his idea of the volonté generale, have posited the existence of such a generalized opinion. Thus, in the always thoughtful and challenging work of Keith Baker there are three clashing dominant opinions, or discourses as he calls them. In fact, I found that it was absolutely impossible to identify a single public opinion exhibited by Colson or revealed in his writings. Rather, there’ a great fluidity of his views and a fluidity in the views of his neighborhood, which were constantly in flux. And more than one eighteenth century writer—and that’s another direction of research I think—put into question the idea of a unitary public opinion. I think especially of Louis-Sébastian Mercier who said just that: there is no public opinion and people who try to say there is are completely wrong. So, it’s debatable, but I’ve never been convinced.

KC: Do you think looking at an individual really highlights that conclusion?

A: Yes, I mean his opinions were constantly changing, as were those of his milieu. The sections of Paris also oscillate in their opinions. There is, to be sure, a certain evolution of opinion or ideas, a certain radicalization over time. But it goes in zigzags, it’s not always linear, it’s not always the same. By and large, Colson seemed to be in agreement with his section, but not always, and there were some important cases where he didn’t agree.

KC: One of the things that jumps out in the book is that by looking at an individual over time, you see how someone can hold seemingly contradictory positions. If we think about our own lives, we might recognize that. But when we look at historical actors, getting students or readers to think about that is harder. Could you talk about how looking at an individual like this can help us think about this? How he can hold ideas that to us might seem incommensurate at the same time?

TT: I think in fact this is very common. It’s a great temptation in writing even a biography of someone at the top—like Woodrow Wilson or Abraham Lincoln, or whoever—to look for a smooth, clear opinion, or at least an evolution of a linear opinion over time. But I don’t think that’s at all the way things work. I don’t want to argue this as a general rule I guess, but it is clear that human beings are complex and often contradictory by nature. Cognitive dissonance is probably a common reality throughout history. The desire to explain one’s world as best as one can seems to be a basic human instinct and people commonly construct and wrestle with competing possible explanations. I mean, from one direction or another—this is very clear when you’re trying to track down the formation of rumors and conflicting rumors.

I took special note of Colson’s view on religion and what I think was his deep distress over the movement toward de-Christianization. Colson himself may have spent time in a seminary, as I pointed out in the book, and he took orthodox Christianity and orthodox Catholicism extremely seriously. But nevertheless, he had no trouble whatsoever accepting the Civil Constitution of the Clergy. And the sans-culottes living there—amazingly and this was very surprising to me—were very strongly opposed to de-Christianization. They did not back it. It’s clear that de-Christianization in this neighborhood was supported by only a minority of extreme left radicals. And I argued at the very end of the book that one reason why many Parisians were in the end reticent to support Robespierre on the 9th of Thermidor was their opposition to de-Christianization. Another place in which he felt contradictory attitudes was in his relationship to the nobility. He continues to work for two nobles and has done so all his professional life and yet he’s profoundly fearful of an aristocratic reaction or an aristocratic conspiracy. And in order to make sense of this, he ultimately says there are good nobles and bad nobles. But it doesn’t always work so simply. It really depends on when he’s writing and under what circumstances, whether, at any point in time, he seems to approve of the nobles or disapprove of them.

KC: I thought about religion as one of the main examples of these contradictory or unexpected views, but yes, his views on the nobility also struck me. He remains close to the people he’s working for, and yet when he’s thinking about the aristocracy or the nobility as a category, it gives you the sense that he has this tension in his own mind about this.

TT: Yes, one of his major explanations for nearly everything that goes wrong in the Revolution is the putative aristocratic conspiracy. And at the end of his life—and this is one of the elements of the “sorrow” that I try to explore in the last chapter or two—one of the young nobles he has served all his life and whom he almost treats as a son, takes up with his valet. It’s a relationship that was probably homo-erotic, and this is devastating to him. There were two brothers, and the one brother who had pretty much run the show just drops Colson and Colson has no influence whatsoever on decisions.

KC: I’d like to pick up on the notion of the aristocratic conspiracy and rumors. A prominent theme in the book is Colson and his neighbors’ reliance on rumor and just a general lack of clear and reliable information about what’s going on. I wonder if you could speak a little more about how historians should think about this when they’re constructing narratives of these historical events?

TT: When I first read Colson—and when I first read a number of the other witnesses in the correspondence which was my principal source of information for my book on the coming of the Terror—I was stunned to discover the role of rumor and fear in the local understanding of events throughout the Revolution. This was visible already in 1787. In writing about the so-called pre-revolution, generations of historians have assumed that the fiscal crisis encountered by the royal government was well-known. But in fact, the letters of Colson and many others reveal that most Parisians had no clue. They did not know what was going on, they did not know about the fiscal crisis, and they really did not know why the Assembly of Notables had been called. They found out eventually when the notables themselves published their Compte Rendu. But that effort to try to understand what the Assembly of Notables was doing led to a wild flourishing of rumors of all sorts. Some of them were right, most of them were wrong—and Colson would report these regularly to Lemaigre, his friend and correspondent in the provinces. And the Great Fear of 1789 so brilliantly analyzed by George Lefebvre, turned out to be only the first episode in a long series of alarms and terrors that swept through Paris, fueled by rumor. I did try to incorporate this theme into my book on the coming of the Terror. In any case, it’s clear that Colson and his neighbors had great difficulty in obtaining reliable information—and social psychologists tell us that one of the most important ingredients in rumor formation is unreliable information that you just can’t trust. But I did not realize how important rumor continued to be in the Revolution until I began reading some of the correspondence of these folks.

KC: That leads me then to my next question: I was struck by the emphasis on the unanticipated nature of events, the confusion that they’re living in, but that they also have this strong sense that something extraordinary is happening. I wonder if you could talk about how this focus on an individual can help us think, firstly, about the way we develop historical narratives with attention to contingency? And then, secondly, inspired by more recent events, how do you think looking at history in this way might help readers or students think about the time we’re living in now and the role of contingency?

TT: Well, I have to say that I’ve always been much more impressed by and interested in contingency than whatever the opposite of that might be: continuity or necessity. This is quite clear in several of the books I’ve written in the past—for example, on the ecclesiastical oath of early 1791 and the king’s flight in June of that year, I argue that both those events had major unintended consequences that changed the direction of the Revolution. And I do believe that it’s extremely difficult to predict in history, especially in a time of revolution, where events are leading. Probably it would be better to look not at Marxist theory or the theory of the influence of the Enlightenment, but to think a little bit more about chaos theory. I once had the idea of writing about chaos theory in history, the way in which one small event can change things so dramatically. It’s pretty clear in my book on the oath and the flight of the king, but also in the decision to go to war. There’s no simple explanation for any of these events, they were very complex decisions. The required ecclesiastical oath for example was intended to go after the counter-revolutionary bishops. Almost as an afterthought, the revolutionaries said: well, let’s also include the parish clergy because everyone knows they support the Revolution and that will only emphasize how the bishops themselves are outliers among the clergy in terms of their clerical opinion toward the Revolution. It didn’t work that way of course, and about 50 percent of the parish clergy refused the oath and refused to back the Civil Constitution of the Clergy. The decision to go to war was much the same. First the Legislative Assembly was only talking about some of the small enclaves on the borders that “should” belong to the French nation and the need to bring these into the French nation. And then it’s a complex story: partly through the extraordinary flourishing of nationalism, partly through misunderstanding in some cases the intentions of the great powers, partly through Louis XVI’s decision that this might help him. It all came together in the declaration of war in April of 1792, which had an enormous influence later, unintended influences, unintended consequences that came out of these contingent events.

KC:  Do you think focusing on an individual and his navigation through these bewildering events makes the importance of contingency even more obvious?

TT: I hope so. I think it’s very clear for Colson as he tried to make his way through the Revolution—a revolution that he absolutely did not anticipate. He never mentions the word revolution, as far as we know he never read any of the canonical books of the Enlightenment, he greatly respected the king. To follow how he came to support the overthrow of the king, and even the execution of the king, is quite a long and fascinating story.

KC: This book also really brought to the forefront the importance of emotions. Is this something you would consider a theme as well?

TT: Right, and I want to emphasize that the emotions are not all negative, there are emotions that are also positive. His enthusiasm, his joy, his love in the collective sense of fraternity, all were powerful in shaping the way he thought. But these were juxtaposed, or in tension with, the terrible fear and hatred—sometimes that’s not too strong a word—for what he felt at times. He seemed to feel real hatred toward the governor of the Bastille and the fall of the Bastille and decapitation of the governor just didn’t seem to bother him. Striking. But on the other hand, he certainly did not like the September Massacres. He was shocked, horrified seeing the bodies pile up in the street near his house. Emotions always played a major role in his life.

KC: That is powerful. It certainly goes back to the point about holding contradictory views, he’s also holding contradictory emotions: fear, but also hope and enthusiasm, all alongside deep anxiety. Thank you for your time!


Katlyn Carter holds a PhD in History from Princeton University and is currently an assistant professor at the University of Notre Dame. Her current research explores state secrecy and representative politics in the eighteenth-century Atlantic World. She is interested in the comparative study of revolutions and history of the book and media.

Timothy Tackett is Professor of History Emeritus at the University of California, Irvine. He is the author of many books, including The Coming of the Terror in the French RevolutionWhen the King Took FlightBecoming a Revolutionary: The Deputies of the French National Assembly and the Origins of a Revolutionary Culture; and Religion, Revolution, and Regional Culture in Eighteenth-Century France.

Title image: Retour de la famille royale à Paris, le 25 juin 1791.

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