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A Tale of Three Cities’ Spaces and Places

Mike Rapport, The Unruly City:

Paris, London and New York in the Age of Revolution

In The Unruly City: Paris, London and New York in the Age of Revolution, Mike Rapport, professor of modern European history at Scotland’s University of Glasgow, provides a novel look at three urban centers in the last quarter of the 18th century: Paris, London and New York.  As the title indicates, the century’s last quarter was the age of revolution: in America at the beginning of the approximate 25-year period, as the 13 American colonies fought for their independence from Great Britain and became the United States of America; followed by the French Revolution in the next decade, which ended monarchial rule, abolished most privileges of the aristocracy and clergy, and uprooted deep-rooted social and cultural norms.  Great Britain somehow avoided any such an upheaval during this time, and that is one of the main points of the story. 

But radical democratic movements were afoot in all three countries, favoring greater equality, a drastically expanded franchise and opposition to entrenched privilege  – objectives overlapping with but not identical to those of the revolutions in America and France.  How these democratic impulses played out in each city is the real core of Rapport’s story — or, more precisely, how these impulses played out in each city’s spaces and places.  In examining the contribution of each city’s topography – its spaces and places — to political outcomes, Rapport utilizes a “bottom up” approach which emphasizes the roles played by each city’s artisans, small shopkeepers, and everyday working people as they struggled against entrenched elites.  Rapport thus brings the perspective of an urban geographer and demographer to his story.  But there is also a geo-political angle that needs to be factored into the story. 

The French and Indian War, also known as the Seven Years War, in which France and its archenemy Britain vied between 1756 and 1763 for control of large swaths of the American continent, ended in ignominious defeat for France.  But both Britain and France emerged from the war with staggeringly high debts, triggering financial crises in both countries.  A decade and a half later, in 1777, monarchial France lent assistance to the American colonies as they broke away from Britain.  The newly formed United States of America in turn largely supported the French Revolution when it broke out in 1789, and sided with revolutionary France when it found itself again at war with Britain in 1792.  Rapport’s topographical approach, with its concentration on the cityscapes of Paris, London and New York, provides a fresh perspective to these familiar late 18th century events.

In the final quarter of the 18th century, Paris and London were sprawling nerve centers of venerable, centuries-old civilizations, while New York was far smaller, far younger, and not quite the nerve center of an emerging New World civilization.  In 1790, moreover, in the middle of Rapport’s story, New York lost its short-lived position as the political capital of the newly created United States of America.  But Paris was different from both New York and London in ways that are consequential for this multi-layered, complex and ambitious tale of three cities. 

Although France’s revolution was nation-wide, its course was dictated by events in Paris in a manner altogether different from the way the American Revolution unfolded in New York.  France in the last quarter of the 18th century lived under a monarchy described alternatively as “despotic” and “absolute.”  It benefitted from nothing quite comparable to America and Britain’s shared heritage from England’s 1688 “Glorious Revolution,” which established critical individual rights and checks upon monarchial power, all of which were “jealously defended by British subjects on both sides of the Atlantic and enviously coveted by educated, progressive Frenchmen and -women” (p.xv). Democratic radicalism in France thus had an altogether different starting point from that in America or Britain, one of the reasons radicalism fused with revolutionary fervor in France in a way it never did in either America or Britain.  These divergences between France on the one hand and America and Britain on the other help explain why Rapport’s emphasis on urban spaces and places serving political ends works best in Paris.   

Rapport resolutely links phases of the French Revolution to discrete Parisian spaces and places: giving impetus to the revolution’s early stages were the Palais-Royal, a formerly aristocratic enclave on the Right Bank, and the artisanal district of the Faubourg St. Antoine, located just east of the hulking Bastille fortress; Paris’ central market, Les Halles, and the Cordeliers district, centered around today’s Placed de l’Odéon on the Left Bank, sustained the revolution’s more radical stages.  The distinct character of these sections of Paris, Rapport writes, goes “a long way to explain how the events unfolded and where much of the revolutionary impulse came from.”  Their geographical and social makeup made Paris a “truly revolutionary city, with a popular militancy that kept politics on the boil with each new crisis.  This combination of geography, social structure and political activism distinguished the Parisian experience from that of London and New York” (p.202). 

When he moves from revolutionary Paris to New York and London, Rapport’s urban topographical approach seems comparatively flat and somewhat forced.  He shows how New York’s Common, located near the city’s northern limits in today’s lower Manhattan, became the focal point for the city’s’ rising democratic fervor and its resistance to British rule.  In London, he focuses upon St. George’s Field, functionally similar to New York’s Common as a location where large groups from all walks of life and all parts of the metropolis gathered freely.  St. George’s Field, which today encompasses Waterloo Station, became the center of mass demonstrations in support of democratic radical John Wilkes, who was jailed for seditious libel in a prison overlooking this largely undeveloped, semi-rural expanse.   But the most compelling story for New York and London is how the democratic energy in the two cities stopped short of the thorough social and cultural uprooting of the French Revolution, much to the relief of elites in both cities.     

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By the fateful year of 1789, Paris’ Palais-Royal, then an “elegant complex of colonnades, arcades, gardens, fountains, apartments, theatres, offices and boutiques” (p.127), had become a combative pubic gathering place where journalists and orators “intellectually pummeled, ideologically bludgeoned and rhetorically battered the old order” (p.125).  Questions involving royal despotism and the rights of citizens were debated and discussed across Paris and throughout France, but “nowhere did these great questions generate more white hot fervor than in the Palais-Royal”(p.127).  The Palais-Royal gave political voice to the insurrection against the monarchy and inherited privilege that broke out in Paris in the spring of 1789 and spread nation-wide.  Without the “contentious cauldron” of the Palais-Royal, Rapport concludes, it is “hard to imagine the insurrection unfolding as it did – and even having the revolutionary results that it did” (p.145),

The Faubourg St. Antoine contributed “special vigor” (p.126) to the 1789 uprising, which resulted in a transfer of power from the King to an elected chamber, the National Assembly, and the subsequent July 1789 assault on the Bastille. An artisanal district famous for its furniture and cabinet makers, Faubourg St. Antoine’s topography and location, Rapport writes, made the neighborhood “especially militant” (p.137) because it was conscious of being outside the old limits of the city.  There was nothing in either New York or London to match the Faubourg’s “geographical cohesion, its homogeneity, its separateness and its defensiveness” (p.137). In Faubourg St. Antoine, a political uprising became a social and cultural upheaval as well.  As “bricks and mortar places,” Rapport writes, both the Palais-Royal and the Faubourg St. Antoine had a “material impact on the shape and outcome of events” and played outsized roles in marking the “final crisis of the old order” (p.126),

As the revolution became more radical, the central market of Les Halles, “the belly of Paris,” also played an outsized role.  Les Halles was the largest and most popular of several Parisian markets.  Its particular culture and geographic location gave Les Halles a “revolutionary dynamism” (p.177) that bound together those who lived and worked there, especially women.  A coordinated women’s march, fueled by food shortages throughout Paris, emanated from Faubourg St. Antoine and Les Halles in October 1789.  The march ended in Versailles, where the women invaded the National Assembly and gained an audience with King Louis XVI.  The King agreed to give his royal sanction to a series of revolutionary demands and, more to the point, promised that Paris would be supplied with bread.  Later the same day, the women forced the King and his family to return to Paris, where they lived as virtual hostages in a city whose women had “demonstrated their determination to keep the Revolution on track” (p.183).

In the aftermath of the march, the National Assembly, instilled by fear of the “unpredictable, uncontrollable force of popular insurrection” (p.185-86), restricted the vote to “active” citizens, adult males who paid a set level of taxes, only about one-half of France’s male population.  The subsequent move to expand the franchise in 1789-90 originated in the Cordeliers district, an “effervescent combination of an already articulate, politicized artisanal population, combined with the concentration of a sympathetic radical leadership” (p.188).  After Lucille and Camille Desmoulins, husband-and-wife journalists from the district, wrote an important article in which they attacked the restriction of the franchise – “What is this much repeated word active citizen supposed to mean?  The active citizens are the ones who took the Bastille” (p.190) – the Cordelier district assembly in June 1790 proposed that all males who paid “any tax whatsoever, including indirect taxes, which included just about everybody, should have ‘active’ citizenship” (p.188-89; notwithstanding the thorough uprooting of the French Revolution, there was no move to extend the franchise to women).   

The Cordeliers district narrowed the political divide between social classes in no small part because of the Society of the Friends of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, founded in the heart of the district.  Made up of merchants, artisans, tradesmen, retailers and radical lawyers, the Society also encouraged women to attend its sessions.  It saw its primary purpose as “rooting out the threats to the Revolution” and “challenging the limits placed on political rights by the emerging constitutional order” (p.191).  Its influence “rested in its distinctly metropolitan reach” and in having its roots in a neighborhood whose “social and political character made it a linchpin binding the axle of middle-class radicalism to the wheels of popular revolutionary activism” (p.195-96).  As the revolution entered its most radical phases, the Cordeliers district proved to be “one of the epicenters of the metropolitan outburst,” unlike any other district in Paris, bridging the “social gap between the radical middle-class leadership of the burgeoning democratic movement and the militants of the city’s working population” (p.195).    

            No specific Parisian neighborhoods are linked to the turn that the Revolution took in 1793-94 known as the Terror, “synonymous with the ghastly mechanics of the guillotine” (p.223).  This phase occurred at a time of multiple crises, when the newly declared French Republic grasped at repressive and draconian means to defend itself.  Driven by the  “blunt, direct and violent”  (p.226-27) radicals who called themselves sans-culottes (literally, those “without breeches”), the Terror was the period that saw King Louis XIV and Marie Antoinette executed, followed by a chilling string of prominent figures deemed “enemies of the revolution” (among them prior revolutionary leaders Maximilian Robespierre and Georges-Jacques Danton, along with Cordelier journalist Camille Desmoulins).  Rapport’s chilling chapter on this phase serves as a reminder of the perils of excessive revolutionary zeal.

Throughout the Revolution, all sections of Paris felt its physical effects in the adaptation of buildings for the multitude of institutions of the new civic order. The process of taking over buildings in every quarter of Paris  — churches, offices, barracks and mansions — not only “made the Revolution more visible, indeed more intrusive, than ever before, but also represented the physical advance of the revolutionary organs deeper in the neighborhoods and communities of the capital” (p.226).  The “physical transformation of interiors, the adaptation of internal spaces and the embellishment of the buildings with revolutionary symbols, reflected the radicalism of the French Revolution in constructing an egalitarian order in an environment that had grown organically out of corporate society based on privilege and royal absolutism” (p.310).  In New York, the physical transformation of the city was not so thoroughgoing, “since the American Revolution did not constitute quite such a break with the past” (p.171).     

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New York in the late 18th century was already an important business center, the major gateway into the New World for trade and commerce from abroad, with a handful of powerful, well-connected families dominating the city’s politics.  Although its population was a modest 30,000, diminutive in comparison to London and Paris, it was among the world’s most heterogeneous cites.  In its revolutionary years, New York witnessed what Rapport terms a “dual revolution,” both a “broad coalition of colonists against British rule” and a “revolt of the people against the elites,” which blended “imperial, local and popular politics in an explosive mix” (p.2). The contest between the “people of property” and the “mob” was about the “future forms of government, whether it should be founded upon aristocratic or democratic principles” (p. p.28-29), in the words of a future New York Senator.

The tumultuous period that ended with independence in 1783 began when Britain sought to raise money to pay for the Seven Years War through the Stamp Act of 1765, which imposed a duty on all legal documents (e.g., deeds, wills, licenses, contracts), the first direct tax Britain had imposed on its American colonies.  Triggered by resistance to the Stamp Act, the dual American revolution in the years leading up to war between the colonies and Britain moved in New York from sites controlled by the city’s elites, especially the debating chambers of City Hall, to sites more accessible to the public, in particular the open space known as the Common, along with the city’s taverns and the streets themselves. 

More than just a public space, the Common was “also a site where the power of the state, in all its ominous brutality, was on display” (p.18).  Barracks to house British troops had been erected on the Common during the Seven Years War, and it was the site of public executions.  It was on the Commons that the Liberty Pole, the mast of a pine ship, was erected and became the city’s most conspicuous symbol of resistance, a “deliberate, defiant counterpoise” (p.18) to British state authority.  The first Liberty Pole was hacked down in August 1766, only to be replaced in the following days.  This pattern repeated itself several times, as the Common became the most politically charged place in New York, where a more militant, popular form of politics emerged to challenge the ruling elites.

  It was on the Common, at the foot of the Liberty Pole that New Yorkers received the news in April 1775 that war with the British had broken out in New England.  In 1776, George Washington announced the promulgation of the Declaration of Independence on the same site. During the war for independence, the Liberty Pole became the symbolic site where people declared their support for independence – or, in many cases, were compelled to do so.     

In 1789, after the American colonies had won independence from Britain, the Common served as the start and end point of a massive parade through New York City in support of a proposed constitution to govern the country now known as the United States of America, at a time when the entire State of New York was wrestling with the decision whether to become the last state to ratify the proposed constitution.  The choice of the Common as the parade’s start and end point was, Rapport writes, highly symbolic, “connecting the struggle for the Constitution with the earlier battles around the Liberty Pole” (p.162).  Dominated by the city’s tradesmen and craft workers, the parade was a “tour of artisanal force” that “connected the Constitution with the commercial prosperity upon which the city and its working people depended,” serving as a reminder to the city’s elites that the revolution had “not just secured independence, but [had also] mobilized and empowered the people”(p.163).

The parade from the Common through New York’s streets also demonstrated the degree to which democratic radicalism in New York had been tempered.  The city’s radicals, aware that New York’s prosperity depended upon good commercial relations and a thriving mercantile community, “reached beyond mere vengeance and aimed at forging a more equal democracy, in which the overmighty power of the wealthy and the privileged would be cut down to size, allowing artisans and ‘mechanics’ to enjoy the democratic freedoms that they had done so much to secure” (p.156). 

With their vested interest in the financial and commercial prosperity of the city, New York’s radicals were not yet ready to call for “leveling,” or “social equality,” among the greatest concerns to the city’s privileged classes.  In London, too, democratic radicalism stopped short of a full-scale challenge to the social order. 

* * *

While Britain was attempting to rein in America’s rebellious colonies, a movement for democratic reform emerged in London, centered on parliamentary reform and expansion of the suffrage.  The movement’s unlikely leader was journalist and parliamentarian John Wilkes, who symbolized “defiance towards the elites and the overbearing authority of the eighteenth-century British state” (p.35).  The liberties that Wilkes defended began with those specific to the City, a small and nearly autonomous enclave within metropolitan London.  Known today as London’s financial district, the City in the latter half of the 18th century was a “lively hub of activity of all kinds, not just finance but also highly skilled artisans, printers and merchants plying their trades” (p.37).  It had its own police constables and enjoyed privileges unavailable elsewhere in London, including direct access to King and parliament. 

Wilkes, writing “inflammatory satire,” excoriated the government and campaigned for an expansion of voting rights with a mixture of “irony, humor and vitriol” (p.42).  Wilkes tied his in-your-face radicalism to a defense of the traditional liberties and power of the City.  But his radicalism caused him to be expelled from the House of Commons, then tried and convicted of seditious libel.  For London’s working people, Wilkes became “another victim of a harsh, unforgiving system that seemed staked in favor of the elites” (p.51).  Wilkes was jailed in a prison that overlooked St. George’s Fields, London’s undeveloped, semi-rural gathering point on the opposite side of the River Thames from the City.  St. George’s Fields came to represent symbolically a “departure from the narrow defense of the City’s privileges towards a broader demand for a national politics more responsive to the aspirations of the people at large” (p.44).   

When authorities failed to release Wilkes on an anticipated date in 1768, a major riot broke out in St. George’s Fields in which seven people were killed.  Mobilization on St. George’s Fields on behalf of Wilkes, Rapport writes,  “brought thousands of London’s working population into politics for the first time, people who had little or no stake in the traditional liberties of the City, let alone a vote in parliamentary elections, but who saw in Wilkes’s defiance of authority a mirror of their own daily struggle for self-respect and dignity in the face of the overbearing power of the state and the social dominance of the elites” (p.44).

Once freed, Wilkes went on to be elected Lord Mayor of the City in 1774 and chosen also to represent suburban Middlesex in Parliament.  Two years later he was pushing the altogether radical notion of universal male suffrage. But, rather than attacking the privileges of the City, the movement in support of Wilkes fused with a defense of the City.  This fusion, in Rapport’s view, “may be one reason the resistance to authority in London, though certainly riotous, did not become revolutionary . . . Londoners were able to make their protests without challenging the wider structure of politics” (p.52-53).   By coalescing around the figure of John Wilkes, the popular mobilization “reinforced rather than challenged the privileges that empowered the City to resist the king and Parliament” (p.56).

As revolution raged on the other side of the English Channel after 1789, many in London believed that that Britain’s 1688 revolution “had already secured many basic rights and freedoms for British subjects; the French were starting from zero” (p.257).  Arguments about the French revolution and criticisms and defense of the British constitution were kept within legal boundaries in London.  It was the British habit of free discussion, Rapport concludes, “alongside, first, the commitment to legality among the reformers and, second, the relative caution with which . . . the government proceeded against them that ensured that London avoided a revolutionary upheaval in these years” (p.221).

* * *

Rapport sets a dauntingly intricate task for himself in seeking to demonstrate how the artisanal and working class populations of Paris, New York and London used each city’s spaces and places to abet radical democratic ideas.   How those spaces and places helped shape revolutionary events in Paris from 1789 onward and thereby transformed the city are the best portions of his work, insightful and at times riveting.  His treatment of New York and London, where no such physical transformation occurred, has less zest.  But the tale of three cities comes together through Rapport’s detailing of moments in each place when “thousands of people, often for the first time, seized the initiative and tried to shape their own political futures” (p.317).

* * *

Thomas H. Peebles

Washington, D.C. USA

December 31, 2018

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