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Tuesday, April 12, 2016

“The Old Regime and the French Revolution”, by Alexis de Tocqueville, translated by Stuart Gilbert, edited by A.P. Kerr & J.P. Mayer

320 pages, Anchor Books, ISBN-13: 978-0385092609

Many consider The Old Regime and the French Revolution to be nothing more than Alexis de Tocqueville’s “other book”, taking a backseat to his better known work Democracy in America. Readers who are merely interested in guillotines should look elsewhere, though: other authors had already covered the events of the revolution, and de Tocqueville does not duplicate material where he has nothing significant to add. Instead, he looks at a premise that other historians had accepted uncritically: that the revolution had happened because the people were oppressed. While oppression was not unique to the 18th Century, why had the people overthrown their government at that time rather than another era? Prior to de Tocqueville that question had neither been asked nor answered in a serious way, so he delved into documents that no one before him had studied: archival tax records. Although such material risks becoming dense, de Tocqueville’s style is engaging and he keeps the purpose of the inquiry uppermost: What was the true aim of the Revolution? What was its specific character? Why did it take place and what exactly did it achieve?

The Old Regime and the French Revolution was ahead of its time, using methodologies that would not be reused by significant numbers of historians until the 1960s. De Tocqueville’s approach yields rich insights about any country and any era where bureaucratic archives exist in sufficient quantity to undertake a meaningful statistical analysis. This had always been a well-regarded book; for 50 years now it has also acquired recognition as a seminal work of social history. There is nothing else in the subfield that approaches it in terms of innovative analytical methods. For these reasons alone this book is of interest to anyone who wants to know how the study of history is done and why it remains in print in so many editions and why it is discussed in so many classrooms. We live in a world where political forces try to shape our future by telling us our heritage; this happens in all sorts of places while most people (even those with university educations) lack the skills to distinguish serious historical analysis from bullshit. That is a dangerous area to remain ignorant in where what someone wants is one’s vote.

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