Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Before the Deluge

Before the Deluge: Public Debt, Inequality, and the Intellectual Origins of the French Revolution

Michael Sonenscher
Copyright Date: 2007
Pages: 432
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Before the Deluge
    Book Description:

    Ever since the French Revolution, Madame de Pompadour's comment, "Après moi, le déluge" (after me, the deluge), has looked like a callous if accurate prophecy of the political cataclysms that began in 1789. But decades before the Bastille fell, French writers had used the phrase to describe a different kind of selfish recklessness--not toward the flood of revolution but, rather, toward the flood of public debt. InBefore the Deluge, Michael Sonenscher examines these fears and the responses to them, and the result is nothing less than a new way of thinking about the intellectual origins of the French Revolution.

    In this nightmare vision of the future, many prerevolutionary observers predicted that the pressures generated by modern war finance would set off a chain of debt defaults that would either destroy established political orders or cause a sudden lurch into despotic rule. Nor was it clear that constitutional government could keep this possibility at bay. Constitutional government might make public credit more secure, but public credit might undermine constitutional government itself.

    Before the Delugeexamines how this predicament gave rise to a widespread eighteenth-century interest in figuring out how to establish and maintain representative governments able to realize the promise of public credit while avoiding its peril. By doing so, the book throws new light on a neglected aspect of modern political thought and on the French Revolution.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-2770-1
    Subjects: History, Political Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xi)
    (pp. 1-21)

    The phraseaprès moi, le déluge(“after me, the deluge”) is sometimes attributed to Louis XV, France’s penultimate eighteenth-century king. It seems, however, to have been coined by his mistress, Mme de Pompadour, and she seems to have used it to refer to “us,” not “me” (as inaprès nous, le déluge).¹ The phrase, and the various attitudes towards intimations of disaster that it might have been intended to express (shocked recognition, grim resignation, or selfish heedlessness, for example), have often been associated loosely with the French Revolution, even though Mme de Pompadour died in 1764, and even though it...

    (pp. 22-94)

    The revolution began with deep divisions at the royal court. The first signs of political instability took the form of a number of vicious personal disputes among members of both the royal family and the high nobility over the status and character of the reigning queen. She, it was said, had succeeded in building up a party of her own, barely disguising her indifference to the established institutions and formal procedures of the kingdom's government in her eagerness to promote the interests of her favourites and clients. Her foreign origins and the aura of religious scepticism that surrounded her circle...

    (pp. 95-172)

    The system of representative government that Sievès envisaged was an ambitious attempt to graft a new moral and political hierarchy onto an established set of property arrangements. It was designed to avoid direct interference with the existing property regime and to rely instead upon the machinery of representation itself to generate an extra level of power and authority to neutralise property's potentially divisive effects. The individual whose thought best registered some of the dilemmas that this involved was Montesquieu, because it was Montesquieu who first showed how sovereignty could be limited without being divided, but it was Montesquieu, too, who...

    (pp. 173-253)

    According to the German philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder, "Montesquieu's noble, gigantic work" was "aGothicedifice, according to the philosophical taste of its age," offering, he added, "esprit—andoften no more than that."¹ The judgement was widely shared, as, too, were attempts to give Montesquieu's enigmatic book a stronger normative content. Before two generations had passed, it was possible to discover either thatThe Spirit of Lawsexplained why absolute government was uniquely compatible with the ancient Roman maximsalus populi suprema lex estoon which every state was based, or that its account of the Germanic origins of the...

    (pp. 254-348)

    It is now usual to claim that the French Revolution was a political revolution with social consequences. In the eighteenth century, it was equally usual to expect a social revolution with political consequences. Not everyone was willing to look forward to it as "the moment of the great revolution" with as much anticipation as the marquis de Mirabeau's protege Antoine Court de Gebelin appears to have done at the time of the American war, or claim, as he put it, that "the restoration of the grand order was reserved for our century."¹ Even Mirabeau was stunned when another of his...

    (pp. 349-372)

    Say’s misgivings about Napoleon were soon confirmed. On 18 May 1804, Napoleon was proclaimed emperor of the French and on 2 December 1804 received Charlemagne’s sword and crown at the famously stage-managed coronation ceremony inaugurating the new reign. Three weeks before the coronation, the now imperial Senate ratified the plebiscite of the French people that made “the imperial dignity” hereditary in “the direct, natural, legitimate, and adoptive descent of Napoleon Bonaparte and the natural and legitimate descent of Joseph and Louis Bonaparte,” as specified by the earlier proclamation establishing the empire. Once again, it was Pierre-Louis Roederer who introduced the...

    (pp. 373-402)
  11. INDEX
    (pp. 403-415)