3 September 2014
I’ve studied the French Revolution so much in high school and college that, at least in my mind, it has taken on a certain degree of inevitability. The causes – mass poverty, an ineffectual and absent monarchy, the Enlightenment – seem obvious. Given the conflation of these factors, the revolution should not come as a surprise to anyone.
But was the prospect of the French Revolution as obvious to its contemporaries as it is to us? Mercier, an astute observer who recorded his opinions of the city in Le Tableau de Paris, did not think a revolt was possible. Though he published the final volumes of his work a year before the French Revolution broke out, Mercier’s descriptions do not imply the same level of radicalism that was characteristic of the revolution. When assessing the political character of the public, he writes that “the Parisian’s instinct seems to have taught him that the little more liberty he might obtain is not worth fighting for…He has a short memory for trouble, chalks up no score of his miseries.”1 Even if the populace decided to rise up, the police presence and royal will would be enough to make sure “any attempt at sedition…would be nipped in the bud.”2 These generalizations, which underestimate the volatility of the Parisian people and overestimate the authority exercised by the monarchy, highlight the erratic nature of revolutions; they are difficult, if not impossible, to predict. Mercier was an educated member of the middle-class who obsessed over inequality and the socioeconomic hierarchy of Paris,…