Revolutions of endless possibilities?

This blog post was inspired by Cassandra’s and Jeanna’s explorations of the role of women in the revolutions of the 18th century. In her blog, Cassandra highlights that the opportunities offered to women during the American Revolution were not without limit. She argues that, “just because homespun provided an opportunity for the politicization of the domestic sphere, and gave “women” a place in which they could contribute substantially to a rather significant cause, does not mean that women were readily accepted as political actors.” Jeanna’s post on sensibility echoes Cassandra’s in many ways. By showing the “inefficacy of sensibility as protest for women” through a close reading of Charlotte Smith’s novel Desmond, Jeanna also demonstrates the limits put on the possibilities for political action available to women. Reading Cassandra’s and Jeanna’s posts made me realize how much of the historiography on the French and American revolutions revolve around the questions of the possibilities that these revolutions opened up, as well as their limits.

I can think of two fields in which these questions are particular prominent: gender and the study of religious/racial minorities, such as Jews. Specialists of both topics continue to struggle with the legacies of the French and American revolutions. Much of the literature on these two revolutions, it seems to me, is devoted to how the revolutions did not, after all, yield as positive results as one (eg previous historians) had assumed. For example, in article published in 1995, historian Carole Shammas showed the persistence of patriarchal households in post-revolutionary United States, thus emphasizing the continuities in family life between British America and the United States.(1) By doing so, she suggested that historians tend to overstate the changes that the American revolution wrought, in particular as far as women were concerned.

I am struck by the contrast between the scholarship on American women and that on French Jews. While some historians of the former, such as Shammas, stress the limits of revolutionary change, historians of French Jews have acknowledged the nature of revolutionary change as a dramatic rupture with the past, but have questioned whether this break was good or bad for Jews. Unlike Shammas, who stresses the continuities between the pre-revolutionary and post-revolutionary eras, these historians see the French revolution as a rupture, but not necessarily a positive one. For example, Pierre Birnbaum reminds us that the historiography of Jews and the French Revolution has been divided among three lines of interpretation, one of which argues that the revolution was detrimental to the Jews because French universalism (that originated in the French revolution) jeopardized the ethnic link among Jews and destroyed their unique identity.(2) The truth is that, in recent years, this interpretation has been widely discredited. For instance, historians such as Lisa Leff and Nadia Malinovich have shown that ethnic identification and solidarity among French Jews did not disappear in the wake of the French revolution.(3) Yet, it strikes me that the question “Was the French Revolution good or bad for the Jews?” has shaped the historiography on French Jews, and echoes the question, implicit in the historiography of women in post-revolutionary America, “Was the American Revolution that good for women?”.

The question to me then is, do we tend to assume that revolutions should be “good” (empowering, liberating, equalizing, etc.), and if so, why? My intuition is that scholars of the “Age of Revolution” do in fact assume, maybe unconsciously, that revolutions should necessarily yield positive results, for minorities in particular, and seem surprised when the historical record indicates that maybe revolutions did not open endless possibilities after all. I am not sure why this is so; maybe we take the discourse of the revolutionaries themselves too seriously, or maybe there is a flair of romanticism about revolutions that tweaks our reading of past events. I really don’t know. But I want to suggest that we need to question our assumptions about what revolutions do or do not do; this, in turn, may help us assessing the degree of continuity and change during and following revolutions without resorting to moral terms.

1. Shammas,Carole. “Anglo-American Household Government in Comparative Perspective,” William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series 52, 1 (1995), pp. 104-144.
2. Birnbaum, Pierre. ” Les Juifs entre l’appartenance identitaire et l’entrée dans l’espace public : la Révolution française et le choix des acteurs. ” Revue française de sociologie. 1989, 30-3-4. Sociologie de la révolution. Etudes réunies et introduites par François Gresle et François Chazel. pp. 497-510.
3. See: Leff, Lisa Moses. Sacred Bonds of Solidarity: The Rise of Jewish Internationalism in Nineteenth-century France. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2006, and Malinovich, Nadia. French and Jewish: Culture and the Politics of Identity in Early Twentieth-century France. Oxford, UK ; Portland, Or.: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2008.

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