Review Essay

Keeping up with the Brits: New Work on French National Identity and Foreign Policy during the Later Eighteenth Century.

Edmond Dziembowski, Un nouveau patriotisme français, 1750-1770: la France face à la puissance anglaise à l’époque de la guerre de Sept Ans. Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century, vol. 365. Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 1998. vii + 566 pp. Annexes, bibliography and index. £75 (cloth). ISBN 0-7294-0623-7.

John Hardman and Munro Price (eds.), Louis XVI and the comte de Vergennes: Correspondence, 1774-1787. Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century, vol. 364. Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 1998. xvii + 403 pp. Bibliography and index. £65 (cloth). ISBN 0-7294-0572-9.

Review Essay by Thomas E. Kaiser, University of Arkansas at Little Rock, for H-France, April 2000.

If Franco-phobia, as Linda Colley has so brilliantly shown, became a major element of British national identity in the eighteenth century(1), then did the French repay the compliment by making Anglo-phobia a critical part of French nationality? One might think not, given the Anglo-philia, sometimes running to Anglo-mania, associated with the philosophes’ admiration for British “liberty” and the taste of le beau monde for English gardens, clothes, and horse-racing in the age of Marie-Antoinette. And yet how are we to explain the unequaled success of the extremely Anglo-phobic tragedy by Dormont de Belloy, Le Siège de Calais in 1765, or the genocidal call of Bertrand Barère for the annihilation of the British people during the French Revolution? Making sense of the many contradictory indicators of French attitudes toward Britain is no straightforward task, particularly inasmuch as there was no contemporary foreign country about whom the eighteenth-century French obsessed more or produced “thicker” descriptions. Although it is Dziembowski’s book that focuses squarely on this subject, the English question also features prominently in this edition of Louis XVI’s correspondence with his foreign minister, Charles, comte de Vergennes. As the editors show, Louis, an Anglophile with considerable knowledge of English history, language, and culture, made catching up with Britain the major priority of his foreign policy.

Dziembowski’s work is hardly the first to attack the subject of Anglo-philia,-mania, and -phobia in the Old Regime, but it differs from other studies in several ways.(2) First, it pays considerably more attention to diplomatic developments than earlier treatments. Unfortunately, the author picks up the thread of these developments only from about 1750. This is a missed opportunity, since we have for a long time needed to replace the old story of Voltaire’s and Montesquieu’s “discovery” of England with an account that deals with earlier cross-cultural encounters and the impact of the cordial Franco-British diplomatic relations in the age of the Guillaume, cardinal Dubois and André, cardinal Fleury. In Dziembowski’s view, however, there is not much of a story to tell as regards the period before 1750, since Anglo-philia, he believes, was largely restricted in this period to an avant-garde literary elite. The more conservative aristocracy and common people, Dziembowski contends, were still in the grip of an Anglo-phobia dating back to the age of Joan of Arc.

What changed the picture dramatically, according to Dziembowski, was the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763). By this time, the Franco-British entente had collapsed, and the two nations had already come to blows in the War of the Austrian Succession. The Seven Years’ War, which was fought on three continents, pitted Britain against France once again, thereby not only defining international relations until the French Revolution but also re-crystallizing French attitudes toward the British nation. Herein, lies Dziembowski’s second innovation. Whereas previous scholars had noted merely an intensification of Anglo-phobia during the Seven Years’ War, Dziembowski argues that it also changed in kind. To be sure, he agrees that there was a perceptible rise in traditional Anglo-phobia, fanned by the government, which forced the philosophes to soft-pedal their Anglo-philia during the war years. But this Anglo-phobia, he contends, was subsequently transformed as a result of the brilliant success of British arms in the conflict, which the French attributed to the cultivation of a citizen-based patriotic ideology that William Pitt used on behalf of the British war effort. Showing a unexpected ability to learn from its enemies, the French government, under the leadership of the foreign minister, Étienne François, duc de Choiseul, tried to copy the British example and to mobilize French public opinion by cultivating a corresponding French version of citizen patriotism, which also drew upon ideas that had already been percolating within French Enlightenment culture. In song and theater, the war was represented less as a struggle among kings than a struggle among peoples, while calls went out for every citizen/subject to sacrifice his/her interests for those of the nation. With imitation proving the sincerest form of antipathy, the distance between Anglo-phobia and -philia was for a time narrowed. Once the war was over, however, the distance widened once again, as French “patriots” railed against Anglo-maniacal practitioners of British manners much as British “patriots” fought the good fight against Gallic foppery on the other side of the Channel.

The author’s third innovation lies in how he documents the spread of this newly transplanted ideology. Lacking the sources to plumb the sentiments of the unlettered, Dziembowski provides striking statistical evidence for the spread of the new language of “patriotism” among the literate classes in the titles of published works. These titles featured “citizen”, “patriot”, and “nation” and their variants in numbers that rose steadily from the 1730s, with a conspicuous quantum jump occurring at the onset of the Seven Years’ War.

In the end, however, Dziembowski concludes that the propagation of citizen patriotism proved a dead-end strategy for the monarchy, which quickly abandoned it. Unfortunately, he does not make clear whether this occurred principally because the ideology was inherently and unavoidably unstable in an absolutist context and too easily appropriated by the crown’s opposition, or whether it resulted more from particular initiatives, such as the disbanding of the parlements during the Maupeou coup of 1771-1774, which called for different legitimizing strategies. Strangely, he does not probe the possible connection with foreign policy developments in the next reign that may also have made citizen patriotism harder to maintain. In any case, Dziembowski suggests that insofar as the monarchy succeeded in impressing citizen patriotism upon the French public--and he believes it did so to a considerable extent--it helped prepare its own demise by contributing to the ideologies of 1789.(3)

There can be no doubt that Dziembowski’s lengthy book constitutes a major re-interpretation of French sentiment regarding Britain that also contributes significantly to the study of French civic humanism. Perhaps his most important contributions are his elaboration of the diplomatic perspective and his close examination of much-neglected government propaganda, which broadens considerably the approach of previous scholars who have focused on more standard literary sources. His overall argument regarding the construction of French patriotic sentiment on a British model is subtle, ingenious, and, up to a point, convincing. It has the signal benefit of demonstrating, contrary to widespread impression, that the monarchy was not ideologically inert in the eighteenth century. Although the author does not explore these similarities, one might well compare Choiseul’s initiatives with other ultimately unsuccessful ideological ventures of the crown, such the effort to reply to the monarchy’s critics in the same historical and juridical language that they had used against it.(4)

At the same time, the argument that French citizen patriotism emerged principally from a British mold needs to be qualified. First, the author might well have examined the intellectual premises of the ideology more closely than he does. It is not entirely clear, for example, whether the notion of liberty inherent in the British and French versions of citizen patriotism were really the same. Some recent treatments would suggest significantly different emphases.(5) Second, although the author pays a fair amount of attention to the origins of French citizen patriotism in the thought of the philosophes, he tends to overlook other domestic sources of citizen patriotism. Indeed, part of what made citizen patriotism so compelling and appealing an ideology in the late Old Regime that the monarchy sought to appropriate it, was precisely its capacity to integrate vocabulary and themes emerging from a variety of sources--French Enlightenment and British ones, to be sure, but also the Jansenists in their battles against the dévots, cities and parlementaires in their resistance to royal “despotism,” taxpayers in their revolt against fiscal expropriation, and wives in their battle against domestic “tyranny”. In short, while providing a welcome and original examination of the ways in which French military failures in the Seven Years’ War engendered citizen patriotism, the author has overstated his case.

The work by John Hardman and Munro Price is another significant contribution to the revitalized and growing study of eighteenth-century international relations, in which the role and image of England bulks large. Unlike Dziembowski, Hardman and Price do not venture beyond of the corridors of power into the domain of public opinion, but what they lose in scope they gain in precision. As the editors point out in their preface, one of the major difficulties in assessing the diplomacy and domestic administration of Louis XVI has been the loss of most of the king’s pre-Revolutionary administrative correspondence, a loss that has allowed the barbs of hostile contemporaries to go largely unanswered in the literature until recently. What Hardman and Price have done is to gather together and edit that part of the extant Louis XVI correspondence--some of it published previously--which consists of the written exchanges between Louis and Vergennes, Louis’s foreign minister and Louis’s principal advisor after Jean Frédéric, comte de Maurepas’s death in 1781. The collection includes 171 letters composed by the King, which are estimated by the editors to constitute about 17% of the roughly one thousand letters Louis wrote to Vergennes between the former’s accession in 1774 and the latter’s death in 1787. Not only does this correspondence provide fresh details about the process whereby Louis’s foreign policy was made, but it also contributes to the efforts of recent Louis XVI scholars, who, along with historians of the previous reign, have begun to rectify the long-standing image of eighteenth-century French kingship as incompetent, lethargic, and indifferent. Although some of these efforts have unfortunately tended to overcompensate in the direction of hagiography,(6) the rare snapshots of Louis XVI provided by his laconic correspondence do undeniably reveal a king who, while lacking political imagination and depth, was much more knowledgeable about foreign affairs and more actively involved in the making of foreign policy than standard portraits would have us believe. The letters also show that Vergennes played a major role in the making of domestic policy, which, as the editors point out, was inseparable from the conduct of diplomacy--a key insight that should inform future work on the reign.(7)

What makes this edition of the Louis XVI/Vergennes correspondence all the more useful is the extensive apparatus provided by Hardman and Price, including a lengthy introduction that contextualizes the letters by way of a wide-ranging review of late eighteenth-century French foreign policy. Hardman and Price hold to a standard view of this policy as one which, if hardly unintelligent, was so marked by caution and so caught in the grooves of tradition that its managers declined to take initiatives possibly advantageous to French interests, most notably passing up the opportunity to join Russia and Austria in dismembering the Ottoman empire. Paradoxically, the editors plausibly suggest, it was just this timidity which explains the few rash ventures the monarchy did embark upon, and here, once again, we return to the looming presence of Britain in French political consciousness.

As the editors point out, the sense of vulnerability the French felt in relation to Britain following the humiliations of the Seven Years’ War continued to motivate the ministry into the reign of Louis XVI, leading the government to entertain and to act upon groundless fears of an imminent British invasion of France. Although it may have been the need for a pretext to avoid entanglement in the War of the Bavarian Succession that provided the final impetus to support the American rebels in 1778 (a thesis advanced, but not, in this reviewer’s opinion, proved by the editors), it was the belief in the inevitability of military conflict with Britain that may well have set this entire course of action in motion. Unfortunately for the monarchy, not only did the humbling of perfidious Albion in North America impose a devastating burden on French finances, but the much-needed, if modest aura of victory it provided was blown away by the collapse of the French-supported Dutch revolt just after the death of Vergennes. In this regard, it is misleading for Hardman and Price to conclude their generally sound and informative survey on a triumphal note--“Louis and Vergennes passed on to the revolutionary regime a diplomatic prestige greater than that which they had inherited” (p. 154). For the real story was that, partly as a result of their policies, the government was so broke it could not fulfill the foreign commitments to which it had committed itself. And when the regime crashed two years after Vergennes’s death, it was in no small part due to the widespread belief that France was fast losing the contest with Britain, a contest that Louis, Vergennes, and the French nation had so desperately wanted to win.(8)

1. “Imagining the French as their vile opposites, as Hyde to their Jekyll, became a way for Britons--particularly the poorer and less privileged--to contrive for themselves a converse and flattering identity.” Linda Colley, Britons: Forging the Nation 1707-1837. (New Haven & London, 1992), p. 368.
2. Frances Acomb, Anglophobia in France, 1763-1789. (Durham, N.C., 1950); Josephine Grieder, Anglomania in France, 1740-1789. (Geneva, 1985).
3. I have dealt with the rhetorical and strategic reasons for the failure of another royal legitimizing strategy, which wound up assisting the opposition. See Thomas E. Kaiser, "Louis le Bien-Aimé and the Rhetoric of the Royal Body," in Sara E. Melzer and Kathryn Norberg (eds.), From the Royal to the Republican Body: Incorporating the Political in Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century France. (Berkeley, Los Angeles, London, 1998), pp. 131-61.
4. See Joseph Klaits, Printed Propaganda under Louis XIV: Absolute Monarchy and Public Opinion. (Princeton, 1976); Thomas E. Kaiser, "The Abbé Dubos and the Historical Defense of Monarchy in Early Eighteenth-Century France," Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century no. 267 (1989): 77-102.
5. Dale Van Kley (ed.), The French Idea of Freedom: The Old Regime and the Declaration of Rights of 1789. (Stanford, 1994).
6. Michel Antoine’s portrait of Louis XV in his revisionary and masterful Louis XV (Paris, 1989) is modestly overdrawn; the many works of Paul and Pierrette Girault de Coursac on Louis XVI are much more so.
7. A thesis previously argued for in Munro Price, Preserving the Monarchy: The Comte de Vergennes, 1774-1787. (Cambridge, 1995).
8. Bailey Stone, The Genesis of the French Revolution: A Global-Historical Interpretation (Cambridge, 1994) argues for the connection. I have underscored it in another context, in Thomas E. Kaiser “The Evil Empire? The Debate on Turkish Despotism in Eighteenth-Century French Political Culture,” Journal of Modern History, forthcoming in 2000.

Thomas E. Kaiser
University of Arkansas at Little Rock