Aristocracy and its Enemies in the Age of Revolution

David Andress is intrigued to find that even revolutionaries could be seduced by the prospect of nobility

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Reviewed by: David Andress
Author: William Doyle
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Price (RRP): £30

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When the National Assembly of revolutionary France abolished the status of nobility in June 1790, one aristocratic opponent, the comte de Landenberg-Wagenbourg, cried out in the chamber that nobles might submit to the law, but would “live with the blood with which they were born… nothing can prevent them living and dying as gentlemen”.

Little did his opponents know that they were helping to solidify this concept of an aristocratic caste. After the French Revolution, nobility indeed became something carried in the blood, a marker of distant ancestry, defended to this day by ardent genealogists. But ironically, before the Revolution, nobility was far more likely to be something that had been earned, or indeed bought, by far more recent ancestors, if not by still-living individuals themselves. Yet such individuals were buying into an idea whose value lay, at least in part, in the simultaneous myth of nobility as a separate and ancient race.

These are among the paradoxes that William Doyle ably and elegantly explores in this incisively-written volume. Nobility in France famously gave rise to a “cascade of disdain”, and the feeling was often reciprocated upwards. The philosopher Montesquieu in the 1740s wrote of aristocrats’ value-system: “Ambition in idleness, lowness in pride, the desire to grow rich without work, aversion to truth, flattery, treason, perfidy”, and the list went on. But Montesquieu was very proud of his own nobility as a member of Bordeaux’s judicial elite.

Everyone hated the nobility, but everyone – at least up to the eve of 1789 – wanted to get into it. Peasants had to endure bourgeois interlopers buying up the feudal rights of their overlords, and the state sucked in huge revenues (and accrued huge liabilities) by selling official positions, because both systems could put men, and their descendants, on the ladder to noble status.

Extraordinarily, even revolutionary Americans were not immune from this fever. Though state constitutions, and eventually the US Constitution itself, resolutely forbade the establishment of “any title of nobility”, former officers eager to commemorate their service in the War of Independence set up the Order of the Cincinnati, a hereditary body that provoked a serious political scare among opponents of privilege.

Its Latin motto might have had grammar so bad that a British diplomat scoffed “a boy of ten years old would have been flogged at Eton” for writing it, but George Washington himself had to intervene to calm a rising political storm, persuading the Cincinnati to renounce heredity. Tellingly, they did so only temporarily, until opposition died down, and survive, like the French nobility, as a hereditary caste to this day.

French nobles who had served in America also flocked to become Cincinnati in the 1780s – it was another decoration to parade on their chests, in an era when nobles did not go out in public without full regalia – and they also flocked back, two decades later, to a France which under Napoleon was re-establishing social distinctions.

The new-minted emperor, it is true, wanted to see “the old nobility… completely rooted out”, but his solution was not egalitarianism, but an elevation of state service as the only criterion of admission to a new hierarchy of dukes, counts and barons. He also insisted that his nobles had a financial base of inalienable landholdings, reflecting later from St Helena that “it is very hard to see a fool, who inherits a fortune built up over five hundred years, lose it by the throw of a dice”. Coming from an old but impoverished noble family, he knew whereof he spoke.

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This and many other intriguing insights are on offer in this book, which falls down perhaps only in not giving more than an occasional sideways glance at the even more persistent survival of nobility in the British state.