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Book stirs debate on French history

Howard G. Brown challenges accepted views about one of the most important periods in French history with his new book, Ending the French Revolution.

In it, Brown argues that the revolutionary era didn’t actually end until 1802 and that the period, sometimes considered an inspiration for its liberal democracy, was in reality permeated by violence and a disregard for democracy and the rule of law.

“This finding will change people’s ideas about the period,” he said. “I welcome controversy, but I don’t think it’s a polemical book.”

The revolution, which began in 1789, is generally considered to have ended with Napoleon’s rise to power in 1799. But Brown said the true end comes with the beginning of Napoleon’s dictatorship three years later.

Until then, he argues, France’s first constitutional republic was still struggling to find ways to balance personal freedom with security concerns in the midst of what could be called the worst crime wave in modern French history.

“It’s Chechnya and the mafia all rolled into the same period,” Brown explained.

The French government responded to this lawlessness by making extensive use of military justice and cutting corners on due process. Still, this was expedited justice, not the absence of any justice. Defendants did have lawyers and some were acquitted. Brown even found considerable evidence of what would now be termed jury nullification.

The book, winner of the Walker Cowen Memorial Prize in 18th-century studies, was a decade in the making. Research took Brown to France at least once a year, where he visited archives in Paris, Bordeaux, Montpellier, Le Mans, Toulouse and elsewhere.

His most exciting discovery was a cache of some 500 boxes of military court records. A 1798 law required certain civilians be tried in military courts, but the records of those cases had never been catalogued. The files were gathering dust among documents related to the Napoleonic era.

“They’d been stashed for 200 years,” Brown said.

The files contained four- to six-page summaries and verdicts for thousands of cases. Brown estimates some 10,000 military and civilian justice records are referenced in the book. “I must have consulted half a million pages of handwritten documents,” he said, noting the language was flowery and arcane in places, but rhetorically fascinating.

Brown, who recently became chairman of the History Department, joined Binghamton’s faculty in 1994. This fall, he’s teaching a graduate colloquium on early modern Europe and an undergraduate course on privilege and protest in early modern Europe.

Students in his graduate seminar on the French Revolution, which he teaches every two years, got a sneak peak at his book while he was writing and revising it. Brown said the students gained a deeper understanding of writing and a more mature outlook on academia.

“I came to French history because I was fascinated by the difficulty of understanding the French Revolution,” said Brown, who grew up in Canada and holds a doctorate from Oxford University. “It had to be challenging to be interesting, and I expect the same is now true for my students.”

Working on this book, and studying the French Revolution for much of his life, have left Brown a more cynical person. “Political ideals and their manipulation become increasingly intertwined for me,” he said. His new view is of a “zero-sum game of change” in which rights of the individual are often traded against those of the community, or vice versa.

Brown, author of another book on the French Revolution and co-editor of a third, doesn’t expect he’ll again be able to devote 10 years to a work on the scale of his latest project, in part because of publishers’ concerns regarding book length. His next undertaking will focus on notions of trauma and individual experiences of violence, thereby putting the French Revolution in a wider context ranging from 16th-century wars of religion to 20th-century political conflicts.

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