Palmer has constructed a vivid narrative of what happens when extreme, fanatical people are driven to atrocity in the name of idealism. Palmer essentially tells a straight narrative, following the exploits of Robespierre and the other members of the Committe of Public Safety, which ruled France with a brutally harsh dictatorship. The Roman connection is made throughout the book, as Palmer recounts how many Frenchmen took Roman names, viewing the Roman republic as a model society in many ways. These men had an idealistic view of "the people" and of "the republic." These were ideals that were not necessarily connected to any direct reality. They viewed it as their role to help guide France toward this idealized conception of a nation and a unified people.
For two years after the French revolution, France was ruled by a committee of twelve men. The "Committee of Public Safety" as it was known, realized that if they failed in their mission to stabilize France, they would be treated as murderers of their king and destroy ers of the few democratic gains that had been accomplished by that time. Palmer recounts the events of "The Year of Terror" in Twelve Who Ruled.This book was finished in 1941, and it contains oblique (but not opaque) references to invading armies and the dangers of totalitarianism. Barere, like Robespierre a lawyer, was a shifty politician who believed in public participation in government. It is paradoxical that the French, who tried so hard to recreate the American Revolution, and who fervently believed in Constitutional government, feared factions and divisive thought. Robespierre's statement of 5 Nivose -- they had invented their own calendar based on the metric system which was mandatory but virtually ignored -- was a dramatic statement of the philosophy of dictatorship and an attempt to suppress factions. -- 20th century Americans would do well to reread Madison.) Of course, the Committee failed politically.
During the following year, the Committee ruled through two basic methods: issuing decrees, which theoretically could be overridden by the Convention but never were, and by sending some of its members on assignment, representatives-on-mission, to critical areas around the country, with plenipotentiary power of life and death. At the same time, the Committees members involved themselves in, and led, the descending spiral of internal purges and violence against perceived ideological enemies who were themselves part of the Revolution, a process which ended in the Committees own destruction and the execution of its most prominent members. R. Palmer, was complicated by the Committee having left essentially no record of its own internal discussions. This is probably more interesting than a record of internal debates would have been, and it makes Palmers book more compelling as a result. However they made their decisions, the Committees executive actions were largely a success in pushing back threats to the Revolution (and, as Palmer notes, many of their actions presaged the modern world, such as the Levy in Mass, conscripting the entire population to participate in declared national goals). But Palmer makes clear that of greater concern to the Committee were the federalists, centered around Lyon and Marseilles, who strongly supported the Revolution but opposed the Jacobins and those even farther left, the so-called Hébertists.) The economic situation was stabilized, both in terms of food supply and in terms of ability to manufacture essential goods for the state, especially munitions. (Those three were Maximilien Robespierre and his two closest allies, Antoine Saint-Just and Georges Couthon; the exact interaction of Robespierre and the other members of the Committee is still hotly debated, but he was clearly the leader at that point.) The Committees actions were, and were meant to be, revolutionary, by which they meant outside the rule of law, exceptional and expeditious, not governed by any constitution or charter other than the grant of power itself to the Committee. As Saint-Just, the youngest and most icily nasty of the political fanatics who composed the Committee, put it: Since the French people has manifested its will, everything opposed to it is outside the sovereign. It was not just in mass killing that the rule of law was destroyed, it was also in many other actions, such as ending elections to the Convention, because, according to the Committee, When the revolutionary machine is still rolling, you injure the people in entrusting it with the election of public functionaries, for you expose it to the naming of men who will betray it. My favorite passage to illustrate the corruption of language that characterized the Committee is Palmers summary of a speech by Saint-Just on March 13, given as the internal purges gathered steam. While it is possible, perhaps, for a time, for Enlightenment ideas to not lead to the Terror, such as in the American Revolution, and perhaps not every key Enlightenment idea necessarily leads to terror, in both cases thats the exception, rather than the rule (and probably impossible outside a context based on English traditions, as opposed to those of Rosseau). Thus, the end result of the Left being in total power is always going to be the same as that in 1794 (even if may not always be as compressed in time or as dramatic as the Terror). First, while he couldnt see the full sweep of the twentieth century, not once does Palmer criticize the Left, Marxism or Communism, or analogize later leftist thought and actions to the Revolution, even in the slightest way. And when he re-issued the book in 1989, Palmer was extremely proud that he made no substantive changes to the text, as he notes in his Preface to the Bicentennial Edition, completing his whitewash of the Terror as it relates to the Left. Palmer also notes that the Terror would have been infinitely more bloody if it were not the case that the Committee habitually used an exaggerated manner of speaking; but they were, in reality, for the most part, still checked by humane and Christian scruples. He does not note the contradiction, or rather, the now-obvious conclusion, that combining a revolutionary party of the modern kind, something he endorses as making the Revolution better, with an absence of Christian scruples necessarily leads to deaths in the tens of millions, rather than the tens of thousands, not a more visionary creation. Third, Palmer is eager to make generalized excuses that relieve the Committee of moral responsibilityThe Terror was born of fear, from the terror in which men already lived, from the appalling disorder produced by five years of Revolution and the lawless habits of the old regime. Perhaps its easier to see from the vantage point of 2018 than of 1941, but its very obvious that the source of leftist terror is leftist ideas and thought patterns, not the fact that seizing power usually generates enemies and disorders. Concealing this rather obvious truth seems to be the project of most modern historians of the Terror, all men of the Left themselves, who therefore recoil from the necessary conclusion. Palmers project of excusing the Terror can also be seen indirectly, through his continual commentary on the scholarly controversies of the half century preceding the publication of his book, mostly centering on two French academic luminaries: Alphonse Aulard and Albert Mathiez, the latter a proud Marxist who, according to Palmer, held (along with his entire school, still extant today) that Robespierre was always right. According to Palmer, both Aulard and Mathiez, who collectively at the time totally dominated scholarship about the Revolution, excused the Terror as necessary. While Palmer agrees that the Terror was necessary, he likes to snipe at Mathiezs ideological prison, saying, for example, that he was of the opinion that his hero Robespierre was better justified by certain principles of class struggle than by the ideas which Robespierre himself never tired of expounding.
Palmer discusses their origins and pre-Revolutionary lives, how they managed to end up in their positions of power, their activities during that turbulent period, and the crises that led up to the day of 9 Thermidor, the famous Thermidorian Reaction, when Robespierre, the Committee's leader, was guillotined along with his colleague Saint-Just and the Revolution ended its most frenetic phase. Palmer describes the law of 14 Frimaire, which significantly centralized power, as "an instrument of Terror because the government which it strengthened was the creation of a minority, the triumphant leaders of the Mountain, itself a party among republicans, who in turn were only a party among the original revolutionists, who in their turn did not include all the people in France. While the Committee was faced with challenges that would strain the capacities of even the best leaders (foreign invasions, economic collapse, rampant factionalism, religious turbulence, and all the small dervishes spawned by that larger tempest), their solution of the guillotine has done a lot to posthumously discredit their work. France at the time was very religious, and the Catholic Church was involved in many spheres of life in both positive and negative ways (see for example the famous career of Cardinal Richelieu in the previous century). In a way, one of the best indicators of the Committee's success was how much of its work was either kept or imitated, to the extent that the invading Allies suggested that they needed an international Committee of General Security to organize their armies as well as the French were doing. Robespierre in particular was an excellent orator, and some of the book's best parts are where Palmer steps back and lets the power of their vision shine: "We wish an order of things where all low and cruel passions are enchained by the laws, all beneficent and generous feelings awakened; where ambition is the desire to deserve glory and to be useful to one's country; where distinctions arise only from equality itself; where the citizen is subject to the magistrate, the magistrate to the people, the people to justice; where the country secures the welfare of each individual, and each individual proudly enjoys the prosperity and glory of his country; where all minds are enlarged by the constant interchange of republican sentiments and by the need of earning the respect of a great people; where industry is an adornment to the liberty that ennobles it, and commerce the source of public wealth, not simply of monstrous riches for a few families.
Palmer's account of the Terror is supposed to be a classic on the subject, and it is easy to see why.
It can be a bit dry at times, though that is to be expected when reading scholarly works.
A solid, readable history of the Reign of Terror, Twelve Who Ruled by R.R. Palmer gives us a 1940s-era overview of the closing days of the French Revolution.
Concerned that other types of historical scholarship missed vital details that could answer the question, Palmer sets out a micro-history, which closely examines the rise and fall of the twelve individuals seated on the Committee of Public Safety (the small autocratic committee that briefly gained leadership of the National Convention). Methodology: Palmers work uses many historical methods related with the Annales School (whole history thinking, broad human interest, detailed evidence, environmental conditions and unusual documentation), while consciously modifying or choosing not to employ other aspects of it. For instance, he approaches the greater scale of events of the French Revolution (city versus country, foreign versus domestic, class struggle) through this narrow example of the Committee of Public Safety and a brief period of time (micro as an explanation of the macro). Likewise, he is interested in the cause of the poor, Sans-Culottes, but approaches them through their struggle over power with the National Convention and the Committee of Public Safety. Unlike the bottom-up accounts typical of Annales history, Palmer instead focuses on the details of the authority and power struggles of the middle class. Palmer finds himself much aligned to the other Annales School founder, Marc Bloch, in his understanding of man as a complex creature under the stress of many different cultural, environmental, sociological and economic pressures. Palmer argues his point by analyzing the complex, non-class conflicts (personality incompatibilities, vainglory, unsubstantiated, but reacted-upon fears) and inner class conflicts (between the middle-class and the Sans-Culottes as supported by ex-nobles, and country poor versus city poor) that were occurring inside Paris during the brief year of the Committees power. When the Committee first came to power one of the most important connections that they made with the Sans-Culottes was the Maximum, a fixing of the ceiling of bread and agricultural prices so that farmers and merchants could not over-inflate prices beyond the reach of the common working mans wages. This, on the other hand, led to merchant classes (many within the Sans culottes) to complain of unfair prices that did not even cover the cost of production; this fueled anger by the lack of commitment by the CPS to the capping wages as well. The inability of the CPS to control this economic relationship eventually led to a gap between them and their staunchest supporters, the Sans-Culottes. The inability for the CPS to control bread prices and wage ceilings brought them into distrust with the people left in the district, and France was winning their external wars (at the cost of many Sans-Culotte supporters of the CPS) and the CPS was losing ground.
It is brilliant, finally, in the contextualization of these decisions: the reader is able to understand, reading this account, why these men took these decisions, even if, and perhaps even more so, when the rest of Europe was besieging France. I liked reading this book -- it is very well written, and today history-writing is too distanced to this kind of narrative -- but I also finished it with an immense frustration.
In this way, this book is a lesson for our time.