French Revolutionaries & English Republicans: A bridge to the Continent

As its subtitle announces Rachel Hammersley’s French Revolutionaries and English Republicans (Woodbridge, 2005) is a study of the Cordeliers Club in Paris between 1790-1794. It traces the Club’s radical policies and associated writings in the years following the rebellion of 1789 and its attempts to influence the National Assembly as it forged a new constitution for France.

What makes the Cordeliers so interesting for scholars of early modern English political thought, however, is their use of C17th English authors in the shaping of their political arguments. In his attempt at advocating republican structures in C18th France, the Cordeliers’ secretary Théophile Mandar, for instance, translated Marchamont Nedham’s The Excellencie of a Free State (1656) – assembled from editorials of the Commonwealth newsbook Mercurius Politicus – into French. This translation is not only remarkable for what it transmits into French, but in particular for what it changes and decides to omit.

Thus, Mandar, who was an admirer of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s republicanism, used Nedham to promote Rousseau’s ideas of liberty and popular sovereignty, making Nedham in the process much more radical and democratical than he actually was. So Mandar decides to turn Nedham’s advocacy of relative equality into a call for the ‘greatest equality among all the citizens’ (p. 73); and while Nedham clearly didn’t aim to include the rabble or the ‘confused promiscuous body of the people’ into the number of active participants in political life, Marat simply cut the respective passage from Nedham ‘thereby suggesting that he entertained no such restrictions on who was to be included among “the people,” ‘ (p. 74).

Besides Nedham, Marat also employed arguments from Algernon Sidney for his purposes, translating into French and publishing the last six chapters of Sidney’s Discourses concerning government in his own Des Insurrections of 1793.

Marat’s fellow Cordelier Jean Jacques, or James, Rutledge, who had been born to a French mother and Irish father at Dunkirk, meanwhile, made use of the writings of James Harrington to boost the republican cause in France. Both in his periodical Calypso, published from 1784 onwards, and in the Cordeliers’ organ Le Creuset, which appeared throughout 1791, Rutledge promoted the principles set down in Harrington’s Oceana and A System of Politics. In particular, he seemed interested in Harrington’s doctrine that political power always follows the balance of property and advocated his ‘more democratic ideas’, including those for a more equal distribution of land, low property qualifications for citizenship as well as Harrington’s emphasis on local politics (p. 96). Among others, he also included a translation of the first six chapters of the System of Politics in the 5th issue of Le Creuset.

Théodore Le Sueur on his part helped promote a Cordeliers model constitution presented in a petition to the National Convention. This model constitution also bore strong resemblance to Oceana, however, its author had democratised it further by adding a more extensive use of the lot over elections, and by dividing the process of debate and decision-making not between a senate and a popular assembly, but between a national legislative council and the people, who were to vote on legislation in their localities (p. 128). A second constitutional proposal from the Cordeliers Club also promoted the idea of a single lawgiver over the current National Convention drawing on arguments from Harrington (pp. 131ff).

With the rise of the revolutionary government in 1793 and its justification of increasingly radical measures by “necessity” and the “public weal”, the republican cause began to fall apart and so did the Cordeliers Club. The so-called Enragés, who accepted the principle of “revolutionary necessity” and advocated the creation of a revolutionary army in every town, were expelled by the Hébertists over personal animosities, while the Indulgents attacked the dechristianisation of society as well as other radical Hébertist policies. In their newspaper Le Vieux Cordelier published by Camille Desmoulins from December 1793 onwards, the Indulgents defended ‘old Cordelier’ views, such as civil liberties, and called for a relaxation of the Terror (p. 146).

Robespierre broke with Desmoulins, his name was deleted from the Jacobin Club and later from the Cordeliers Club as well. The execution of the Hébertists was followed by the arrest of the Indulgents and their subsequent trial and execution. In the process, the divisions within the committee of public safety itself deepened, and collapse followed as Robespierre and some of his close collaborators were arrested and executed.

Interestingly, in the process of defending the moderate policies of the Indulgents against the revolutionary government Desmoulins had been quoting extensively from Tacitus, using the French translation of Thomas Gordon’s Discourses on Tacitus (London, 1728-31). For the C18th work, Hammersley argues, was ideal for defending a republic in times of crisis. Mandar and Rutledge, meanwhile, had quoted the C17th authors Nedham, Sidney and Harrington earlier on how to establish one.

Hammersley’s book vividly illustrates the broader impact of C17th and C18th English republican thought on the ideas of the French Revolution and in particular the use of English models by members of the radical Cordeliers Club. With the obvious parallels between the two revolutions, the English one of 1649 and the French one of 1789, the use of ideas from the former during the latter seems little surprising. What is more interesting is the systematic way in which this was done by a particular movement within C18th French republicanism.

One point on which I would have liked some more information, however, is the obvious one of religion, given that ‘a wave of dechristianisation swept across France’ during the autumn of 1793 (p. 145).  Hammersley indicates that some Cordeliers opposed this dechristianisation process. However, we do not learn much about the public uses of religion, although C17th English republicans frequently cited civil religion as going hand in hand with public virtue.

The issue of religion might also be interesting in the light of the connections Justin Champion’s book The Pillars of Priestcraft Shaken (CUP, 1992) has shown between C17th and early C18th English republican thinkers such as James Harrington and John Toland and the ideas of the French Enlightenment.

Yet, overall, Hammersley’s study of the Cordeliers Club is an extremely readable, well-researched and well-argued work which builds an important bridge between an often far too anglocentric (or at best transatlantic) history of British republicanism and Continental European ideas. As she puts it herself: ‘Contrary to the conventional view, English republican ideas did not simply abandon Europe for North America in the 1770s and 1780s,’ (p. 163). In this respect, as in several others, Hammersley’s account has important implications for our understanding of a wider republican tradition.


Rachel Hammersley, French Revolutionaries and English Republicans: The Cordeliers Club, 1790-1794 (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2005).


By thehistorywoman

Historian & journalist.

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