The Redemptive Powers of Violence? Carlyle, Marx and Dickens

Part of the Palgrave Studies in Nineteenth-Century Writing and Culture book series (PNWC)


Among the many questions raised by the French Revolution of 1789, one in particular haunted the imagination of the nineteenth century: its violence. No one could deny that the Revolution had produced momentous and lasting changes. The Europe of the ancien régime had been destroyed and all attempts to restore it had foundered. But these changes appeared to be inseparable from the violence that had brought them about. Violence, it seemed, had not been incidental to the Revolution, but inherent in its popular character. Popular sovereignty had gone together with crowd coercion and a reign of terror. Hunger, long-held grievances and the provocations of the Old Order were among its precipitants. But, by any measure, it had been excessive, and its legacy had been an unforgettable cluster of images of the burning of chateaux, of the destruction of the Bastille, of angry crowds, summary justice and the hanging lamppost (the lanterne), of the execution of a king and queen, and most of the leaders of the Revolution itself, of the Terror and the guillotine, of women with the ferocity of ‘tigers’ — the tricoteuses, knitting while heads fell, of revolutionary armies, of the desecration of churches and the mass drownings (noyades) of Jean-Baptiste Carrier.


French Revolution Popular Sovereignty Political Symbol French People Jewish Question 
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  1. 1.
    In 1832, John Stuart Mill commented that it was ‘the vainest of fancies to look for any improvement in the government or in the condition of the people when even honest men are apt to consider any misconduct on the part of the Government a full justification for civil war, and when every King, every minister, considers every act of resistance to Government a justification for suspending the constitution and assuming dictatorial power’. Cited in Georgios Varouxakis, Victorian Political Thought on France and the French (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002), p. 60.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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© Gareth Stedman Jones 2009

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