Tuesday, July 17, 2018

E BOOKS FOR ANTIQUARINS VI: EDWARD GIBBON AND THE FRENCH REVOLUTION

In the absence of significant news of toy soldiers, dear readers, I will share an overdue installment in my e-books for Antiquarians series. These, if you missed the explanation, are e-books that have been scanned in their original form, rendering as close to an authentic reading experience as possible (downloaded as pdfs--or read in the reader on the Internet Archive ).  The current reading (below) may seem an unlikely tome for our purposes, but it does contain a fascinating window on the French Revolution and the Wars of the First Coalition...
The miscellaneous works of Edward Gibbon, Esq., with memoirs of his life and writings, composed by himself; illustrated from his letters, withoccasional notes and narrative by Gibbon, Edward, 1737-94: Sheffield, John Holroyd, Earl of, 1735-1821. Several versions of this excellent text are available on the Internet Archive. For this piece, I used the "Complete in One Volume" version (as per the above url). Although this series of posts is entitled "e-books" I'd like to point out that I do have my own copy of this excellent book (as with others):
The scheme of this posting has it that pertinent snapshots of the source text are integrated throughout. The intent is that clicking on the source passages will enlarge them for better reading. As for the other images, as usual, you may clix pix for big pix. But enough of background and falderol: on to the substance.


GIBBON THE HISTORIAN AS OBSERVER OF CURRENT EVENTS
Edward Gibbon, yes Edward Gibbon of the History of the Decline and Fall of Rome fame, was an expatriate Englishman living in Lucerne, Switzerland, for much of his life. The French Revolution and the Wars of the First Coalition erupted in the closing years of his life. Gibbon has a keen insight and a gift for capturing events. Thus, his memoirs and his correspondence provide a window on the times. One must add that his is an English perspective, and not one in sympathy with the turn of events in France (as the Gibbon quote below indicates).

"A PEOPLE OF SLAVES IS SUDDENLY BECOME A NATION OF TYRANTS AND CANNIBALS"

Consequences of a successful French invasion. - No. VI - plate 2d.
James Gillray, March 1798 British Museum Collection Online. Object Number 1868,0808.10382
 
We normally imagine Switzerland as a neutral bastion around which the turmoils of Europe swirl. Not so in those days: Gibbon relates the very real fears of the destabilizing threat posed by the social and political shockwaves emanating from France:
When looking for some gleam of light in the turmoil, the ascension of Francis II to Holy Roman Emperor in 1792 was grasped as a change for the better, and a portent for hope:
In the above passage from Gibbon's correspondence of April of 1792, you will note the contempt for the Revolutionary French, a sentiment that was common in the early days, as is evident in the below satirical sketch of the time by Gillray:

The "Austrian Bugaboo Funking the French Army"
James Gillray, May 1792 British Museum Collection Online. Object Number 1868,0808.6188 (Prints and Drawings)


'"While loyal honour warm'd a Fr'enchmans breast,
" The field of Battle was a glorious test;
"Nobly ambitious for his King to fight,
"To die or conquer was a Soldiers Right.
"A strange reverse the Democrats display,
"And prove the "Right of Man" - to run away -'"

A DANGEROUS LANDSCAPE
In 1792, Gibbon was desirous of making a return trip to England, but in the below May 30 correspondence to Sheffield, we see him surveying the political and social landscape of the continent...
Later that year, in August, Gibbon would write to his mother on the topic, noting that both the "German" and the "French" roads were now both untenable...
......One thing that makes the above passage really interesting is the expressed fear of falling victim to hussars, even those of the coalition--this sheds light on the idea of how far (or not) the evolution of hussars had come from them being the irregular raiders of the mid-century.
von Reilly, F.J.J.; Geschichte und bildliche Vorstellung der Regimenter des Erzhauses Oesterreich. 1796. https://books.google.com/books?id=_8zVoAEACAAJ


GREAT EXPECTATIONS
Duke of Brunswick
After Johann Georg Ziesenis - http://museum-digital.de/nat/index.php?t=objekt&oges=858, Public Domain,

All eyes and hopes were then placed on the the Duke of Brunswick, and the much anticipated march on France to rescue Louis XVI and restore order (Gillray's Austrian Bugaboo embodied that would to scatter the rabble).  In an August 1792 letter to Sheffield, Gibbon conveys this popular confidence in the outcome, suggesting that the "French Road" will soon be open:
However, as the historian who had crafted the majesterial narrative of the history of the Roman Empire, Gibbon was well versed in seeing the trajectory of history in events, and the unpredictability of outcomes. His September 12 letter to Sheffield captures the anticipation that was in the air at the time, even betraying a sense of foreboding that was not previously present:
...and shortly thereafter, on Septmber 20, the Battle of Valmy, delivered those worst fears.
Horace Vernet Copy of Jean Baptiste Mauzaisse. Battle of Valmy. Gallery of Battles, Versailles.
http://collections.chateauversailles.fr/#3d40c438-b9cb-4690-8e96-b7820ee244a6

In a letter penned on October 13, roughly one month after his foreboding letter of September 12,  Gibbon articulates frustrations over the lack of leadership among the sovereigns opposing the French.  This letter also includes an initial response what must have been the preliminary news of Valmy:  Amazement...
...note also the revised assessment of the French compared to the dismissive version of April 1792.  



VALMY AFTERSHOCKS
"The Imperial Quixote and the Generalissimo Sancho's grand, joyfull and triumphant return to Germany after the conquest of France": Satire on the revolutionary wars: the duke of Brunswick and the king of Prussia riding donkeys facing backwards, led by imperial eagle.
W. Dent Oct. 10 1792: British Museum Collection Online. Object Number 1988,1001.7 (Prints and Drawings)

Gibbon's one-word response, "Amazement!" to the news of Valmy captures the general sentiment of the time, and even of today. In a letter of October 17, 1792 to Sheffield, he extrapolates further, seeking some rational explanation for what had happened--something beyond Brunswick needing to "roll anything but a 1" (to put it in our terms):


"EVERY DOG HAS HIS DAY"
On November 10, Gibbon penned a letter on the post-Valmy consequences, the situation of Switzerland, and of coming ramifications:
...In short, all Hell had broken loose. Closer to home, he goes on to deliver a trenchant anecdote of the no-longer comic French forces that were threatening Switzerland:


REASSESSMENTS
The death of Lady Sheffield in 1793 prompted Gibbon to risk the trip to England in order to console his friend, Lord Sheffield. From Frankfort in May 1793, he sent a new assessment of the French fighting spirit--this one in terms as generous as might be expected given his opposition to their cause...
Georges Moreau de Tours - Lazare Carnot at Wattignies [1], Public Domain,
https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4263256

At the same time, he offered a troubling assessment of the Prussian fighting spirit. Which had, according to him gone
from the likes of Frederick the Great...
1904 Painting by Karl Roechling, Battle of Zorndorf, Seven Years War. Public Domain

...to something more akin to Gillray's "German Luxury"...
James Gillray, 1800. British Museum Collection Online. Object Number 1868,0808.6844 (Prints and Drawings)

In a letter written in April 1793 to an acquaintance in Florence, Gibbon assesses the unfortunate situation to date...


NEW HOPES

After Ferdinand Jagemann - www.royalcollection.org.uk/collection/422054/prince-frederick-josias-of-saxe-coburg-


In this same letter of April 1793, Gibbon goes on to focus on a new hope: the ongoing expedition of the Prince of Coburg against the French...
...in the above passage, Gibbon is referring to the then-recent victory of the Coalition over the French at the Battle of Neerwinden in March of 1793
Bildarchiv Austria. Die Bildplattform der Österreichischen Nationalbibliothek
 
Based on these events, Gibbon speculates hopefully on the future...
 ...yet he concludes with an ominous qualification:

Coburg would go on to a string of successes, only to be decisively defeated at the Battle of Fleurus in June 1794.  Napoleon's "Whiff of Grapeshot" would follow in 1795, ushering in a new era.



ENDINGS
by John Hall, after Sir Joshua Reynolds line engraving, published 1780 (1779)
NPG D2757
© National Portrait Gallery, London
Having returned to England in the Spring of 1793, Edward Gibbon's health declined. He passed away in January of 1794, being spared the final disappointment of Coburg's defeat at Fleurus. Nevertheless, his sense that the "slow" armaments of England would deliver the deadly blow to the "Gallic Hydra" turned out to be prophetic--21 years later on the battlefield of Waterloo. Only by then, the enemy was no longer Revolutionary France and the pre-revolutionary social order was beyond restoring. 


This book may be out of the norm for "hobby reading" but it has much to recommend it. 

I would offer that reading Gibbon is time well spent:


"Though I can part with land, you find that I cannot part with books"
--Gibbon to Sheffield, January 20, 1787 

6 comments:

  1. Excellent, Ed! I am unfamiliar with this work of Gibbon's but your presentation is fascinating.

    Gibbon's writing style in History of Decline and Fall of Rome is superb and one probably no less so.

    Thanks for highlighting this work.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks, Jonathan. Can't go wrong given that it's open source and available in digitally in several formats.

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  2. Interesting stuff, Ed. Thanks!

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    1. Glad it engaged you. Doing the research for this post really brought home how closely Gibbon's commentary corresponds to major events.

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  3. A very enjoyable post Ed...

    Thank you for sharing...

    All the best. Aly...

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    Replies
    1. You're welcome, Aly. An bit self-indulgent, but fun to share (then again, I suppose that defines blogging, too!).

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