Liberty or Death – the French Revolution by Peter McPhee

Reviewed by Ian Lipke

The French Revolution was never ‘over’. Its achievements and triumphs – like its deceptions and atrocities – were of a scale that made its stature unique. Its reverberations were felt across the globe after 1789 and they live with us still.

The aim of the French revolutionaries is given boldly in Peter McPhee’s Liberty or Death as the remaking of a large, diverse, absolute monarchy, notorious for its relatively few citizens who enjoyed entrenched privileges and for whom there were provincial exemptions. The keywords here are absolute monarchy, entrenched privilege, and provincial exemptions. In the Introduction where this idea is mooted, McPhee has already signaled a fresh approach. There is widespread agreement about the momentous nature of the changes but not on why the ancien regime was overthrown with such widespread support, why the revolution took the course that it did, and what, in fact, were its outcomes. William Doyle’s comment in the Literary Review that this is “the freshest general account of the Revolution to appear in a generation” is well supported.

There is a freshness about McPhee’s account. He writes as though he lived through the revolution (but, of course, that didn’t happen). His account is so fresh and authoritative because the man has spent his whole life reading about, and researching, the revolution. He produces an encyclopedic grasp of dates, movements, measures and countermeasures, and minutiae that dazzle. Incidents that in themselves are trivial are introduced in bewildering numbers on numerous occasions to support a point of view.

This is not surprising. Peter McPhee is an internationally renowned historian of modern France with a huge readership among modern Francophiles. He has published widely in magazines and books (at least four to his credit). He has been the University of Melbourne’s inaugural provost and is a professorial fellow of that university. He is a Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities and also of the Academy of Social Sciences. In 2012 he was made a Member of the Order of Australia.

McPhee writes a leisurely introduction, and tells the story of his subject, the information just rolling along with never a falter, intimate details like the froth on an ocean wave merging and submerging to be replaced in turn by others, when suddenly the reader has hit the final summary chapter without the realization that he has reached page 342.

That final chapter is solid gold. It turns out that the French Revolution had a significance to world affairs far wider than most scholars admit. For example, assumptions of citizenship and popular sovereignty have become deeply ingrained, the revolution marks the beginning of modern representative democracy (343), “when unprecedented numbers of people came to assume that public office drew its legitimacy and dignity from the remarkable act of voting rather than the centuries-old practice of appointment” (344). The abolition of seigneurialism underpinned a revolutionary change in rural social relations while “the revolution strengthened the meritocratic identification of officers” (346) in the services, and ‘reshaped every aspect of institutional and public life according to principles of rationality, uniformity and efficiency” (347). There is much more to the chapter but perhaps one point might be made. The myth that the revolution was mostly the work of the citizens of Paris is show to be untrue, not only in the final summation but also throughout the whole book where examples of revolutionary activities in Paris are met by counterexamples of just such activities in the districts or rural areas.

The revolutionaries have been described as “strong, robust, born with great energy, audacity and courage” (quoted on page 348). This is an apt description of Peter McPhee’s book. At first glance it appears as a monster of tight, compressed print in a book that will not stay open. I cursed and wrestled with the tome until the author’s writing style just carried me away. The exemplary writing is accompanied by a chronology, calendar, very detailed notes, an index, and a selection of black and white and colour prints that actually do amplify the text.

I am not at all surprised that the hardback edition, printed in 2016, is already out of print. The paperback edition will be guarded jealously by all recipients for, this is wonderfully written history.

Liberty or Death – the French Revolution


By Peter McPhee

Yale UP

ISBN: 978-0-300-22869-4

$35.00; 488pp

Scroll to Top