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Review of C. L. James’s The French Revolution, from the New York Times (April 25, 1903)

We’ve been spending some time lately gathering material on C. L. James (1846-1911), the prolific but reclusive Anarchist pamphleteer and song-writer of Eau Claire, Wisconsin. James was something of an intellectual heavy in his day, and maintained frequent correspondence with (among others) The Alarm, Liberty, Free Society and Mother Earth, but he has since been almost entirely forgotten. Well, if the Fair Use Repository is good for anything, hopefully it is providing a platform for some diligent un-forgetting.

Along with a steady stream of pamphlets and articles, James wrote a book-length History of the French Revolution; for to-day’s post, we have a very mildly positive review of the book that ran in the New York Times, of all places, on April 25, 1903. Well, it’s certainly a kinder review than some he got in the Anarchist press. In any case, here we are.

The French Revolution

New York Times, April 25, 1903

History of the French Revolution. By C. L. James. Pp. 343. Cloth 8vo. Chicago: Abe Isaac, Jr.

A sketch of the French Revolution by a theoretical Anarchist is likely to have whatever interest attaches to a peculiar point of view. Mr. James seems to be a theoretic Anarchist, and his book has the special interest that might be expected of such a work. It is, in fact, a readable essay, for the most part moderate in expression, usually distinguished by lucidity of style, and apparently based on wide reading. After that the book is a piece of special pleading. Mr. James’s method is not to exult over the bloodshed and madness of the Revolution, rarely to defned, though often to excuse, the atrocities of the time.

The Reign of Terror he regards as a dreadful period, and the Government of that time one of the worst that the world has known, but one of the strongest. He thinks the idyllic time of the revolution was the period of a year or more before the execution of the King, when France bordered close upon true anarchy, being almost without government. This opinion, as might be expected of an Anarchist, Mr. James is fond of repeating. He also declares that the influential men of the Revolution were not Socialists or Communists. Even while he condemns the government of the Jacobins, and many of their tyrannical measures, as a consistent Anarchist must, he is anxious to find acts of theirs to praise, and he is not often struck with the absurdities of the time. But perhaps Mr. James with all his keenness is a little defective in the sense of humor.

The attitude of the author is best illustrated by concrete examples. He appreciates the virtues of Louis XVI., and thinks imprisonment would have been better than death in his case, but believing him to have been guilty of the crimes of which he was convicted, is not struck with the travesty of justice implied in a trial by Judges who were constantly under the eyes and influence of an outspoken populace bitterly hostile to the accused. The Queen he thinks to have been guilty also of treason, but he is moved to generous disgust at the revolting charges of Hébert. Nevertheless he hardly permits himself one expression of pity for her fate, though he thinks her death a political mistake. The September massacres, the atrocities of Lyons and of Nantes he does not defend, but impliedly excuses by citing parallels in the doings of settled governments. This last is his favorite method of excuse, and it is sometimes effective. He pities the Girondists, but thinks they brought upon themselves their hard fate. Of Danton’s end he says: Thus died, in the noblest of causes, the best champion of freedom whom the crisis of his time produced. Robespierre he does not defend so earnestly as do some recent students of the period, possibly because he cannot forgive Robespierre’s ambition to be dictator. Marat’s demand for 200,000 heads, though repeated in open convention, Mr. James thinks hardly more than a piece of insincere bravado. He pronounces the terrible doctor of the sewers the most misrepresented man in the revolution.

This book is well worth reading, if only that one may see how hard it is for the historian, however intelligent, to do much more than make ex parte statement of his case. It is well, however, that we should have such a statement from the revolutionary side, for the larger part of what has been written on the subject in English deals with it from the very opposite point of view.

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