History, University of Warwick
Every student of the French Revolution knows that its outbreak was the result of the staggering debt crisis of the Ancien Régime. Historians, however, have largely failed to acknowledge how debt continued to inform the Revolution’s course, content, and radicalisation. To remedy this historiographical omission, my project investigates how the politics of public debt not only prompted the outbreak of the Revolution, but also became a principal driver of revolutionary politics and the primary vehicle through which revolutionary government could assert its authority, legitimacy, and power.
In making such an argument, my project hopes to shed new light on the historical relationship between financial policy and the theory and practice of sovereignty in the eighteenth-century. In the early days of the French Revolution, revolutionaries decided not only to uphold the entirety of the Ancien Régime‘s debt, but also to enlarge it by promising to reimburse approximately 70,000 venal officeholders for the value of their abolished offices. The question, historians have asked, is why? Why not default on the debt and save themselves the expense? Whilst most scholars see this move as an ill-judged reaction to crisis, my research explores how revolutionary commitments to the debt betray their deep understanding of the connection between sovereign power and financial obligation. Sovereigns, I argue, maintain their sovereignty by managing and enforcing financial obligations. In the Old Regime, the King displayed sovereign power by cultivating financial obligations – i.e. debt relationships – with various intermediaries, and he exercised such power by reneging on his promises when the terms no longer suited him. In 1789, the King could no longer exercise this power for a variety of structural issues, leaving his entire mode of government discredited. By honouring the debt of the Old Regime, revolutionaries not only embarked on a process to overturn the King’s moribund debt-politics, but also sought to establish a sovereign of their own, the National Assembly. By predicating the Assembly’s sovereignty in its mastery over the finances, revolutionaries sought to simultaneously re-establish government power over the Nation’s creditors and foster obligations to the republican regime amongst the population at large.