“Do books make revolutions?” Roger Chartier famously asked more than a quarter-century ago (Chartier, The Cultural Origins of the French Revolution, trans. Lydia G. Cochrane ). Yes, when read in certain parts of certain cities, seems to be the answer that Mike Rapport offers in his captivating new book, The Unruly City, which prompts the reader to ask a related question: Do cities make revolutions? Taking New York, London, and Paris as case studies for cities in turmoil, this book aims at detecting the impact that cityscapes had on revolutionary events and conversely the way urban physiognomy changed in the wake of revolutions. Following a fairly strict timeline, Rapport considers momentous historical episodes rather loosely connected with each other side by side: the French Revolution in Paris (counting from the disastrous end of the Seven Years’ War to the Thermidor coup of 1794); New York’s travails throughout the revolutionary period (1765–1795); and the three-decade unrest in London from the Wilkeite movements and subsequent riots (1760s–1780s) to the treason trials of 1794. The twelve chapters (four per city) describe a similar revolutionary arc. Relatively modest incidents gathered steam and peaked in tumultuous, breathtaking events, with new political configurations emerging in the aftermath once the dust settled. In each case, places for public gathering come under focus as the settings for, and enablers of, history-making political actions. The narrative is gripping; yet, fitting so many particular instances of resistance to authority into a general historical pattern proves challenging, and the reader frequently struggles to fathom what commonalities lie beneath disparate cases of public discontent. For instance, tumultuous popular cheer for John Wilkes’s brash anti-government statements (chap. 2) compares only slightly with the staring game between the king and the parlements in France (chap. 3). Both occurred over the exact same time-period (1763–1776) but while the Wilkeite movement spilled out in the streets and taverns that Rapport evokes so well, the parlements conducted their maneuvering in technical language, public support for their defiance coming in the form of pamphlets rather than street rallies. The New Yorkers’ contemporaneous fierce resistance to import duties and imperial hegemony in general presents few similarities with happenings in either Paris or London. Still, what bubbles to the surface in all three cases is a general disquiet with the status quo exacerbated by tax burdens resulting from the French and British governments’ desperate attempts to restore finances depleted by the Seven Years’ War, and, in the British case, by the American Revolutionary War as well. This was enough to make a revolution, but it deepened collective discontent. The sense of cohesion and common purpose derived from gathering in public places facilitated open interaction and eventually sparked revolutionary action. Mundane locations such as the Temple Bar in London acquired new meanings. It was there that people assembled, unafraid to speak their minds, in the ominous shadow of three spikes that displayed the heads of the principal supporters of the Jacobite Pretender Prince Charles Edward Stuart. The Temple Bar represented the freedoms of the city while the Bank of England and the Royal Exchange stood as physical reminders of its mighty, global reach. It was, therefore, a show of popular self-confidence and a warning to the authorities when, on March 22, 1769, working men shut the Temple Bar’s gates, refusing entry to more conservative and better-off citizens carrying a petition in support of the king’s authority (47). In Paris, in the summer of 1789 the Palais Royal nurtured similar audacious sentiments and became, as Rapport puts it nicely, “the perfect spot for politics alfresco” (135). For the dynamics of revolutionary action, therefore, it mattered that Palais Royal, the Bastille, and the Faubourg Saint-Antoine, home to much of the Parisian skilled trade class, were within easy reach of each other, which also explains how political mobilization shifted from Palais Royal to the more popular Faubourg Saint-Antoine after the fall of the Bastille. In New York, Burns’ Coffee House welcomed the elites protesting the Stamp Act while far less polite and more aggressive crowds gathered at the Common and took to the streets of Lower Manhattan. Eighteenth-century London, Paris, and New York come alive as the reader has the chance, under the author’s surefooted guidance, to walk with the people who made history happen, pausing at the same spots, trying to see what they saw, hear what they heard, and feel the excitement they felt as grand ideas turned into exhilarating action. Built on the premise of cross-pollination between Britain, France, and the American colonies, the book reads like a new take on the theme of Atlantic revolution, from the angle of urban topography and architecture. While the account of the events is largely a retelling of established narratives, it sheds new light on the intimate fusion between city dwellers and their environment. The book’s great strength is to make us reconsider the historical relevance of places and sites too often reduced to disembodied labels. The city empowered people and allowed the lower classes to use political agency in spectacular ways, to the frequent annoyance, when not alarm, of the elites. At the same time, Rapport is not overstating the case: topography was not history, but it did participate in the making of history. The book is a pleasure to read and a welcome addition to the literature on the revolutionary era across the Atlantic. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press.
The American Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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