BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Simon Schama, author of "Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution," why should Americans care about what happened in the French Revolution?
SIMON SCHAMA (Author, "Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution"): There are all kinds of reasons. In the first place, the history of France and the United States are very closely twinned together at this time. Lafayette discovers freedom in his momentous journey to America in the war and brings back some of that spirit of freedom, some of that determination to found a new kind of political world, to France. He wasn't the only one either. There are a whole group of young, rich, well-educated nobles who go out and fight in the American war -- a man called Alexandre de Lameth, for example -- who come back and become really very determined revolutionaries.
I think, though, there is actually not just a historical reason. There is a present-day reason. It takes no very profound insight to see that the rest of what remains of this century, the world is going to be very exercised by the fate of freedom, not only in the West either. I think a lot hinges on the road to democracy that's attempted in countries around the world, most notably in, one might say, post-revolutionary empires like China and Russia. There's a lot to be learned from what the French suffered, in my view, in the Revolution about things to avoid as well as things to embrace.
LAMB: Here is a shot of the cover of your book. You see it in almost every bookstore. What are we looking at on the cover?
SCHAMA: You're looking at a miniature model of the Bastille carried by four men who were called the Apostles of Liberty." There were in fact 80 plus of these people attired with the bonnet of liberty and they had the hat of liberty on their head and the striped trousers of the sans-culottes. Sans-culottes simply means not trouserless, as some people think it does, but it means without stockings. If you were sans-culottes it meant you wore these kinds of tight trousers, and you could be deemed to be one of the people. What counts about the image and what I try making something of in the book is that it wasn't enough for great events like the storming of the Bastille to happen in Paris. The Revolution was very conscious that these had to be communicated.
We're at the beginning of a new kind of political world, a world that's really wrapped up in symbol and emotive things like a cockade in flags. There was a brilliant man called Palloy, who had the contract to demolish the Bastille, who managed to be both an entrepreneur and a great communicator at the same time. What he did was to send these Apostles of Liberty around France to each of the 83 departments, the regions of France, with a kind of Bastille kit. They had the model that you see on the jacket, they had an account of the story of what had happened on the 14th of July, and they even sometimes had actors to explain the events and the great people of the day.
So I wanted the title of the book to be both a kind of revolutionary greeting as well as a description. "Citizens" is an account of the fundamental change from a subject, someone who is in theory at the mercy of an absolute, omnipotent king, into a citizen, someone who governs themselves, as the theory. But, secondly, I wanted it to be "Citizens" with a kind of implicit exclamation mark, the great greeting of the Revolution. The book is about public utterances, the way in which the public world of politics invades the private world, so there are both those senses.
LAMB: When did you first get the idea that you wanted to write a book about the French Revolution?
SCHAMA: A long, long time ago, in fact. This is sort of a silly word, training. I think of auto mechanics being trained. Historians simply learned it on the job. In so far as I was trained at graduate school, I was really trained to be a French historian. My first book, which came out in 1977, an age ago it seems to be, was meant to be about what happens to revolutions when they go imperialist, when they decide to become missionary, proclaim their ideals to the rest of the world but also to act on them in the shape of armies.
I was interested in the way the French behaved when they started to be in other people's countries -- Holland, Italy, Switzerland and so on. In doing that, I spent a year in Paris in the national archives and thought that that was the topic I was going to do. The year I was sort of making up my mind was 1968, and I had been to Prague, in '65, had a lot of friends in Czechoslovakia. Just reading in the archives and thinking about Czechoslovakia, I must say I felt, God, what happens to revolutions when they become bullies is terribly depressing and terribly predictable. It's fraternity on the terms of the biggest brother. They turn into dictatorships, they annex countries. The Warsaw Pact's code word at the time was fraternal help to Czechoslovakia.
So I thought why not switch the topic and work on the little country that's on the receiving end of all this very heavy good will, in my case, the Dutch. So, not to be long-winded about it, I became a Dutch historian for a long time after that. But the French part of it always intrigued me. I gave lectures at Cambridge in England on France. I never let go of the French side. I had a publisher in England who said to me as I was finishing my last book on Holland -- "How about writing a book on the French Revolution for the bicentennial year?" I said, "There are thousands of books on the French Revolution. The world does not need another book on the French Revolution."
"Listen," he said to me, clever man, "Supposing you had an aunt who knew nothing about the French Revolution, knew nothing about the 18th century, and wanted a history as a great story, what would you give her?" I said, "You have a point." I had been going around preaching that historians ought to tell more stories and stop talking to other historians. So he said, "Why don't you stop talking about it and try to."
Once I started to do it, it all came tumbling out. I did a lot more research. It was a book that really kind of just came pouring out of me, for better or worse, and has the virtues and vices of a literary impulse.
LAMB: From when to when did you actually physically write it?
SCHAMA: It took nearly two years. It was finished in '88, so I suppose between the end of '86 and the fall of '88.
LAMB: Where did you write it?
SCHAMA: I wrote some of it in France, I wrote some of it overlooking Lake Tahoe, an improbable place, but I wrote quite a bit of it in France. I wrote a lot of it at home in Lexington, Massachusetts., a place important for another revolution where the British Empire started to come unglued. Harvard has a magnificent French revolutionary collection, in fact, in the library. There was this wonderful person called Archibald Cary Coolidge, who was the university librarian at Harvard in the 1920s, and he was a kind of intellectual robber baron. Harvard had lots of money then, not that it's completely broke now. He said, 1921 will be Portugal year. He went off to Portugal and to the University of Coimbra and bought everything he could lay his hands on. 1925 or thereabouts was France year, and he bought a collection of 50,000 books, newspapers, documents, posters, letters, and that helped me a good deal to do some of the work, at least in research at Harvard.
LAMB: This book has done well.
SCHAMA: That's kind of you to say that.
LAMB: How many printings?
SCHAMA: It's, I think, on is sixth, actually.
LAMB: How many books is that?
SCHAMA: It's about 100,000.
LAMB: How many books a year sell 100,000?
SCHAMA: Oh, I think more than you'd suppose, A How to Be Rich, How to Be Thin, How to Be Sexy. There must be lots of books.
LAMB: How many books that go into the deep history?
SCHAMA: Not so many, and I think in fact there could be more. I mean, James McPherson's wonderful book on the American Civil War, "Battle Cry of Freedom," was a best seller; Paul Kennedy's book was a best seller; Barbara Tuchman absolutely, correctly was an instant best seller in almost everything she did. I don't really want to flash myself. There is an enormous hunger, not only in America either, for good, well-written narrative history. Historians in universities for a long time have sneered at this, have turned their back on it and said, "If you write well you must have something to hide." It's kind of an inferior level of discourse -- journalism. There's a wonderful phrase in a very condescending review in the New York Review of Books, where my reviewer, who was extremely critical, said, Schama stoops to low journalistic devices in order to arrest the attention of his readers. That was a very wicked thing to do. How dare I? I'm trying to wrest the attention of my readers; it's much better then if they fall asleep. There are a lot of people, contrary to popular impression, who actually write very well in university departments, but they just don't feel they're permitted to relax somewhat and write history as a story and as account of human experiences.
LAMB: You no doubt have seen most of the reviews on this book.
LAMB: The ones the publisher sends along are all favorable.
SCHAMA: Needless to say.
LAMB: Any bad ones?
SCHAMA: Oh, sure.
LAMB: What do they say?
SCHAMA: Both in America and in Britain, I mean, I've been very kindly treated, but there are two hostile lines. The one I really mind, I suppose, and which makes me feel depressed is the line which says rather in the way I've just been talking to you, "You can't have a narrative and make an argument. The two simply don't go together. If you want to make an argument in a book, you must adopt what's called analytical history. You begin with a phrase like more light will be shed. Above all, you must begin in this analytical mode with preferably a fairly long recitation on what other historians have thought before you."
Buggins has thesis B; Juggins revised Buggins; I, Muggins, will revise both Juggins and Buggins. So it's terribly incestuous, to begin with, but that is the kind of required canonical model you're supposed to do it in. In fact, the review I just mentioned in the New York Review of Books did in fact say it confused the reader to try and have an argument and a story at the same time. The second line, which is more, I think, acceptably critical, that's to say there's a fair point, says you can have the story and you can make an argument. It's just that the argument is crazy.
By seeing the world of Louis XVI as a dynamic world, not the kind of fossilized, feudal world, Schama disappears the reason for revolution. In fact, I don't think I disappear it. It's another story. But it has serious differences of opinion with me. There's another view that says we're absolutely correct to celebrate the revolution, not just commemorate it, because it is the birth of democracy. Without it liberty and equality would not have the resonance in the world that they do today. That's a point of view I have an argument with.
LAMB: I know you could take about three days to answer this question . . .
SCHAMA: I won't, I promise.
LAMB: In a capsule. Maybe it's an unfair question. What would be the difference between the American Revolution, the French Revolution and what we saw recently in China?
SCHAMA: Be merciful to me. Let me take the first question, the America versus France, first. There are two crucial differences. One is a piece of luck, and the other is a piece of wisdom, which I think made the American Revolution a more enduring and happier experience. After all, our Constitution has lasted. The French constitution absolutely did not last. The piece of luck is the Atlantic Ocean. Young America did not feel, after the end of the war with the British, that it was going to be invaded from Canada, not for quite some time, not ever really. So none of the jitters which instantly occurred in France really took place. The Atlantic Ocean was a huge relaxer really. No matter how badly the Tories were treated in America, they weren't hunted down in the way in which priests and aristocrats were hunted down in France.
In France, from day one rumors flew that the queen's brother, the emperor of Austria, was getting an army together in Belgium, which belonged to Austria then, to march on Paris. The British had landed in Bordeaux, the Prussians were about to bomb, the Germans were going to bomb Paris from Montmartre. So there was a kind of siege mentality enemies without, and there were going to be enemies within. So that's the luck.
However, when all is said and done, there's a difference in wisdom between what happened in America and France, in my view. The Founding Fathers, and I always think mostly in 1789 of Madison, who in The Federalist Paper No. 10, says, It will be wonderful if we were all unselfish, altruistic, noble creatures. Sorry, everybody. The bad news is that when you have a free political society -- "factions" as he called them" are going to form what we would call parties, interest groups. The job of government is to somehow arbitrate these interest groups so that they can argue with each other without destroying the Union. So it's a kind of low-voltage theory of what government can and cannot do.
At the very same time in France, some members of the National Assembly are putting an equivalent to that Madisonian view; in fact, they are talking to Jefferson in Paris and saying, AWhat we need in France is a kind of system of checks and balances, strong executive. Look at George Washington," a kind of independent court, something like America, something like an ideal version of the British constitution. Absolutely out of the question, say the majority in the National Assembly. To have a divided constitution is to admit surrender before we start. We want unity. Power has gone from the king to the people; it will never be divided again. So we will have a single legislature, not a divided legislature, and the king, the executive power, must be the obedient limb of the legislature. So from the beginning they were so worried about Louis XVI and the king, they said, "Better a very unstable executive than a tyrant." So by going for broke, by absolutely constructing a completely new society, wiping out everything that had gone before, they put all their money on being able to create a new kind of man, with, in my view, the inevitable result.
I did take almost three days. Let's just talk for just briefly about China. There are going to be arguments. People say to me all the time, You're very grim about revolution. Wasn't the role of the students in Tiananmen Square revolutionary? I reply to that, that in some senses it was a peaceful revolution. Until the very last, it was the sort of thing you see at the beginning of 1789 rather than when the blood starts to happen. The people who shed blood in Tiananmen Square were the inheritors of revolutionary logic. Deng Xiaoping's motto is "Unity of mind." He says to the Chinese people, "You have vested the sovereignty of the people in me." I will tell you who the real citizens are and who are the traitors, who are the brigands, who are the hooligans. That is in direct descent from revolutionary rhetoric.
LAMB: America's had one Constitution since 1787.
LAMB: How many has France had?
SCHAMA: Oh, my God. OK, we'll have to do some counting on hands here,
which gives you a short answer. 1791, 1795, 1799, 1802, 1814, 1830, 1848, 1851,
1870, that's a great success, eventually 1877; that's the Third Republic 1940,
1945 and the Fifth Republic. I think I've gone up to seven or eight, actually.
LAMB: What were the five republics?
SCHAMA: The First Republic is the republic that follows the dethronement of
Louis XVI, the summer and autumn of 1792. He then is tried for betraying the
Revolution, and his head is chopped off in January of 1793. However, when
that republic takes place they want to have a new constitution because the first
constitution of the Revolution had been a constitutional monarchy. They'd
tried to really accept Louis XVI. So 1791, constitutional monarchy goes out -- the republic comes in. We've really got two there. 1795, after the Jacobins and
Robespierre are done away with, the man who wrote this unity stuff in '89, a
man called the Abb's, came and said, "Awfully sorry, citizens, I made a
dreadful mistake. We want a kind of dispersed constitution." So he writes one
of those. This is a failure because it creates chaos in France.
Napoleon comes in 1799, creates something called the Consulate. I'm going to go on for a long time. The real message of this is that the 19th century, the 1800s, repeat an attempt to try and reproduce the pure possibilities of democracy, which
people saw frustrated, for whatever reasons, in the very first revolution. The
Fifth Republic, the one that we're living with now, really I think does have the
best chance of being extremely enduring. The reason is that it really has gone
back to the kind of revolution which got lost in 1789. Francois Mitterrand is, to
all intents and purposes, a constitutional monarch. In fact, he's affectionately known as "le roi," usually in France right now because he's obsessed with
monuments and he doesn't have to be reelected. But he presides over a
constitution in which there are lots of checks and balances built in. There's
even a kind of supreme court for the first time in French history, called the
Constitutional Council, whose job it is to monitor both the president and the
LAMB: How long has this current government -- the way this constitution ...
SCHAMA: The Fifth Republic.
LAMB: ... Fifth Republic been in ...
SCHAMA: I'm going to get into trouble because I'm typically bad with 20th
century dates. I think the constitution was passed in 1960. I think that's the
right date, but don't hold me to that. It was General de Gaulle's constitution, and as such it was thought of as something concentrated on one man, but since
deGaulle's death it's become a wonderfully pluralist lesson.
LAMB: Let me show the audience this book. The publisher of the book . . .
SCHAMA: Alfred Knopf.
LAMB: Is it pronounced Knopf [Ka-nopf]?
SCHAMA: Knopf [Ka-nopf], yes.
LAMB: Why did you pick that publisher?
SCHAMA: Very sweetly they picked me a long time ago. I've published four
books, all with Knopf.
LAMB: Are they good?
SCHAMA: They're wonderful, yes. They really are.
LAMB: What do you most like about your publisher?
SCHAMA: They're friends. The only thing I have against them is that they
absolutely refuse to criticize me. There were some chapters, the beginning of
the book, which I had my doubts about -- I think works quite well, the elephant
and so on which I implored them for lots more criticism than they were willing to give me, in fact, actually. But they produce physically beautiful books. Ever since I was a child, I was sort of a book sniffer when I was a kid. I used to like the smell of the paper of books, a strange perversion, no doubt. I sort of liked the feel and the physical aspects of books; there is the elephant indeed.
LAMB: We'll get a shot of this. Better not let you go by without telling us what this elephant is.
SCHAMA: I'll tell you what the elephant is. I wanted to start the book with a
little discussion about memory, about what it is to remember events. I started,
paradoxically, not literally about memory but about an attempt to forget.
Napoleon for most of his career didn't really much like the fact that he was
tagged with being a sort of son of the Revolution. So he particularly got antsy
about the Bastille. The area where the Bastille had been after it was
demolished was a huge, empty kind of bog hole. It was kind of a sink hole,
literally sinking in with mud and rain.
He said -- If you see empty space they're going to think about the Bastille, they're going to think about riots. I don't want anyone rioting against me, Napoleon. What I will do, I will give them something out of ancient Rome. My armies have conquered the world. I'll give them an image of conquest. He said to his advisers, Give me something out of Alexander the Great or Hannibal. There's the Bastille, yes, as it's being knocked down, in a wonderful painting in the Musee Carnavalet.
He said give me something -- and they came up with this extraordinary image of an elephant. Napoleon said -- great, we'll make the elephant 50, 60 feet high, and we'll build it out of the ruins of cannon taken from the British and the Spanish and the Austrians. Trouble was, rather wonderful piece of mockery of pretentiousness, they finally got around to try and build it in 1813.
You probably remember, Brian, 1813's a very bad year for Napoleon. He's losing battles, at last. He's lost the War of 1812. There is no money and there is no cannon to spare, so they built it in plaster of paris. They built it in kind of plaster work. They built the model, and this was the drawing which was provided in the model. No sooner than he put it up it began to kind of fall down. Nobody wanted to knock it down, because they were afraid of being dishonorable to France, so it just kind of crumbled. A tusk fell off and a leg fell off, and a man was actually lodged in one of the legs who was the concierge or the caretaker. He was called the concierge of the elephant. They finally knock it down in the middle of the 19th century before the whole thing falls down.
LAMB: You were born in London.
LAMB: And now you're at Harvard.
LAMB: What happened in between?
SCHAMA: I was born actually on a historically very inauspicious night. I was
born on the night that the Allies bombed Dresden. If you've read Slaughterhouse Five, you know it was a night of catastrophe really. I was born actually in a street which was itself bombed, not in the blitz. You remember there was a rocket attack from Germany in 1945 with the V-2s. In fact, someone was looking after my interest because the houses on both sides were bombed. Nothing else was. I managed to escape. I grew up in a little fishing town and then moved to London. I was in Cambridge in the '60s when swinging Britain was all the rage. I stayed at Cambridge in England for 13 years. I did a little bit of journalism, which some of my critical colleagues says shows in what I write. But I loved the bit of journalism I did with the London Sunday Times while I was being a young teaching fellow at Cambridge.
I moved to Oxford, and Harvard asked me to come and give some lectures.
That was when I was working on my project on Dutch painting and Dutch
culture in the golden age, in the 1600s. I loved Harvard. One had the freedom
to teach what one wanted to out of one's own enthusiasms, whatever they
were, and to play around. I was a big kind of -- play around with artistry, with
anthropology, a lot of stuff that you weren't supposed to teach at Oxford at all. So Harvard asked me if I wanted to come. I'm from one of those families -- my
mother's family in particular were Jews who came out of Russia at the time of
the pogroms, and three of them went to America. My grandfather failed to get
back on the ship and stayed in Britain, but it meant I have a lot of American family and went to see them when I was young and I've always been rather besotted with America.
LAMB: Are you here to stay?
SCHAMA: Yes, yes, yes.
LAMB: Citizen of the country?
SCHAMA: I'm not. There is so much, you know. I was reminded of this by
Olivier's death the other day. He meant a lot to me when I was a kid. My dad
used to take me to see him almost every week at the Old Vic theater. There are
things I miss about not being in England, and great Shakespearean rhetoric is,
I think, probably one of them. But I hate more being disfranchised, so I think
I'm going to almost certainly take the plunge. I want to be part of the political
system where I know I'm going to in all likelihood spend the rest of my life.
LAMB: How long have you been in the United States?
SCHAMA: Ten years. It's been nearly 10 years. It's time I got my vote back.
LAMB: I've read this in some of the reviews. Do you consider yourself a political
SCHAMA: No. Not at all. I know, it comes as a big surprise. I don't however think that because I am not a political conservative, I'm one of that vanishing
breed -- an unrepentant liberal. To dare to say that revolutions on the
whole have been a bad, with the exception of the American Revolution, which
did indeed work out absolutely to create a new pluralist democracy. But the
line of revolution from France to Russia to China has really not made the
world a happier place. I think it's absolutely essential for the self-respect of
liberals to actually stare that issue in the face and not to say, "Oh, my goodness, if we feel a little bleak about the French Revolution, we're betraying liberalism." I think is sort of preposterous piece of self-delusion. So I'm sort of rather maverick liberal, I suppose, sort of unpredictable in that way.
LAMB: Is there an American politician that you would feel comfortable following
or at least agreeing with?
SCHAMA: That's interesting. On the whole, I would certainly vote for Thomas
Jefferson. I can say that actually. I wish I could see his like actually around. I
don't know. I certainly think the ostensible custodians of American liberalism
in the Democratic party have done a perfectly miserable job of actually
articulating things which distinguish themselves quite properly from the
noblest statements of liberalism come from what is now the minority on the
Supreme Court, with whom I don't always agree, actually on specific issues,
but I thought ...
LAMB: A William Brennan type?
SCHAMA: Yes, I thought actually of Harry Blackmun's dissent was incredibly
moving and eloquent statement of classical liberal doctrine, not at all interventionist. Liberalism doesn't necessarily mean interventionism; it means
really, I think, recovering some of the intention of the Founding Fathers. So I'm
waiting to hear that voice. I wish I heard it a bit more clearly.
LAMB: How has this book "Citizens" changed your life?
SCHAMA: It's done unpredictable things. You find out among people who
you thought actually were your peers and friends and colleagues, you find out
things probably you'd rather not know about people who are much angrier
with you for doing what we were just talking about, because they take one to
be betraying some sort of ideology to which one's . . .
LAMB: Really personally angry with you?
SCHAMA: Turning their back on me, actually literally, physically turning their
back on me in some cases.
LAMB: Really? Fellow historians?
SCHAMA: Yes. Not only fellow historians. I have very good friends who
disagree with me very bitterly over this but remain friends and are absolutely clear about the limits of our disagreement. Others with whom I'm probably not
quite so much friends but who have been really, shall we say extremely
combative, will go away.
LAMB: What does that say about the profession of a historian?
SCHAMA: It says it feels insecure. Inevitably I'm going to fall into the trap of
sounding pretentiously conceited about this which I really don't want to do,
but I think some of what those sins are, are actually coming into the
Revolution. A lot of people have forgotten that I worked on this French history
a long time ago, so they see me coming from Holland in the 1600s and
suddenly, like a kind of carpetbagger arriving on the scene and say, "Out of
the way, fellows, I will now tell you how to do the French Revolution."
That is neither true nor certainly not how I saw myself doing, but that in a sense of the historical guild where you're supposed to spend a long time working within one field and not roaming around in this intellectually nomadic way that I sort of habitually do, so I wasn't supposed to do that. But also there's a sense that not only does he do this and he in some sense is a kind of party pooper of the bicentennial, but he's also doing this and tens of thousands of people are reading this stuff. So there's all that put together makes people sometimes quite upset with me.
LAMB: From your experience do most people who sit down and read your book or any book that you write think about your background, your political feelings,
or do they just read it and take it?
SCHAMA: Yes, they read it and take it.
LAMB: Does that disturb you?
SCHAMA: Some of the most interesting reviews have sort of alerted people
not to my political background but have said, "Look, you better know this is a
quite interesting book, but it's one point of view." And ...
LAMB: Let me interrupt you. All the other points of view, then, on the other side of this -- I want to get back to what the issue is. Is Simon Schama on one side and everybody else on the other?
SCHAMA: Absolutely not. Many of the things that are being said in this book are also said by the greatest living French historian of the Revolution, in my view, a man called Francois Furet, who's become correctly the great historical guru in France. The fundamental issue is this: Did the actual experience of the French Revolution realize, fulfill, or did it damage what was set out in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen? Did it actually fulfill the promise of freedom" freedom of press, freedom of person, due process under the law, or did it actually violate those things? Nobody disagrees as far as I know except people on the extreme right and extreme left that what was said in the Declaration of the Rights of Man, as in our Bill of Rights and the Bill of Rights of Virginia of 1776, nobody disputes the splendor of what was said.
The issue is whether revolutionary politics, this kind of politics of ecstasy and fear,
was more likely to secure those freedoms or not. The people who want to argue with me say, "Take the Revolution warts and all. It may have had its excesses, it may have had its bloodshed, but it fundamentally brought a true democratic freedom into the world." My view is that it doesn't do that. It actually seriously damages the freedoms it's supposed to sustain, and that is a really clear division. In France there are now a strong body of opinion that has an identical view to me. But the French find it themselves easier to take from somebody of their own country than from me.
LAMB: Who wrote the Declaration of the Rights of Man?
SCHAMA: It was by many hands, actually. The first suggestion is Jefferson's, actually, as far as I know. In June it's promulgated on August 2 ...
SCHAMA: It's promulgated by the National Assembly. It's published on August the 26th. What happens between June and August is the story of its transformation. Jefferson proposed, I think thinking of the Virginia Bill of Rights in particular, he said, "Look, there's a way out, what seemed to be this impasse between the king and the National Assembly." He said, "Why doesn't the king come out with this wonderful Declaration of the Rights" -- He was saying it to Lafayette, by the way, who was then in the National Assembly. What a good idea. The king was not in the declaration business at that stage, but then Lafayette gets to work, and Lafayette produces his version of the Declaration of Rights on July 11, three days before the Bastille falls. It's sort of very loose and really very interesting document. But after the Bastille has fallen, after there's blood in the streets of Paris, the climate is changed and instead of a Declaration of Rights being kind of an instrument of conciliation, it's conceived by the majority in the National Assembly as a way to lock the king into a kind of constitutional position, to make him unthreatening.
So what is kind of ominous about the final version of the Declaration of the Rights, which, as I say, is by many, many hands, it's difficult, really, to sort out
individual responsibility. If there was one person, he would be called, I suppose, who's so important was a man called the Abb's. He was a retired ex-priest, very clever, brilliant but rather icy intellect. He had written a pamphlet at the end of 1788 called "What Is the Third Estate?" which was the most radical and really brilliantly written of all the documents of the time. It begins, "What is the Third Estate? What has it been? Nothing? What is it? Everything. What does it seek to be? Something." It was a wonderful rhetorical beginning. He was very brilliant.
The view at the time of the Declaration was that all power resides in the nation. It should all be very concentrated in the nation and there should be no division between its parts. That was really the view that prevailed. If you look at the articles of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, it's very interesting because they're going in the opposite direction to the Bill of Rights in the United States. The Bill of Rights is designed as an amendment to protect absolutely individual freedoms. The articles of the Rights of Man, for example, the one which talks about freedom of press and freedom of expression says these freedoms are guaranteed sacred, providing they are not abused. It left it to future governments and a future penal code to determine what constituted abuse.
Freedom from arbitrary arrest, guaranteed due process under the law -- go on to the next line; it says, However, when a citizen is summoned before a tribunal, to resist or object constitutes itself a crime. So there are a lot of very heavy reservations in the eventual document.
LAMB: We're going to go over to Paris and Strasbourg in October and November ...
SCHAMA: Oh, wonderful.
LAMB: ... for the purpose of trying to get a sense of the comparative forms of
government between France, the European Community and the United States.
From what you know of the French government today, what are the major
differences between the way France is governed and the way the United States
is governed? House, Senate, National Assembly, Senate, presidency in both countries?
SCHAMA: Yes, there is. That's right. Presidency really is -- they're not unlike
each other actually. They have a great deal of ceremonial authority. The prestige of the presidency is all-important. They both have a kind of veto power. They both appoint ministers. A major difference, however, is that the Cabinet in France, as in a number of other constitutional systems in Europe, has to appear before the legislature. They have to be members of the legislature. So the president cannot choose people from business or government. They're not his own men. They in some sense have an identity in the legislature as well as in the government. In fact, the most marvelous testimony to the versatility of the Fifth Republic constitution, present constitution, is when Monsieur Mitterrand was still in power but he lost the
parliamentary election so that the majority inside the legislature were conservative, so he was really required to call on Monsieur Chirac, who had a completely different view.
LAMB: Mayor of Paris?
SCHAMA: Had been the mayor of Paris and still was, actually, at that moment. But then they went into this period of so-called cohabitation, and people were predicting catastrophic consequences -- there will be no government; there will be paralysis. There was not. There was not. Now Monsieur Mitterrand is back again with a socialist government. The voting system is such in France that there has to be some sort of coalition very often.
LAMB: What about the simple things? And they may not be so simple. Seven-year
term for the president of France, four years here.
SCHAMA: That's right.
LAMB: Can he be reelected in France as many times?
SCHAMA: I'm not sure. Obviously, Mitterrand's been elected for a second term. Can he be? I don't think he can be elected for a third term. That is the same.
LAMB: Would you consider that a major difference?
SCHAMA: Between seven and four years.
LAMB: If you could serve 14 years?
SCHAMA: Yes, absolutely. Someone who has the phenomenal political acumen, which nobody quite realized when he was in opposition. Mitterrand was de Gaulle's nemesis. De Gaulle wanted to keep Mitterrand out of power for as long as he lived, and he was successful. No one really understood how brilliantly, instinctively Mitterrand could incarnate, sort of personify certain qualities, which are true of many parts of France, irrespective of people's formal political allegiance.
There's something stately and slow and earthy about Mitterrand. He was called in the last elections Uncle Francois. And he had this immensely avuncular, stolid air.
Chirac, in contrast, was Mr. Public Relations. I remember probably the most
misjudged piece of political advertising in all of postwar European history was
a kind of poster which showed -- it could either be a sunset or a sunrise, but it
was meant to be a sunrise. It had nothing else on it, not Chirac's face, no mention of Chirac. It just said, The Future " venir. You were supposed to vote for the future, whereas Mitterrand's face was everywhere. It was on the television, it was on the signs and he knew exactly how to appeal to a French longing to have someone slightly doe-like, slightly slow, slightly calming, with slight intellectual pretensions. They love that too.
LAMB: Let me ask you about a couple of other differences. The senators are elected for nine years; ours are elected for six.
SCHAMA: Yes, that's right.
LAMB: But members of the National Assembly are elected for five years; ours are
elected for two.
LAMB: Do those things matter?
SCHAMA: Yes, it all creates -- I think really that French politicians spend more
time governing and less time on the hustings. They're not really concerned
with the next election campaign almost as soon as their seat is ...
LAMB: Did all this survive the last 200 years or are these things that were changed as the years went by?
SCHAMA: This is a totally different system from anything that's been tried in
the last 200 years. The next best success was the constitution of the Third Republic which lasted from 1877 to 1940 when France collapsed against the Germans. That was really quite successful, one has to say, but it had a completely impotent president. The president was a purely ceremonial figure in that long period, so power was controlled by politicians inside the assembly.
LAMB: One last comparative question -- the press. Can you write and say anything you want to in France today?
SCHAMA: Yes, you can. It was not always the case, particularly in the period
of General de Gaulle's ascendancy. There was a lot of vile, of mockery. There's a
wonderful satirical journal called the "Liberated Duck." This was tremendously,
vitriolicly wry about General de Gaulle.
But nonetheless, if you were actually in the main stream of politics, until the very end it was a little more conservative. That is certainly not the case now. There is a very wide spectrum of press opinion. Television, I would say, is still probably more restrained than in this country. There is not the developed system of congressional committees in France, so the sense of relentless accountability, which I think is actually a great virtue in our system, is still not as developed in France. There is much stronger apparatus of state bureaucratic power in France.
LAMB: The dedication of this book is for ...
SCHAMA: The man who taught me.
LAMB: ... Jack Plumb. Who is he?
SCHAMA: Jack Plumb now is Sir John Plumb, actually. He was a great historian,
is a great historian of 18th century England, wrote a wonderful biography of Britain's most successful prime minister in the early 18th century, Sir Robert Walpole. More important than that, he's also written about the Italian Renaissance and has written marvelous things on British history, but why he remains a great mentor of mine, he really taught me that history ought to try to be an art, not a science, that it is no grave sin to try and write as well as you possibly can and, above all, to try and let the imagination be a genuinely creative part of reconstructing past worlds. He is in his 70s now, and he's spry and tremendously robust, and he's rather a wonderful person. He taught in America in the '60s at Columbia.
LAMB: Your book was chosen as a selection for the Book of the Month Club. How does that work?
SCHAMA: It's a very mysterious process. You don't ask them, although you
would like to -- they simply let you know. They're a famous group of five
judges, and they meet every month over lunch in the Book of the Month Club.
I know this because they're nice enough to have an authors lunch every
month. They had one for me. They meet in secrecy and grandeur, and it's a
great tradition. It's been going on for a long time. It's terribly important for the
book trade, not only for authors, because if you are a main selection it sort of
signals for book sellers to order up, and they do. I felt very happy about it
because I felt that there was a good chance that this book would get into the
hands not just of people who knew a lot about history already but people
simply who wanted to dwell in the past for a while.
LAMB: Is there any politics around the selection for Book of the Month Club?
SCHAMA: If there is, I know nothing about it, I have to say. What institution does not have politics in selections?
LAMB: Maybe I ought to ask it better. The politics of the book itself and your
SCHAMA: A lot of people know I'm not a conservative, but the book seems to
some people to be conservative, and what it has to say about the Revolution is in some respects conservative. But they were very nice, and what may have been a help is that they chose my last book, which is in a sense apolitical -- it was about Holland in the 1600s -- not as a main selection, but that it was an alternate selection probably helped them look more kindly. I think they were looking for something that their readers would enjoy. I hope so, anyway. I don't think politics played a crucial part of it.
LAMB: What's your next book?
SCHAMA: I think my next book is going to be something completely different. I would like to write a book about landscape. It's a book really about the way in which different kinds of landscape have found an echo in arts, in music, in painting and in politics. Let me give you one example because people are
saying, "What? What does he mean?" The forest for a long time in the West
was associated with freedom, the myth of Robin Hood. The Germans in the
18th century saw Gothic architecture as the expression of a kind of freedom in
opposition to classical architecture, which was seen as the architecture of Rome
and the state. What I would like to do is kind of play -- one essay will be about
the forest, one about mountains and one about rivers -- about the way in which
history and culture and our own contemporary sensibilities, the way we respond to different kinds of landscapes, that the importance of landscape for our sensibility.
I've sort of done the piece on the forest, in fact, and it ends with the death -- the Black Forest is now dying in Germany -- it's absolutely the place where many of these myths begin. The Schwarzwald is now dying of industrial pollution. Someone said, "Oh, Simon, it's your 'green' book." I didn't think of it like that, but I'm very exercised by these ecological ...
LAMB: Do you think you can sell it?
SCHAMA: Who knows? We'll see.
LAMB: Will Knopf publish it?
SCHAMA: Knopf, I think, will probably publish it. I certainly hope so. It's a
possibility it might be done together with some television films which would, I
hope, be very beautiful, if that can happen.
LAMB: As you do these books do you still teach?
SCHAMA: Yes, you bet. This one was written with a year off of leave from Harvard, but apart from that I'm the hamster on the treadmill. Like hamsters,
I'm quite happy on the treadmill. I enjoy teaching a lot.
LAMB: What year student do you teach?
SCHAMA: Oh, I teach all kinds, from freshmen to graduate students. I would
not want it any other way. With graduate students there's a tremendous kind
of intensity of research enthusiasms and a real scholarly dialogue, and that's wonderful, but they're already anxious and see themselves as somehow
professional scholars. With freshmen and younger undergraduates, they're
coming in absolutely wonderful, transparent vessels and say, "Fill me up with
knowledge," and we do our best.
LAMB: One of the more interesting illustrations, at least for me, in this book was
this one right here. Who is this?
SCHAMA: This is Benjamin Franklin. It was done a woman called Marguerite in company with her great teacher and possibly her lover, the French painter Fragonard. It's a testimony to Franklin's genius. There is a figure of Fame flying above Franklin and Tyranny down there in the shape of the British Empire is being done to death by this very ferociously muscled Spirit of Liberty. The key image I drew attention to in the book, which I still am very fond of is this, the lightning bolt. The French were very taken with Franklin's discovery of electricity and of lightning, and they came to associate lightning and liberty. They liked to describe the Revolution as a force of nature, something which generated fantastic light and power. Another image they liked was indeed light. The old regime was darkness and secrecy and despotism; it was a prison cell like the Bastille. The Revolution would shine a brilliant light into it. So the sense also that a revolution is like an electric charge -- it literally electrifies the people who are part of it -- was a wonderful way to describe really the excitement of being in a revolution. But, you know, electricity can hurt you if you're not prepared to conduct it wisely.
LAMB: Back in those years, 1789 and our independence in 1776, who influenced whom?
SCHAMA: You mean, in between America and between Americans and France? It was genuinely a two-way thing. As we said I think at the beginning that really a very important group of young, liberal aristocrats like Lafayette, a friend and in fact in-law, kind of kindred through marriage of Lafayette's called the Vicomte de Noailles, a family that's still very powerful and famous in France today; Noailles is an extraordinary person. On August the 4th, 1789, this rich aristocrat, although in fact he does not have big, baronial estates, but he gets up in the National Assembly and says, "As an aristocrat I hereby renounce all my feudal titles, all my baronial rights. Peasants, you don't have to bring me four cart loads of turnips at Christmas. Forget it all. I, like you, will be a citizen."
I think that young generation of French aristocrats get from America the sense that they no longer want to be an elite through birth and privilege. They want to be like Washington. They want to be virtuous patriots, and that's what they take back to France with them. So they join a debate on how to make France young again --
regeneration, the way in which a country can become young, having gone decrepit. That is a crucial theme among revolutionary politicians. Now, one has to say, what France of course gives America is military assistance, and there's a paradoxical twinning in that France becomes bankrupt through having sustained American freedom.
Louis XVI is a passionate supporter of American freedom with no idea that the thing may rebound disastrously on him. I think one of the interesting things about this relationship is that the Americans in Paris in '89 are an incredibly interesting bunch and they don't at all agree on what the prospects of the revolution are going to be. Two of them in particular don't agree, Jefferson and Gouverneur Morris, with a wooden leg, passionately in love with the same woman that Talleyrand is in love with. It's an amazing fact, Talleyrand, the great Machiavel of the Revolution, the sort of priest who is a very unscrupulous figure and becomes a great revolutionary person, Talleyrand is also a cripple, and Gouverneur Morris on his wooden leg and Talleyrand with his crippled foot. There is Talleyrand who is an important person, as a young man, yes. There's a wonderful picture of Talleyrand as an old man in the beginning of the book too. They are both really chasing the same woman, but Gouverneur Morris is really worried about the fate of the Revolution when the heads -- there's Talleyrand as an old man. Yes, that's a magnificent picture of Talleyrand. That has his sardonic, rather cynical, slightly cold-blooded view of politics, that kind of lizard-like rationality which people saw in him. Someone actually talked about Talleyrand as having the complexion of a corpse in an advanced state of putrefaction, actually, which is one of the most unkind things.
Anyway, there was a debate among the Americans. Gouverneur Morris is worried when he starts to see heads stuck on the end of pikes in the streets. He begins to worry about what the Revolution has uncorked. Will you be able ever to have a
stable revolutionary government again? Jefferson, in the early days of the Revolution, is absolutely cloudless sky. He's actually right. He says ...
LAMB: Is he our secretary of state then? Foreign minister?
SCHAMA: He becomes so. He's an informal plenipotentiary who then becomes
the ambassador. I think he becomes the ambassador -- I might be wrong -- in
1790, but I might be wrong about that. Jefferson certainly becomes the ambassador. Gouverneur Morris is a commercial plenipotentiary at that time.
LAMB: And Gouverneur Morris had been a delegate to our Constitutional Convention.
SCHAMA: One of the most important and eloquent of those.
LAMB: Thomas Jefferson or not.
SCHAMA: But Jefferson, of course, had given a lot of thought to it, but Gouverneur Morris understood what the outcome of incredibly important debates about constitutions could be. Jefferson was really bowled over by the excitement of the moment. Two things which were rather alarming about Jefferson -- he said, "Never mind about a little blood" -- I must get this right -- He said, "From time to time liberty must be refreshed by blood. It is its natural manure." John Adams said, "What are you talking about? That's a terrible thing to say." Jefferson said, "Don't worry. My house has been broken into three times. I've never felt safer in my life. All the people are absolutely benign. The targets of their anger are completely justified." He said, "You may stone me as a prophet if things do not turn out well in France." Later when Jefferson thought they hadn't turned out well at all, he was not prepared to say, Right, friends, stone me after all. I'm wrong. He was simply a sadder and wiser man about the Revolution.
LAMB: We're about out of time, and we haven't even touched this book, as you well know. How did you write it physically?
SCHAMA: I'm really physically quite lazy, as a matter of fact. But I did something which I had never done in my life. I got up five o'clock and sometimes earlier in the morning, which is extraordinary for an Englishman. It's less extraordinary in America. I wrote it in this absolutely wonderful time before my children get up at about 8:00. I wrote through the day as well. But there were three hours of the dawn coming up where a lot got written and then again quite late at night actually. Some in the daytime too, but I have to say that it was a book that tumbled out. I really was writing at some speed, but most of all it was never a chore to write.
There's a wonderful phrase that W. H. Auden, the English poet said, that "History is breaking bread with the dead." I had this extraordinary sense of companionship with a lot of these people. In fact, when I finished the book, I actually felt an odd sense of bad faith, that I had been part of these people's lives. I was saying, "Fine, Knopf. Have the book, forget about the French Revolution, bye bye. See you when you're published." I felt this extraordinary sense that I was leaving these people's lives behind. I finished the book deliberately not with what historians usually do, which is say, Now we will survey what's happened. I try and do that, but I said, OK, the historian's impersonal voice, that's enough of that. Let's just tell the story again. Let's revisit this human experience in places of stillness. Lafayette's stillness was in prisons, extraordinary prison in Austria where his wife appears out of nowhere to share his prison cell with him with her daughters. The Hudson Valley, where one of my characters spends her time -- she's escaped the Terror, and she's become a farmer's wife in the Hudson Valley, and she goes back to France with some sadness. And the terrible place of stillness, a madhouse, a lunatic asylum where one of the women who'd been a revolutionary and whose head has been shaved in and who's lost the power of speech except to make revolutionary
proclamations -- she's totally silent and naked and sitting in filth and puddles.
When people come and see her she'll suddenly stand up and make revolutionary speeches. I wanted to finish with this sense of what the human cost really had been. I didn't sleep very well when I wrote this book, but I lived by day very well indeed. It was a very 19th century kind of writing.
LAMB: Did you write it longhand?
SCHAMA: I went on my trusty word processor. Words went flying on the
electronic screen, but ...
LAMB: Do you write something like this from memory or do you have material all around?
SCHAMA: Oh, no, all around. Access is more or less impossible to my study. I have mountains of paper files and books. The only living object that could actually simply make its way into my study, which is quite small at home -- I like writing at home -- 'is my dog, Morgan, who sort of slept under my computer. When the Revolution was too much, I used to reach for his hopeless, silky -- so it was very calming. I have to say it was wonderfully sedative effect. He should have had a credit in the preface.
LAMB: Do you begin to write with a preconceived notion of how you're going to
end up, or do you start writing it ...
SCHAMA: Yes, but it's always blown. I do have some sense of the way it's going to end up, but I've never written a book where I've actually ended up doing what I thought I would do. The way I talk about Louis XVI's France was pretty much the way I came to the book. This rather grim theme of violence and freedom, that really came on me in the new research and in the writing and in just really feeling how would it be to be in the middle of this. I think all of our political experiences are kind of like concentric circles, however public spirited we think we are. We think first of all of our loved ones, our family and ourselves. We then think maybe of our neighborhood. We then think of our town. We may then think of our church, our baseball team. We then think of our country. The ripples get broader and broader. For people living in this period, they had to say, "The world seems to be going public on us. What is going to be the cost to me and my family and my country if I suddenly become a public person? Or what is the cost of me not becoming a public person?"
That's what's at stake in Poland and China and Hungary. It's so difficult for private people to decide, so when you try and live that with them you see both the excitement and the anxiety of it all.
LAMB: Sorry, we've got to give up. We're already over time. But here's the book,
and here's who our guest has been for the last hour and one or two minutes, Simon Schama, who is at Harvard University right now teaching, but has written four books. This is his latest, a best seller, Book of the Month Club selection, published by Knopf, in your book store "Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution". Thank you for joining us.
SCHAMA: Thank you for having me.
Copyright National Cable Satellite Corporation 1989. Personal, noncommercial use of this transcript is permitted. No commercial, political or other use may be made of this transcript without the express permission of National Cable Satellite Corporation.