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Augustin Thierry laments that the steady growth of liberty in France had been disrupted by the cataclysm of the French Revolution (1859)

The 19th century French liberal historian Augustin Thierry, in his History of the Third Estate, saw the French Revolution as a rupture in French history which interrupted the steady growth of liberty:

One circumstance, which especially struck me, is, that during the space of six centuries, from the twelfth to the eighteenth, the history of the Tiers Etat and that of the royal power are indissolubly bound together in such a manner that, in the eyes of him who really understands them, one is, to use the expression, the counterpart of the other. From the accession of Louis le Gros to the death of Louis XIV., each decisive epoch in the progress of the different classes of the roture in liberty, prosperity, enlightenment, and social importance, corresponds, in the series of the reigns, to the name of some great king or of some great minister. The eighteenth century alone shows an exception to this law of our national development; it introduced distrust, and prepared a fatal divorce between the Tiers Etat and the Crown. At the point at which a last step, the guarantee and crowning point of all the others, would naturally have completed civil, and founded political liberty by the establishment of a new constitution, the necessary agreement was wanting in the conditions of a Government at once free and monarchical. The work of the Constituent Assembly of 1791, badly put together, crumbled to pieces almost immediately, and the monarchy was destroyed.

In this respect the order of persons, which was the instrument of the revolution of 1789, and the history of which I endeavour to trace by ascending to its sources, is nothing else than the whole nation with the exception of the nobility and clergy. This definition marks at once the extent and the exact limits of my subject, it shows what I ought to touch upon and what to omit. The history of the Tiers Etat commences by its indispensable preliminaries long previous to the epoch when the name of Tiers Etat appeared in the history of the country; its startingpoint is the subversion produced in Gaul by the fall of the Roman government, and the German conquest. It is there that history must first look for the forefathers or the representatives of that mass of persons of various conditions and professions, which was designated, in the language of society in the feudal times, by the common name of la roture. From the sixth to the twelfth century, it follows the destiny of this mass, declining in one part, and progressing in another, under the general transformations of society; next, it finds a wider field, a place which is peculiar to it, in the grand period of the revival of the free municipalities and the reconstitution of the royal power. Thence it continues its course, now become simple and regular, through the period of the monarchy of the States, and that of the absolute monarchy, up to the States-General of 1789. It has its termination at the meeting of the three orders in one single and equal assembly, when the division which separated the majority of the nobility and the minority of the clergy from the Tiers Etat ceases, when the illustrious and unfortunate Bailly, president of that first congress of the national sovereignty, was able to say, “The family is complete;” an affecting expression, which seemed to augur well for our new destinies, but which was too soon disappointed.

Such is the outline which I proposed to myself to fill up in the composition of this work. One circumstance, which especially struck me, is, that during the space of six centuries, from the twelfth to the eighteenth, the history of the Tiers Etat and that of the royal power are indissolubly bound together in such a manner that, in the eyes of him who really understands them, one is, to use the expression, the counterpart of the other. From the accession of Louis le Gros to the death of Louis XIV., each decisive epoch in the progress of the different classes of the roture in liberty, prosperity, enlightenment, and social importance, corresponds, in the series of the reigns, to the name of some great king or of some great minister. The eighteenth century alone shows an exception to this law of our national development; it introduced distrust, and prepared a fatal divorce between the Tiers Etat and the Crown. At the point at which a last step, the guarantee and crowning point of all the others, would naturally have completed civil, and founded political liberty by the establishment of a new constitution, the necessary agreement was wanting in the conditions of a Government at once free and monarchical. The work of the Constituent Assembly of 1791, badly put together, crumbled to pieces almost immediately, and the monarchy was destroyed.

Twenty-two years elapsed, during which an admirable compensation succeeded to enormous calamities, and it seemed then that every tie was broken between new France and the royalty of former days. But the result of the Constitutional Governments of 1814 and of 1830 was to join anew the chain of time and ideas, to resume under fresh forms the attempt of 1789—the alliance of the national tradition and of the principles of liberty. It was at this point of view, presented to me by the very course of the events themselves, that I took my position, fixing my attention on that which seemed to be the path traced out towards the future, and believing that I had before my eyes the providential termination of the labour of the centuries which had elapsed since the twelfth.

Entirely devoted to my task, which I was slowly pursuing as far as my abilities enabled me, I dispassionately approached the much controverted period of the eighteenth century, when the catastrophe of February, 1848, burst suddenly upon us. I have felt the result of it in two ways, both as a citizen and also as an historian. By this new revolution, full of the same spirit and the same threatening appearances as the worst times of the first, the history of France appeared to be thrown into as much disorder as France herself. I suspended my work from a feeling of despondency easy to be understood; and the history, which I had carried down to the end of the reign of Louis XIV., stops at that point. I had before me the alternative of delaying the publication of my work till it had reached its termination, or of forthwith publishing that portion of it, by far the largest, to which I had given five years’ labour;* the shortness of life, its chances more uncertain for me than for any other, and some flattering invitations, have decided me upon taking this last course.

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Augustin Thierry wrote the preface to his pioneering work on French medieval history in the immediate aftermath of the 1848 Revolution in France. In the book he had laboriously shown how free institutions had emerged slowly but progressively in Europe around the free cities and the Third Estate in France. He felt he couldn’t finish his book now that France had gone through yet another revolutionary upheaval which seemed to push liberty even further away than ever. Thankfully for us, he decided not to continue his research much further but would publish what he had accomplished after 5 year’s hard work. For another example of Thierry’s labours in the archives, see his appendix where he relates the feisty Kentishmen who refuse to submit to William the Conqueror.

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