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Threshold of Terror: The Last Hours of the Monarchy in the French Revolution Rodney Allen, an independent scholar who read history at Oxford, details the events that occurred during the crucial twenty-four hours between the 9th and 10th of August 1792, which led to the fall and execution of King Louis XVI of France. Using previously unpublished eyewitness accounts, illustrations, direct quotations, and paraphrases; the author describes the final hours of this crucial collapse and examines its importance in eroding the ideals that had emerged after the fall of the Bastille in 1789. Through the use of intimate sources and documents, such as the personal accounts of the Swiss Guards who had tried to save the ill-fated King Louis XVI and the stories of individuals who had survived the 'Reign of Terror', the author gives the reader a greater level of insight into the events and emotions that existed during the Revolution in France. The book explains the important role that the events of August 9th - 10th 1792 played in provoking the subsequent 'Terror': an event that resulted in the deaths of more than 40,000 people who were brought before the Revolutionary Tribunal and guillotined. This provocative book offers a fascinating account of one of the most remarkable and important events in French and European history and, unlike many other books to be written on this subject, the author of Threshold of Terror: The Last Hours of the Monarchy in the French Revolution does not merely recount the political and social details. The difference between this book and many others is that Allen also deals with the human side of the events, and describes the effects that this historical event had upon the individuals who were involved.
According to Rodney Allen, the author of Threshold of Terror: The Last Hours of the Monarchy in the French Revolution, the twenty-four hour period between 9th - 10th August, 1792 should be considered as more significant than the better-known July 14, 1792. Once the revolutionists killed the king they had then reached the point of no return: a decision that ultimately led to the 'reign of Terror' and set the stage for the horrors that followed. The resulting price, for eliminating the past and forging a new future, would be a purge that would cost tens of thousands of lives and, in his book, Allen attempts to show the direct connection between these acts of violent bloodshed and the events of one August day in 1792. Running through this descriptive text, however, is the author's central argument: that if the more radical of the revolutionists had conceded to allow the king some form of constitutional role, rather than insisting upon his death, then the French Revolution would have been resolved far more peacefully.
Although the events, and aftermath, of the 'Terror' are widely known and studied, the reasons that led to it, including the last hours of Louis XVI's monarchy, have received less attention. The revolution of 9th-10th August, which founded the first French republic amid scenes of massacre as the king's Swiss Guards defended an empty palace, is an event that is far less well-known than the Terror, but without which that more famous bloodletting might well not have occurred. The major objective within Threshold of Terror: The Last Hours of the Monarchy in the French Revolution is an attempt to redress this imbalance and, by using a wide range of primary and secondary sources, Allen sets out to build a bridge between the two events, thus allowing the reader to see the whole picture. Such was the horror and historical importance of the 'Terror' that, in order to improve our understanding the author provides the reader with a legitimate 'cause and effect' scenario. Although such levels of violence and bloodshed are difficult to comprehend, at least if it can be traced back to a 'cause' then the reader is given the option to judge whether or not the 'effects' were justified.
However, the major difficulty faced when attempting to make judgements on any historical event, is that no matter how accurately or completely the facts may be presented the important influence of the social values and human emotions of the time must also be taken into account. This is probably more so during a period of revolution - with the intense social and political upheaval - than at any other time. Allen is aware of this, and his decision to use the personal testimony of individuals from all sections of society, and from both sides of conflict, provides the reader with an element of what it may have felt like to have lived through the events. When describing the depth of feeling that underpinned the Revolution, and those committed to it, the author's chooses his words carefully, in order to convey the intense emotions that were involved. Allen explains how the, "members of the new National Assembly set about making a complete break with the 'despised' past," and how their attempts to forge this new future through the establishment of a democratic government and the principle of social equality was "an explosive mixture" (1). Although this emotive language may add to the reader's enjoyment of the book, it also subtracts from the author's claims of objectivity and therefore raises doubts about the accuracy of his thesis and conclusions.
The author's lack of objectivity, and the possible existence of bias in his views, is evident throughout the book. Although this does not necessarily mean that his conclusions are inaccurate, it seriously undermines his efforts in providing a balanced opinion. Allen finds it difficult to hide his sympathies, such as in his pity of the "benevolent ruler" who lost his throne, and his life, to the Revolution, and in his claims that "the radical press depicted the king not only as a despot, but also unfairly as a traitor" (6). This personal opposition to the leaders of the Revolution recurs throughout the book: such as when he displays his admiration for the "brave" Swiss soldiers who lost their lives while defending the monarchy, and when he fails to hide his dislike of despicable politicians who composed the National Assembly. While proving more entertaining than a purely factual historical text, Threshold of Terror: The Last Hours of the Monarchy in the French Revolution reduces its academic respectability by attempting to influence the reader's opinions, not with evidence, but through the author's personal views.
Leaving aside the author's attempt to influence the reader, the strength of the book is in the way that it presents its argument by focussing on the detailed events of those crucial twenty-four hours, when the 'Parisian mob' stormed the Tuilleries. In addressing his theme, Allen uses a wide variety of primary and secondary sources, some from official and historical documents, others from personal memoirs and eyewitness accounts. This information allows the book to provide a highly detailed account of how and why the constitutionalists abandoned King Louis XVI to his fate, and colorfully describes the years of terror that followed. However, despite being well researched and well written, the evidence presented merely implies, rather than confirms, Allen's thesis that maintaining the monarchy would have prevented the ensuing bloodshed and chaos. No proof is provided to support his claim that the Revolution, and the establishment of the democratic political system, would have been any more peaceful with the continued existence of the monarchy. On the contrary, much of the author's own words contradict his central message. On several occasions Allen suggests that, even if the radicals among the revolutionaries had agreed to keep the monarchy as a part of the new system, it would merely have been in the role of a "puppet" with "no real control over local and regional authorities and no direct command over forces for maintaining public order" (2). The Terror occurred as a result of the new regime's resolution to destroy counter-revolutionary forces, to intimidate and deter opponents of the republic, and to reassure its supporters. The continued existence of a token monarch, with no influence over social or political control, would have had no power or authority to prevent or lessen the violence or executions that occurred during the Terror. Once again it is the author's personal values and political beliefs, rather than factual evidence, that lead him to his conclusions. Even after detailing the ideology of liberty and social equality that lay at the heart of the revolution, and despite acknowledging that the king was "labeled a tyrant"(28), Allen proceeds to suggest that "Louis would probably have made an excellent constitutional king in a political system like the British, which showed respect for monarchical traditions and social status" (4). This respect for "monarchical traditions" and "social status" were the very values that the French revolution so violently opposed, so any individual who symbolized these politically and socially despised traditions could have no place within the new republic; in any capacity. Rather than reducing the Terror's bloodshed, the existence of an icon…[continue]
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