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Before the Deluge:
Public Debt, Inequality, and the Intellectual Origins of the French Revolution
Michael Sonenscher

Paperback | 2009 | $46.00 | £38.95 | ISBN: 9780691143262
432 pp. | 6 x 9 1/4
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eBook | ISBN: 9781400827701 |
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Ever since the French Revolution, Madame de Pompadour's comment, "Après moi, le déluge" (after me, the deluge), has looked like a callous if accurate prophecy of the political cataclysms that began in 1789. But decades before the Bastille fell, French writers had used the phrase to describe a different kind of selfish recklessness--not toward the flood of revolution but, rather, toward the flood of public debt. In Before the Deluge, Michael Sonenscher examines these fears and the responses to them, and the result is nothing less than a new way of thinking about the intellectual origins of the French Revolution.

In this nightmare vision of the future, many prerevolutionary observers predicted that the pressures generated by modern war finance would set off a chain of debt defaults that would either destroy established political orders or cause a sudden lurch into despotic rule. Nor was it clear that constitutional government could keep this possibility at bay. Constitutional government might make public credit more secure, but public credit might undermine constitutional government itself.

Before the Deluge examines how this predicament gave rise to a widespread eighteenth-century interest in figuring out how to establish and maintain representative governments able to realize the promise of public credit while avoiding its peril. By doing so, the book throws new light on a neglected aspect of modern political thought and on the French Revolution.


"We now think of the French Revolution as a political revolution that had a social effect, but 'the eighteenth century's concern' was of an 'extant and ongoing social revolution that would soon have political consequence'. This is the central insight of Michael Sonenscher's new book. [In this] highly interesting book...Sonenscher's emphasis on public credit is novel and useful. [I]t is a genuinely meaningful contribution to the history of Enlightenment Europe."--Patrice Higonnet, Times Literary Supplement

"Underrated: Before the Deluge, Michael Sonenscher (Princeton). Most modern political debates can be traced back to rival stories about the French revolution; but this tough, fascinating book shows that these stories were constructed out of materials (concerning political ruin and public debt) that were circulating before the event--which makes the whole of modern politics look rather different."--Jonathan Rée, Prospect Magazine

"The best history-of-political-thought volume I read this year was Michael Sonenscher's Before the Deluge: Public Debt, Inequality and the Intellectual Origins of the French Revolution, which goes to show how the eighteenth-century political economy scholarship of the last generation or so can be put to work to address the really big historiographical questions."--Christopher Brooke, The Virtual Stoa

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