The Unruly City

Paris, London and New York in the Age of Revolution


By Mike Rapport

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A lauded expert on European history paints a vivid picture of Paris, London, and New York during the Age of Revolutions, exploring how each city fostered or suppressed political uprisings within its boundaries

In The Unruly City, historian Mike Rapport offers a vivid history of three intertwined cities toward the end of the eighteenth century-Paris, London, and New York-all in the midst of political chaos and revolution. From the British occupation of New York during the Revolutionary War, to agitation for democracy in London and popular uprisings, and ultimately regicide in Paris, Rapport explores the relationship between city and revolution, asking why some cities engender upheaval and some suppress it.

Why did Paris experience a devastating revolution while London avoided one? And how did American independence ignite activism in cities across the Atlantic? Rapport takes readers from the politically charged taverns and coffeehouses on Fleet Street, through a sea battle between the British and French in the New York Harbor, to the scaffold during the Terror in Paris.

The Unruly City shows how the cities themselves became protagonists in the great drama of revolution.



ON A CHILLY winter's day, 23 February 1763, sceptical Parisians watched a huge equestrian statue slowly being lowered onto a pedestal at the centre of a vast square on the western edge of their city. The massive artwork, by sculptor Edmé Bouchardon, was a masterpiece (or so critics would soon say) and depicted King Louis XV, still with eleven more years to reign, triumphantly on horseback. It was to be the centrepiece of the cobbled expanse of the elegant Place Louis XV—now Place de la Concorde—which spread out at the bottom of the Champs-Elysées. The kingly horseman and square alike were to be monuments to the glory of France's Bourbon monarchy, celebrating Louis XV's triumphs in the War of Austrian Succession (1740–1748). The designer of the square was the king's favourite architect, the great neoclassicist Ange-Jacques Gabriel, who trumped fierce competition with his choice of location and plan.

The most imposing sight on Place Louis XV was Gabriel's two colonnaded, symmetrical palaces built in Greco-Roman style in warm golden sandstone, overlooking the square from its northern side. Russian historian Nikolai Karamzin would react just as the designers had intended. In April 1790, as his coach rumbled towards the end of the Champs-Elysées, rolling past its idyllic mix of ornamental groves, restaurants, kiosks and music stands, Karamzin leaned out of his carriage window: 'Your gaze runs on ahead to where a statue of Louis XV rises on a large octagonal plinth surrounded by a white marble balustrade. Approach it and you will see before you the densely shaded paths of the famous garden of the Tuileries, belonging to the great palace: a beautiful view!'1

As their carriages emerged onto the square, horses' hooves and rolling wheels resounding across the open space, visitors were always impressed by the unavoidable sight of Louis on horseback, an expression of royal power designed to be admired. Even Thomas Jefferson, though a republican to the marrow, was able to find fulsome praise for Bouchardon's work. It was, he wrote, 'probably the best in the world.… [I]t is impossible to find a point of view from which it does not appear a monster, unless you go so far as to lose sight of the features and finer lineaments of the face and body'.2

Yet in February 1763, the Parisian spectators were not so sure. As the equestrian mass swung from the taught cables of four wooden cranes, the workmen straining at the ropes and pulleys, they bitterly repeated the remark that their king was being held up by four grues, a double entendre meaning both cranes… and 'whores'. This Parisian grumbling was aroused by a painful awareness that, just thirteen days previously, the monarchy had signed one of its most humiliating peace treaties. The Treaty of Paris had ended the Seven Years' War, one of the most devastating global conflicts of the eighteenth century. For France, it was above all a shattering defeat at the hands of its archenemy, Britain. Most of its empire in India and the Americas had been engulfed by the British, the French army and navy mauled and the honour of the monarchy battered. Louis XV himself, it was widely known, had not led from the front: he had scarcely left the sprawling royal palace and grounds of Versailles, enjoying the company of his intelligent mistress, Madame de Pompadour, and frequenting his selection of courtesans—hence the hostile witticisms about grues. The official opening of the Place Louis XV on 20 June that year was timed to coincide with the formal proclamation of the peace. The idea was that Louis XV could be presented as both powerful and a peacemaker, but when set against the scale of the nation's military disasters, the statue's pretensions rang hollow.3

Parisians had another, practical, reason for their irritation. The very origins of the Place Louis XV rested in a competition set by the city authorities for a new square that would break open the tangled knot of medieval streets that strangled traffic in the centre. 'Our towns', complained Marc-Antoine Laugier, author of the famous Essay on Architecture in 1753, 'are still a mass of houses crowded together without system, planning, or design. Nowhere is this disorder more noticeable and more shocking than in Paris'. For this reason, some of Gabriel's competitors had suggested locations in the very heart of the city, but the cost, the legal complications and the logistics of the demolition stymied them all. The king intervened as Parisians pondered their quandary, donating some of his own land on the westernmost edge of Paris, and, unsurprisingly, it was Louis's own architect Gabriel who won the renewed competition. So while the end result was undoubtedly magnificent, it missed the initial point of the project: for most Parisians, it was in the wrong place. The Place Louis XV represented the triumph of kingly prestige over the day-to-day needs of the crown's subjects, of royal power over urban reform.4

THIS FRICTION REVEALS an important part of the history, and the present, of great cities. They are at one and the same time places where individuals, social groups and communities live, work and socialise, but they are also centres of authority and power—economic, political and social. As such, they are not only places where rulers, governments, corporations and institutions actually reside, but also where they inscribe their presence in a visual sense on the cityscape. The buildings and spaces of a city are used by governments, civic institutions and social movements for practical purposes, and they are built, taken over and adapted to suit. In times of political turmoil, public buildings are embellished, vandalised or even destroyed to convey political messages. In times of stability, they become the settled, even mundane, symbols of authority, power, public welfare, freedom—or the benevolence and glory of the ruler. In periods of great transition or revolution, transformation in the use, look and even existence of buildings and spaces is one way in which people experience or 'live' the change. Moreover, a physical place may shape the course of an historical event, in the way that terrain affects the outcome of a battle.

For all these reasons, a city's spaces and places are contested, either in the sense of who actually has control of the bricks and mortar or in terms of what these places signify, as the Parisian reaction to the grandiose statue of Louis XV showed. As the royal likeness was eased into place in 1763, it would be wrong to view the coarse jokes among the onlookers as an early stirring of popular, revolutionary hostility (it would take more than a generation for such grumbling to develop into anything resembling that, in 1789). It does show, however, that, try as it might, no regime can entirely control the political messages that a place, a building or an embellishment is meant to transmit. And the political conflicts that arise from the control, adaptation and use of buildings and open spaces—the palaces, squares, parks, churches, taverns, coffeehouses, streets, prisons and so on—are never more intense and violent than in times of revolution.

This book is about how three cities, Paris, London and New York, became such sites of struggle in a revolutionary age, that of the American and French Revolutions. It explores, in particular, how, in all the political ferment of the later eighteenth century, the spaces and buildings in these cities both symbolically and physically became places of conflict, how the cityscape itself became part of the experience of revolution and may even have helped shape its course. Revolutionaries in New York and Paris and radicals in London used particular locations and buildings to mobilise their supporters, to demonstrate or debate and to move against the existing order.

Yet the upheavals were not just political revolutions but cultural ones as well: through their ideological struggles and attempts to create new political orders, or reform the old one, radicals and revolutionaries used the cityscape to convey their messages, hopeful, threatening and stirring. In the American and French Revolutions, this certainly involved a hefty dose of iconoclasm: pulling down statues, chiselling away political symbols from public buildings, changing street names and, in the French case, destroying religious emblems. Yet it also involved constructing, embellishing and creating: converting old buildings for new political purposes; carving new mottoes and motifs onto older sites, or, in the cut and thrust of revolutionary politics, hastily painting them on; surmounting buildings with emblems such as liberty caps; raising liberty poles; and using the open spaces of the metropolis to hold revolutionary festivals or public meetings to demonstrate political unity and transmit political messages to the massed ranks of citizens. These were all ways in which revolutionaries and radicals sought to rally people to their cause and to implant the values of the new civic order in the hearts and minds of people as they went about their daily lives. In the words of one historian of the cultural history of revolutions, it was an exercise in 'regeneration through the everyday', in which the city became the canvas for the cultural revolutions and the scene of the bitterest confrontations between the supporters of the old order and the new. To a large extent, the eighteenth-century battle for political emancipation hinged on control of these spaces, not only in a strategic sense, important though that could be, but also because it determined whose ideas, whose messages, whose authority was disseminated among the people of the metropolis.5

The role of the 'people', in fact, is also essential to this story, since in our three cities the struggle for democratic change unfolded in the neighbourhoods and streets of the urban community. Most obviously, when revolutionary or radical symbols and messages were inscribed on buildings, or when the new civic order took over once familiar public places for new purposes, it was a visual, physical way in which the political battles of the era reached into the most local of levels. Thus, 'space' in this book has two meanings: it can mean a precise place where people meet and interact, but it can also signify distance and the challenges that the sheer size of the eighteenth-century metropolis, particularly Paris and London, posed to revolutionaries and radicals trying to mobilise the people of the city. So part of this story is the dissemination of political activity and initiative across urban space, a geographical shift from the privileged halls of elite power to the taverns, political clubs, local revolutionary committees and streets that in themselves represented the attempts by the democratic movements to open up politics to wider participation.

Revolutionaries in New York and Paris and radicals in London all found ways of reaching into the neighbourhoods and communities of their cities, through political networks or by encouraging the active role of the man and woman (sometimes quite literally) in the street. The artisans, labourers, shopkeepers, men and women who lived in the tenements, queued at food stalls and socialised in the cafés and taverns were not the passive recipients of these experiences. They took an active part in the upheavals, shaping, adapting or challenging on their own behalf the ideas and claims that the revolutionary or radical leadership was trying to convey. Who acted and why, and which communities were the epicentres of popular action, are part of the story of the revolutions in these cities. This spatial urban experience can be seen as one where different, conflicting visions of the future—between those of the middle-class revolutionary politicians and those of the working, artisanal population, for example—were often played out in the struggles for control of the spaces and places of particular neighbourhoods.

Britain, France and America were not, of course, the only places to have experienced, in different ways, the revolutions of the eighteenth century; regions of the world as diverse as the Low Countries, Haiti and Latin America all had upheavals of their own. Nor were New York, London and Paris the only cauldrons of struggle; all three were set in countries where there was an energetic, even frenetic, political life right across the smaller towns and countryside, where people did not simply grumble and follow the lead of the metropolis. Yet the three cities, as seats of authority, as economic hubs and as centres of culture and leisure, were replete with the institutions of the old order, the buildings that housed them and the symbols, motifs, effigies that represented royal or imperial power: parliaments and assemblies, high courts and churches, barracks, fortresses and prisons, but also statues, palaces and triumphant, ceremonial spaces. So they became the most dramatic arenas in which people who wanted political change would challenge the regime—and leave their mark on the cityscape in doing so. The cities also had a concentrated sparkle of the places and spaces in which reformers, revolutionaries and their opponents organised, mobilised, debated and fought: law courts, legislatures, coffeehouses, cafés, taverns, squares and parks. In America and France, it also made them the logical places for the organs of the new order to establish themselves, taking over the old structures that were once held by the former governors, adapting, embellishing and, sometimes, demolishing them.

In a broad sense, the citizens of all three cities were immersed in a shared political culture that bound their experiences together. This was an Atlantic world in which ships powered by nothing more than wind, currents and human muscle criss-crossed the ocean, carrying with them goods, ideas and, above all, people (including the enslaved, whose experience in New York will be part of the story). In this maritime space, concerned eighteenth-century citizens of all three countries looked to the ideological legacy of the political upheavals of the seventeenth century, in the British Isles, particularly the civil wars of the 1640s and the revolution of 1688–1689. These disruptions bequeathed what was known in the English-speaking world as the 'Whig' model of freedom from arbitrary power and civil liberties such as religious toleration, freedom of speech and assembly, habeas corpus and representative government that were jealously defended by British subjects on both sides of the Atlantic and enviously coveted by educated, progressive Frenchmen and -women. Politically engaged people in the eighteenth century also drew on their classical education for inspiration, especially their knowledge of Greek democracy and the Roman Republic. They enveloped themselves in eighteenth-century Enlightenment debates about reason, religious freedom, sovereignty, citizenship, civil and political rights, the social contract, representative government, 'the people' and the 'nation'. Energised by these cultural currents, reform and revolutionary movements made energetic, sometimes heroic, efforts to persuade or to force existing governments to open themselves up to wider, even democratic, participation. France, after all, was ruled by a king who—in theory, at least—wielded absolute power, although there were in practice some important practical and legal limitations to what he could do. Britain, though a parliamentary monarchy, was far from democratic, since the suffrage was limited primarily to male property owners (although, as we shall see, it was a little broader in metropolitan London). Britain's American colonists exulted in their representative institutions, and because property ownership was more widespread there, the male voting population was proportionately larger than it was in the mother country.

In challenging the limits of the political order, revolutionaries and reformers laid great store in what historians now call forms of 'sociability': clubs and societies, festivals, ceremonies and mass meetings that used the spoken and printed word and political symbols, such as the tricolour flag, the liberty pole, the cap of liberty, to transmit their messages to as wide an audience as possible. There were, of course, major differences to ensure that these great movements diverged at important points, not least of which were the intensity and scale of the violence that ensued, the strength and stubbornness of the opposition and levels of support. There were some key cultural and ideological variations, too, conditioned by historical memory that reminded people of past triumphs and tragedies (the civil wars in the British Isles of the seventeenth century, for example) and by cherished myths of a heritage of rights and liberties. Britons and pre-revolutionary Americans spoke of the 'rights and liberties of freeborn Englishmen', while French citizens before 1789 looked back to an age when they had once been free under 'fundamental laws'. These influences were among those that combined to ensure that, in the end, the three peoples emerged from the revolutionary crucible with very divergent results.6

The eighteenth-century Atlantic was a highly mobile region, in which people, goods and ideas moved in multiple directions, interacting and producing the vibrant, fertile world of commercial expansion, cultural exchange and political contention, along with such repressive institutions as slavery. It was a world in which the social elites, and the expanding segments of a burgeoning 'public' (a word that was assuming increasingly political overtones in the eighteenth century), could aspire to a cosmopolitan view of the world, learning about it, engaging with it and critiquing it through letter writing and the wide availability of print, including newspapers, journals, books, prints and maps. Travel was undertaken in storm-tossed wooden ships and bone-shaking coaches, but people did it in great numbers, in the pursuit of migration, business, politics and, increasingly for the well-heeled, tourism. The myriad transatlantic connections and how they operated are fascinating subjects, but they are not the subject of this book. Riskily, perhaps, the story here generally takes these connections for granted and concentrates instead on the lives of the cities themselves. So the Atlantic world spans the deep background, but does not figure in the story, which here is the fabric of Paris, London and New York and how their peoples saw their cityscape being used and changed in the process.7

The cityscape as a backdrop, as a place where revolution and radicalism inscribed and transmitted their messages, the buildings as sites of political conflict and the reach of political mobilisation into communities across the metropolis, all of this makes the city itself part of the narrative. This book weaves the story of the cities' peoples—intrepid individuals, angry or hopeful communities—into the history of the urban fabric in these momentous, tumultuous years. It aims to show how the city itself figured in the drama. It seeks to evoke a sense of place in narrating the experience of this revolutionary age, but it is not a bloodless story about bricks, mortar, stone, fabric and paint. It is also populated by men and women, bewigged aristocrats and lawyers, articulate yet rough-handed artisans and craft workers, quill-wielding bluestockings and doughty fishwives.8

Recently, some historians, very wisely, have begun to think of revolution not just in conceptual terms (although dogged attempts to nail down a universally accepted definition of 'revolution' continue to be pursued by the stouthearted) or in seeking to explain their causes, processes and results by references to great human forces like class, ideology and culture. Rather, they are exploring how groups and individuals lived through the revolutionary upheaval with all its anxieties, its stirring visions of the possible, its wrenching fear, its abject despair and seething hatred. The key point is that revolution is a human experience in all its exhilaration, terror and squalor. Part of that experience was seeing—or perpetrating—acts that touched the urban environment in which they lived as different parts of it were adapted, embellished, defaced or even destroyed by revolution and scarred and damaged by conflict. So while this book puts the cities centre stage, that stage is shared with men and women who underwent the lived experience of those triumphant, turbulent and fearful days.9

AS THE FOCUS of the narrative to come, Paris, London and New York shared some important characteristics, but there were significant differences, too. They were places where political authority, commerce and money, art and intellectual life intersected and from where, for better or worse, these melded forces then transmitted their energy across the surrounding country. Sprawling London and Paris were so large and were such centres of human activity that they were each referred to as a 'metropolis' by contemporaries. A rivalry had in fact emerged between London and Paris: in the early 1780s, French writer Louis-Sébastien Mercier (later a revolutionary and member of the French Institute) remarked that 'to consider London, neighbour and rival, is unavoidable when one speaks of Paris, and the parallel suggests itself. They are so close and so different, even though they are similar in many ways, so that to complete the portrait of one, it is not out of place, I think, to rest one's gaze a little on several features of the other'. Both were capitals of great European powers, and both were the imperial centres of two sprawling and competing overseas empires. They were among the world's largest cities: only Beijing, at a teeming 1.1 million in 1800, topped London, which nearly hit the million mark, while Paris contained 600,000 people.10

This translated into a breathtaking, and, for many, intimidating, urban sprawl. London had a nucleus consisting, first, of the City of London (the 'Square Mile' being the area within the old city walls) and its 'dependencies' in the outlying wards; second, of Westminster, where the centres of political power were located and home to the 'West End', the swanky, airy new residences of the wealthy escaping from the congested, noisy bustle farther to the east; and, third, of Southwark, with its pungent tanneries, breweries, warehouses and workshops on the opposite bank of the River Thames. Yet London was far greater than that, enveloping no fewer than 140 parishes, from east to west, and on both sides of the river. In 1724 Daniel Defoe had already asked with alarm, 'Whither will this monstrous city then extend?' By 1787 one observer likened the amorphous expansion to a fever, a 'building influenza', with London as the 'centre of the disease'.11

Paris, though more compact, inspired no less astonishment in first-time visitors. Karamzin was awestruck when he first visited in March 1790: 'Our avid stares turned towards that immense mass of buildings and were lost within it, as if in the vastness of the ocean'. At the centre was the Île de la Cité, the island in the River Seine that for centuries had been the political, legal and religious heart of the kingdom, with its royal fortress turned prison in the Conciergerie, its supreme courts of law and the cathedral of Notre-Dame. Around that were the central districts, called the ville, or the town proper, by locals, delineated by the traces of the medieval walls that had encircled old Paris and, demolished by King Louis XIV (the Sun King) in the seventeenth century, had given way to an internal ring of elegant, breezy boulevards. Beyond that were the 'suburbs', or faubourgs, which spread outwards, their tenements and workshops less densely packed than in the city centre, offering glimpses of the grounds of convents and hospitals, of market gardens, their beans twisting around poles, their cabbages lined up in rows and even leafy vineyards undulating over gentle slopes. The boundary of the city, beyond the faubourgs, was marked by a palisade built in 1786 to help the collection of the octroi, the hated tax on goods entering Paris.12

Although the king himself was absent from the city, Paris boasted the pinnacle of the French legal system (as we shall see); the most senior official in the Catholic Church in France, the archbishop in Notre-Dame Cathedral; and the town houses of many of the richest and most powerful nobles in the kingdom. It was also a diverse centre of manufacturing, mostly carried out by its thousands of artisans and craft workers in small workshops.

London, of course, was unambiguously the capital of the British Empire, with its seats of political power in Westminster, which Abigail Adams, arriving for the first time in July 1784, called 'the Court end of the town' because it included the royal residence at Saint James's Palace and the houses of Parliament at the Palace of Westminster. The economic might of the metropolis, however, was seated farther east, in the City of London, which with its banking, finance, heaving quaysides and artisans organised into guilds (or 'livery companies') was already becoming one of the world's great financial dynamos.13

Eighteenth-century New York, by contrast, was diminutive in scale (in 1790 the first-ever US census showed that its population just edged over 33,000) and, before independence in 1783, a colonial city looking to London as the capital. Its extent, marked by the reach of the four- to six-storey brick-built houses and tenements (their roofs covered in cedar tiles, glistening with varnish and painted in all colours), occupied the southern tip of Manhattan and stretched no farther than a mile along the Hudson River, while on the banks of the East River it stretched upstream for two miles at the very most. Yet New York was a metropolis in the New World context. For one, its strategic importance made it the military headquarters of British forces in North America: it was located at roughly the midway point of the Atlantic Seaboard of British North America. Poised at the mouth of the Hudson, control of New York gave access to the river, which was a natural barrier that divided New England from the middle and southern colonies, and gave inland access to Canada. New York, too, had its own political institutions—the royal governor, a garrison and the colonial legislature that made it the capital of the 'province' of New York. And for a few years after independence was won, it would be the capital of the nascent United States. Moreover, by the time of the American Revolution, the city was shaking off the aura of a colonial outpost and finding its intellectual and cultural voice, with a fine library, theatre and its own university (King's College, later Columbia University).14

In the later eighteenth century, too, New York's thriving commerce, its harbour a forest of ships' masts, never failed to impress visitors, who likened it to London or Liverpool, which in the eighteenth century was already a great port facing the Atlantic world. The hubbub of the wharves on Lower Manhattan struck visitors. A British traveller, John Lambert, stared amazed at the 'bales of cotton, wool, and merchandize; barrels of potash, rice, flour, and salt provisions; hogsheads of sugar, chests of tea, puncheons of rum, and pipes of wine; boxes, cases, packs and packages of all sizes and denominations, were strewed upon the wharfs and landing-places, or upon the decks of the shipping'.15

All this maritime activity, focused on the East River rather than the Hudson (New Yorkers then called the latter the North River), would turn New York into the country's financial and business centre after independence. It also meant, however, that New York was the main port of entry for a polyglot mix of immigrants, either passing through or there to stay. The waterfront and the jumble of streets behind it bubbled to the sound of different accents and languages, as cartmen, peddlers and birds of passage shouted, warned, cursed and called out in English, Dutch, French and German. To the linguistic babel was added a striking ethnic diversity, including Irish, Jews and African Americans: all of this made New York, already perhaps, one of the most cosmopolitan cities on earth.16

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  • "A refreshingly vibrant narrative. At times, [Rapport's] political study could almost double as a travelogue."
    New York Times Book Review
  • "Highly readable.... [Rapport] has an excellent eye for the arresting anecdote or apt quotation.... He also excels at literary portraiture, painting quick but vivid sketches of well-known figures from Mary Wollstonecraft to Maximilien Robespierre."—Wall Street Journal
  • [Rapport] creates a richly textured picture of 18th-century urban life, and how it varied among the three cities... in [his] hands, the cities become players in the story, not simply backdrops for the turmoil of the Age of Revolutions."—Shelf Awareness
  • "[An] eye-opening comparative history.... Rapport's in-depth research into these three cities at war is significant, the similarities and differences making the story all the more fascinating."—Kirkus Reviews
  • "Rapport has combined academic scholarship with a well-paced, engaging writing style to produce an exceptional work of comparative late-18th-century political and urban history."—Publishers Weekly, starred review

On Sale
May 2, 2017
Page Count
416 pages
Basic Books

Mike Rapport

About the Author

Mike Rapport is a professor of history at the University of Glasgow in Scotland and a fellow of the Royal Historical Society. The author of 1848: Year of Revolution, The Napoleonic Wars, and The Unruly City: Paris, London and New York in the Age of Revolution, Rapport lives in Stirling, Scotland.

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