François Victor Alphonse Aulard

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François Victor Alphonse Aulard

The French historian François Victor Alphonse Aulard (1849-1928) was a leading authority on the French Revolution.

On July 19, 1849, Alphonse Aulard was born at Montbron. His earliest interests were literary. Admitted to the École Normale in 1867, he received his doctorate in 1877. From 1871 to 1884 he taught literature, and by 1884 he had already published three volumes, Parliamentary Eloquence during the French Revolution (1882-1884). When, in the following year, the city of Paris founded a professorship of the history of the Revolution at the Sorbonne, he was named to fill the post.

View of the Revolution

The history of the French Revolution was at this time still the subject of violent political passions, for Frenchmen saw in the political problems of the late 19th century the continuation of conflicts and crises that had first exploded in 1789. Aulard insisted that the Revolution should be considered with the same critical detachment as all other periods of history. At the beginning of each year's lecture series, he would hand his students a list of "the historian's Ten Commandments," among them: "always use the sources; avoid unproved assertions; present facts impartially and objectively; when publishing something new do not bury interesting facts under insignificant rubbish; let your research be long and the results be short." Yet he also insisted that fervor was necessary for genuine comprehension. "He who does not sympathize with the Revolution sees only the surface. In order to understand it, it is necessary to love it."

As one who had come of age during the early years of the Third Republic, Aulard viewed the Revolution as primarily a political movement, the history of the origins of democracy and republicanism. Democracy he saw as the logical consequence of the principle of equality, and republicanism the consequence of national sovereignty. There was, however, no logic to the events themselves, which resulted from the complex interaction of men, ideas, and circumstances. His hero was Danton, whom he admired as a good republican, a patriot, an enemy of the Church, and a great compromiser.

Variety of Publications

During his lifetime Aulard wrote or edited over 60 books and pamphlets as well as hundreds of articles for La Revolution française (of which he was editor from 1887 until his death) and other publications. His major work on the Revolution was Political History of the French Revolution (1901). He believed he would be remembered mainly as the editor of Acts of the Committee of Public Safety (26 vols., 1889-1923). But his interests were broad, and he published extensively on the religious history of the Revolution—The Cult of Reason and the Cult of the Supreme Being (1892) and The Revolution and the Congregations (1903); economic history—The Revolution and the Feudal Regime (1919); and historiography—Taine, Historian of the Revolution (1907). He died in Paris on Oct. 23, 1928.

Further Reading

A useful work for understanding Aulard is Paul Farmer, France Reviews Its Revolutionary Origins: Social Politics and Historical Opinion in the Third Republic (1944). Pieter Geyl, Napoleon: For and Against (1946; trans. 1949), includes a chapter which compares Aulard's theories on Napoleon and the Revolution with those of other historians. Aulard's historical methodology is discussed in James L. Godfrey's chapter, "Alphonse Aulard (1849-1928)," in Bernadotte E. Schmitt, ed., Some Historians of Modern Europe.