Terrorism as a Vocation: The Revolutionary Self-Fashioning of Charles-Philippe Ronsin

Friday, January 6, 2012: 3:10 PM
Michigan Room A (Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers)
David A. Bell, Princeton University
Charles-Philippe Ronsin (1751-1794) was born the son of a well-to-do artisan in eastern France. Under the Old Regime, he attempted to make a name for himself by following two of the classic paths of ambition for young French men of the era: first the army, and then literature. In the early years of the French Revolution, he explored a third path, politics, first as a member of the Cordelier Club, and then as an unsuccessful candidate for election to the National Convention. In each of these moments of his life, Ronsin tried to fashion himself after well-established models: the military hero; the Voltairean playwright; the Roman orator. By the summer of 1793, however, Ronsin had found and embraced a radically new model: that of the Terrorist, committed above all to the bloody extermination of the enemies of the Revolution. This paper, derived from a broader project on selfhood, politics and war in the French Revolution, will reexamine Ronsin's career in light of recent work on selfhood, emulation and ambition in early modern European culture. It will suggest that the Terror, in Revolutionary France, depended on the emergence of a new model of revolutionary -- what we would call, in retrospect, the "Terrorist" -- that men like Ronsin could emulate, and which served to justify the actions they carried out.
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