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Gibbon's Unfinished History: The French Revolution and English Political Vocabularies

David Womersley
The Historical Journal
Vol. 35, No. 1 (Mar., 1992), pp. 63-89
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2639480
Page Count: 27
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Gibbon's Unfinished History: The French Revolution and English Political Vocabularies
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Abstract

On Gibbon's death his papers contained an incomplete and unpublished essay on the genealogy of the European dynasty of which the British royal family was a branch, entitled The antiquities of the house of Brunswick. This article explains why Gibbon began this work, and why he laid it aside. Beginning by describing the nature and purpose of literature on Hanoverian genealogy in the earlier eighteenth century, and proceeding to relate the content of the Antiquities to the politics of Blackstone and Hume, the article identifies the Antiquities as a distinctively ancien regime defence of British political life and institutions which was elicited from Gibbon by the early months of the French revolution. The abandonment of the Antiquities is then explained as part of Gibbon's shocked response to the deepening gravity of events in France after the September massacres. In the polarized political atmosphere which ensued, the literary finesse of the Antiquities ran the risk of being confused with disaffection. That risk was increased when Gibbon and The decline and fall began to be used by radicals as auxiliaries in their attack on England's ancien regime. The textual history of the Antiquities allows us to perceive the rapidity with which the connotations and ownership of certain political vocabularies in England changed during the early 1790s.

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