Did barristers as a professional group support the French Revolution, or were they most often “in flight from politics”? A close inquiry into the Order of Barristers at Paris—the largest and most important in France, with over six hundred members in 1789—reveals that the vast majority within the Order did not support the Revolution. Unsympathetic to the ideal of the nation asserted by the National Assembly, most members of the Order instead remained loyal to the traditional corporate paradigm that the National Assembly had specifically repudiated. Dismayed by the abolition of their Order, they were disillusioned with the Revolution even before the advent of the Terror, which, along with the arbitrariness of the Directory, deepened their disaffection. The manner in which Bonaparte ultimately restored the Order in 1811 completed their alienation from the Revolution and, as a result, they warmly welcomed the return of the Bourbons in 1814.
This investigation not only revises what historians have long thought of the attitude of barristers toward the French Revolution, but also offers insights into the corporate character of Old Regime society and how the Revolution affected it. Fitzsimmons’s study suggests that many propertied commoners during the Revolution were not politically engaged, that they were not necessarily associated with a party or cause simply because of their place within a set of social relationships. Most of the barristers to the Parlement simply reacted timidly to events and yearned for an ideal that was irretrievably lost, tending to view the Revolution more in terms of an end than of a beginning.