Historian: J. M. Thompson

jm thompsonName: James Matthew Thompson

Lived: 1878-1956

Nationality: English

Profession(s): Clergyman, academic, historian

Books: Leaders of the French Revolution (1929), Robespierre (1935), English Witnesses of the French Revolution (1938), Napoleon Bonaparte: His Rise and Fall (1952).

Perspective: Liberal

James M. Thompson was born in 1878, the son of an Anglican reverend. Thompson was raised and educated in the country before completing a degree in theology and philosophy at Oxford. This education was intended to prepare him for the Anglican clergy and he was duly ordained in 1903. In 1906 Thompson became Dean of Divinity at Magdalen College, Oxford. His deanship was controversial, chiefly because of Thompson’s theological writings, which challenged existing church doctrine and led several Anglican prelates to demand his replacement. He resigned as dean in 1915 but returned to Oxford after the war, primarily as a lecturer and tutor in modern history. In the late 1920s Thompson began writing and publishing original research, focusing particularly on French history and the revolution. In time he became Britain’s leading expert on the French Revolution, at least until the emergence of Richard Cobb and Alfred Cobban after World War II. Thompson’s historical position is difficult to pin down. While he was influenced by Albert Mathiez, Thompson’s perspectives tend to be more Whig-liberal than Marxist. His 1935 study of Robespierre shows some sympathy to its subject, suggesting that Robespierre’s intentions were good, even though his methods and aptitude were flawed. In terms of methodology Thompson employed the positivism of François Aulard, studying the revolution chronologically and through significant documents before reaching conclusions.


“It has become fashionable to condemn a ‘bourgeois revolution’. There is a sense… in which every revolution is a bourgeois revolution.”

“The French nation at the end of the 18th century was not exceptional in having to rely on its professional and propertied minority for liberalism and leadership. It was unusually fortunate that this minority was too weak to establish its rule without the help of the majority, and too patriotic to exploit its private interests until it had carried through a program of national reform.”

“An aristocrat, [Mirabeau] felt ill at ease amongst his bourgeois fellow deputies and distrusted their irresponsible meddling with the science and art of government. His monarchism was not, like theirs, a sentiment, but a conviction. He knew that France needed a strong executive and that it must rest in the hands of the king and his ministers, though supervised by the legislature and responsible to the people.”

“[Robespierre] made little figure in the early sessions of the Estates General. Most of his speeches in the Convention were carefully prepared harangues, more suitable for the lecturer’s desk or the preacher’s pulpit than the tribune of a popular assembly. He could never extemporise an appeal to the crowd like Danton. There was none of Lafayette’s glamour, nothing heroic or soldierly in his spectacled eyes and sharp features. He was made for opposition, not government.”

“Paris, whose citizens were prouder of their capital than of their country, and certain of its right to dictate the art and literature and government of France… This Paris would take charge of the revolution.”

“These men [the Girondons] were not republicans but their policy played into the hands of republicanism, for their preached war and they hoped that war would put them into power, with the army in their hands and the king under their feet. But they were talkers, men of theory, not statesmen or men of action. They failed to reckon the real dangers of the situation, either at home or abroad.”

“It would be easy to say that the Jacobins were in love with power or that Robespierre established a personal dictatorship. The first statemen would be partly true, the second mostly false; neither would really explain what happened.”

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