Title: Nature's Fury: Violence and Natural Metaphor in the Rhetoric of the French Revolution.
Name: Mary Ashburn Miller

Visiting Assistant Professor of History and Humanities
Reed College

Year: 2008
Type: Dissertation Fellowship
Summary: This project seeks to answer the question of how participants in the French Revolution explained, understood, and justified the radical violence in their midst. In analyzing political speeches, government-sponsored plays, festivals, and popular newspapers, it reveals that revolutionaries drew allusions between violent transformations in the natural world and destructive events in their political one. Thus crowds involved in the 1792 September Massacres were called an unstoppable "torrent" that cleansed the earth; journalists made analogies between the Terror and a hailstorm, suggesting that it would, "purif[y] the atmosphere, destroy[ing]... the good grain as well as the sterile hay." Even the meaning of revolution itself could gesture towards the natural world; a "revolution of the earth," a term used to describe floods and earthquakes, was simultaneously constructive and destructive, devastating and yet unavoidable. These allusions allowed enactors and supporters of revolutionary violence to make violence seem like a natural and necessary part of the revolutionary process, while simultaneously deflecting responsibility for bloodshed.

Ultimately, this research demonstrates that the logic of the natural world offered the revolutionaries a crucial means of explaining and justifying revolutionary transformation and violence that seemed, at first glance, inexplicable. It gave them a way to acknowledge the fact that revolutionary events often spun out of control, belying the persistent image of the Revolution as a process driven entirely by human will, while still defending the necessity of these events, and their place in a larger historical pattern. What is more, this project suggests that the language we use to describe violence can in turn lead to more violence, and that rhetoric can limit opposition to violence by making it seem as unavoidable as an earthquake.

Bibliography: Miller, Mary Ashburn. A Natural History of Revolution: Violence and Nature in the French Revolutionary Imagination (Cornell University Press, 2011).

Miller, Mary Ashburn. "Mountain, Become a Volcano": The Image of the Volcano in the Rhetoric of the French Revolution. French Historical Studies 32.4 (Fall 2009).