© David, La mort de Marat
Character assassination and antiliberalism in (pre-)Revolutionary France

Tyranny and Terror

Character assassination and antiliberalism often go hand in hand. Two distinguished British historians will speak about character assassination and antiliberal elements in the 1700s. While Enlightenment ideals led to a surge of liberalism and sparked the birth of Europe’s first liberal democracies, these developments also triggered strong counter reactions.

On the occasion of the interdisciplinary conference “Character Assassination, Illiberalism, and the Erosion of Civic Rights” (UvA, 21-23 June), two distinguished British historians will speak about character assassination and antiliberal elements in the 1800s. Simon Burrows will discuss French diplomats in London in the decades leading up to the French Revolution, exploring how these men experienced acts of character assassination and attempted to manage their reputations, as well as that of the French government. The overzealous French response to these character attacks helped to promote an image of France as a despotic and illiberal state which sought to extend its power well beyond its borders.

Next, Marisa Linton will focus on the bloody period known as ‘the Terror’ (1793-94), when the newly-forged democratic order created by the revolutionaries, based on the principles of freedom, equality and the advancement of human rights, was undermined by the recourse to terror. France’s leaders were not exempt from the harsh laws they themselves had enacted; many were denounced as ‘traitors’ and lost their lives under the guillotine. What circumstances led them to turn on one another with such fatal consequences?

About the speakers

Simon Burrows is Professor in History and Digital Humanities at Western Sydney University and currently a visiting Radboud Excellence Professor, who specializes in the European Enlightenment, the eighteenth-century public sphere and the French Revolution. Among many other publications, he is the author of Blackmail, Scandal, and Revolution: London’s French Libellistes, 1758-92 (2006) and ‘The Character Assassination of Marie-Antoinette: Defamation in the Age of the French Revolution’ (2020).

Marisa Linton is Professor Emerita in History at Kingston University London and specializes in the French Revolution, eighteenth-century politics and the Enlightenment. Among many other publications, she is the author of Choosing Terror: Virtue, Friendship and Authenticity in the French Revolution (2013) and, most recently, Terror: The French Revolution and its Demons, with Michel Biard (2021).

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