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James Mackintosh: Vindiciae Gallicae and Other Writings on the French Revolution (= Natural Law and Enlightenment Classics), Indianapolis: Liberty Fund 2006, XX + 318 S., ISBN 978-0-86597-462-3, GBP 13,95
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Rezension von:
Ann Thomson
Université de Paris VIII, St. Denis
Redaktionelle Betreuung:
Susanne Lachenicht
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Ann Thomson: Rezension von: James Mackintosh: Vindiciae Gallicae and Other Writings on the French Revolution, Indianapolis: Liberty Fund 2006, in: sehepunkte 8 (2008), Nr. 4 [15.04.2008], URL:

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James Mackintosh: Vindiciae Gallicae and Other Writings on the French Revolution

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James Mackintosh (1765-1832) is perhaps best known for Vindiciae Gallicae (1791), his defence of the French Revolution in reply to Edmund Burke following those by Mary Wollstonecraft, Catherine Macaulay, Joseph Priestley and Thomas Paine. Mackintosh later became disillusioned with events in France, changed his position and apologized to Burke in 1796. As a Whig M.P. after 1813 he opposed universal suffrage.

This volume provides the text of the third edition of Vindiciae Gallicae, 1791 (1-165), together with Mackintosh's other writings linked to the French Revolution: A Letter to the Right Honourable William Pitt on His Apostacy... , 1792 (167-201); A Discourse on the Law of Nature and Nations, 1799, accompanied by extracts from the lectures which it introduced (203-249); and an article 'On the State of France in 1815' published in the Edinburgh Review (259-278). Donald Winch's short introduction (ix-xvii) sketches the main stages in Mackintosh's career (supplemented by a chronology of his life, (279-281)) and the main aspects of each of the works. It brings out the different traditions on which he drew and in particular his relation to Scottish thinking.

While Vindiciae Gallicae is available elsewhere, the other works are not so easily accessible; it is therefore very useful to have an annotated edition bringing together all of Mackintosh's works on events in France, and situating Vindiciae Gallicae in the context of Mackintosh's intellectual development rather than, as is more usual, that of the other replies to Burke. The volume enables the reader to understand more clearly Mackintosh's position which, despite the violence of his attack on Burke (to which he added criticism of Calonne's 1790 work on events in France), was much more moderate than that of someone like Paine, whose works were directed at a very different readership.

Mackintosh, who is consistently wary about democracy of rule by the mob, was a partisan of reform in Britain rather than revolution and did not share the appeal to Saxon liberties common to many radicals. His Letter to Pitt in favour of Parliamentary reform, which accuses Pitt of abandoning his former principles, carefully dissociates the arguments for reform in Britain from the principles of the French Revolution. He argues that reform in Britain is necessary to isolate the country from the dangers resulting from either the success or the failure of the French experiment, thus as Donald Winch points out, indicating the gradual change in his attitude towards the Revolution.

Although the Discourse on the Law of Nature and Nations does not deal directly with France it was, as Donald Winch explains (x), a means to show his change of position. The views expounded in the Discourse and in the extracts from the Lectures appended to it show clearly the extent to which Mackintosh had travelled from his earlier position; he here violently criticizes radicals like Godwin (never directly named) and defenders of a social contract like Rousseau, whom he had earlier praised.

The final article on France in 1815 contains interesting reflections on the changes in French society and land-holding, while showing hostility to revolutionary principles. But his prediction of future political developments in France was proved wrong by events.

As is usual with Liberty Fund publications, the annotation is relatively limited, but the identification of quotations, mainly impeccable (an exception is confusion over the spelling of the name Thomson, (53, 135)), is supplemented by a very useful 'Selective Chronology of Events' between 1787 and 1815 and a 'Dramatis Personæ', although unfortunately not a bibliography. The 'Dramatis Personæ' provides the complete names and dates of those mentioned in the texts, although many of the entries could be thought rather too minimalist. It is also unfortunately not completely inclusive, as several names seem to have been omitted. To give one example, a footnote to the reference on page 165 to the Birmingham riots simply identifies the 'philosopher' concerned as Joseph Priestley with no further explanation (although the riots are listed in both of the chronologies); as Priestley is not to be found in the 'Dramatis Personæ', the reader's task is not really simplified. There also seems to be a misidentification of Sacheverell on page 298, and on the same page an unfortunate misprint has mangled the English translation of the title of Pufendorf's work.

Despite such minor blemishes the volume, supplemented by a detailed index, is a welcome addition to the Liberty Fund's series on Natural Law and Enlightenment. This collection of texts which chart the changing reactions to the French Revolution of a particular Scottish 'philosophic Whig' reveals the principles on which this reaction was based. It thus gives the reader a clearer picture of the intellectual challenges of this troubled period.

Ann Thomson