Natural right—the idea that there is a collection of laws and rights based not on custom or belief but that are “natural” in origin—is typically associated with liberal politics and freedom. In The Terror of Natural Right, Dan Edelstein argues that the revolutionaries used the natural right concept of the “enemy of the human race”—an individual who has transgressed the laws of nature and must be executed without judicial formalities—to authorize three-quarters of the deaths during the Terror. Edelstein further contends that the Jacobins shared a political philosophy that he calls “natural republicanism,” which assumed that the natural state of society was a republic and that natural right provided its only acceptable laws. Ultimately, he proves that what we call the Terror was in fact only one facet of the republican theory that prevailed from Louis’s trial until the fall of Robespierre.
A highly original work of historical analysis, political theory, literary criticism, and intellectual history, The Terror of Natural Right challenges prevailing assumptions of the Terror to offer a new perspective on the Revolutionary period.
“One of the most memorable and absorbing books on the era I have ever read. . . . Against interpretations that simply blame circumstances, Edelstein too insists that ideas mattered. But the most provocative argument in his book is that the ideas that made the revolution spiral out of control were the cult of nature and the belief in natural rights.”
“Edelstein has given us a highly innovative and revealing discussion of the legal foundations of the Terror, tracing back the Revolution’s radical reform of justice to idiosyncratic interpretations of myths about the political state of nature and the golden age, as they appear in Enlightenment literature and in Jacobinian natural republicanism.”
“This important, provocative, and strikingly-written book—equally versed in the history of law, politics, and political thought—provides a major rethinking of French Revolutionary Terror. Its clear-eyed gaze on politics and violence will also ensure it a wider audience in an age that is itself struggling to come to terms with the ‘war on terror.’”
“The book has a complex argument, but Edelstein keeps a grip on his material throughout. He makes a well-substantiated and in many ways compelling argument based on strong and original interpretation that never loses sight of the context. If only all intellectual histories of the French Revolution were this well done.”
“The Terror of the Natural Right is both a rigorous archival account of the Terror and a study of our times….Calling on literature, political theory, legal history, mythology, and close reading of original sources, he provides a major reinterpretation of the Terror that challenges fundamental tenets of revisionist history and recent Marxist “bottom-up” studies of revolutionary violence. Furthermore, in drawing parallels between the Terror and the War on Terror, he sheds light on current international affairs, challenges recent theories of the state of exception, and demonstrates that the Revolution, far from over, can still captivate and enlighten like never before.”