Jonathan Israel’s Revolutionary Ideas opens with a scene that will be familiar to anyone who has frequented the expat pubs of Paris: Brits, Yanks and Irish getting pissed together in Francophilic fraternité. True, the group assembled at White’s Hotel on 18 November 1792 was rather more high-minded than your average holidaying punters. They included the English and American revolutionaries Thomas Paine and Joel Barlow, the Presbyterian minister David Williams, the former member of parliament Sir Robert Smyth, the Scots journalist and solider John Oswald, the Irish Lord Edward Fitzgerald and the poets Helen Maria Williams and Robert Merry. Even Wordsworth may have been on hand. Collectively, they raised their glasses in a succession of toasts: to the rights of man and the citizen; to the new French republic; to the end of feudalism; to women; and to patriots pursuing revolution throughout the world. Finally, in the last of the tributes, they drank to universal peace. By that point, clearly, everyone was drunk.
Even so, it is a heady reminder of the idealism that fuelled so much of the French Revolution. It is also a reminder that the spirits of Jonathan Israel, professor of modern European history at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, remain high. Despite nearly two decades of furious