Scholarly understanding of the notion of public opinion in France has suffered, and suffers still, from some serious misconceptions. Chief of these is the belief that its prominence in the decades prior to the Revolution and talk of a ‘tribunal’ that passed judgement on kings as on other men was part of the assault that eventually doomed the monarchy. The ‘tribunal’ metaphor was already familiar in the middle years of the seventeenth century and remained a relative commonplace, in no way hostile to monarchy, in the early eighteenth century and after. Failure to consult antecedents of the language of the 1770s has turned a form of discourse, often put to conservative ends, into the harbinger of violent change.
A second misreading of political language ignores the fact that in the French usage of this period, public opinion divided was no public opinion at all; therein lies the considerable divergence between l’opinion publique and Anglo-Saxon public opinion. Our modern understanding takes for granted that there are many opinions and many publics; not so the French political tradition as recounted here. This, it should be noted, fits well with a Jacobin tyranny of the majority, but long antedates the extremists of the Revolution.
In this volume J.A.W. Gunn presents a lively context for discussion about public opinion, emphasising the recognition of opinion as a resource vital for the support of the monarchy and the fortunes of the nobility.