Robert Roswell Palmer

Robert Roswell Palmer (January 11, 1909 – June 11, 2002), commonly known as R. R. Palmer, was a distinguished American historian at Princeton and Yale universities, who specialized in eighteenth-century France. His most influential work of scholarship, The Age of the Democratic Revolution: A Political History of Europe and America, 1760–1800 (1959 and 1964), examined an age of democratic revolution that swept the Atlantic civilization between 1760 and 1800. He was awarded the Bancroft Prize in History for the first volume. Palmer also achieved distinction as a history text writer.


Born in Chicago, Illinois, Palmer accelerated through the public schools. By winning a citywide contest for a play written in Latin, he earned a full scholarship to the University of Chicago where he studied with the historian Louis Gottschalk and earned his bachelor's degree (Ph.B.) in 1931. He received his Ph.D. in History from Cornell University three years later, studying with Carl L. Becker.[1] His dissertation was The French Idea of American Independence on the Eve of the French Revolution – "published/created" 1934.[2]

Palmer began teaching at Princeton University as an instructor in 1936, and worked there for nearly three decades, becoming a full professor. He was dean of arts and sciences (1963–1966) at Washington University in St. Louis, then returned to teaching and writing at Yale, where he retired as professor emeritus. Palmer had visiting professorships at numerous universities, including Berkeley, Chicago, Colorado and Michigan. After retiring in 1977, he returned to Princeton as a guest scholar at its Institute for Advanced Study.[1]

Palmer married Esther Howard in 1942, and they had three children and four grandchildren. His son, the historian Stanley Palmer, is a professor of history at the University of Texas at Arlington. After R.R. Palmer's death in 2002 at Newtown, Bucks County, Pennsylvania, a memorial service was held at Princeton Chapel.


In 1950 Palmer published A History of the Modern World, which is in its eleventh edition as of 2013. (Joel Colton is a co-author from 1961, the 2nd edition, and Lloyd Kramer is coauthor from 2002, the 9th ed.)[3] The text has been translated into six languages and is used in more than 1000 colleges and many AP European History high school courses.[4] It is notable for its clear, essay-like writing style.[5] Palmer's introduction covers the period from the earliest signs of human civilization to 1300 CE. The main body of the text covers events from the Black Death to the Fall of the Soviet Union in European history. The book is organized partly by ideas: for example, the relation of the French Revolution to modern and ancient thought may be mentioned before the French Revolution.

Palmer's most important work of historical scholarship is The Age of the Democratic Revolution: A Political History of Europe and America, 1760–1800. It was published by Princeton in two volumes: The Challenge (1959), which won the Bancroft Prize in American History, and The Struggle (1964). Palmer's masterwork traced the growth of two competing forces – ideas of democracy and equality, on the one hand, and the growing power of aristocracies in society, on the other – and the results of the collision between these forces, including both the American Revolution and the French Revolution. Thus it foreshadowed the development of "comparative Atlantic history" as a field.[1] It remains a valuable resource for scholars. In 1971 Palmer published a slightly revised and condensed version of the second volume as The World of the French Revolution.

The following is a chapter by chapter summary — with copious quotations — of "The Age of Democratic Revolution: the Challenge":

"The act by which a people acknowledges and confirms itself is a united people" = The General Will [121]

Reading this account the realization forces itself upon one that in present-day America the 'General Will' had collapsed—undermined to dilapidation by Blue-state/Red-state extremism et alia.

"That the depositories of executive power are not the masters of the people, but its officers; that the people may establish or remove them as they please. {R.]" [123]

"It is precisely because the force of things always tends to destroy equality that the force of legislature should always tend to maintain it."—Thus Empress Maria Theresa favors the common man against the Bohemian landlords. [124]

The primacy of public over private duty: "In a good state men will have little private interest or private business; they will constantly be busy as citizens, attending assemblies, watching over officials, ratifying laws. [P.]" {But recall that Rousseau's model was the tiny republic of Geneva where direct democracy was at least potentially possible}

Disease, madness, unhinging of the mind, forgetfulness of the past, rebirth from the ashes = the revolutionary process! [126]

The problem of imposing of a common will: the 'dictatorship' of the Terror and the proto-totalitarian character of any radical revolution when enacted in the face of a capable and resisting status quo. [126]

One school holds "that there was no 'democratic revolution' in America because America was already democratic in the colonial period. [186]

Palmer argues, "There was a real revolution in America, and it was a painful conflict in which many were injured." He validates this claim by means of "two quantitative and objective measures: how many refugees were there from the American Revolution, and how much property did they lose in comparison to the French Revolution?"

Palmer's brilliant paradox: "The American Revolution was, indeed, a movement to conserve what already existed. It was hardly, however, a 'conservative' movement, and it can give limited comfort to the theorists of conservatism, for it was the weakness of the conservative forces in eighteenth-century America, not their strength, that made the American Revolution as moderate as it was." [189] What he means, as he goes on to show clearly, is that because there was no violent conservative counter-revolution in America, there was no need for the American revolutionaries to violently assert themselves. Compare here the situation in France: the regicide of King Louis XVI and the period of the Terror in France that followed were motivated by the power and threat of counter-revolution: the French aristocratic émigrés who, with the aid of Austrian and Prussian bayonets, were ready and eager (in the summer of 1792) to reinstall the monarchy and void the gains of the Revolution [Vol. II].

"The first and greatest effect of the American Revolution in Europe was to make Europeans believe, or rather feel, often in a highly emotional way, that they lived in a rare moment of momentous change. They saw a kind of drama of the continents." [239]

Brissot (the virtual head of the French government in 1792): "He has been called an early pre-socialist, and credited with the idea that property is theft, but he was also involved in speculation in Ohio River land, and with this in mind made a trip to the United States . . . etc." [261]

"The great problem (and it was a real problem) was to prevent the powers thus constituted from usurping more authority than they had been granted. According to one school, this should be done by a balance of constituted institutions or 'powers'; according to the other "the people itself must maintain constant vigilance and restraint upon the powers of government . . . Brissot belonged emphatically to the second school. The Constituent Power, or People, he said, must keep perpetual watch over government." [262-3]

Palmer's comment: "B. saw one side of the American constitutional doctrine, that the people should ordain government. He did not see the other side, that the people having ordained government should allow themselves to be governed by it, or that having set limits they ought to abide by the limits, and short of extreme provocation, be content with the occasional and strictly legalized power to vote unwanted officials out of office. Even democrats in America came to accept this somewhat routinized constitutionalism." [265]

How in late 18th century Prussia "The idea that the 'people,' that is the governed, should take part in the formation or conduct of government was unfamiliar."

"One problem, however, preoccupied all of the French and all of the Americans in this international argument. It was the problem of how best to prevent the growth of a hereditary aristocracy."

The dispute between Turgot (Louis XVI's principal minister between 1774 and 1776) and John Adams. Turgot objected to the doctrine of separation of powers' since he thought that the Nation must be represented as an undifferentiated whole. [267-9]

Abbé Mably joined Adams in opposition to Turgot. "Regarded as an early prophet of socialism, he had remarked to Adams (and Adams agreed) that people who are hungry cannot be punctilious about virtue." . . . He was painfully aware of inequalities of wealth. He thought that the rich and poor had different interests. Hence, unlike Turgot, he believed that American government should have powers of regulation to prevent the accumulation of excessive fortunes." . . . "Mably did not believe in Adam's popularly elected executive (neither did any Frenchman, or Jefferson either), but he did firmly believe in a two-chamber system with a strong senate, by which 'aristocracy and democracy are held in equilibrium. [270]

Adam's "reading of European history taught him, what it never taught most democrats, Jeffersonians or Whigs, that monarchy over the centuries had often protected the people against the nobles."---Adams wrote--"[the executive] is the natural friend of the people, and the only defense which they or their representatives can have against the avarice and ambition of the rich and distinguished citizens." And it is the usual practice "of a few illustrious and wealthy citizens to excite clamors and uneasiness" against the executive, which is the essence of government.

According to Adams [Palmer writes] "The rich should be made to sit apart in a house of their own, not to protect their own interests, and not because in a popular one-chamber system the people would despoil them, but for the opposite reason, because if the rich sat in a one-chamber house they would corrupt the popular representation, and despoil the people." [274]

Adams: "There is no special Providence for Americans, and their nature is the same as others." . . . In America, too, he thought people easily fell into the habit of accepting the leadership of a few families; in the simplest New England town meetings, he observed, men of the same families were elected to office for four and five generations." [274]

How Adams perplexed his readers by his careless use of the word "orders". He was referring to different orders of political office (senate, popular assembly, executive); whereas his critics mistook him to be referring to social orders such as Kings, Lords, and Commons.

Jefferson Notes on Virginia: he faulted Virginia's constitution for the particular defect of its "dominion over the executive and judiciary by the legislative assembly", which he called "elective despotism"; but which Adams referred to as "aristocracy." [276]

The views of Condorcet (friend and biographer of Turgot, and future intellectual luminary of the revolution soon to come to France).

Condorcet, like Turgot, advocate for a single assembly to represent simply the nation as such. [278]

Though the Revolution brought him to accept manhood suffrage, in 1788 he favored voting rights only for those who owned enough landed property to live without working; to smaller landowners he proposed giving fractional votes. [278]

"In France an upper chamber would mean a chamber composed largely of the high nobility, and the executive was bound to mean King Louis XVI, who by June 1879 had got himself into the position of supporting the nobility against the Third Estate." [281]

"There were really two meanings to the separation of powers, which the Americans could keep separate and which the French could not. There was [on the one hand] the idea of separation of social classes, the old idea of Montesquieu, expressible in the formula of King, Lords, and Commons. There was [on the other hand] the idea of separation between functions of government, expressible in the formula of executive, senate, and assembly. The French were not free to have the latter without the former."

"In America the senators were not lords, nor were the governors kings; they were temporary occupants of office, with no personal right to the exercise of public authority." Here Adams, Stevens, Jefferson, and Franklin all agreed—as did all Americans "after the defeat of the Loyalists." [282]

"In France [however] the essence of the revolution was the revolt of the Third Estate against the nobility. With the hostile nobility to overcome, and a king sympathetic with the nobility to contend with, the creation of an upper house and a strong independent executive was simply not among the possible choices for men interested in furthering the French Revolution."

Ergo: Politics is once again shown to be the art of the possible!

His discussion of Burke is not very enlightening. It does, however, portray Burke as somewhat self-serving and not entirely consistent, and as not having the respect of his colleagues in the British Commons, many of whom would walk out when he began his fumigations! Special reference is made to Burke's undelivered speech probably meant for June 16, 1784--"a beautifully compact statement of what was to become philosophical conservatism." [313-17]

"The point to be emphasized in the present connection is that Burke's conservatism was well formed long before the French Revolution."

How Adams was horrified by conditions in Poland where 'a gentleman' was fined only fifty livres for killing a peasant. A government without three independent branches, he concluded, would degenerate either into absolute monarchy or into aristocracy, as in Poland, where "nobility will annihilate the people, and attended with their horses, hounds and vassals, will run down the king as they would a deer." [412]

Poland suffered from a strange institution of noble prerogative called the Liberum Veto (in habitual use from 1652) whereby "any deputy in the central diet [assembly of the nobility], acting as the representative of his home assembly (and in practice carrying out the will of some magnate--or foreign prince even!) could arise in the diet and by pronouncing the formula, sic nolo, sic veto, not merely block the legislation in question, but force the dissolution of the diet itself. Forty-eight of fifty-five diets held between 1652 and 1764 were thus arbitrarily dissolved by minority or indeed individual interests. [Thus, in view of the powerlessness of the executive, i.e. the Polish King] There was a general atrophy of the institutions of government." {Can anyone say 'Filibuster'?}

The free veto [Liberum Veto] meant that a principle of unanimity prevailed; thus, it entailed a denial of the principle of majority rule in deliberate bodies. "Acceptance of majority rule, Konopczynski reminds us (and it is easy to forget) is in fact a difficult, artificial, and acquired habit of mind. It depends on several prerequisites: first, that votes be counted, not evaluated in importance according to the identity of the voter; that is, that all votes be considered equal. In the order of business discussion must be distinctly followed by voting, lest nothing emerge but a vague sense of the meeting, or apparent unanimity in which responsibilities are indefinite and differences of opinion are temporarily covered up, only to break out later. There must be a party of some kind, personal, political, religious, or economic, willing to work for years to carry out a decision, and to resist its reversal. It is well to have a settled and fixed population, for if dissidents can simply go away, or retire so far into the depths of the country as to be forgotten, they never learn to submit to majority wishes, nor does the majority learn to govern. A strong executive is useful, for there can be no majority rule unless minorities are obliged to accept decisions once made. Lastly, persons who in their own right are the masters of men, sovereigns on estates with subjects of their own, submit with reluctance to a majority even of their own equals; majority rule has always seemed more reasonable to middle classes than to seigneurs. [417]

"European monarchs, as Rousseau told the Poles, were fond of liberty for their neighbors, because they believed that liberty made men weak. Nor can this cynical opinion be called mistaken . . . " (Palmer means, in light of the way the monarchs actually did run roughshod over the early democratic movements in Europe . . . at least until Napoleon—and even he ended up a 'monarch'!) [422]

Palmer relates how the "liberal/democratic" Polish constitution of 1991 became an ideological football: the French radicals condemning it as too weak; Burke commending it as a refutation of the violence of the French Revolution; the authoritarian monarchs of Prussia, Austria, and Russia condemning it as 'rank Jacobinism'. [429-424]

[End of summary]

The 1941 monograph Twelve Who Ruled is also noteworthy. It has been in print since its first edition, was reissued with a new preface in 1989 for the French Revolution bicentennial, and was reissued as a Princeton Classic in 2005 as part of the University Press centennial celebration.[6] The book is a fusion of history and collective biography, focusing on the members of the Committee of Public Safety and their efforts to guide France during the Terror following their Revolution. Columbia University history professor Isser Woloch, a specialist in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic eras, has stated that Twelve Who Ruled "may be the best book on the French Revolution written by an American."[4]

Selected works

Historical atlas

From 1983 the [Rand McNally] Atlas of World History, general editor R. I. Moore, is based on The Hamlyn Historical Atlas (Hamlyn, 1981).[9]

Honors and awards


  1. 1 2 3 Palmer, Stanley. "Former AHA President R. R. Palmer Dies". Perspectives on History. July 2002. American Historical Association. Retrieved 2014-04-26.
  2. 1 2 "The French idea of American independence on the eve of the French ...". Library of Congress Catalog Record (LCC). Retrieved 2014-04-26.
  3. 1 2 "Formats and Editions of A history of the modern world". WorldCat. Retrieved 2014-04-26.
  4. 1 2 Martin, Douglas. "R. R. Palmer, 93, History Text Author, Dies". The New York Times. June 18, 2002. Retrieved 2011-01-14.
  5. Johnson, Julia, ed. Choice: a classified cumulation: volumes 1–10; March 1964–February 1974, Volume 6 (Rowman and Littlefield, 1976), p. 131.
  6. 1 2 "Formats and Editions of Twelve who ruled: {...}". WorldCat. Retrieved 2014-04-26.
  7. "The procurement and training of ground combat troops". LCC. Retrieved 2014-04-26.
  8. "From Jacobin to liberal: Marc-Antoine Jullien, 1775–1848". WorldCat. Retrieved 2014-04-26.
  9. "Formats and Editions of Atlas of world history". WorldCat. Retrieved 2014-04-26.

Further reading


Robert Roswell Palmer: a transatlantic journey of American liberalism (New Milford, CT: Berghahn Books, 2011); Historical Reflections, vol. 37, no. 3

External links

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