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Peter McPhee

Peter McPhee

Peter McPhee was appointed to a Personal Chair in History at the University of Melbourne in 1993. He has published widely on the history of modern France, most recently Robespierre: A revolutionary life (2012); and Liberty or Death: The French Revolution (2016). He was Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academic) 2003–7 before becoming the University’s first Provost in 2007–9, with responsibility for the design and implementation of the ‘Melbourne Model’. He became a Member of the Order of Australia in 2012. He is currently the Chair of the History Council of Victoria, the state’s peak body for history.

Peter McPhee reviews ‘Alfred Dreyfus: The man at the center of the affair’ by Maurice Samuels

July 2024, no. 466 21 June 2024
Jews are central to narratives of the history of modern France. One narrative thread concerns a story of civic emancipation from the time when Jews were first granted equal rights during the French Revolution until the present, when Prime Minister Gabriel Attal is not only France’s youngest postwar prime minister but also, like his predecessor Élisabeth Borne, of Jewish ancestry. The other narr ... (read more)

Peter McPhee reviews ‘The Revolutionary Temper: Paris, 1748-1789’ by Robert Darnton

May 2024, no. 464 22 April 2024
On 27 August 1783, Jacques Charles launched the world’s first hydrogen balloon flight from the Champ de Mars (now the site of the Eiffel Tower). He excluded his rival Jacques-Étienne Montgolfier from the ticketed reserve. Then, on 21 November, Charles and another ‘navigateur aérien’ made the first manned flight, landing thirty kilometres north of Paris. Montgolfier was invited to cut a rib ... (read more)

Peter McPhee reviews 'Revolutionary Spring: Fighting for a new world, 1848–1849' by Christopher Clark

December 2023, no. 460 24 November 2023
There are two powerful images evoked by the waves of revolutions that broke across Europe in 1848. The first is of ‘the springtime of the peoples’, when scores of popular insurrections overturned the conservative Metternich system of a balance of power between monarchical regimes that had ruled the continent since the overthrow of Napoleon Bonaparte in 1815. In France the core demand was popul ... (read more)

Peter McPhee reviews 'Secret Agent, Unsung Hero: The valour of Bruce Dowding' by Peter Dowding and Ken Spillman

November 2023, no. 459 24 September 2023
Bruce Dowding was born in 1914 into a middle-class family in the south-eastern suburbs of Melbourne. He won scholarships to private schools, including Wesley College, where he taught French during his Arts degree at the University of Melbourne. In January 1938, he departed to France on a travelling scholarship, guaranteed a position on the staff at Wesley on his return. The riveting story of the ... (read more)

Peter McPhee reviews 'The Man Who Understood Democracy: The life of Alexis de Tocqueville' by Olivier Zunz

September 2022, no. 446 27 August 2022
Alexis de Tocqueville was born in 1805 into an eminent Norman aristocratic family, with ancestors who had participated in the Battle of Hastings and the conquest of England in 1066. This was a family and social milieu that was to be deeply scarred by the French Revolution of 1789–99. His parents were Hervé, Comte de Tocqueville, formerly an officer of the personal guard of Louis XVI, and Louise ... (read more)

Peter McPhee reviews 'The Pursuit of Europe: A history' by Anthony Pagden

May 2022, no. 442 29 December 2021
Histories of the origins of the idea of ‘Europe’ have probed the legacies of the Roman Empire, the concept of western Christendom, and the power of the ‘republic of letters’ in the dissemination of ‘Enlightenment’ ideas, culminating in the cosmopolitanism of the early years of the French Revolution. Anthony Pagden is well aware of this heritage but has decided to begin his own study wi ... (read more)

Peter McPhee reviews 'Death of a Notary: Conquest and change in colonial New York' by Donna Merwick

September 2002, no. 244 01 September 2002
‘He was the only one. He was the only man to have committed suicide in the town’s seventeenth-century history.’ Thus Donna Merwick invites us into this sad and instructive tale about the colonial Dutch world of North America. On one level, this is the story of Adriaen Janse van Ilpendam, a Dutch schoolmaster and notary based in the small settlement of Beverwijck, later known as Albany, who ... (read more)

'The digital cliff: Protecting the National Archives of Australia' by Peter McPhee

June 2021, no. 432 10 May 2021
Many readers will recall reports of the fire in April 2021 that damaged the University of Cape Town’s library, which, among other riches, housed invaluable collections of unique manuscripts and personal papers, and one of the most extensive African film collections in the world. The extent of the damage is still being assessed. Even worse, the fire that destroyed the National Museum of Brazil in ... (read more)

Peter McPhee reviews 'The Napoleonic Wars: A global history' by Alexander Mikaberidze

May 2021, no. 431 27 April 2021
The French have a term for weighty tomes of scholarship: gros pavés or paving stones. Alexander Mikaberidze has landed his own gros pavé, an extraordinary account of the Napoleonic Wars of 1799–1815 in almost one thousand pages, based on an awe-inspiring knowledge of military and political history and a facility in at least half a dozen languages. The scale of his knowledge is breathtaking. M ... (read more)

Peter McPhee reviews 'Napoleon and de Gaulle: Heroes and history' by Patrice Gueniffey, translated by Steven Rendall

December 2020, no. 427 25 November 2020
Forty years ago, François Furet outraged the French historical establishment by proclaiming that ‘the French Revolution is over’, launching a blistering critique of the Marxist categories and politics of university historians, many of them still members of the Communist Party he had abandoned in 1959. By the time of the bicentenary in 1989, historians were in bitter dispute over the meaning a ... (read more)
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