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The French Revolution

French Revolution Books

What you need to know


  • Paris Parlement
  • Ancien Regime
  • Versailles
  • First, Second, and Third Estates
  • Paris Mob
  • Estates General
  • Liberty, Equality, Fraternity
  • Committee of Public Safety
  • Cult of the Supreme Being
  • Jacobins
  • Girondin
  • Emigres
  • Varennes
  • Levee en Mass
  • Execution of Louis XVI
  • Reign of Terror
  • Wars of Revolution
  • Constitution of 1791—main features
  • Constitution of 1795—main features
  • National Assembly
  • Legislative Assembly
  • National Convention
  • Directory
  • Consulate
  • Empire
  • Continental System
  • Assignats
  • Civil Constitution of the Clergy
  • Concordat of 1801
  • Peninsular Campaign


  • Abbe Sieyes
  • Sans-Coulottes
  • Marquis Lafayette
  • Louis XVI
  • Marie Antoinette
  • Marat
  • Danton
  • Robespierre
  • Edmund Burke
  • Napoleon
  • Wellington
  • Metternich


  • Women’s March
  • Tennis Court Oath
  • Storming of the Bastille
  • The Great Fear
  • Night of August 4th, 1789
  • Fructidor
  • Brumaire
  • Leipzig
  • 100 Days
  • Waterloo
  • Elba
  • St. Helena


  • Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizen
  • What is the Third Estate?
  • Decree Abolishing the Feudal System
  • Declaration of Pilnitz
  • Reflections on the French Revolution
Questions to answer
  • Explain the social, economic, and cultural conditions that contributed to the start of the Revolution.
  • Was terror and violence intrinsic to the revolutionary agenda? To the revolutionary mentality? Explain.
  • Was the French Revolution driven mainly by political or economic motives?
  • Was it immaturity or overreaching that doomed the Revolution?
  • The Revolution was a victory for Rousseau over Locke and Hobbes over Rousseau. Explain.
  • It was over-democratization that destroyed the Revolution. Explain.
  • The Revolution failed because it went too far too fast. Explain.
  • The Revolution was doomed to fail because of contradictions inherent in Enlightenment ideals. Explain.
  • Napoleon both embodied and betrayed the ideals of the Revolution. Explain.
  • Who gained the most from the Revolution? Who lost the most?
  • Did the Revolution end at Fructidor or Brumaire? Explain.
  • Why did the American Revolution succeed where the French Revolution failed?
  • What should the Revolutionists have done differently in 1792? 1794? 1797?
  • The French Revolution marks the beginning of the modern world. Explain.
  • The Revolution both fulfilled and betrayed its Enlightenment origins. Explain
  • Compare the Legislative Assembly versus the Directory in terms of their respective success in governing the country.
  • Discuss the “arc of ideology” that unfolded through the Revolution, highlighting important turning points.
  • Was it over-reaching, immaturity, or innate flaws in its ideas that doomed the Revolution?
  • The Revolution was doomed at birth. Evaluate this statement.
  • Was Napoleon an enlightened absolutist?
Sample questions answered
Original documents
Supplementary notes

Napoleon: Enlightened Absolutist or Naked Despot?

Naked Despot

  1. Greatly centralized power in himself
    1. All levels of councils become advisory only
  2. Greatly suppressed civil liberties
    1. Freedoms of speech, assembly, press
  3. Economic expropriation at the very heart of Empire’s viability
    1. Shipped huge amounts of tribute back from conquered territories
  4. Dynast to a fault
    1. Family members in all positions in all countries
  5. Network of spies amount to a police state
    1. Under control of Joseph Fouche
  6. Phony democracy
    1. Plebiscites manipulated to justify repression
    2. Assemblies cowed through force, intrigue, e.g., Directory/Brumaire
  7. Replaced Republic with Empire
    1. 1804
  8. Staffed administrative ranks with émigré notables
    1. “Wall of Granite”
    2. Restores their land to buy their acquiescence
  9. Used religion/Church as agents of state control
    1. Puts clergy back on state payroll
    2. Preach loyalty, maintain education
  10. Apparent meritocratic innovations were very thin
    1. Hugely weighted toward military, nobility
    2. Intended to create a deep succession

Enlightened Absolutist

  1. Meritocratic system in military, somewhat less in state
  2. Rationalization of administrative system
  3. Increased freedom of religion
    1. Concordat with church
Intro to the book

In the summer of 1789, the people of France began a Revolution against their government. It started innocently enough, an effort to balance the budget. But before long, things got radical. The revolutionaries ousted the king, killed him, and installed a Republic. But far from being just a political event, the Revolution overthrew most of the economic, social and cultural systems of France as well. In the process, it rocked the foundations of the western world.

The Revolution was a crusade for the most militant ideas that had been forming in Europe for the prior three centuries. It espoused the rights of all men, the rule of law, the imperative of uniform justice, the importance of equal opportunity, and the absolute indispensability of individual liberty. It put into practice (more often badly than not) all of these grand ideas of the European Enlightenment. And then it exported those ideas (by force) to almost all of the other nations of Europe.

The results of the Revolution were as dramatic as the event itself. Absolute monarchy would eventually disappear as the dominant governmental system in the western world. It would be replaced with a more liberal, republican standard of government that still prevails today. Feudalism was irretrievably banished, at least in western Europe. However, because of the Revolution’s failings, the Enlightenment was grievously injured, at least for a while. Nationalism became one of the most potent forces on the planet. And the modern, centralized, administrative state was born.

Not all of these things happened immediately. And, in fact, most of them were stamped out in the aftermath of Napoleon’s defeat. But they did happen eventually—inevitably—as a result of the Revolution. In fact, so great was their collective impact on the political, military, social, and economic systems of the western world, the French Revolution must be counted as one of the three most important events of the last thousand years.

Table of Contents to the book
  1. Introduction
  2. Overview
  3. Causes
    1. Proximate Causes
    2. Rigid Ancien Regime
    3. Economic Problems
    4. Philosophical Foundations
    5. Bankrupt Monarchy
  4. Six Different Governments and Major Defining Events
    1. Monarchy
    2. National Assembly
    3. Legislative Assembly
    4. National Convention
    5. Directory
    6. Consulate and the Age of Napoleon
  5. Iconic Themes
    1. Liberty, Equality, Fraternity
    2. A Bourgeois Revolution
    3. Influence of the Paris Mob
    4. Conflicts Over the Church
    5. The Limitations of “Reason”
  6. Lasting Consequences
    1. End of French Dominance in Europe
    2. Final End to Feudalism
    3. Conservative Reaction
    4. Rise of Nationalism
    5. The Birth of the Modern Administrative State
    6. End of The Enlightenment
  7. End Note
  8. Timeline
Comments and Questions

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