Coronavirus (Covid-19): Latest updates and information
Skip to main content Skip to navigation

French Revolution 2: Course

How did a good liberal revolution, which inaugurated human rights and political representation, lead to war, terror and a security state? Debate over the Revolution’s tragic course has tended to coalesce around the perspectives of Marx and Tocqueville. While Marxists stress circumstances (war) or class friction (bourgeoisie vs. proto-proletariat), revisionists point to ideological and cultural ‘cancer cells’ present from the outset of the Revolution. These cancer cells, such as conspiracy obsessions and Rousseauian ideas about collective sovereignty and moral regeneration, are said to have metastasized in the Revolution’s early years. More recently, historians have begun analysing the Revolution for what it reveals about the problems of abrupt regime change, moments when states tend to be weak, trust levels are low, legitimacy is contested and the limits of new freedoms are unclear.

Seminar Questions

  1. In what way does Hunt seek to change the terms of the historiographical debate on the French Revolution?
  2. How do the interpretations of revolutionary violence advanced by Timothy Tackett and François Furet differ, both in terms of conclusions and methodology?
  3. What were the challenges to ending the Revolution? How did the Thermidorian and Directorial regimes (1794-1799) try to end it and what were the results of their efforts?
  4. What importance do these historians ascribe to the French Revolution’s legacies? Were violence, terror and oppression incidental or central to the revolutionary process? How should the historian make sense of its mixed legacy?

Core Readings

  • Lynn Hunt, ‘The World We Have Gained: The Future of the French Revolution,’ American Historical Review 108: 1 (2003), 1-19.
  • Timothy Tackett, ‘Collective Panics in the Early French Revolution, 1789-1791: A Comparative Perspective,’ in French History, 17: 2 (June 2003), 149-171.
  • François Furet, ‘The Terror’ in Critical Dictionary of the French Revolution (Cambridge Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1989’, 137-150.
  • Howard Brown, ‘From Organic Society to Security State: The War on Brigandage in France, 1797-1802,’ Journal of Modern History, 69: 4 (1997), 661-695.

Further Reading

Be sure to consult the numerous textbooks on the French Revolution indicated in the ‘General Bibliography’ above. In addition, see:

Early Revolution

  • Timothy Tackett, Becoming a Revolutionary: The Deputies of the French National Assembly and the Emergence of a Revolutionary Culture (1789-1790) (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996).
  • John Markoff, The Abolition of Feudalism: Peasants, Lords, and Legislators in the French Revolution (State College, Pa.: Penn State University Press, 1996).
  • Barry Shapiro, Revolutionary Justice in Paris, 1789-1790 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993).
  • Georges Lefebvre, The French Revolution from its Origins to 1793 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1964).
  • Lynn Hunt, Politics, Culture and Class in the French Revolution (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), pioneering work of social and cultural history.
  • David Andress, Massacre at the Champ de Mars: popular dissent and political culture in the French Revolution (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2000).
  • Munro Price, The Fall of the French Monarchy: Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette and the Baron de Breteuil (London: MacMillan, 2002).

Radicalization and Terror

This topic has produced the liveliest literature in French Revolutionary studies. Historians tend to stress circumstances, counterrevolution, ideas, or cultural dynamics. What ‘culture’ means is an open question. Some historians base it on ideas and values (what people think), others on social and political practices (what people do). The schema below is admittedly crude in separating these categories. Historians usually combine them, albeit to varying degrees.


  • Alphonse Aulard, The French Revolution: A Political History, 1789-1804, 4 vols. (London: Unwin, 1910).
  • Timothy Tackett, ‘The Constituent Assembly and the Terror,’ in Keith M. Baker (ed.), The Terror, vol. 4 of The French Revolution and the Creations of Modern Political Culture (Oxford: Pergamon, 1994), 39-54.
  • Patrice Higonnet, Goodness Beyond Virtue: Jacobins during the French Revolution (Cambridge Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998).


  • Jacques Godechot, The Counter-Revolution, Doctrine and Action: 1789-1804, Salvator Attanasio (trans.) (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1961).
  • Darrin McMahon, Enemies of the Enlightenment: The French Counter-Enlightenment and the Making of Modernity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001).
  • Jean-Clément Martin, Contre-Révolution, Révolution et Nation en France, 1789-1799 (Paris: Le Seuil, 1998), in French.
  • D. M. G. Sutherland, France 1789-1815: Revolution and Counterrevolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986): no footnotes but useful bibliography.


  • Keith M. Baker, Inventing the French Revolution: Essays on French Political Culture in the Eighteenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990). In adopting Rousseau’s notion of collective sovereignty, or ‘the general will’, revolutionaries opted for the Terror.
  • Dan Edelstein, The Terror of Natural Right Republicanism, the Cult of Nature, and the French Revolution (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008). The liberal intellectual tradition of ‘natural right’ carried within it potentially violent strands that came to the fore in 1793-94.
  • David A. Bell, The First Total War: Napoleon’s Europe and the Birth of Warfare as We Know It (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2007). This study combines ideas and culture in its explanation. Belief in perpetual peace and progress through Enlightenment generated intolerance against those perceived to reject these ideas, leading to their purge from society.


  • R. R. Palmer, Twelve Who Ruled: The Year of the Terror in the French Revolution (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973). Classic study of the high politics of the Terror.
  • Marisa Linton, Choosing Terror: Virtue, Friendship, and Authenticity in the French Revolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013). This study examines high politics but also cultural dynamics.
  • Colin Lucas, The Structure of the Terror: The Example of Javogues and the Loire (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1973).
  • Peter McPhee, Robespierre: A Revolution Life (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012).

Cultural Dynamics

  • Lynn Hunt, The Family Romance in the French Revolution (Berkeley: U.C. Press, 1993). Combines Freud and the literary/anthropological framework of René Girard. Social-psychological in scope.
  • Sophie Wahnich, In Defence of the Terror: Liberty or Death in the French Revolution (London: Verso, 2012). The Terror grew out of collective emotions.
  • Charles Walton, Policing Public Opinion in the French Revolution: The Culture of Calumny and the Problem of Free Speech (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009). Radicalization grew out of the combustible mix of free speech, spiralling calumny, and honour/vengeance dynamics inherited from the Old Regime.
  • Paul Friedland, Political Actors: Representative Bodies and Theatricality in the Age of the French Revolution (Ithaca NY: Cornell University Press, 2002), examines how tensions in theories of representation migrated from the theatre to revolutionary politics.
  • Carla Hesse, ‘The Law of the Terror,’ Modern Language Notes, no. 114, special "French Issue" (October,1999), 702-718.
  • Jean-Clément Martin, Violence et Révolution (Paris: Le Seuil, 2006), this valuable essay has unfortunately not been translated. But the argument – that radicalization grew out of weak-state conditions rather than totalitarian ideology – is an important counterweight to late Cold War revisionism.
  • Timothy Tackett, ‘Conspiracy Obsession in a Time of Revolution: French Elites and the Origins of the Terror, 1789-1792,’ American Historical Review, 105: 3 (2000), 691-713.

Thermidor and the Directory

  • Martyn Lyons, France Under the Directory (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975).
  • Andrew Jainchill, Reimagining Politics after the Terror: the Republican Origins of French Liberalism (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2008), excellent study of how French republicanism, which emerged in the Revolution, evolved into nineteenth-century French liberalism.
  • James Livesey, Making Democracy in the French Revolution (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2001).
  • Colin Lucas, ‘The Rules of the Game in Local Politics Under the Directory,’ French Historical Studies, 16: 2 (1989), 345-371.
  • Steven Clay, ‘Vengeance, justice and the reactions in the Revolutionary Midi’, French History, 23: 1 (2009), 23-46.
  • Bronislaw Baczko, Ending the Terror: the French Revolution after Robespierre (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994).
  • Isser Woloch, Jacobin Legacy: The Democratic Movement under the Directory (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1970).
  • Philip Dwyer, Napoleon: The Path to Power, 1769-1799 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), this biography of Napoleon provides terrific insights into the Directory period of the Revolution.