July 14, 1789, a group of Parisians, mainly artisans, stormed and destroyed the Bastille. The Bastille was an old prison, in little used in 1789, but a long established symbol of the French Monarchy and royal authority. The destruction of the Bastille was interpreted as a symbolic overthrow of the French monarchy and touched off rural unrest throughout France, known as “the Great Fear”. Rural violence culminated on August 4, 1789 when nobles voluntarily surrendered all feudal rights and privileges (in exchange for compensation).
As Dr. Nancy Fitch (CSU Fullerton) points out, even through the Bastille Day was celebrated on July 14, 1790, “Bastille Day did not become a holiday, however, until the end of the nineteenth century, and, even then, it was not always celebrated with regularity, as many men and women in France remained unsure if the fall of the Bastille represented the triumph of liberty of the lethal consequences of a mob of people our of control.” (Dr. Fitch has an excellent overview of the Revolution and it’s effects on her course: http://faculty.fullerton.edu/nfitch/history110b/rev.html).
The French Revolution has been pointed to as a watershed in “modern” history. In most European (or world) history classes, 1789 marks the end of the “early modern” and the “beginning of the modern”. Although historians have called this somewhat arbitrary periodization into question for decades, any college course catalog will tell you that the 1789 data has stuck, and stuck fast. This is in part because the French Revolution does seem to be the violent over throw of a feudal system in favor of capitalism ( and eventual industrialization), on the one hand, and the progressive triumph of Enlightenment notions of equal universal rights (“equal” and “universal” generally meaning, “amongst white, male-bodied individuals), on the other. For a brief moment, the Revolution attempted to re-write society in a new image – new revolutionary street names, new calendar months based on the seasons, a new, “equal,” secular society. For a small example of the lasting legacy of the French Revolution on our present political discourse, consider the notion of the political “Left” and “Right”. Within the Legislative Assembly , the Feuillants (constitutional monarchists) were seated on the right, while the more radical Girondins (later, the Jacobins and the radical Montagnard), sat on the left.
The French Revolution is sometimes seen as “the dawn of the Modern Era”. From our Western, capitalist, “democracy”-loving (or should it be republic-loving), perspective, the French Revolution was the moment when the common people, inflamed by years of bad harvests and inspired by new ideas regarding universal (white, male) rights that had circulated widely thanks to an explosive printed media, threw off the oppressive, corrupt, nepotistic, exploitative Old Regime of king-aristocracy-Church. Experiments in varying levels of (extremely short-lived) Feminism, constitutional monarchy (1791-2), execution of the king, counter-revolution/Reign of Terror, (1792ish-5), and a Constitutional Republic (The Directory, 1795-99), until it was all ended (or perhaps entered under a new phase) by Napoleon’s seizure of power.
On the one hand, the Revolution (at least rethorically) was a triumph of Enlightenment notions and values. On the other, it was fearfully regarded as anarchistic mob rule, evidence that when the “unwashed masses” were able to step out of their confines and rule, it would end in little but violence, death, and destruction. During the years of the revolution itself, the world’s response was split between being: 1) Pro-Reform and inspired by the French people’s brave fights for reform against a corrupt and self-interested ruling class. A struggle in which a little violence was probably necessary – especially when bearing in mind the centuries of official violence used by Regimes to keep “the people” in line – but would all work out in the end. 2) Anti-Revolutionaries (generally the landed and/or ruling elites) who were scared pantsless by the sans-coulottes (see what I did there?). Although terrified they would lose their heads should the power be turned over to the people, they were also genuinely concerned that the level of violence, chaos, and the people’s seeming inability to actually govern themselves without dissolving into bloodbaths, would signify the end of the organized world as they knew it. The French Revolution sparked the Hatian Revolution – every white, slave-holding colonist’s greatest fear of a “slave rebellion” write large. It also entrenched decades of conservative government in England, that stifled attempts to call a National Convention and enact reforms via arrests, imprisonment, and deportation. The English reaction became all the more severe when in 1798 Irish radicals rebelled against oppressive British rule, but were savagely repressed by the British before French reinforcements arrived. Rightfully concerned regarding colonial (and domestic) rebellion/revolution in the wake of the American Independence/Insurrection and the Irish Rebellion, the ruling British dug in and dug in hard.
In the Marxist or “Classic” interpretation, the French Revolution was all about class warfare. It marked the moment when feudalism was decaying, capitalism was growing, and the classes that stood to gain the most from the developing European capitalist system, the middle classes, were waking up to the reality that the political systems the lived under were functioning against their best (capitalist) interests. The French Revolution is the Revolution par excellence. The one that had to happen before the proletariat revolution predicted by Marx and Engles – but also living proof that such a revolution was possible. It was a victory by the bourgeoise for the bourgeoise, but also set a precedent for revolution. In Europe’s tumultuous 1848, and again in Russian in 1905 and 1917, and even Mao’s revolution(s) in China in the mid-twentieth century. (Allegedly, when Mao was asked what where the consequences of the French Revolution he replied that it was “too early to tell”.).
The Revisionists, headed by Alfred Cobban’s The Social Interpretation of the French Revolution (1965) questioned the Classic interpretation that the Revolution represented a triumph in favor of capitalism over feudalism. The Revisionists showed that the nobility and the bourgeoise were not too distinct classes and argued that the French Revolution was a fight over political power, not class warfare or a social movement. The Post-Revisionists have attempted to further complicate our understanding by analyzing the social and cultural aspects to the French Revolutionary period. Rather than searching for an over-arching theory to describe the Revolution, they attempt to understand how elements like language, rhetoric, print culture, gender, and even psychology functioned.
Greg, over at Greg’s blog, offers a very accessible review of the historiography on the French Revolution here.
If you want to explore the French Revolution in its own words, you can find many primary documents and sources on the Internet Modern History Sourcebook, hosted by Fordham University. A little more “old school” as far as digital humanities projects and archives, but the IMHS was one of the first projects to make primary documents available, for free, from the comfort of your couch. This site is a hidden treasure for all history students, instructors, professors, and just general history buffs.
For my own two cents, the parts of the French Revolution I find most interesting are gender and the French Revolution. In regards to gender, the Revolution’s relationship with women as physical beings and “women” as a larger category of (non)political entities, and “women” as symbols of family, is fascinating. On the one hand, actual women participated in or even started many of the events of the French revolution. On the other hand, the Revolution was highly influenced by Enlightenment notions of inherent differences between men and women, in which even the concept of “universal” rights which were denied to women because they were categorically distinct from (white) men. Further, as the Revolution progressed and women’s rights were were not just denied but literally quite unthinkable, the Revolution was increasingly personified as female.
Jeanne-Louise Vallain, dite Naine, La Liberté (1792). Source: L’histoire par l’image.
Marianne was also visibly displayed on the seal of the Republic:
And of course, Delacroix’ Liberty Leading the People (1830):
And, of course, Mel Brooks, History of the World, Part I:
Ironically, French women were one of the last groups of European women to be enfranchised. They only received the right to vote on 21 April 1944, and the “indigenous Muslim” women in French-held Algeria were denied suffrage until 3 July 1958.
For those interested, some must reads in terms of gender and the French Revolution are:
-Lynn Hunt, The Family Romance of the French Revolution Goodman, Ed. Marie-Antoinette: Writings on the Body of a Queen. New York and London: Routledge, 2003
-Elinor Accampo includes an impressive survey of the literature pertaining to gender and the French Revolution in her article, “Integrating Women and Gender into the Teaching of French History, 1789 to the Present,” in French Historical Studies 27.2 (2004) 267-92.