The French Revolution, 1789-1799

The French Revolution, 1789-1799

The French Revolution, 1789-1799

The French Revolution, 1789-1799


This book provides a succinct yet up-to-date and challenging approach to the French Revolution of 1789-1799 and its consequences. Peter McPhee provides an accessible and reliable overview and one which deliberately introduces students to central debates among historians. The book has two main aims. One aim is to consider the origins and nature of the Revolution of 1789-99. Why was there a Revolution in France in 1789? Why did the Revolution follow its particular course after 1789? Whenwas it 'over'? A second aim is to examine the significance of the Revolutionary period in accelerating the decay of Ancien Regime society. How 'revolutionary' was the Revolution? Was France fundamentally changed as a result of it? Of particular interest to students will be the emphasis placed by the author on the repercussions of the Revolution on the practives of daily life: the lived experience of the Revolution. The author's recent work on the environmental impact of the Revolution is also incorporated to provide a lively, modern, and rounded picture of France during this critical phase in the development of modern Europe.


The French Revolution is one of the great turning-points in history. Never before had the people of a large and populous country sought to remake their society on the basis of the principle of popular sovereignty. The drama, success, and tragedy of their project, and of the attempts to arrest or reverse it, has attracted students to it for more than two centuries. Although right-wing journalists at the time of the bicentenary of 1989 rushed to proclaim that ‘the French Revolution is finished’, its importance and fascination for us are undiminished.

Ever since several thousand armed Parisians seized the Bastille fortress in Paris on 14 July 1789 people have debated the origins and meaning of what had happened. All have agreed on the unprecedented and momentous nature of the storming of the Bastille and associated acts of revolution in the months between May and October 1789. However, such were the consequences of these events that the debate on their origins shows no signs of concluding.

In the years after 1789 successive revolutionary governments sought to remake every aspect of life in accordance with what they understood to be the principles underpinning the Revolution of 1789. However, because there could not be agreement on the practical application of those principles, the question of whose revolution this was quickly became a source of division, driving the Revolution in new directions. At the same time, powerful opponents of change inside and outside France forced governments to take measures to preserve the Revolution itself, culminating in the Terror of 1793–4.

Those in power during these years repeatedly asserted that the Revolution, having achieved its objectives, was over, and that stability was the order of the day. When Louis XVI entered Paris in October 1789; when the National Assembly resolved to disperse by force a crowd of petitioners calling for the king’s overthrow in July 1791; when the National Convention introduced the Constitution of the Year III in 1795—each time it was asserted that the time had come to . . .

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