Origins of the French Revolution

By William Doyle | Go to book overview

Introduction

Why was there a French Revolution? This is a question of perennial interest not only to scholars, but to everybody who takes an interest in the history of the world. Naturally, therefore, it is also a subject of endless controversy. And yet towards the middle of the twentieth century something like a consensus seemed to be emerging, among scholars at least, and disagreement was confined to small corners of the subject which did not materially affect the general picture. This consensus, very property it seemed, was most clearly expressed by the French masters of the period, by Albert Mathiez, by Georges Lefebvre, and by Ernest Labrousse. English- speaking historians largely confined themselves to a respectful rehearsal of Frenchmen's own version of their history, and younger French scholars certainly showed little enough inclination to challenge what had solidified into an orthodoxy.

Yet since the 1950s all this has changed. Under the onslaught of new research, mainly conducted by non-French scholars, the consensus began to crumble, and in 1962 it was subjected by Alfred Cobban to a frontal attack. After that no part of the old view remained sacrosanct, and by 1970 the occasional sceptical voice was being raised in France itself. Scores of American, British, and other foreign research students invaded the French archives and later proclaimed their dissent -- for their own corners of the field -- from the old orthodoxies. The flow of their findings has by no means stopped, and it has again made the origins of the French Revolution one of the more lively areas of historiography.

So the consensus collapsed, and controversy once more reigned. The difficulty was to see what the masses of new material and reinterpretation amounted to. Could a new edifice of interpretation be constructed to replace what had been destroyed? Or was the question of the Revolution's causes fated, as the reconstructor of another revolutions origins had complained, to wallow in fragmented chaos? 1

The first edition of this book, by one who had played some part in attacking the old certainties, was an attempt to offer a new general picture

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Origins of the French Revolution
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Prefatory Note vii
  • Contents *
  • Introduction 1
  • Part I - Writings on Revolutionary Origins Since 1939 3
  • 1 - The Classic Interpretation 5
  • 2 - Revisionism 10
  • 3 - Post-Revisionism 35
  • Part II - The Breakdown of the Old Regime 43
  • 4 - The Financial Crisis 45
  • 5 - The System of Government 54
  • 6 - Opposition 65
  • 7 - Public Opinion 76
  • 8 - Reform and its Failure, 1787-1788 91
  • Part III - The Struggle for Power 109
  • 9 - The Nobility 111
  • 10 - The Bourgeoisie 121
  • 11 - The Election Campaign, September 1788 to May 1789 131
  • 12 - The Economic Crisis 148
  • 13 - The Estates-General, May and June 1789 157
  • 14 - The People of Paris 166
  • 15 - The Peasantry 178
  • 16 - Conclusion: The New Regime and its Principles 189
  • Notes 197
  • Further Reading 226
  • Index of Authors Cited 229
  • General Index 233
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