The Radicalism of the French Revolution

Required readings:

Dan Edelstein, “From Constitutional to Permanent Revolution,” in Scripting Revolutions.

Lynn Hunt, “The Rhetoric of Revolution in France,” History Workshop, 15 (Spring 1983)


Maximilien Robespierre, “Speech Denouncing the New Conditions of Eligibility,” (1789)

Maximilien Robespierre, “On Revolutionary Government” (1793)

Maximilien Robespierre, “Terror and Virtue” (1794)

Charles-Gilbert Romme, “Report on The Era of The Republic” (1793)

Louis de Saint-Just, “Republican Institutes” (1794)

Graccus Babeuf, “The Manifesto of The Equals” (1795)

Seminar Topics

With the declaration of a republican regime and the execution of King Louis XVI, the French Revolution entered a radical phase.Seminar discussion will look at the various opinions and viewpoints that came to the forefront of political life as France was transformed from an absolute monarchy into a democratic republic. We will pay especially close attention to the growing radicalism and examine both the explicit and implicit meanings associated with core concepts espoused by revolutionaries, such as “liberty” and “equality.” In doing so, we will evaluate what democracy meant to the French and whether or not the French Revolution possessed an ideologically coherent program as events unfolded between 1789 and 1795.

Questions to consider

  1. How and why was French republicanism radical?
  2. What importance did Robespierre and the Jacobins place in the idea of terror as a vehicle for revolutionary government?
  3. What is the relationship between “Terror” and “Virtue” in the minds of radicals?
  4. Were the Jacobins defenders of democracy or dictatorial tyrants?
  5. In what ways did the revolutionary aims change in the transition from a monarchy to a republic in France?
  6. How can we explain the violence of the French Revolution?

Further Reading:

David Andress, The Terror: The Merciless War of Freedom in Revolutionary France. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006.

Timothy Tackett, The Coming of the Terror in the French Revolution. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015.

Marisa Linton, Choosing Terror: Virtue, Friendship and Authenticity in the French Revolution. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Jonathan Smyth, Robespierre and the Festival of the Supreme Being: The Search for a Republican Morality. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2016.

Dan Edelstein, The Terror of Natural Right: Republicanism, the Cult of Nature and the French Revolution. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009.

Dan Edelstein, “Do We Want a Revolution without a Revolution? Reflections on Political Authority,” French Historical Studies, 35:2 (Spring 2012).

Hugh Gough, The Terror in the French Revolution. Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

Alex Fairfax-Cholmeley, “Creating and Resisting the Terror: The Paris Revolutionary Tribunal, March-June 1793,” French History, 32:2 (May 2018).

Jonathan Israel, Revolutionary Ideas: An Intellectual History of the French Revolution from The Rights of Man to Robespierre. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014.

James Kloppenberg, Towards Democracy, Chapters 10 and 11.

R. B. Rose, The Making of the Sans-Culottes: Democratic Ideas and Institutions in Paris, 1789-1792. Manchester. Manchester University Press, 1985.

Michael Kennedy, The Jacobin Clubs in the French Revolution: The First Years. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982.

Michael Kennedy, The Jacobin Clubs in the French Revolution: The Middle Years Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988.

François Furet, Interpreting the French Revolution. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981.

Mona Ozouf, Festivals and the French Revolution. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Paul R. Hanson, The Jacobin Republic Under Fire: The Federalist Revolt in the French Revolution. University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2003.

Colin Lucas, The Structure of the Terror: The Examples of Javogues and the Loire. London: Oxford University Press, 1973.

Patrice Higonnet, Goodness Beyond Virtue: Jacobins during the French Revolution. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998.

Eli Sagen, Cannibals and Citizens: The French Revolution, the Struggle for Modernity and the Origins of Ideological Terror. New York: Rowan and Littlefield, 2001.

Gwyn A. Williams, Artisans and Sans-Culottes: Popular Movements in France and Britain during the French Revolution. London: Libris, 1989. Especially chapters, 2-3.

R.R. Palmer, Twelve Who Ruled: The Year of the Terror in the French Revolution. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969.

Peter McPhee, Robespierre: A Revolution Life. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012.

Slavoj Žižek, ed. Robespierre: Virtue and Terror. New York: Verso, 2007.

John Markoff, “Violence, Emancipation and Democracy: The Countryside and the French Revolution,” American Historical Review, 100:2 (1995).

Sophie Wahnich, L’impossible citoyen: L’étranger dans le discours de la Révolution française. Paris: Albin Michel, 1997.