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1 - Overview of the French Revolution

from Part I - France

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  18 October 2023

Wim Klooster
Affiliation:
Clark University, Massachusetts
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Summary

The French Revolution began as a dispute between the French monarchy and its traditional elites about where power lay. Its roots became tangled in “enlightened” discussion of the political virtues of the “nation” and the “public,” and put forth thorny branches of bitter social hostility as real state bankruptcy loomed in the later 1780s. By the time the Estates-General met in 1789, wholly new demands for the excision of all privilege from the body politic were poised to bear violent fruit. Aristocratic treachery was the leitmotif of patriotic understanding of everything that happened subsequently, through years in which a new blueprint of society, levelled but also centralized, was painstakingly crafted; and in which that blueprint was hastily redrawn in war and upheaval to become a map of republican virtues. Deep-seated conflict was never pacified, while convictions that unanimity was natural branded all dissent as treason, producing an accelerating spiral into “the Terror” of 1793-94. Although revolutionary upheaval also brought cultural innovation and a genuine new spirit of individual liberty, for the rest of the decade, France wrestled to reconcile a society of survivors and victims. It slid slowly, despite continued military triumphs, towards the suppression of civil society by dictatorship.

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Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2023

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