The French Revolution: What Really Happened?

Princeton University

David A. Bell (Ph.D., Princeton) is the Sidney and Ruth Lapidus Professor in the Era of North Atlantic Revolutions, Professor of History at Princeton University. Previously, he taught at Yale and Johns Hopkins University, where he held the Andrew W. Mellon Chair in the Humanities and served as Dean of Faculty in the School of Arts and Sciences. A member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a corresponding fellow of the British Academy, Professor Bell has been a fellowship recipient from the Guggenheim Foundation, amongst others. He has written seven award-winning books, including:  The Cult of the Nation in France, Napoleon: A Concise Biography, and Shadows of Revolution: Reflections on France, Past and Present. Professor Bell is also co-editor of Rethinking the Age of Revolutions: France and the Birth of the Modern World.



The French Revolution of 1789 is often thought of as “The Revolution That Went Wrong” — an event that began with high hopes and high ideals, but degenerated into an orgy of violence and tyranny, symbolized by its most famous invention: the guillotine. But the reality is both more complicated and more interesting. During the Revolution, France functioned as the great experimental laboratory of modern politics. From 1789-1799, the country cycled through a dizzying variety of regimes, from absolute monarchy to constitutional monarchy, to democratic republic, to ideological dictatorship, to unstable, illiberal republic, and finally, to the dictatorship of a popular general, Napoleon Bonaparte. French revolutionaries not only proclaimed the “rights of man”—some of them went further than any revolutionaries ever before in daring to extend these rights to all people, including Jews, women, free people of color, and even the enslaved. They devised radical new plans for public education and welfare and sought to overturn the Catholic Church in France.  The French Revolution was marked by extraordinary personalities and extraordinary events. In this course, Professor Bell will both tell the story of the French Revolution and examine its profound and long-lasting consequences.


Suggested Readings:

The First Total War: Napoleon’s Europe and the Making of Warfare as We Know It, by David A. Bell

Robespierre: A Revolutionary Life, by Peter McPhee

Twelve Who Ruled: The Year of Terror in the French Revolution, by R.R. Palmer

A Short History of the French Revolution, 7th edition, by Jeremy Popkin


Discussion Questions:

  1. What was the role of ordinary people in the French Revolution?
  2. Why did the French Revolution radicalize so quickly between 1789 and 1794?
  3. Was the violence of the French Revolution due more to its own radical ideas, or to the opposition it encountered from the old European order?
  4. What are some of the consequences of the French Revolution for modern political life?







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French Revolution

Incredible amount of information in a short bit of time! I really enjoyed this presentation and thought it seeded out an enormous amount of history to really think about. Mercy, this teacher talked rapidly!

2 years ago
Joy Morros

Great talk

Very informative presenting information that most of us have never learned. Thank you.

1 year ago
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