Liberty Leading the People, 1830, by Eugène Delacroix
The French Revolution was one of the most significant upheavals in world history. Starting in the summer of 1789, revolutionary fervor spread across France, then Europe and beyond, questioning existing institutions and traditions and championing new ideas about government, liberty, and citizenship.
Historian Alexander Mikaberidze examines this pivotal moment that continues to serve as an inspiration of the finest principles of modern democracy, as well as a warning of what can happen when idealism goes wrong.
9:30–10:45 a.m. The Crisis of the Old Regime
On the eve of the revolution, France was a state invigorated by new ideas but dominated by tradition. Monarchy, church, and aristocracy defined power and status. Yet beneath the veneer of strength and continuity lurked profound social, financial, and political tensions that contributed to the outbreak of the turmoil in the summer of 1789.
11 a.m.–12:15 p.m. Taking Politics to the People
The first two years of the revolution were a time of creation and discovery. The movement brought about major changes, creating a constitutional monarchy, proclaiming basic rights and freedoms, and initiating major administrative reorganization. But it also revealed growing rifts in the French society, as people disagreed on the extent and nature of these transformations. By 1792, confronting contradictions between the lofty idealism of the revolution and the pragmatism of actual reforms, some revolutionaries turned to more radical measures.
12:15–1:30 p.m. Lunch (participants provide their own)
1:30–2:45 p.m. The Coming of the Terror
The first stage of the revolution, from 1789 to 1792, centered on evolving notions of freedom: to express, to compete, to own, to succeed. The second state, which began in the summer of 1792, took equality as its rallying cry. This was a movement of the lower classes who felt excluded from the benefits brought about by the revolution and sought to create a republic with far greater democratic participation. As France found itself at war with monarchical Europe, the revolution took a dark turn and the guillotine became its symbol of justice.
3–4:15 p.m. Was the Revolution Over?
July 27, 1794 marked the beginning of a new stage of the revolution and ushered in a period of conciliation and a search for stability. The new French government embraced a more moderate vision of the revolution but continued to be dogged by a war with Europe and the ongoing crisis within France. For many, the radicalism of the Reign of Terror meant that democracy lost its legitimacy. But few wanted the return of the old regime. In November 1799, France found an answer to its needs for order and stable governance in a man of war. But did Napoleon Bonaparte—who had announced “The revolution is over. I am the revolution.”—fulfill the aims of the revolution or pervert them?
Mikaberidze, a specialist in the revolutionary era, holds the Ruth Herring Noel endowed chair for the curatorship of the James Smith Noel Collection at Louisiana State University-Shreveport.