This presidential address was delivered at the 117th annual meeting of the American Historical Association, held in Chicago, January 3, 2003.

The World We Have Gained: The Future of the French Revolution

The French Revolution has fallen out of favor.1 Even as recognition of its significance has spread, its reputation has suffered; for many, in the public and profession alike, it has become the harbinger of violence, terror, totalitarianism, and even genocide in the modern world. Edmund Burke seems to have won his argument with Tom Paine and Mary Wollstonecraft. His prophetic line of 1790—“In the groves of their academy, at the end of every visto, you see nothing but the gallows”—might be read as the epitaph of all the utopian visions spawned by the French Revolution.2

There is no point in denying that the French Revolution had its negative side; in 1793–94, the deputies of the National Convention embraced terror as a form of government and developed the prototypes of totalitarian rule. But the French Revolution also gave birth to human rights and democracy, which have proved equally enduring in the modern world. Many past interpreters have tried to chalk up everything to one side or the other; some argued that the totalitarian side was a temporary aberration in response to the circumstances of war and counterrevolution, while others retorted that even the conceptions of rights and democracy were tainted by totalitarian ambitions. Such an either-or position is not sustain-able; both the terror and democracy must be given their due. The question to be asked, then, is, how could the French Revolution produce such contradictory consequences?3

If an answer to this question is not ready to hand, this should not surprise us. Every great interpreter of the French Revolution—and there have been many such—has found the event ultimately mystifying. Burke called the revolution “the most astonishing that has hitherto happened in the world … Every thing seems out of nature in this strange chaos of levity and ferocity … this monstrous tragi-comic scene.”4 Near the end of his life, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote poignantly to a friend about his frustration in understanding the events: “Independently of all that can be explained about the French Revolution, there is something unexplained in its spirit and in its acts. I can sense the presence of this unknown object, but despite all my efforts I cannot lift the veil that covers it.”5

Karl Marx thought he had lifted the veil, and in the early 1840s he planned to write a history of the National Convention. He never did write that book, however, and even though the French Revolution served as the touchstone for Marxism, Marx himself continued to wrestle with the meaning of those events throughout his entire life. One of the last lessons he drew, in a letter of 1881, was the lesson of unpredictability. Although the French bourgeoisie had precisely defined demands before 1789, no Frenchman of the eighteenth century, Marx claimed, had the least idea before 1789 of how to get them satisfied. Similarly, he maintained, the proletariat could only devise the means of its revolution once it actually began.6 If Marx never specified what would happen in the proletarian revolution of the future, this was at least in part because he never fully got a grasp on the events of the bourgeois revolution that he thought had prepared the way.

Although the sense of mystery has proved enticing (few are those who write one book about the French Revolution), there is often a price to pay. Exchanges about the French Revolution resemble a Belfast street fight more than a scholarly meeting. In his opening pages of The Rights of Man, dashed off in response to Burke’s tract of 1790, Paine proclaims that “the flagrant misrepresentations” of Burke require a riposte. Paine’s first sentence sets the tone for the ensuing quarrel: “Among the incivilities by which nations or individuals provoke and irritate each other, Mr. Burke’s pamphlet on the French Revolution is an extraordinary instance.”7 Burke’s passing reference to “a swinish multitude” sparked a firestorm of protest, yet his rhetoric paled in comparison to Hippolyte Taine’s nearly a century later.8 In his 1878 history of the French Revolution, Taine anathematized “the mob … A formidable, destructive, and shapeless beast that cannot be curbed, it sits at the portals of the Revolution together with its mother, the baying monster Liberty, like Milton’s two specters at the gates of Hell.”9

Fourteen years after Taine died, his scholarship was targeted for demolition by the republican historian Alphonse Aulard, who published a 330-page book on Taine’s errors. Aulard concluded from his “close and impartial inspection” that in Taine’s book “an exact reference, an accurate transcription of a text, or a correct assertion is the exception.” “There are serious inaccuracies, insignificant inaccuracies, innocent inaccuracies, tendentious inaccuracies, but there are inaccuracies everywhere or almost everywhere.”10 In the 1970s, to cite just one final example, François Furet planted his influential reinterpretation on the ruins left by his devastating barrage against the “Lenino-populist vulgate” of the communist historian Albert Soboul. “Why this poverty-stricken schema,” Furet asked rhetorically, “this resurrection of scholasticism, this dearth of ideas, this passionate obstinacy disguised as Marxism?”11

The rat-a-tat-tat of scholarly and political crossfire threatens to obliterate the real accomplishments made in historical understanding over the centuries. I want to take a different approach and look for the unrecognized common ground on which all these debates have taken place. In other words, the interpretive forebears need not be wrong for me to be right. I do not envision myself as the circus performer at the top of the human pyramid, with Edmund, Tom, and Mary at the bottom, Karl and Alexis in the next row, and myself at the top straining to juggle several different interpretations in the air at once. The process resembles more a rambunctious history department meeting in which out of the cacophony of discordant voices finally issues, in part out of exhaustion, a partial, provisional, and always revocable agreement on what needs to be explained, if not on how to explain it.

All the great interpreters instinctively understood that no spreadsheet of causes and consequences could ever capture the meaning of the revolution. The French Revolution, like all revolutions, was first and foremost an experience. I use the word advisedly because the term “experience” is at once amorphous and vexed.12 I use it, nonetheless, in order to signal that attention must be paid to the way in which events were subjectively viewed; these subjective views had everything to do with how events developed. One Oxford English Dictionary definition of experience is “an event by which one is affected.” I want to get at what it means for an event such as the revolution to alter the mental state of millions of people.

The nature and significance of the experiential quality of the French Revolution has been very difficult to pin down. Metaphors have varied from the pathological—Tocqueville’s “virus of a new and unknown kind” or Crane Brinton’s “fever”—to the ecstatic: William Wordsworth famously termed it “bliss,” and Emile Durkheim likened it to “general effervescence” or “general exaltation.” Yet whether the metaphors are positive or negative, they almost always convey some sense of extraordinary bodily sensation, of literally being seized in the moment.13

Contemporaries themselves used the same kind of language. One of the very first newspapers to appear, Courier français, opened its account of the meeting of the National Assembly on July 15, 1789, by depicting an atmosphere of terror among the deputies: “Whimpers, tears, groans, lamentations and sobs signaled the opening of this session.” They were receiving reports of “old men dragged in the streets, pregnant women knocked down by a huge crowd”; famine and civil war seemed to threaten.14 The report for the next day changed tone abruptly. After the king seemed to reconcile himself to events and a deputation from the Assembly went to Paris to see for themselves, the note struck was resoundingly hopeful: “What a century we live in! … this legitimate insurrection, this necessary arming, only produces an instant of disorder … It is impossible to express the proofs of love, veneration and attachment that the deputies received from the citizens.”15 This phrase, “it is impossible to express,” would recur time and again. Ordinary people felt the same way. In his personal journal, the Parisian glazier Jacques-Louis Ménétra switched abruptly in 1789 from recounting his frequent sexual escapades to describing his day-by-day political travails. The French Revolution “came suddenly,” he noted, “and revived all our spirits. And the word liberty so often repeated had an almost supernatural effect and invigorated us all.”16

This notion of supernatural invigoration, and more generally of regeneration of the body politic, occurs everywhere and is often accompanied by a sense of being swept up in rapidly swirling events. From the very beginning, observers rushed to publish their accounts, as if writing down the events would give them a coherence they lacked intrinsically. Titles such as Précis exact … (Exact Summary …), Récit relatif … (Account of …), La semaine mémorable (The Memorable Week), and Relation de ce qui s’est passé … (Narrative of What Happened …) came off the presses right after the fall of the Bastille, unsigned or with pseudonyms.17 In the heat of the moment, before the proliferation of newspapers, authors offered no explanations, but they knew something momentous had happened: “In the end, we did in three days what people did not even do in three years during the old civil wars.”18

Even sophisticated commentators felt caught in a political hurricane. The newspaper Révolutions de Paris referred in its second issue to “the innumerable multiplicity of events these last eight days … a thousand pens would not suffice to trace all the details.” And that was only the third week in July 1789, “a week that was for us six centuries.”19 Again and again, unexpected events seemed literally to compress time. In the aftermath of the king’s attempted escape in June 1791, Jeanne-Marie Roland wrote, “we are living through ten years in twenty-four hours; events and emotions are jumbled together and follow each other with a singular rapidity.”20

On the evening of October 6, 1789, Jacques-Pierre Brissot de Warville breathlessly scribbled his first account of the “October Days” (October 5–6, 1789) for his newspaper Le patriote français: “The events that have taken place right in front of us appear almost like a dream … We cannot give a detailed account today of this astonishing Revolution. Exhausted with the fatigue brought on by guard service, it is impossible for us to enlarge upon this subject any further.”21 The next day, he tried to get at cause and effect by developing an exact chronological account, but he was far from certain that he had figured out the meaning of the events. Did the king really mean what he said when he expressed “his effusive joy”? Would the people “calm its effervescence, soothe its anxieties?” And then the seemingly inevitable and eventually fatal question: was “the riot the fruit of conspiracy”? Brissot answered, “That appears now more than probable.”22

Brissot was only echoing a generally shared sentiment, for as soon as the Bastille fell, anonymous pamphlets began to denounce conspiracies: Découverte de la conjuration (Discovery of the Conspiracy), Avis aux bons citoyens, touchant la grande conjuration des aristocrates (Warning to All Good Citizens about the Great Aristocratic Conspiracy), Les crimes dévoilés (Crimes Unmasked), Exécrable conspiration (Abominable Plot)—the drumbeat began in mid-July 1789.23 Only the passage of time, as Brissot implied, would reveal the inner significance of events.

Much has been written about how conspiracy fears and theories prepared the way for the Terror, and I do not contest the connection. Less attention has been paid to the way in which those obsessions were embedded in the extraordinary revolutionary experience of time. Time seemed both to stand still and speed up; the resulting sense of being out-of-joint (Brissot’s dream-like state) demanded some kind of equally extraordinary explanation (a plot). Conspiracy became all the more believable because people experienced time as a series of jolts rather than as a smoothly flowing river. Only something hidden could explain what Roland termed the “singular rapidity” of events.

A new relationship to time would turn out to be the single greatest innovation of the revolution, but this experience of temporality could not be decreed, as the devisers of the new revolutionary calendar discovered to their chagrin; it had to be lived and learned through a chaotic and complex set of emotions and sensations. Revolution meant rejecting the past, introducing a sense of rupture in secular time, maximizing and elongating the present in order to turn it into a moment of personal and collective transformation, and shaping the future in accordance with the discoveries made in the present. Time became an issue; it ceased being a given. (See Figure 1.) It also gained a new and fateful significance, later seized upon and codified, first by G. W. Hegel and then by Marx. Time’s very passage came to seem revelatory—for the revolutionaries of conspiracies, for Hegel of the march forward of the world spirit, and for Marx of the progressive unfolding of the class struggle. The understanding of time’s inner significance thus opened the prospect of voluntarism, that is, human will shaping the future.

Among the men of the Revolution of 1789, no one understood this development better than Jean-Antoine-Nicolas Caritat, marquis de Condorcet, nobleman, mathematician, philosopher, deputy, and victim of the Terror. In his Esquisse d’un tableau historique des progrès de l’esprit humain (Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Spirit), written while in hiding, Condorcet told the history of progress through printing, science, and general enlightenment: “We will demonstrate that the principles of philosophy, the maxims of liberty, the knowledge of the true rights of man and his real interests are so widely spread in such a great number of nations and direct in each of them the opinions of such a great number of enlightened men that one cannot fear seeing them ever be forgotten.”24 Two centuries later, we might say that history proved Condorcet wrong, but we still wrestle with his central premise that human knowledge can shape the future.

The understanding of the passage of time as revelatory of its inner significance also cleared a path to a new kind of determinism. Bertrand Barère, leading member of the Comité de Salut Public, and thus one of the architects of the Terror, excused his actions as the product of his time:

I did not at all shape my epoch, time of revolution and political storms …; I only did what I had to do, obey it. It [l’époque] sovereignly commanded so many peoples and kings, so many geniuses, so many talents, wills and even events that this submission to the era and this obedience to the spirit of the century cannot be imputed to crime or fault.25

Voluntarism—the idea that humans could shape their future—and determinism were two faces of the same coin. This coin—this new apprehension of time—was forged in the crucible of revolution.

But I have leapt too far into the future. Before all this could happen, people had to experience time in new ways. The signs of preoccupation with time were everywhere and certainly not limited to the revolutionary calendar officially introduced in 1793 or to the odd suggestion that clocks be decimalized.26 Especially striking is the penchant for naming revolutionary events by their “days”: July 14 (fall of the Bastille), August 10 (fall of the monarchy), 9 Thermidor (fall of Robespierre), 18 Brumaire (Bonaparte’s coup d’état)—these critical turning points are all known by their dates. The French language has two words for day: jour and journée, the former referring to the unit of time and the latter to what happens during it. All these were journées, that is, dates filled with a succession of events that made the day significant, that gave the date an enduring identity. The journée captured many of the ambiguities of temporal experience during the revolution. It marked a day that felt endlessly long when lived through, a day whose events effected major personal and political transformations, that is, rupture with the past. And yet each journée only set off a further cascade of events and thereby increased the desire to get the future under control.

Interpreters have differed about whether the revolutionaries really effected a rupture with the past and about whether the voluntaristic stance toward the future produced good or bad results, but they have all granted that the revolutionaries believed they were breaking with the past and thought that they could mold the future in accordance with their new principles. This belief in rupture was not just an ideological tenet preached by the high priests of revolution. The revolutionary calendar, which dated the year I from the founding of the republic in September 1792, equalized the length of months, established ten-day weeks, and gave both the months and days new names based on nature and reason, was devised by republican intellectuals. But its very possibility grew out of the common perception, expressed in newspapers, pamphlets, and personal correspondence, that some kind of new era had begun. Immediately after July 14, 1789, long before the official institution of a new calendar in 1793, people began to refer to 1789 as the year I of liberty.27 The new sense of time, with its lasting implications, grew out of such common experiences; the official calendar, though not abolished until 1806, became a mere historical curiosity.

The experience of time became so central because revolution meant living the actual moment of the social contract. Although Jean-Jacques Rousseau bequeathed many notions about the social contract to the revolutionaries, he said almost nothing about the physical experience of it. For Rousseau, the social contract was mostly a hypothetical notion, a kind of primordial convention; his only historical examples were Sparta, Rome after the Tarquins, and Holland and Switzerland in modern times. Rousseau did describe these as moments of regeneration—“the State … is born again, so to speak, from its ashes, and takes on anew, fresh from the jaws of death, the vigour of youth”—but he focused on the meaning for the state rather than for individuals.28

For the revolutionaries, the moment of forging the social contract was something they came to know firsthand. No one has given a better description of this experience than Durkheim, nearly one hundred years after the events:

There are periods in history when, under the influence of some great collective shock, social interactions have become much more frequent and active. Men look for each other and assemble together more than ever. That general effervescence results which is characteristic of revolutionary or creative epochs. Now this greater activity results in a general stimulation of individual forces. Men see more and differently now than in normal times. Changes are not merely of shades and degrees; men become different. The passions moving them are of such an intensity that they cannot be satisfied except by violent and unrestrained actions, actions of superhuman heroism or of bloody barbarism.29

Durkheim goes on to compare this to religious experience; this effervescence is what he calls the fundamental form of religious life, which becomes in the modern era the basis of social life itself. The French Revolution, then, is the moment when people discover the social roots of their being, when sacredness, to return to Durkheim’s terms, is transferred from religion to society.

The revolutionary shock of recognition—that human life is embedded in social convention and therefore is subject to human will—was foreshadowed by Rousseau; in the first chapter of Book 1 of The Social Contract, Rousseau asserts that “the social order is a sacred right which is the basis of all other rights … [T]his right does not come from nature, and must therefore be founded on convention.”30 Over the past two centuries, commentators on Rousseau have focused their attention on the contractual side of the social contract; following Durkheim, who lectured extensively on Rousseau, I want to put more emphasis on the social half of the social contract.31 Rousseau wrote of the social order, social state social pact (he used “pact” eighteen times and “contract” twenty-five), social link, social system, social body, social treaty, social law, social spirit, and social bond.32 He used these various terms, I think, because he implicitly recognized the potential contradiction in his notion of the social contract, one seized upon by Durkheim. According to Durkheim, Rousseau “fails to explain how social life, even in its imperfect historical forms, could come into being … how it can possibly cast off its imperfections and establish itself on a logical basis.”33

Rousseau himself had recognized the problem:

For a young [he meant just emerging] people to be able to relish sound principles of political theory and follow the fundamental rules of statecraft, the effect would have to become the cause; the social spirit, which should be created by these institutions, would have to preside over their very foundation; and men would have to be before law what they should become by means of law.

In this passage, Rousseau anticipated the most fundamental dilemma that would confront the revolutionaries: how could liberty, equality, and fraternity be instituted before the French had any real experience of them?

Rousseau then went on, in a passage that foreshadows Durkheim, to claim that this difficulty explained the recourse to divine intervention:

This is what has, in all ages, compelled the fathers of nations to have recourse to divine intervention and credit the gods with their own wisdom, in order that the people, submitting to the laws of the State as to those of nature, and recognizing the same power in the formation of the city as in that of man, might obey freely.34

In other words, the transfer of sacredness from religion to society was very hard to effect, as the French revolutionaries were to discover.

Interpreters have differed about whether this relocation of the sacred was a good thing or not, but the greatest among them, from whichever end of the political spectrum, have seen that something this consequential was at stake. Thus Tocqueville gave as one of his chapter titles, “How, though its objectives were political, the French Revolution followed the lines of a religious revolution and why this was so.” He went on to explain that “it developed into a species of religion, if a singularly imperfect one, since it was without a God, without a ritual or promise of a future life.”35 Although we know now that the revolution gave birth to almost endless rituals, some “savage” but most of them official, Tocqueville’s insight remains valid: the revolution resembled a religious movement in its universalism and its goal of personal and political “regeneration of the whole human race.” “This strange religion,” Tocqueville concluded, “has, like Islam, overrun the whole world with its apostles, militants, and martyrs.”36 The central “religious” experience, I am arguing, was the reenactment of the social contract, ritually repeated at various decisive moments in the revolutionary process.

Revolutionaries did not speak often of living the actual moment of the social contract, much less of transferring the sacred. During the debate about whether or not to hold a trial of the king, Robespierre did make explicit the connection to the social contract:

When a nation has been forced to resort to its right of insurrection, it returns to the state of nature insofar as the tyrant is concerned. How could the tyrant invoke the social contract [le pacte social]? He abolished it … [T]he effect of tyranny and of insurrection is to break completely all bonds with the tyrant and to reestablish the state of war between tyrant and people.37

But Robespierre said nothing in his speech about what would replace the now annulled contract. In this domain, actions spoke louder than words. As Mona Ozouf has shown, French festivals, funeral processions, translations of remains to the Pantheon of revolutionary heroes, and inaugurations of busts all contributed to this “transfer of the sacred.” The swearing of oaths occupied such a central place in the festivals, she argues, because “it rendered visible the act of contracting, conceived as the fundamental characteristic of sociability.”38 Thus the moment of swearing an oath constituted the literal enactment of the social contract; it was the moment at which the sacred was transferred to society, to the social bond. The oath was one of the ways by which society could be sacralized, rendered sacred.

The festivals employed costumes, symbols, and ceremonial forms from Antiquity, not in order to link up with the past but in order to jump over the French past to a time of new beginnings, of innocence, and authenticity, that is, to something like the moment of Rousseau’s primordial convention. Louis-François Portiez, a deputy in the Council of Five Hundred, argued in 1798 that “the interesting characters of Antiquity” (he was speaking of characters in plays) were “closer to nature; they fulfilled their duties more promptly and defended their rights more courageously.”39 This was a widely shared view. The moment of instituting the social contract thus inevitably entailed a rupture in the old sense of time and a feeling of rebirth.

The revolutionaries, and the radical “de-Christianizers” most of all, embraced the religious fervor and ritual dimension of their actions. The eulogy of Marie-Joseph Chalier, one of the revolutionary “martyrs” of 1793, is just one of countless examples. President of the revolutionary tribunal of Lyons, Chalier was executed by his opponents in July 1793. After the republican government retook the city, the president of the commission that was set up to exact vengeance offered an official eulogy in which he struck the same notes heard so often that year: “in this regenerated city, inside its walls now purified, we wanted to give this ceremony of a renewed people the dimension of the heavens as its vault, the stars as torch, and liberty as its pontiff.”40 The veneration of Chalier quickly took its place in the de-Christianization movement, which in Lyons drew sustenance from the extraordinarily violent struggle for control of the city. But the extremes of de-Christianization should not deflect attention from a more general underlying process; all politics took on a religious hue because the definition of the basis of the community was at stake.

The existential return to a kind of zero degree of social and political life—an act repeated again and again all over France—gave democracy both an instant and an unstable foundation. Thousands, perhaps millions, of people now felt that the scales were falling from their eyes. They speak constantly of having been blinded by the habits of despotic authority; they were awakening to a new day, a new time. As one newspaper wrote about the execution of the king, the French had discovered “that great truth which the prejudices of so many centuries had stifled; today we have just convinced ourselves that a king is only a man.”41

Into the vacuum left by the moral and political collapse of the Old Regime rushed a mania for social dissection. Having experienced “the social” in the social contract—whether in festivals, in reading newspaper accounts about the revolutionary “days,” or in the new day-to-day politics of local life—people now questioned every convention of social life. The role of women in property-holding, family life, and politics; the status of Protestants, Jews, blacks, and the propertyless; and the smallest minutiae of daily life, from the forms of address (vous or tu, citizen or sir) to names for children (Catholic saints or Roman heroes) and the style of clothing (wearing the knee breeches of the aristocracy or the trousers [sans-culottes] of the manual laborer), all came under pressure. This cultural revolution is now well documented.42 It took many forms and reached many millions, thanks to the unprecedented expansion of printed media. To take just the best-known example, Paris had four newspapers in 1788, 184 in 1789, and 335 in 1790.43 Nothing any longer went without saying.

The outpouring of social and political criticism undermined traditional notions of deference and monarchical authority and thereby prepared the way for democracy. Less noticed, however, is the collective craving for information about “the social.”44 The relaxation of censorship let loose a flood of social expression that was not always fault-finding in aim. Twice as many plays were written and performed in the decade between 1789 and 1799 as in the entire 250 years before the revolution. Careful investigation has shown that most plays were not revolutionary in their thematic content, but it does not follow that people only wanted diversion in a time of crisis; theater-goers went to see representations of everyday social existence.45 Attending the theater gave them the opportunity to work out new understandings of society. Theater had always filled this function; now it fulfilled it at a much greater pace and intensity.

The invention of melodrama in the mid-1790s put the new anxieties about social life at the center of the plot. Stories of mistaken identities, evil villains overcome, and families reunited all spoke to the widespread concern with the reshaping of social roles. Contemporaries then and scholars since have differed over the meaning of melodrama, specifically about whether it was democratic in effect or not. Yet everyone grants that melodramas drew a much more varied audience than classical theater and that the dark forests, thunderclaps, and terrifying music bore some relation to the revolutionary disaggregation of the old social order.46 There is no denying, in other words, that melodrama’s spectacle spoke to deep fears about social meaning, especially about the uncertainty of social location after the revolution.

Like melodramas, novels took off as a genre after the end of the Terror. The number of new French novels declined from fifty-eight in 1789 to a low point of fourteen in 1794. But with the end of the Terror, novelists reemerged in force; the number of new novels increased from twenty-seven in 1795 to 123 in 1799, nearly three times the yearly average for the last four decades of the Old Regime.47 Novelists did not often propagandize about the evils of the Old Regime or the virtues of the new one; they focused on the efforts of individuals to make their way in the social milieus in which they found themselves. The subject of the novel, like the plot of melodrama, was “the social” itself.

The most telling indicator of the fascination with “the social” is the proliferation of visual imagery. As might be expected, the vast majority of the 30,000 or so engraved images of the revolutionary decade concerned political figures, political events, or political allegories; they testified to an ongoing uncertainty about the narrative line that was unfolding inside the revolutionary process.48 But many also registered that same attention to the rules of social life that can be seen in plays and novels (and that surely expands, as do the number of novels and melodramas after the end of the Terror).49 Portraits of deputies, “historical tableaus” of revolutionary “days,” ordinary street scenes, heroization of martyrs, demonization of enemies domestic and foreign—they all participated in building up a picture of the workings of society in a time of revolution. (See Figure 2.) By their very nature as visual images, they captured that elongation of the present so central to revolutionary time. The image concerns one moment—the fall of the Bastille, for example—but it also aims to perpetuate the effect of that moment by forever recapturing it. Most striking in the end, however, is the sheer number and variety of visual representations of the social. Like plays and novels, visual images made society as a set of rules and roles more visible to the ordinary person.50

The profusion of social imagery also contributed to the transfer of sacredness from a religious to a secular and social framework. One overlooked mode of this visual transfer is the publication of portraits of the deputies to the National Assembly of 1789. Printers began advertising them as early as June 1789. Neither historians nor art historians have paid much attention to them, the former because the engravings show no action and the latter because they seem to have little aesthetic value. Available in several different versions, either by single sheet or subscription series, in black and white or colored, and in some cases, signed by the deputies themselves, the portraits implicitly registered the transfer of sovereignty to the nation. Some publishers understood this function. The engraver Massard and his collaborator De Jabin announced their collection in reverential terms: “The deputies of the nation have acquired eternal rights to the public’s veneration … [S]omething would be lacking in the satisfaction of our nephews and ourselves if the present century did not transmit to future ones the image of the founders of French liberty.”51

More telling still was the choice by the engravings-merchant Charles-François Le Vachez to begin his series of portraits of deputies with one of King Louis XVI (Figure 3). Louis’s portrait is the same size, the same pose facing slightly left, with the same frame as those given the other deputies. The process of dispersing sacredness from the king alone outward to the representatives of the nation had begun.

The revolutionary experience, then, drew attention in new ways to the workings of society. The French revolutionaries did not invent the notion of “the social”; “civil society,” for example, was a term commonly used in Enlightenment discourse. Indeed, the Encyclopédie had gone so far as to argue that for a philosophe “civil society is for him, in a manner of speaking, an earthly deity.”52 The Enlightenment gave the notion of society its conceptual underpinnings and made it something that could be studied; the revolution made it a palpable experience, an object of everyday knowledge for ordinary people, and a subject of enduring contention, especially in its relationship to the political order.

Much of the originality of the nineteenth century follows from this heightened awareness of “the social,” from the novels of Honoré de Balzac and Gustave Flaubert to the birth of ideology, of the social sciences, and of Marxism. Commentators as different as Marx and Taine both take off from this fundamental point of departure. Even before elaborating his notion of class struggle as the motor of all history, Marx wrote in 1843, “It is only the French Revolution that has completed the transformation of political orders into social orders, or to put it another way, the Revolution turned the differences between orders in civil society into purely social differences, into differences in private life, insignificant for political life.” True political emancipation, in Marx’s view, could only come when men recaptured the authentic socialness of their nature.53

Taine insisted in the preface to his volumes on the Jacobin ascendancy that he did not write out of political bias. He had only one principle, “so simple that it will seem puerile and I hardly dare to mention it. Nevertheless, I hold to it because all of the judgments that one reads here derive from it, and their truth has to be measured by its truth … that a human society, especially a modern society, is a vast and complicated thing.”54 He devoted himself therefore to the anatomical dissection of this society. Whatever one thinks of Taine’s conclusions, it is impossible to deny the salience of his central question: how can we understand the social and psychological foundations of modernity? The French Revolution taught both Marx and Taine to consider “the social” central to modernity.

The greatest of the philosophically minded, twentieth-century interpreters of the French Revolution, Hannah Arendt and François Furet, both made the role of “the social” central to their analyses of the Terror, although they did not use the category in exactly the same way. Arendt insisted that “the whole record of past revolutions demonstrates beyond doubt that every attempt to solve the social question with political means leads into terror.”55 Furet would agree with her to this point, arguing for his part that the Terror followed from the revolutionary “illusion of politics,” that is, the belief that politics and ideology could be used to reconfigure the social world.56 But in the end, Arendt was even more Tocquevillian than Furet, for like Tocqueville she saw an inevitably tragic contradiction between concern for the social question and true political freedom. In her view, preoccupation with the social question (Tocqueville’s equality) led the revolutionaries to ignore the importance of founding viable political institutions (Tocqueville’s liberty). Furet, in contrast, celebrated the fall of Robespierre as the moment when society recovered its independence from ideology and politics.57 In his account, society and social interests ride in as a kind of savior of the revolution from the “illusion of politics.”

Most interpreters agree that the Terror had something to do with the relationship between the political and the social. For Marxists, government by terror was the concession the popular classes demanded of their bourgeois leaders; it was therefore the necessary political arm of class struggle.58 For Tocquevillians such as Arendt and Furet, in contrast, government by terror marked the necessary failure of revolution; rather than linking social interests to political struggle, it followed from the fatally flawed utopian project of using political means to reshape society. Neither of these opposing positions could have been elaborated without the social learning inaugurated in the revolutionary decade itself.

Must we choose between the Marxist and Tocquevillian positions? My own view builds on elements taken from both sides. In fact, most now agree on what needs to be explained about the Terror. Emergency measures to win the war—price controls, the draft, even the suppression of dissent and the arrest of suspects—have taken place in various times and places and do not set the French Revolution apart. New and full of consequence for the future, in contrast, was the effort to “regenerate” mankind through a combination of political education of potential supporters and terrorizing or, that failing, killing opponents. The resulting atmosphere of fear and conformism affected everyone, opponents and supporters alike.59 The Terror thus was one way of filling the political gap, already identified by Rousseau, between what people are and what they ought to be in a democracy. That is, the Terror was an effort to create through political education and political repression what is usually the slower work of political institutions. In that sense, it was an attempt to speed up time, an endeavor embedded in the new experiences of time that had occurred since 1789. The repeated ritual reenactment of the social contract did not succeed in creating the social spirit necessary to enduring democracy; the effect could not become the cause, as Rousseau had anticipated.

The hothouse effect of the Terror cannot be traced in single-minded fashion to either circumstances or ideology alone. Circumstances made time go faster; ideology tried to explain that experience and justify it as a principle of political life. The unfolding of events taught the revolutionaries that human will could reconfigure social and political life, but events also showed that this voluntarism would inevitably run into the obstacles thrown up by social inertia. The future, it turned out, had many deep connections to the past despite the desire for rupture. Modern political life ever since has turned on the question of how hard the accelerator of political and social change should be pushed.

In its inherently unstable foundations (Can the social contract ever really be located in time and space? Are the people really represented in the institutions of representative government?), democracy opened the way to terror. But terror was only one possible answer to that fundamental instability. The Terror is such a dramatic and gruesome moment in the French Revolution that many forget that it was succeeded by five years of a different experiment in democracy, in which terror was renounced without jettisoning the principle of popular sovereignty.60 That experiment “failed,” too; the republicans of the Directory did not attract enduring loyalty to their institutions. But they did succeed in keeping the prospect of democracy alive, to reappear in 1830 and 1848, and to eventuate after 1870 in an enduring French habit of democracy. As the revolutionary experience taught, the judgment of history depends on where the clock stops.

So to some extent, my opening question—how could the French Revolution give birth to both democracy and terror?—is the classic question mal posée. The opening to democracy, history showed, made possible not only the Terror but also the authoritarian police state of Napoleon, socialism, communism, fascism, and, of course, representative government. We could add to the list sexism, racism, and antisemitism, for, in contrast to simple prejudice, the systematic denigration of what you are not requires a doctrine, and such doctrines only appeared once inequality had to be justified. Inequality only had to be justified—giving birth to ideology itself—once the American and French revolutions had shown that equality could become the principle of government and that government could derive its authority from within human society rather than from without. The history of the nineteenth, twentieth, and now twenty-first centuries repeatedly confirmed what the revolutionaries had already discovered: that it is very difficult to establish an enduring and productive tension between the effervescent experience of the social contract and the more mundane daily life with political institutions. In that sense, the French Revolution prepared the way for many different futures, futures already past and futures yet to come.

Lynn Hunt was president of the American Historical Association in 2002. She is Eugen Weber Professor of Modern European History at UCLA.



  1. My title may require some explanation. It echoes, while reversing, the title of Peter Laslett’s pioneering study, The World We Have Lost (New York, 1965). Laslett described a demographic world that had been superseded. This essay has nothing to do with demography; it is about the new political and social world created by the French Revolution. I do not offer a review of recent historiography of the French Revolution, yet I do not mean to imply by this absence that recent historiography is other than important and of great influence on my own views. Serious attention to it would take up all the space allotted. []
  2. Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, and on the Proceedings in Certain Societies in London Relative to That Event (London, 1790), 115. []
  3. There has been something of a revival of interest in the Terror of late. I cannot possibly do justice to the many writings on it. Even those from within the same school (followers of François Furet) differ, for example, about whether the Terror is best explained in philosophical terms (individualism versus nationalism) or practical ones (as a mode of political action). See, for the former position, Lucien Jaume, Le discours jacobin de la démocratie (Paris, 1989); and Ladan Boroumand, La guerre des principes (Paris, 1999); on the latter, see Patrice Gueniffey, La politique de la Terreur: Essai sur la violence révolutionnaire, 1789–1794 (Paris, 2000). For a general statement that accords with my own views, see Bronislaw Baczko, “The Terror before the Terror? Conditions of Possibility, Logic of Realization,” in The French Revolution and the Creation of Modern Political Culture, ed. Keith Michael Baker, 4 vols., vol. 4: The Terror (Oxford, 1994), 19–38. []
  4. Burke, Reflections, 11. []
  5. In a letter to Louis de Kergolay as cited by François Furet, Interpreting the French Revolution, trans. Elborg Forster (Cambridge, 1981), 163. []
  6. The letter to Ferdinand Domela Nieuwenhuis is excerpted in François Furet, Marx et la Révolution française (Paris, 1986), 275–76. Furet offers the most extensive discussion of Marx’s changing views of the French Revolution. []
  7. Thomas Paine, Rights of Man: Being an Answer to Mr. Burke’s Attack on the French Revolution (Dublin, 1791), 1. The sentence is the first sentence of the book. The phrase “flagrant misrepresentations” appears in the preface. The Dublin edition of 1791 did not have a preface, but the London edition of 1792 did. Thomas Paine, Rights of Man: Being an Answer to Mr. Burke’s Attack on the French Revolution (London, 1792), iii. []
  8. Burke, Reflections, 117. []
  9. As quoted in Paul Farmer, France Reviews Its Revolutionary Origins: Social Politics and Historical Opinion in the Third Republic (New York, 1973), 30. The quotation can be found in full in Hippolyte Taine, La Révolution: L’anarchie, vol. 3 of Les origines de la France contemporaine, 12 vols., 22d ed. (Paris, 1899), 79. []
  10. Alphonse Aulard, Taine: Historien de la Révolution française (Paris, 1907), 324. Taine may have the last word, however, as the Liberty Fund has recently announced the republication of the English translation of Taine’s three volumes on the French Revolution with an introduction by Mona Ozouf. []
  11. Furet, Interpreting the French Revolution, 89, 131. The essay in question was first published in 1971. []
  12. Among the definitions in the Oxford English Dictionary online are, “The fact of being consciously the subject of a state or condition, or of being consciously affected by an event. Also an instance of this; a state or condition viewed subjectively; an event by which one is affected.” In addition, “A state of mind or feeling forming part of the inner religious life; the mental history (of a person) with regard to religious emotion.” On the perils of experience as a concept in historical interpretation, see Joan W. Scott, “The Evidence of Experience,” Critical Inquiry 17 (1991): 773–97. []
  13. In the same letter cited in note 5, Tocqueville says, “There is moreover in this disease of the French Revolution something very strange that I can sense, though I cannot describe it properly or analyse its causes. It is a virus of a new and unknown kind.” Crane Brinton uses fever as the governing analogy of his entire book on The Anatomy of Revolution (New York, 1965). Wordsworth’s line “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive” comes from his poem “The French Revolution as It Appears to Enthusiasts at Its Commencement” (1809), later incorporated into The Prelude. Durkheim used the French Revolution as an example when discussing moments of great social intensity. “That general effervescence results which is characteristic of revolutionary or creative epochs … Under the influence of the general exaltation, we see the most mediocre and inoffensive bourgeois become either a hero or a butcher.” Emile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, trans. Joseph Ward Swain (New York, 1915; original French version, 1912), 241–42. []
  14. At this stage, the Courier français had only begun to establish itself as a regular newspaper (it began publication on June 26, 1789). It appeared under the simple title, Assemblée Nationale, séance XVme. Mercredi 15 Juillet 1789, quote p. 1. For more information about the process of its establishment, see the indispensable Pierre Rétat, Les journaux de 1789: Bibliographie critique (Paris, 1988), 80–83. []
  15. Assemblée Nationale, séance XVI: Du Jeudi 16 Juillet 1789, quote 1–2. []
  16. Journal of My Life by Jacques-Louis Ménétra, ed. Daniel Roche, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (New York, 1986), 217. []
  17. For a sense of these titles, see Maurice Tourneux, Bibliographie de l’histoire de Paris pendant la Révolution française, 2 vols. (Paris, 1890–94), 1: Préliminaires, événements, 155–62. []
  18. Relation de ce qui s’est passé à Paris depuis le 11 du présent mois, jusqu’au 15 (n.p., n.d.), 7. []
  19. Révolutions de Paris, Dédiées à la Nation 2 (Du samedi 18 au 25 juillet 1789): 1 and 7. []
  20. Claude Perroud, Lettres de Madame Roland, vol. 2, 1788–1793 (Paris, 1902), letter to Henry Bancal, July 11, 1792, Paris, 325. []
  21. Le patriote français (in order to avoid confusion, I have modernized the spelling from françois to français), no. 63 (du Mercredi 7 octobre 1789): 3. []
  22. “Journées des 5 et 6 octobre,” Le patriote français, no. 64: 1–4. []
  23. Tourneux, Bibliographie de l’histoire de Paris, 1: 162–67. []
  24. Alain Pons, ed., Condorcet: Esquisse d’un tableau historique des progrès de l’esprit humain (Paris, 1988), 259. []
  25. As cited in Sergio Luzzatto, “Un futur au passé: La Révolution dans les mémoires des Conventionnels,” Annales historiques de la Révolution française 278 (1989): 455–75, quote 469. Barère’s memoirs were published shortly after his death (1841) from sixty volumes of notes and documents he left behind for that purpose. The editors claim that this passage came from the notes Barère made for his introduction. Hippolyte Carnot and David (D’Angers), eds., Mémoires de B. Barère, 4 vols. (Paris, 1842–44), 1: 12–13. []
  26. The suggestion to decimalize clocks was made in Toulouse. On the calendar and clocks, see Lynn Hunt, Politics, Culture, and Class in the French Revolution (Berkeley, Calif., 1984), 70–71. []
  27. Bronislaw Baczko, “Le calendrier républicain: Décréter l’éternité,” in Les lieux de mémoire, vol. 1: La république, ed. Pierre Nora (Paris, 1984), 37–83, esp. 38. []
  28. The passage in its entirety does include some reference to individuals and resonates with the French revolutionary experience: “There are indeed times in the history of States when, just as some kinds of illness [the Brinton metaphor] turn men’s heads and make them forget the past, periods of violence and revolutions do to peoples what these crises do to individuals: horror of the past takes the place of forgetfulness, and the State, set on fire by civil wars, is born again, so to speak, from its ashes, and takes on anew, fresh from the jaws of death, the vigour of youth” (Book 2, chap. 8). Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract and Discourses, trans. G. D. H. Cole (London, 1973), 218. []
  29. Durkheim, Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, 241. The term “effervescence” was also used during the revolution. In 1789, the nobleman Gabriel Abot de Bazinghen wrote in his journal about the events of August in his area (Boulogne-sur-Mer): “félicitons nous que ce moment d’étourderie [a demonstration of the young of the town demanding a lowering of grain prices] aÿe été la seule tache dans ce moment d’effervescence.” Alain Lottin, Louisette Caux, and Michel de Sainte-Maréville, eds., Boulonnais, noble et révolutionnaire: Le journal de Gabriel Abot de Bazhinghen (1779–1798) (Arras, 1995), 174. []
  30. Rousseau, Social Contract, 182. []
  31. Durkheim’s essay-length study of Rousseau was published posthumously in the Revue de métaphysique et de morale 25 (1918): 129–61. The English version can be found in Emile Durkheim, Montesquieu and Rousseau: Forerunners of Sociology (Ann Arbor, Mich., 1965), 65–138. []
  32. It is possible to trace these terms using the Project for American and French Research on the Treasury of the French Language (ARTFL), a cooperative enterprise of Analyses et Traitements Informatiques du Lexique Français (ATILF) of the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) and the Division of the Humanities, the Division of the Social Sciences, and Electronic Text Services (ETS) of the University of Chicago. The project has hundreds of French texts available for online searching, among them Rousseau’s Social Contract ( []
  33. Durkheim, Montesquieu and Rousseau, 137. []
  34. Rousseau, Social Contract, 216 (Book 2, chap. 7). []
  35. Alexis de Tocqueville, The Old Régime and the French Revolution, trans. Stuart Gilbert (New York, 1955), 10, 13. []
  36. Tocqueville, Old Régime, 12–13. []
  37. Robespierre’s speech of December 3, 1792, as translated by Michael Walzer, ed., Regicide and Revolution: Speeches at the Trial of Louis XVI (Cambridge, 1974), 132. []
  38. Mona Ozouf, La fête révolutionnaire, 1789–1799 (Paris, 1976), 337. The title of her concluding chapter is “La fête révolutionnaire: Un transfert de sacralité” (The Revolutionary Festival: A Transfer of Sacredness). To my mind, this is the single most important twentieth-century work written about the French Revolution. []
  39. France, Corps législatif: Conseil des Cinq-Cents, Louis-François Portiez, Opinion de Portiez (de l’Oise), sur les théâtres: Séance du 2 germinal an 6 (Paris, 1798), 3. []
  40. As quoted in Walter Markov and Albert Soboul, eds., Die Sansculotten von Paris: Dokumente zur Geschichte der Volksewegung, 1793–1794 (Berlin, 1957), 202. Markov and Soboul give the full text of the published eulogy by Antoine Dorfeuille, president of the Commission de Justice Populaire in reconquered Lyons, at a ceremony in honor of Chalier held October 24, 1793. []
  41. Journal des hommes libres de tous les pays, no. 82 (January 22, 1793). []
  42. By cultural revolution, I mean the politicization of everyday life. Serge Bianchi, La révolution culturelle de l’an II: Elites et peuple (1789–1799) (Paris, 1982). See also Hunt, Politics, Culture, and Class. []
  43. Carla Hesse, “Economic Upheavals in Publishing,” in Revolution in Print: The Press in France, 1775–1800, ed. Robert Darnton and Daniel Roche (Berkeley, Calif., 1989), 69–97, esp. 92. []
  44. My analysis has been influenced by the work of Brian C. J. Singer, Society, Theory and the French Revolution: Studies in the Revolutionary Imaginary (New York, 1986). “The revolutionary imaginary can best be described as involving a change in this relation of society to itself, a change that promises society a consciousness of its institution in a sense and to a degree that was formerly inconceivable” (p. 5). Surprisingly, given their points of intersection, Singer does not engage the interpretations of Furet or Ozouf in any fundamental way. []
  45. My figures are based on those given in Emmet Kennedy, A Cultural History of the French Revolution (New Haven, Conn., 1989), 394. My conclusions differ from his. []
  46. The evidence and conflict of views are discussed in greater detail in Lynn Hunt, The Family Romance of the French Revolution (Berkeley, Calif., 1992), 181–91. []
  47. The average per year for 1751–1788 was thirty-four. The figures do not include translations. My calculations are based on Angus Martin, Vivienne G. Mylne, and Richard Frautschi, Bibliographie du genre romanesque français, 1751–1800 (London, 1977), xxxvi–xxxvii. []
  48. The essential starting point is Michel Vovelle, ed., La Révolution française: Images et récit, 1789–1799, 5 vols. (Paris, 1986). See also the videodisc that accompanies The French Revolution Resource Collection, Colin Lucas, ed. in chief, Images de la Révolution française = Images of the French Revolution (Oxford, 1990). These are both somewhat misleading, however, as the editors have chosen images because they refer to political events. The weight of social as opposed to explicitly political interests is therefore under-represented. Moreover, the private collectors of these images, whose collections form the core of the holdings of all libraries, especially the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, most likely concentrated on political images from the revolutionary period. The De Vinck collection, for example, includes none of the socially inflected images of the Directorial period that can be seen in Qb1 (History of France) in the Engravings Department of the BNF. []
  49. In the engravings of Qb1 (History of France), there are twice as many images for the period February 19, 1790–March 1791 as there are for the year 1794 (these are the categories by which the microfilms for Qb1 are organized). The number of images begins to increase in 1796. It is very difficult to be precise about the number of images in any given year because the Engravings Department has classified images by the year to which the engravings refer, not the year of their production (which is often unknown). Thus there appear to be fewer images for 1795 than for 1794, which is almost certainly a misrepresentation, because so many images made after 1794 referred to the fall of Robespierre and the evils of the Terror (and therefore are classified under 1794). []
  50. Singer, Society, Theory and the French Revolution, 5: “To speak, then, of society’s presentation and representation is to refer to the formation of that relation of society to itself by which it becomes visible from within.” []
  51. As quoted in Un siècle d’histoire de France par l’estampe, 1770–1871, Collection de Vinck: Inventaire analytique, François-Louis Bruel, et al., eds., 8 vols., Vol. 2: La constituante (Paris, 1914), 285. []
  52. As quoted in Keith Michael Baker, “Enlightenment and the Institution of Society: Notes for a Conceptual History,” in Main Trends in Cultural History, ed. Willem Melching and Wyger Velema (Amsterdam, 1994), 95–120, quote 95–96. Baker’s article is an essential starting point for grasping the eighteenth-century evolution of the notion of society. See also Daniel Gordon, Citizens without Sovereignty: Equality and Sociability in French Thoughts, 1670–1789 (Princeton, N.J., 1994), esp. 43–85. []
  53. From “Kritik des Hegelschen Staatsrechts,” as quoted in Furet, Marx et la Révolution française, 133. []
  54. Hippolite Taine, La Révolution: La conquête jacobine, vol. 5 of Les origines de la France contemporaine, tome 1, preface (n.p.). []
  55. Hannah Arendt, On Revolution (New York, 1965), 112. []
  56. In truth, it is not entirely clear just what Furet meant by the illusion of politics, a phrase he takes from Marx. “Thus the French, deprived as they were of true liberties, strove for abstract liberty; incapable of collective experience, lacking the means of testing the limits of action, they unwittingly moved toward the illusion of politics [his emphasis]. Since there was no debate on how best to govern people and things, France came to discuss goals and values as the only content and the only foundation of public life.” Furet, Interpreting the French Revolution, 37. []
  57. Furet, Interpreting the French Revolution, 72, 75. []
  58. See, for example, Albert Soboul, Histoire de la Révolution française, 2 vols. (Paris, 1962), 2: 36–46. “La Terreur, en principe à l’ordre du jour depuis le 5 septembre, fut peu à peu imposée par l’action populaire” (pp. 36–37). []
  59. The success of the efforts at enforcing conformity are traced by Bronisclaw Baczko, who shows how the overthrow of Robespierre was greeted with the same rote enthusiasm expressed about all the previous killings of dissidents. Comment sortir de la Terreur: Thermidor et la Révolution (Paris, 1989), esp. 67. []
  60. I am aware that there is much controversy about just what kind of regime the Directory was in its actual operation. See, for example, James Livesey, Making Democracy in the French Revolution (Cambridge, Mass., 2001); and Hunt, Politics, Culture, and Class. []