The Catholic University of America

History 332: The French Revolution

This course will examine the French Revolution, a pivotal event that ushered in modernity while forever changing the political landscape of Europe. The revolution will be considered in its context, with a look at both the ancien régime that preceded it and the reverberations that followed it in the nineteenth century. The interaction between culture and politics will be highlighted throughout the course, with particular focus on public opinion, reason, anti-dogmatism, secularism, religion, and the creation of conservative resistance. A major theme will be the relationship between ideas and events.

Since the French Revolution has been one of the most studied events in world history, this course will pay special attention to the theoretical problems inherent in the historical study of revolutions, with an examination of teleology, the role of chance, the use of evidence in grand historical explanations, the dangers in writing about violence, the use of dramatic narrative, the relationship between the individual and the event, and the difficulty of discussing events (such as the Great Fear) that seem unexplainable. Throughout the class, we will attempt to track change, asking how and why change became possible. What happened, for example, to make regicide a patriotic act? How did Robespierre come to abandon his conviction that the death penalty was an abhorrent practice? Why did the revolution become more and more afraid of politically active women?

The class will also examine how the French Revolution has been understood and interpreted, by observers, historians, and philosophers. One recurring question will be: how did an event that began as a series of accidents come to mean so much?

Course Books

Louis-Sebastien Mercier, Panorama of Paris
Sylvia Neely, A Concise History of the French Revolution
Voltaire, A Treatise on Tolerance
Pierre Beaumarchais, The Figaro Trilogy
Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France
Helen Maria Williams, Letters Written in France
The Memoirs of Madame Roland
Laurent Dubois, Slave Revolution in the Caribbean 1789-1804: A Brief History with Documents
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract
Blaufarb, Napoleon: A Symbol for an Age
Georg Büchner, Danton’s Death


Each student will present a document analysis to the class, talking for five minutes about a primary source that the student has read from the list of possibilities.  Each presentation should very briefly describe the document and should then explain what is interesting about it and how it relates to the course.  Your goal should be to make these documents so compelling that every other student rushes out after class to go read it for him- or herself.  These presentations will be assigned during the first week of class, and each student should come to my office hours prior to his or her presentation in order to discuss his or her document.
You will write two papers (5-7 pages), each one on any primary source document covered in class, including the documents presented in discussions on Fridays.  These papers are entirely open-ended—i.e., you may make any kind of argument or analysis of these documents that you like.  If you wish to draw on multiple primary sources in one paper, you should discuss the topic beforehand with the professor.  Each paper should have an argument, should prove the argument through close textual analysis of the document (including multiple quotations drawn from the document), and should be original and interesting.  The first paper is due February 15th, and the second paper is due March 29th.  Both are due in hard copy at the start of the lecture on that day.
You will write a research paper (10-15 pages) on any subject related to the course.  The make should make an original and interesting argument, should prove this argument with citations from primary sources, and should draw on some secondary literature to show the relationship between your argument and work of previous historians.  You should turn in a proposal with a paragraph with your research topic and a bibliography that you intend to consult on March 15th.  The final paper is due on April 28th in class, and you will summarize your findings on either April 28th or April 30th to your classmates.
The final exam will consist of identifications, short-answer questions, and one essay.  The exam will test materials from the entire course, and a list of all possible identifications will be passed out beforehand.  The final exam will be in our classroom on Friday, May 7th, from 1:30-3:30pm.


Participation: 10%
Document Analysis: 10%
First Paper: 10%
Second Paper: 10%
Research Paper: 30%
Final: 30%


Week One: Introduction

M, 01/11: The French Revolution as a Historical Problem

W, 01/13: What was the Old Regime?

F, 01/15: Warfare and Revolt Before the Revolution

Reading: Mercier, Panorama of Paris, pp. 23-123


Week Two: Power and Its Limits

W, 01/20: Absolutism in Theory and Practice

F, 01/22: Discussion

Reading: Mercier, pp. 123-230


Presentation Documents: Bossuet, Politics Drawn from the Very Words of Holy Scripture, selection
                                         Loyseau, Treatise of the Orders, selection
                                         Remonstrance by the Paris Parlement


Week Three: Enlightenment

M, 01/25: The Pursuit of Happiness

W, 01/27: The Power of a Smirk

F, 01/29: Discussion

Reading: Voltaire, A Treatise on Tolerance
               Kant, "What is Enlightenment?"
               Neely, Chapter One


Presentation Documents: Rousseau, Émile, Savoyard vicar
                                         Rousseau-Voltaire Lisbon earthquake exchange
                                         Beaumarchais, The Barber of Seville


Week Four: Origins

M, 02/01: Scandal and Desacralization

W, 02/03: Jansenism, Taxation, and Bankruptcy

F, 02/05: Discussion

Reading: Beaumarchais, The Marriage of Figaro
               Neely, Chapter Two


Presentation Documents: Mercier, L'An 2440
                                         Anecdotes sur Madame la Comtesse du Barry

                                         Parlement Protests


Week Five: The Seizure of Sovereignty

M, 02/08: The Estates General and the Outbreak of Revolution

W, 02/10: The Great Fear and the Abolition of Feudalism

F, 02/12: Discussion

Reading: Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France
               Complaint Notebooks
               Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen
               Neely, Chapter Three


Presentation Documents: Documents relating to the Assembly of Notables
                                         Necker's Compte Rendu
                                         Sieyès, "What is the Third Estate?"
                                         Young, Travels in France in 1787, 1788, and 1789


Week Six: Constitutions

M, 02/15: Compromise

W, 02/17: The Civil Constitution of the Clergy

W, 02/19: Discussion

Reading: Williams, Letters Written in France, letters 1-15, 23, and 26
               Robespierre, "On the Right to Vote" and "On Capital Punishment"
               Neely, Chapter Four


Presentation Documents: Wollstonecraft, Vindication of the Rights of Man
                                         Jean-Jacques Calet, "A Short Account of the Destruction of the Bastille"
                                         Paine, The Rights of Man
                                         Gouverneur Morris, Diary of the French Revolution


The first paper is due Monday, February 15th.


Week Seven: More Revolution

M, 02/22: The Rush to War

Tu, 02/23: The Fall of the Monarchy

W, 02/24: The Republic

F, 02/26: Discussion

Reading: The Memoirs of Madame Roland, pp.9-121, 167, 175-78, and 242-260
               Robespierre, "On War and Peace"
               Neely, Chapters Five and Six


Presentation Documents: Speeches by Morisson and Vergniaud
                                         Speeches by Saint-Just and Robespierre
                                         Speeches by Condorcet and Paine
                                         Speeches by Marat and Robespierre
                                         Sèze, Defence of Louis XVI


Week Eight: Jacobin Culture

M, 03/01: Nature, Reason, and Virtue

W, 03/03: Jacobin Martyrs and Dechristianization

F, 03/05: Discussion

Reading: Rousseau, The Social Contract
               Neely, Chapter Seven
               Robespierre, "On the Control of Food Supplies," "On Property," and "On Revolutionary Government"


Presentation Documents: Beaumarchais, The Guilty Mother
                                         Ménétra, Journal of My Life, selections
                                         Festival of the Supreme Being
                                         Campan, The Private Life of Marie Antoinette


Week Nine: The Center Does Not Hold

M, 03/15: The Countryside vs. the City

W, 03/17: The Revolt of the Slaves

F, 03/19: Discussion

Reading: Dubois, Slave Revolution in the Caribbean 1789-1804, pp. 49-132 and 188-196


Presentation Documents: Memoirs of the Marchioness de Laroche Jaquelein, selections
                                         Jean-Baptiste Chemin-Dupontès, Morality of the Sans-Culottes
                                         Chateaubriand, Memoirs, selection

The research paper proposal is due Monday, March 15th.


Week Ten: Terror

M, 03/22: The Vendée

W, 03/24: Year II and the Patterns and Anomalies of Violence

F, 03/26: The Great Terror

Reading: Williams, Appendix A
                Neely, Chapters Eight and Nine
                Brogan, "Was the French Revolution a Mistake?"
                Robespierre, "On the Cult of the Supreme Being" and "Last Speech to the Convention"
                Solzhenitsyn, "A Reflection on the Vendée Uprising"


Week Eleven: Reaction and Debate

M, 03/29: The Thermidorian Reaction and the Directory

W, 03/31: Historiographical Debate

Thomas Carlyle, The French Revolution, A History (1837)
Alexis de Tocqueville, Old Regime France and the French Revolution (1856)
Georges Lefebvre, The Coming of the French Revolution (1939)
Alfred Cobban, The Social Interpretation of the French Revolution (1963)
François Furet, Interpreting the French Revolution (1981)
William Doyle, The Origins of the French Revolution (1988)
Keith Michael Baker, Inventing the French Revolution (1990)
Roger Chartier, Cultural Origins of the French Revolution (1991)
Lynn Hunt, The Family Romance of the French Revolution (1992)
Dale Van Kley, The Religious Origins of the French Revolution (1996)
Timothy Tackett, When the King Took Flight (2004)


Reading: The book that you are assigned (as much as you can)
               Reviews of the other books (to get a sense of their arguments)


The second paper is due Monday, March 29th.


Week Twelve: Revolution Remembered

W, 04/07: Danton

F, 04/09: Danton

Reading: Mercier, The New Paris, selections


Week Thirteen: Napoleon

M, 04/12: The Jacobin Emperor and his Civil Code

W, 04/14: European War

F, 04/16: Discussion

Reading: Blaufarb, Napoleon: A Symbol for an Age
               Hegel, "The Enlightenment and Revolution"


Presentation Documents: Military Bulletins from the Expedition to Russia
                                         Al-Jabarti, Chronicle of the French Occupation of Egypt
                                         Jakob Walter diary
                                         General Segur, Napoleon's Expedition to Russia


Week Fourteen: Novelties

M, 04/19: Nineteenth-Century Movements

W, 04/21: Restorations: 1815, 1830, 1848, 1871

F, 04/23: Discussion

Reading: Büchner, Danton's Death
               Marx, "The Holy Family" and "The Bourgeoisie and the Counterrevolution"
               Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morality, Preface and Part I


Presentation Documents: Maistre, Considerations on France
                                         Balzac, Père Goriot
                                         Chateaubriand, The Genius of Christianity


Week Fifteen: The Afterlife of the Revolution

M, 04/26: The Russian Revolution and the Fall of the Berlin Wall

W, 04/28: Does History Mean Anything? And Discussion of Research Papers

F, 04/30: Discussion of Research Papers

Reading: Arendt, "The Meaning of Revolution" and "The Revolutionary Tradition and its Lost Treasure" from On Revolution


The research paper is due on Wednesday, April 28th.

The final exam will be on Friday, May 7th, 1:30-3:30pm.