The best books to understand the French Revolution

Peter McPhee Author Of Liberty or Death: The French Revolution
By Peter McPhee

Who am I?

I have spent much of my adult life studying the French Revolution with students who, like me, are engrossed by the drama, successes and tragedies of the Revolution, and the scale of the attempts to arrest or reverse it. Why and how did an apparently stable regime collapse in 1789? Why did it prove to be so difficult to stabilize a new order? How could claims to “liberty” and “equality” be balanced? And why was there a period of “terror” in 1793-94? When the Revolution was finally over, how had France and other parts of the world been changed? The answers to those questions remain open and continue to fascinate. 

I wrote...

Liberty or Death: The French Revolution

By Peter McPhee,

Book cover of Liberty or Death: The French Revolution

What is my book about?

The French Revolution has fascinated, perplexed, and inspired for more than two centuries. It was a seismic event that radically transformed France and launched shock waves across the world.

In this new history, I sought to create a fresh account of one of the world’s great revolutions—its origins, drama, complexity, and significance. Was the Revolution a major turning point in French—even world—history, or was it instead a protracted period of violent upheaval and warfare that wrecked millions of lives? We also need to examine the varying experiences of most French citizens who lived outside the gates of the city: the provincial men and women whose daily lives were overwhelmed by revolution and war. The stories of individuals who struggled to cope in such unpredictable times enable us to enter the social and cultural world of the eighteenth century which was transformed by France’s age of revolution. Life would never be the same again for anyone.

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The books I picked & why

When the King Took Flight

By Timothy Tackett,

Book cover of When the King Took Flight

Why did I love this book?

At the celebrations on 14 July 1790 for the first anniversary of the storming of the Bastille, Louis XVI took an oath to work with the National Assembly as a constitutional monarch. Less than a year later, on 20 June 1791, the royal family tried to flee the Revolution. The king’s flight convinced masses of French people that he was a perjurer: the monarchy never recovered its mystique.

In contrast, his capture near the border with Luxembourg convinced the crowned heads of Europe that the royal family was in mortal danger. Ten months later France was at war with Marie-Antoinette’s native Austria, and Europe was engulfed in a generation of bloodshed. The great American historian of the Revolution, Timothy Tackett, recounts the engrossing story of the botched flight and its repercussions for a cast of unforgettable characters.    

By Timothy Tackett,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked When the King Took Flight as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

On a June night in 1791, King Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette fled Paris in disguise, hoping to escape the mounting turmoil of the French Revolution. They were arrested by a small group of citizens a few miles from the Belgian border and forced to return to Paris. Two years later they would both die at the guillotine. It is this extraordinary story, and the events leading up to and away from it, that Tackett recounts in gripping novelistic style.

The king's flight opens a window to the whole of French society during the Revolution. Each dramatic chapter spotlights a different…

Book cover of Napoleon: The Path to Power 1769 - 1799

Why did I love this book?

Napoleon Bonaparte brought a decade of revolutionary upheaval to an end when he seized power with the army in November 1799, but he had been made a general by the Revolution and was one of its most celebrated soldiers. The Revolution opened up opportunities for this Corsican “outsider” which would have been impossible before the Revolution: he grabbed them. Dwyer’s prize-winning account of Napoleon’s checkered rise to power at the age of thirty is also a gripping narrative of the unpredictability and drama of the revolutionary decade. It reveals the making of a man whose brilliance, military genius, and vision was qualified by his cynicism, cruelty, and vanity. 

By Philip Dwyer,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Napoleon as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Napoleon Bonaparte's rise to power was neither inevitable nor smooth; it was full of mistakes, wrong turns and pitfalls. During his formative years his identity was constantly shifting, his character ambiguous and his intentions often ill-defined. He was, however, highly ambitious, and it was this ruthless drive that advanced his career. This book examines the extraordinary evolution of Napoleon's character and the means by which at the age of thirty he became head of the most powerful country in Europe and skilfully fashioned the image of himself that laid the foundation of the legend that endures to this day.

Book cover of Choosing Terror: Virtue, Friendship, and Authenticity in the French Revolution

Why did I love this book?

After 1792 French revolutionaries had to confront European armies and internal counter-revolution in a battle for the survival of the Revolution – and their own lives. The Jacobins saved the Revolution, but an enormous cost in human life. Marisa Linton takes us inside the personal dimensions of this deadly struggle, examining how personal friendships and alliances among revolutionary leaders disintegrated into recrimination and killings. By the Year II (1793-94) the policies of “terror” unleashed at the armed enemies of the Revolution had been extended to other revolutionaries believed to lack the authenticity necessary to the practice of republican “virtue”. Linton unravels the deadly logic of suspicion at a time of violence and acute fear which underpinned this “politicians’ terror”.  

By Marisa Linton,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Choosing Terror as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Choosing Terror: Virtue, Friendship and Authenticity in the French Revolution examines the leaders of the French Revolution - Robespierre and his fellow Jacobins - and particularly the gradual process whereby many of them came to 'choose terror'. These men led the Jacobin Club between 1789 and 1794, and were attempting to establish new democratic politics in France. Exploring revolutionary politics through the eyes of these leaders, and against a political
backdrop of a series of traumatic events, wars, and betrayals, Marisa Linton portrays the Jacobins as complex human beings who were influenced by emotions and personal loyalties, as well as…

Book cover of The French Revolution: A Very Short Introduction

Why did I love this book?

Ever since 1789 people have asked how to explain such a massive upheaval in an apparently stable kingdom. Why did the Revolution follow its particular course after 1789? Why did it result in a civil war and international warfare? When was it “over”? And how “revolutionary” was the Revolution? Was France fundamentally changed as a result of it? What were the international repercussions?

An eminent historian of the eighteenth century here manages to condense decades of research and writing into a pocket-sized paperback. It is a superb, lucid, and up-to-date summary of the origins, course, and outcomes of the Revolution and of the ongoing debates about its meaning and significance, some of which involve Doyle’s own interpretations. 

By William Doyle,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The French Revolution as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The French Revolution is a time of history made familiar from Dickens, Baroness Orczy, and Tolstoy, as well as the legends of let them eat cake, and tricolours. Beginning in 1789, this period of extreme political and social unrest saw the end of the French monarchy, the death of an extraordinary number of people beneath the guillotine's blade during the Terror, and the rise of Napoleon, as well as far reaching consequences still with us today, such as the
enduring ideology of human rights, and decimalization.

In this Very Short Introduction, William Doyle introduces the French old regime and considers…

Book cover of French Revolution and the People

Why did I love this book?

The elation of the revolutionary months of May-October 1789 was soon replaced by fervent debate about whose revolution this was to be. This was a debate which involved people at every level of society across the new nation. How could the divergent hopes of middle-class politicians and officials, insurgent Parisians, and the divergent mass of the peasantry be reconciled? Others rejected the Revolution altogether. After 1792 the debate became deadly as a European coalition made war on France, often with the collaboration of internal counter-revolutionaries. David Andress has created a vivid and expert narrative of an unfolding struggle over the survival and meaning of the Revolution, with some surprising conclusions.

By David Andress,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked French Revolution and the People as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The French Revolution of 1789 was the central event of modern history. Although the Revolution started with the resistance of a minority to absolutist government, it soon spread to involve the whole nation, including the men and women who made up by far the largest part of it - the peasantry, as well as townspeople and craftsmen, the poor and those living on the margins of society. The French Revolution and the People is a portrait of the common people of France, in the towns and in the countryside; in Paris and Lyon; in the Vendee, Brittany, Provence. Popular grievances…

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in France, the French Revolution, and Louis XVI?

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And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like The Oxford History of the French Revolution, The Life of Louis XVI, and Citizens if you like this list.