The best books to understand the French Revolution

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

The Books I Picked & Why

When the King Took Flight

By Timothy Tackett

Book cover of When the King Took Flight

Why 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.    

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Napoleon: The Path to Power 1769 - 1799

By Philip Dwyer

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

Why 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. 

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

By Marisa Linton

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

Why 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”.  

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The French Revolution: A Very Short Introduction

By William Doyle

Book cover of The French Revolution: A Very Short Introduction

Why 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. 

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French Revolution and the People

By David Andress

Book cover of French Revolution and the People

Why 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.

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