The best books about the French Revolution and the ideals that inspired it

Jeremy D. Popkin Author Of A New World Begins: The History of the French Revolution
By Jeremy D. Popkin

Who am I?

I have been fascinated by the history of the French Revolution ever since my father took me to visit Napoleon’s tomb in Paris when I was four years old and tried to explain to me who he was and what he had done. For more than forty years, I have been teaching and writing about this inexhaustible subject. The Revolution’s ideals of liberty and equality still speak to us, and the vivid personalities who clashed over them, ranging from Lafayette and Robespierre to the abolitionist priest Henri Grégoire and the ill-fated Marie Antoinette, bring the subject alive. Oh, and did I mention that one of the perks of being a historian of the French Revolution is that you get to make regular trips to Paris?

I wrote...

A New World Begins: The History of the French Revolution

By Jeremy D. Popkin,

Book cover of A New World Begins: The History of the French Revolution

What is my book about?

The French Revolution was the “big bang” in which all the elements of modern politics and social conflicts were formed. Democracy, populism, liberalism, conservatism, socialism, nationalism, feminism, and abolitionism are all legacies of the upheaval that began in Paris in 1789.

A New World Begins puts readers in the thick of the debates and the turmoil that led to the overthrow of the French monarchy and the establishment of a new society. Going beyond the familiar figures like Mirabeau, Robespierre, and Danton, Jeremy Popkin’s riveting narrative includes the women who demanded equal rights and the enslaved blacks in France’s colonies who wrested their freedom from reluctant whites who had proclaimed themselves “free and equal in rights.” Even after more than two hundred years, the principles of the French Revolution continue to guide the search for a just society.

The books I picked & why

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The Old Regime and the French Revolution

By Alexis de Tocqueville,

Book cover of The Old Regime and the French Revolution

Why this book?

Like his classic Democracy in America, 19th-century French author Alexis de Tocqueville’s analysis of the great movement for freedom in his own country raises profound questions about the difficult relationship between liberty and equality. Modern scholarship has challenged some of Tocqueville’s assertions, but his warning that events often turn out very differently from what the actors in them intended is as relevant today as it was when his book was first published in 1856.

Twelve Who Ruled: The Year of Terror in the French Revolution

By R.R. Palmer,

Book cover of Twelve Who Ruled: The Year of Terror in the French Revolution

Why this book?

The most troubling aspect of the French Revolution, for those who identify with its ideals of liberty and equality, is the way a movement for freedom turned into a revolutionary dictatorship that foreshadowed modern totalitarian regimes. American historian R. R. Palmer’s clear and readable account explains the extraordinary circumstances that led to the Terror and why this episode should not discredit the principles of democracy.

Politics, Culture, and Class in the French Revolution

By Lynn Hunt,

Book cover of Politics, Culture, and Class in the French Revolution

Why this book?

A classic example of “the new cultural history,” Lynn Hunt’s short book transformed the way historians look at the French Revolution and has also influenced scholars working on many other subjects. In our age of “culture wars,” Hunt’s demonstration of how slogans, visual images, and even clothing became powerful forces in politics has a relevance that goes beyond the period of the French Revolution.

The Women of Paris and Their French Revolution

By Dominique Godineau, Katherine Streip (translator),

Book cover of The Women of Paris and Their French Revolution

Why this book?

Half of the people who experienced the French Revolution were women, and the recognition of their role in these events is one of the biggest transformations in historians’ perspectives of the past half-century. Dominque Godineau’s thoroughly documented book depicts the everyday lives of women in the revolutionary era and the activists who paved the way for modern feminist movements.

The Gods Will Have Blood

By Anatole France,

Book cover of The Gods Will Have Blood

Why this book?

Less well known in the English-speaking world than Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, The Gods Will Have Blood probes the psychology of the revolutionaries and helps us understand the tragic dimension of a movement that cost the lives of so many well-meaning people.

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in France, the French Revolution, and the Reign of Terror?

5,309 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about France, the French Revolution, and the Reign of Terror.

France Explore 545 books about France
The French Revolution Explore 73 books about the French Revolution
The Reign Of Terror Explore 13 books about the Reign of Terror

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Paris in the Terror, The Coming of the Terror in the French Revolution, and French Revolution and the People if you like this list.