The best books to understand the Terror in the French Revolution

Who am I?

I have been trying to understand revolutionary violence my whole life, in the classroom and through scholarship. I am fundamentally interested in questions of “how” and “so what” because even the best, most heavily evidenced historical reconstructions of collective decisions rely heavily on conjecture, especially when it comes to something as complex and controversial as revolutionary violence. My biography of Alexandre Rousselin, an eyewitness and participant in French politics across the Revolutionary era, brings to life the choices and pressures that influenced his actions without minimizing the price he paid for those choices. Rousselin’s extraordinary life story contextualizes and engages understandings of the Terror in the French Revolution like those reviewed below.


I wrote...

The Making of a Terrorist: Alexandre Rousselin and the French Revolution

By Jeff Horn,

Book cover of The Making of a Terrorist: Alexandre Rousselin and the French Revolution

What is my book about?

Much has been written about the French Revolution and especially the bloody phase known as the Terror.  Jeff Horn recounts the life of Alexandre Rousselin and narrates the history of the age of the French Revolution from the perspective of an eyewitness and participant. Rousselin worked for and with some of the era's most important men and women. He helped make the Revolution work. Dedication to revolutionary ideals and war fever led him to accept the need for a system of Terror to save the Republic in 1793-94. Rousselin personally utilized violent methods to accomplish the state's goals in Provins and Troyes. This terrorism marked his life. It led to his repeated denunciation by the victims. Rousselin spent the next five decades trying to evade the consequences of his actions. 

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Terror: The French Revolution and Its Demons

Jeff Horn Why did I love this book?

Sometimes a book captures a scholarly moment; this one does.

It crystallizes a swirl of arguments about whether a true system of terror was created and imposed by the Revolutionary government by cutting through contemporary scapegoating and modern ideological conflict to lay the historical record bare.

Terror is a powerful book that I can both appreciate and argue with since I think it overemphasizes the experience of Paris at the expense of the lived reality of the provinces.

While I don’t always agree with its conclusions, Terror brings fresh insight to politics in 1793-94 and how the legacy of Revolutionary violence has become distorted, beginning in 1794 and continuing until the present.

By Michel Biard, Marisa Linton,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Terror as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

At the heart of how history sees the French Revolution lies the enigma of the Terror. How did this archetypal revolution, founded on the principles of liberty and equality and the promotion of human rights, arrive at circumstances where it carried out the violent and terrible repression of its opponents? The guillotine, initially designed to be a 'humane' form of capital punishment, became a formidable instrument of political repression and left a deep imprint, not only on how we see the Revolution, but also on how France's image has been depicted in the world.

This book reconstructs the Terror in…


Book cover of The Structure of the Terror: The Example of Javogues and the Loire

Jeff Horn Why did I love this book?

Lucas’ evocation of the mission of deputy Claude Javogues in the department of the Loire made me want to study the French Revolution. 

It is intricate, complicated, and messy, as might be expected of politics amidst the stresses of war, revolution, and terror. 

Lucas situates the motives and methods of a representative of the French central state in the context of local politics, specifically the politics of the Jacobin Clubs and revolutionary militants, who often had different needs and priorities. 

Their frequent conflict and occasional collaboration as well as their difficulties in getting the rest of the population to support the war effort and Revolutionary government make for gripping, though not always easy, reading. 

Book cover of The Coming of the Terror in the French Revolution

Jeff Horn Why did I love this book?

Tackett is the historian who has taught me the most about the French Revolution. 

This book is a magisterial evocation of the mentality and choices of the men and women who decided to deploy state-sponsored violence on behalf of the Revolutionary French government. 

It shows the era as a crucible that molded many people who had entered politics on behalf of liberty, equality, and fraternity to embrace the law on suspects and the guillotine. 

Tackett, as always, bases his analysis on personal reflections and caches of letters, digging deep to find new and different voices that conjure the emotional tenor of the shifts and upheavals of the Revolutionary crisis. 

It shows how the French Revolution of 1789 got to the Terror of 1793-94.

By Timothy Tackett,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Coming of the Terror in the French Revolution as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Between 1793 and 1794, thousands of French citizens were imprisoned and hundreds sent to the guillotine by a powerful dictatorship that claimed to be acting in the public interest. Only a few years earlier, revolutionaries had proclaimed a new era of tolerance, equal justice, and human rights. How and why did the French Revolution's lofty ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity descend into violence and terror?

"By attending to the role of emotions in propelling the Terror, Tackett steers a more nuanced course than many previous historians have managed...Imagined terrors, as...Tackett very usefully reminds us, can have even more political…


Book cover of The People's Armies

Jeff Horn Why did I love this book?

This book blew me away when I read it in graduate school. 

The depth of archival mastery is simply stunning, but what stands out about Cobb’s magnum opus is how he brought the intervention of the average militant, the men who made the Revolution work, to life. 

He shows why and how people lived the Terror. Cobb also illustrates the Terror in the provinces, noting the unique elements of each place and region but also showing the commonalities of structure and practice. 

Like many who read Cobb, I dreamed of writing something so poignant, so powerful, and so lasting. 

Nobody has the time and financial support to do this kind of work anymore; it is a monument that helps everybody else illuminate different aspects of politics in 1793-94.

By Richard Cobb, Marianne Elliott (translator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The People's Armies as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In this classic book, the famed historian Richard Cobb describes the Armees Revolutionnaires of eighteenth-century France and their clashes with the anti-revolutionary rural populace. In so doing, he provides important insights into the social and administrative history of the French Revolution. First published in France and now translated into English by Marianne Elliott, The People's Armies has had a profound influence on the study of the French Revolution and is still unsurpassed as a history of an important institution of the period of Revolutionary government in France.


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

Jeff Horn Why did I love this book?

This book made me want to study with Lynn Hunt. 

Divided into “The Poetics of Power” and “The Sociology of Politics,” the better known first half explores rhetoric, symbolic forms of political practice, and imagery in novel ways that have influenced both my scholarship and my teaching. 

But I was even more struck by the second part where Hunt considered the backgrounds, age, occupations, and experience of Revolutionary political actors in four French cities as a way to understand the political geography of the Revolution, networks, culture brokers, and the emergence of a new political class. 

This approach shaped my dissertation and first book, but, more importantly it made me think about the link among and between cultural influences, socio-economic backgrounds, and the lived experience to understand the French Revolution.

By Lynn Hunt,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Politics, Culture, and Class in the French Revolution as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

When this book was published in 1984, it reframed the debate on the French Revolution, shifting the discussion from the Revolution's role in wider, extrinsic processes (such as modernization, capitalist development, and the rise of twentieth-century totalitarian regimes) to its central political significance: the discovery of the potential of political action to consciously transform society by molding character, culture, and social relations. In a new preface to this twentieth-anniversary edition, Hunt reconsiders her work in the light of the past twenty years' scholarship.


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The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

By Ashley Rubin,

Book cover of The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

Ashley Rubin Author Of The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

New book alert!

Who am I?

I have been captivated by the study of prisons since my early college years. The fact that prisons are so new in human history still feels mind-blowing to me. I used to think that prisons have just always been around, but when you realize they are actually new, that has major implications. This is nowhere more clear than at the beginning: how hard it was to get to the point where prisons made sense to people, to agree on how prisons should be designed and managed, and to keep on the same path when prisons very quickly started to fail. It’s still puzzling to me.

Ashley's book list on the origins of American prisons

What is my book about?

What were America's first prisons like? How did penal reformers, prison administrators, and politicians deal with the challenges of confining human beings in long-term captivity as punishment--what they saw as a humane intervention?

The Deviant Prison centers on one early prison: Eastern State Penitentiary. Built in Philadelphia, one of the leading cities for penal reform, Eastern ultimately defied national norms and was the subject of intense international criticism.

The Deviant Prison traces the rise and fall of Eastern's unique "Pennsylvania System" of solitary confinement and explores how and why Eastern's administrators kept the system going, despite great personal cost to themselves. Anyone interested in history, prisons, and criminal justice will find something to enjoy in this book.

The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

By Ashley Rubin,

What is this book about?

Early nineteenth-century American prisons followed one of two dominant models: the Auburn system, in which prisoners performed factory-style labor by day and were placed in solitary confinement at night, and the Pennsylvania system, where prisoners faced 24-hour solitary confinement for the duration of their sentences. By the close of the Civil War, the majority of prisons in the United States had adopted the Auburn system - the only exception was Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary, making it the subject of much criticism and a fascinating outlier. Using the Eastern State Penitentiary as a case study, The Deviant Prison brings to light…


5 book lists we think you will like!

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