By: Jon Oldham
“The secret of freedom lies in educating people,
whereas the secret of tyranny is in keeping
– Maximilien Robespierre
Would a King think it prudent to hunt incessantly while his Queen waited seven years to consummate their marriage? Would a government think it wise to tax its poorest citizens while giving a free pass to the wealthiest nobles? Would a country think it reasonable to draft its young men to fight while harvests rotted for lack of labor? Would the world think it sound to cling to the past while a revolution was rewriting the future? The French Revolution wasthe culmination and realization of a million of these questions. The French Revolution for most people usually entails some vague image of angry peasants standing around a guillotine that is hosting the head of some fat aristocrat; or, there is the W 2 Tackle The Library – The French Revolution image of men wearing berets shouting “Vive Le France” while waving their tri-colored flag.
I for one imagine Anne Hathaway and Hugh Jackman singing “One Day More” on top of a barricade. These images do the French Revolution no justice; people should conjure the picture of Napoleon standing in the shadows of the pyramids; King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette fleeing into the night to escape the revolutionary government; Maximilien Robespierre discussing executions with the Committee of Public Safety; anti-revolutionary riots in the countryside with shouts of “Long live the King;” Jacobin clubs at night experimenting with pure “democracy.” No matter the image, the French Revolution paints a picture of sheer ruptured chaos mixed with accents of relevant lessons which are informative to all its viewers.
Wanting to expand my perspective of this classic painting, I sought out the top five books that discuss, explain, and elaborate on all the intricacies of this tumultuous period. There are an endless number of authors and texts about this subject, and I felt like a fat boy at a buffet – scoping out the most scrumptious dishes. It became apparent that I needed to read about the man of the hour King Louis XVI, so I picked up The Life of Louis XVI by John Hardman. Next in line was a “big picture” text, which ended up being the highly reviewed Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution by Simon Schama. To accompany the more Consummation 3 recent Citizens text, I sought out some primary scholarship with The Ancien Régime and the Revolution by Alexis De Tocqueville from 1856. With the general books covered, I searched for more precise explanations of the military campaigns and the Reign of Terror; eventually picking the French Revolutionary Wars by Gregory Fremont-Barnes and Twelve Who Ruled: The Year of the Terror in the French Revolution by R.R. Palmer. In total, this came to over 2100 pages of text.
I am going to take you on a journey that starts in the 18th century and culminates in our present day. The French Revolution changed our world to the extent that is admittedly hard to grasp. From the borders of nations to the civil code of New Orleans, the French Revolution shaped culture, government, and society as a whole. What is truly fascinating about this period is how closely it mirrors the problems of today: social inequality, political corruption, and popular opinion via social media to name a few. More than ever, it is important to understand the past to prevent mistakes in the future; to ameliorate this ignorance we will start from the beginning. What were the causes of the French Revolution? What is a Jacobin? Why is the French flag red, white, and blue? Who was the most influential figure of the revolution? Why was there so much violence?
We will get to all of these questions and help sort out the confusing information which is for Tackle The Library – The French Revolution many times difficult to decipher in long texts. I think Simon Schama nicely prefaces our pursuit: “You are not thinking hard enough if you are sleeping well. And you would have to be unhinged to take on a subject like the French Revolution…and not feel some trepidation. There is always the possibility that you will crash and burn, and the whole thing will be a horrible, vulgar, self-indulgent mess.” Do not fret; take this as a mini crash and burn attempt. Imagine this read as the equivalent of learning how to ride a bike; I’m right behind you and not letting go. Strap on that helmet, ring that bell, and let’s TACKLE THE LIBRARY.