A New World Begins

The History of the French Revolution


By Jeremy Popkin

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From an award-winning historian, a “vivid” (Wall Street Journal) account of the revolution that created the modern world

The French Revolution’s principles of liberty and equality still shape our ideas of a just society—even if, after more than two hundred years, their meaning is more contested than ever before. In A New World Begins, Jeremy D. Popkin offers a riveting account of the revolution that puts the reader in the thick of the debates and the violence that led to the overthrow of the monarchy and the establishment of a new society. We meet Mirabeau, Robespierre, and Danton, in all their brilliance and vengefulness; we witness the failed escape and execution of Louis XVI; we see women demanding equal rights and Black slaves wresting freedom from revolutionaries who hesitated to act on their own principles; and we follow the rise of Napoleon out of the ashes of the Reign of Terror.

Based on decades of scholarship, A New World Begins will stand as the definitive treatment of the French Revolution.


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The force of things has perhaps led us to do things that we did not foresee.

Louis-Antoine de Saint-Just, 1794



AT THE END OF 1793, A PRINTER IN THE AMERICAN FRONTIER SETTLEMENT of Lexington, Kentucky, as far away from the French Revolution as any point in the Western world, published The Kentucky Almanac, for the Year of the Lord 1794. Along with a calendar and weather forecasts for the coming year, the almanac’s main feature was a poem, “The American Prayer for France.” Addressing the deity as the “Protector of the Rights of Man,” the anonymous poet implored him to “make thy chosen race rejoice, / and grant that KINGS may reign no more.” His message was clear: the outcome of the French Revolution mattered, not just to France’s “heroes brave, her rulers just,” but to all those around the world who believed that human beings were endowed with individual rights and that arbitrary rulers should be overthrown. At the same time, however, the poet’s words showed how hard it was to interpret the upheaval that had started in France in 1789 from a distance. Even as the Kentucky author implored God’s protection for the Revolution, the revolutionaries were suppressing religious worship in France, and as he praised the justice of their actions, their Revolutionary Tribunal was straining the definition of justice to its limits.1

Today, more than two hundred years since the dramatic events that began in 1789, the story of the French Revolution is still relevant to all who believe in liberty and democracy. Whenever movements for freedom take place anywhere in the world, their supporters claim to be following the example of the Parisians who stormed the Bastille on July 14, 1789. Whoever reads the words of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, published in August 1789, immediately recognizes the basic principles of individual liberty, legal equality, and representative government that define modern democracies. When we think of the French Revolution, however, we also remember the violent conflicts that divided those who participated in it and the executions carried out with the guillotine. Likewise, we remember the rise to power of the charismatic general whose dictatorship ended the movement. As I sit in my study in Lexington today, making sense of the French Revolution is as much of a challenge as it was for the anonymous author of the Kentucky Almanac.

When I began my own career as a scholar and teacher in the 1970s, the memory of the worldwide student protest movements on university campuses in the 1960s was still fresh. Those movements had inspired interest in the French Revolution, which seemed to stand alongside the Russian Revolution of 1917 as one of the great examples of a successful overthrow of an oppressive society. Ironically, the understanding of the French Revolution in those years of upheaval seemed largely fixed: virtually all historians agreed that it had resulted from the frustrations of a rising “bourgeois” class determined to challenge a “feudal” old order that stood in the way of political and economic progress.

By the time I participated, along with researchers from all over the globe, in commemorations of the bicentennial of the French Revolution in 1989, the situation had changed drastically. The communist regimes in Eastern Europe were now tottering, and the fact that the French Revolution had inspired the Soviets was a reason to ask whether France’s upheaval had foreshadowed totalitarian excesses more than social progress. The polemical essays of a dynamic French historian, François Furet, challenged the orthodoxy that had dominated study of the Revolution; among other things, he appealed to scholars in the English-speaking world to turn to the subject with fresh eyes.

The decades since 1989 have brought even more questions about the French Revolution to the fore. In 1789, the French proclaimed that “all men are born and remain free and equal in rights”—but what about women? At the start of the American Revolution, John Adams’s wife, Abigail, famously urged him in a letter to “remember the ladies, and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors.”2 In revolutionary France, the issues about women’s rights and relations between the sexes that still preoccupy us today were openly debated in the press, in political clubs, and even in the nation’s legislature. Mary Wollstonecraft, recognized as the pioneer of modern feminism, wrote her trailblazing Vindication of the Rights of Women in revolutionary Paris, but a French reviewer commented that women there had already shown they could do more than even Wollstonecraft imagined.3 Some of the women of the period—the playwright and pamphleteer Olympe de Gouges, the novelist and salon hostess Madame de Staël, the backroom politician Madame Roland, and the unhappy queen, Marie-Antoinette—became prominent public figures and left ample records of their thoughts. Others took part in mass uprisings or exerted influence through their daily grumbling about bread prices. Under the new laws on marriage and divorce, some women welcomed the possibility of changes in family life; others played a key role in frustrating male revolutionaries’ efforts to do away with the Catholic Church. A history of the French Revolution that does not “remember the ladies” is incomplete.

In today’s world, the issues of race and slavery during the French Revolution also command attention they did not receive in the past. On the map, the scattered islands of France’s overseas empire in 1789 looked insignificant compared to the holdings of the British, the Spanish, and the Portuguese, but their importance was out of all proportion to their size. In 1787, the colonies provided 37 percent of the goods imported into France and took 22 percent of its exports. One French colony alone—Saint-Domingue, today’s Haiti—provided half the world’s supply of sugar and coffee. These profits came from the labor of enslaved black men and women. In 1789, the 800,000 slaves in the French sugar islands in the Caribbean and the Indian Ocean outnumbered the 670,000 in the thirteen newly independent American states; indeed, the number of Africans being transported to the French colonies reached its all-time peak just as the French revolutionaries were proclaiming that “men are born and remain free and equal in rights.” The French colonies and their slaves were far away from Europe, but they preoccupied the minds of thinkers in France. The abbé Guillaume Raynal’s History of the Two Indies, a multivolume work with passages condemning colonialism and slavery, was a bestseller in the prerevolutionary years. In 1788, Marie-Antoinette authorized the gift of a gilded watch for “Jean-Pierre, Madame de Boisnormand’s mulatto,” a playmate of her son.4 The question of how to reconcile the principles of freedom with the economic importance of the colonies tormented revolutionary leaders throughout the 1790s. After much controversy, they voted to abolish slavery and to grant full rights to people of all races, but only after they were faced with history’s largest slave uprising, the beginning of a “Haitian Revolution” that ended in 1804 with the creation of the first independent black nation in the Americas. A history of the French Revolution that gives this previously neglected topic the attention it deserves changes our understanding of the movement’s meaning.

The events of the first decades of our century, which have led to widespread questioning of traditional political institutions, also send us back to the French Revolution. Revolutionary-era protests against economic globalization and the consequences of free trade often sound eerily similar to the demands of present-day movements. Because they argued that government needed to represent the will of the people, the French revolutionaries were the forerunners both of modern political democracy and of modern anti-elitist populism, and the events of the 1790s in France vividly demonstrate the conflicts that can arise between the two. As the world attempts to cope with a resurgence of militant nationalism, the ways in which the French Revolution turned the word “nation” into an explosive force demand new attention. The Revolution’s violent debates about the proper place of religion in society, and the powerful resistance to its efforts to impose secular values, also foreshadow conflicts of our own time. Like people today, participants in the French Revolution felt they were experiencing a transformation of the communications media; the proliferation of newspapers and pamphlets, for example, made it seem as though time itself had speeded up, and difficulties in distinguishing between political truth and false rumors were a constant of the period. Finally, in an era in which “disruption” has become a political program, the history of the French Revolution’s experiment in deliberately demolishing an existing order has never been more relevant. Our own experience of disruption also lends new relevance to the revolutionaries’ efforts, in the five years between the end of the Reign of Terror and the rise of Napoleon, to stabilize their society without undoing the movement’s positive achievements.

The French Revolution unfolded at a moment when public taste favored melodramatic plays and novels featuring stark confrontations between good and evil. Histories of the Revolution often repeat this pattern, even if their authors disagree about which figures and movements should be cast as heroes and which as villains. My own personal itinerary as a scholar of the Revolution has inclined me to strive for a balanced view of the men and women of the revolutionary era. My first research projects on French revolutionary history were devoted to writers and journalists who opposed the movement. Although I never embraced their conservative philosophies, I was challenged by learning that intelligent and articulate people had argued so strenuously against the ideals of liberty and equality that I accepted as self-evident. As I broadened my studies on the journalism of the revolutionary period, I had to engage with the writers who favored the movement, or who even thought it had not gone far enough, and grapple with the paradox that the loudest proponents of democracy during the Revolution, such as Jean-Paul Marat and the pseudonymous Père Duchêne, were also vociferous advocates of overt violence.

Midway through my scholarly career, I found myself exploring the dramatic events that led the French revolutionaries to their historic declaration, in 1794, that slavery was an unacceptable violation of human rights, and that the black populations of their colonies should be full French citizens. I discovered that although in one obvious sense the Revolution was a drama in black and white, it was not a simple confrontation between heroes and villains. Abolitionist reformers in France understood the injustice of slavery and racial prejudice, and yet many of them were so convinced that blacks were not yet ready for freedom that they hesitated to draw what now seem the obvious conclusions from their own principles. The blacks in the French colonies who revolted against oppression did not always see the French revolutionaries as allies. Toussaint Louverture, the main figure in the movement that eventually led France’s largest and most valuable overseas colony to independence, initially told the French that he was fighting for “another liberty,” not the form of freedom the revolutionaries were prepared to offer.

Hardly any of the hundreds of figures readers will meet in these pages can be portrayed in simple terms. Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette could not comprehend the revolutionary principles of liberty and equality, but they had a sincere devotion to what they saw as their duty to defend the nation’s long-established institutions. Prominent revolutionary leaders, from Mirabeau to Robespierre, advocated admirable principles, but they also approved measures with a high human cost in the name of the Revolution. Ordinary men and women were capable of both acts of courage, such as the storming of the Bastille, and acts of inhuman cruelty, including the September massacres of 1792. Certainly all of the participants could have agreed on at least one thing: the truth of the words of a young revolutionary legislator, Louis-Antoine de Saint-Just, when he remarked that “the force of things has perhaps led us to do things that we did not foresee.”5

The continuing relevance of the French Revolution does not mean that the events of 1789 are simple or that they can offer clear answers to the questions of our own day. Our new perspectives on the role of women in the Revolution, on the importance of the revolutionaries’ debates about race and slavery, and on the ways in which revolutionary politics prefigured the current dilemmas of democracy may give us a new view of the movement, but the Revolution’s message and its outcome remain ambiguous. Liberty and equality turned out to mean very different things to different people at the time, as they have ever since. One of the most relevant lessons of the Revolution, first driven home by the conservative critic Edmund Burke, and most forcefully articulated by the great nineteenth-century political theorist Alexis de Tocqueville, is that actions inevitably have unintended consequences. An equally important lesson of the Revolution, however, is that it is sometimes necessary to fight for liberty and equality, despite the risks that conflict entails. The respect for individual rights inherent in the Revolution’s own principles does require us to recognize the humanity of those who opposed it, and it requires us as well to consider the views of those who paid a price for objecting that the movement did not always fulfill its own promises. Despite its shortcomings, however, the French Revolution remains a vital part of the heritage of democracy.



ON JANUARY 21, 1793, LOUIS XVI, KING OF FRANCE AND NAVARRE, HEIR to fourteen centuries of French monarchy, mounted the steps of the scaffold in Paris and met his death under the guillotine. His death became the symbol of the victorious revolutionary movement that had begun with the storming of the Bastille and the passage of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen in 1789. Among those who watched the king’s carriage on its way to his execution were thousands of the commoners of Paris: the artisans, workers, and shopkeepers whose fervent embrace of the promises of liberty and equality had enabled that movement to topple France’s old order. A few years later, a glazier (or glassfitter) named Jacques-Louis Ménétra would become one of the few ordinary people to write an account of his own life before and during the Revolution.

The experiences Ménétra recalled in his memoirs put him on one side of the gulf between the two worlds—the world of hierarchy and privilege, in which Louis XVI was raised, and the world of ordinary people—that collided so violently during the French Revolution. Ménétra’s experiences growing up had prepared him, if not to make a revolution, at least to understand the possibilities of a world in which individuals could make important choices about their own lives and expect to be treated as equals. Louis XVI, in contrast, had been taught from childhood that the existence of society depended on people accepting the ranks assigned to them by birth. Louis XVI did not always enjoy the strictly programmed life he had been given; at times, he may have dreamed of living a freer existence, one more like Ménétra’s. Certainly his wife, Queen Marie-Antoinette, had imagined such an existence: she had an artificial village, the “Hameau,” constructed on the grounds of Versailles, so that she and her companions could play at being peasants. Neither the king nor the queen, however, could imagine a society in which individuals were free to change the situation into which they had been born. What brought them to their deaths in 1793 was their inability to accept the values that had come to seem natural and just to their former subjects.

Louis-Auguste, the future Louis XVI, born in 1754, was the living symbol of the hereditary privileges and social inequalities the revolutionaries were determined to overturn. From the time of his birth, his life was shaped by his ancestry. Raised in the palace of Versailles, which his famous great-great-great-grandfather, Louis XIV, had built to showcase the grandeur of the French monarchy, he learned about the intricacies of status from an early age. He had an older brother, the duc de Bourgogne, and little Louis-Auguste would have been constantly reminded that it was this older sibling who would someday be the king, and that, as his subject, it would be his duty to obey him. Even as a small child, Louis learned to play his part in court rituals, dressed in elaborate costumes that emphasized his status. As was customary in aristocratic households, he saw little of his parents. They left childrearing chores to a staff overseen by the royal governess, who preferred his older brother, the presumed heir to the throne, and his younger brothers, the comte de Provence and the comte d’Artois, both livelier and more engaging children.

In the hothouse environment of Versailles in which the future Louis XVI was raised, the adults he encountered were either titled nobles, acutely conscious of the minute gradations of status among themselves, or servants whose obsequiousness served to emphasize their masters’ and mistresses’ sense of importance. Centuries earlier, dukes and barons had been warriors who ruled over their own local fiefdoms. Over the centuries, Louis XVI’s ancestors had deprived the nobles of their political independence, but the members of their caste whom the young prince encountered in Versailles remained influential as courtiers and as holders of well-paid positions in the royal administration and the Catholic Church. The courtiers of Versailles were part of a network whose members were scattered throughout the kingdom, bound together by their special legal and social status. To bind its most faithful servants more fully to them, monarchs such as Henri IV and Louis XIV rewarded judges and high officials with titles of nobility, even if they came originally from commoner families. This practice created a division between the noblesse d’épée, the “nobles of the sword” whose ancestors had been warriors, and the noblesse de robe, who had gained their status through service to the state.

Noble status was highly valued in French society because it brought with it important privileges. Nobles were exempt from many of the most onerous taxes, for example, particularly the taille, the basic tax levied on peasants. The most prestigious positions in the government as well as in the Church were reserved for them, as were a specified number of seats in the royal academies and almost all officer posts in the army and navy. Nobles had the right to wear swords at their side in public and to emphasize their status by adding the name of their estate to their family names with the noble “particle” de. They had special seating privileges in their local churches and at public ceremonies and the exclusive right to put weather vanes on their chateaux or manor houses in the countryside. Only nobles had the right to hunt game in the countryside: they could trample over peasants’ fields as they chased after stags and hares. When nobles were condemned to death, they had the privilege of having their heads cut off. This was considered a more dignified method of execution than hanging, which was reserved for commoners.

To make it clear that they were motivated by honor rather than monetary considerations, nobles were not supposed to engage in the grubby business of commerce or in any kind of manual labor. Various mechanisms allowed wealthy commoner families to obtain noble status, a process that usually took several generations, but once they became anoblis, they abandoned the occupations that had made their fortunes. In theory, nobles were expected to live on the incomes they derived from their landed estates, although in practice they found ways to share in the profits of France’s expanding commerce and manufacturing during the eighteenth century by investing in enterprises ranging from factories to slaving voyages. A small group of very wealthy aristocrats surrounded the king at Versailles, squabbling over the most desirable court positions and royal rewards. At the other extreme were impoverished noble families who owned little but their titles and a few acres of land, and who frequently resented the favors lavished on the well-connected court nobility. Still, nobles were, on average, richer than even the most prosperous members of the bourgeoisie. Commoners watched their expenses carefully, knowing they could lose their social status if they failed to pay their bills. Nobles had no such worries: their standing was secure, and as a class, they were notoriously careless about running up debts.

In the first years of his life, young Louis would have looked forward to a life as an unusually privileged member of the nobility, but he would not have expected to ever occupy a position of real power. When he was seven years old, however, his older brother died, leaving him second in line to the throne, after his father, the Dauphin. Even royal status could not confer immunity to the many diseases for which eighteenth-century medicine had no remedies.

To prepare him for the responsibilities he now stood to inherit, Louis received an intensive education from a variety of tutors. Religion was an important part of his upbringing, partly in reaction against his grandfather, the ruling king Louis XV, who notoriously flouted the rules of Catholic morality. The king’s official mistress during Louis XVI’s early years, Madame de Pompadour, exercised highly public influence at court, while a succession of younger women were brought in to satisfy the king’s insatiable sexual appetite. Louis’s parents made sure their son was raised in an atmosphere of piety and strict moral rules. Only on rare occasions were the royal children allowed some informal fun. One of those occasions, as the glassfitter Ménétra remembered years later, was when he and some other artisans were hired to repair windows at Versailles. In the evenings, “we climbed up on the tables and pretended to fence,” Ménétra recalled. “The royal children were brought in to watch our antics.”1

The future king grew up to be a shy young man who never became comfortable speaking in public. His reluctance to engage in conversation led those who met him to underestimate his intellectual abilities, which were nevertheless considerable. Louis took a special interest in geography; a skillfully drawn map of the area around Versailles demonstrates how well he had mastered the subject. Yet Louis XVI had almost no experience of the world represented in his maps. Except for ceremonial visits to Paris and the royal family’s annual stays at other palaces near the capital, he saw nothing of his future kingdom. Even after he became ruler, he made only two brief trips to the provinces, one for his coronation in the cathedral city of Reims in 1775 and another for the inauguration of new harbor facilities in the Norman port city of Cherbourg in 1786, and he never traveled abroad. The tutors who prepared young Louis XVI for the duties he would someday assume did not spend much time teaching him about the population spread across the territories he studied in his maps. In his own notes to his son, dictated nearly a century earlier, Louis XIV had observed that “every profession contributes, in its own way, to the support of the monarchy,” but he had accorded just one sentence to peasants and one to artisans.2 Louis XVI learned little more about the wealthier and more educated commoners—lawyers, doctors, merchants and manufacturers, lower-level government officials—who might, on Sundays, put on their best clothes and visit Versailles to gawk at the splendor of the palace and its elegant courtiers. No matter how successful such men became, they remained, like peasants and artisans, part of the “Third Estate,” the catch-all category for all royal subjects except titled nobles and members of the clergy.

Young Louis learned Latin, as did all educated young men in eighteenth-century France, and several modern languages. From his parents, the stern and gloomy Dauphin and the devout Maria-Josepha, he acquired an early interest in history. His father was especially fond of the British historian David Hume’s History of Charles I, the story of the seventeenth-century monarch who had been executed by his subjects in 1649. The image of a king brought to the scaffold by his own subjects was engraved in the future Louis XVI’s mind; he would later recommend the book to his wife, Marie-Antoinette. When Hume was received at Versailles in 1763, the nine-year-old Louis delivered a little formal speech to welcome him. The lengthy summary of the principles of French royal absolutism that Louis copied out for his gouverneur, the duc de la Vauguyon, during his early teenage years shows that he knew the major accomplishments of his royal ancestors and the lessons he was supposed to have learned from the many crises France had experienced through the centuries.

In most ways, the future Louis XVI’s childhood could not have been more different from that of his future subject Jacques Ménétra, whose horseplay had once entertained him at Versailles. Ménétra was born in 1738 in Paris. His father was a glazier, and Ménétra’s birth probably took place in the cramped apartment in the center of the city where the family lived. Like the future king, the future glasscutter saw little of his parents during his infancy: as was customary among Paris artisans, he was placed with a wetnurse so that his mother could return as quickly as possible to helping her husband run the family business. Ménétra was still boarding with the wetnurse’s family when his mother died giving birth to her next child: commoners’ families were even more familiar than the king’s with the ravages caused by eighteenth-century medicine’s helplessness in the face of disease. According to his memoirs, Ménétra’s wetnurse tried to supplement the meager payments she received for caring for him by teaching him “the profession of begging.” Stopping by to check up on him, his grandmother was appalled to see that the son of a respectable artisan was in danger of slipping into a life of poverty. She took him home with her and raised him until he was eleven.3


  • “A fresh and fair-minded account of the revolution overflowing with vivid narrative detail and clear exposition.”
     —Wall Street Journal
  • “When it comes to showing how events can scramble the prospects of even the most determined plotters, Popkin has no equal, and readers will find in his pages a deeply satisfying account of the inevitable messiness of rapid change.”—New York Review of Books
  • “Popkin’s expertise on revolutionary-era France is keenly demonstrated here—from pre-revolutionary thought through the history of the country up to Louis XVI and his Hapsburg wife, Marie-Antoinette, and beyond, to the years of upheaval and the reign of Napoleon Bonaparte.”
  • "A fresh, welcome new interpretation of the French Revolution."—Kirkus
  • "This is a book that has been needed for a long time: a lucid, engaging, authoritative, accurate, and up-to-date history of the French Revolution. Jeremy Popkin is one of the great living experts on the subject, and he has drawn on a half-century of study to produce this first-rate work. Particularly impressive is the way he integrates the history of the Haitian Revolution into that of the French Revolution. A New World Begins will appeal to experts, students, and general readers alike."—David A. Bell, professor of history, Princeton University and author of Men on Horseback: Charisma and Power in the Age of Revolutions
  • "Jeremy Popkin is one of the most eminent scholars working on the French Revolution, and his A New World Begins provides us with the best, fullest and most up-to-date history of the Revolutionary decade from 1789 through to the advent of Napoleon. Writing with an insight that distils a lifetime's study, Popkin is particularly alert to the range of experience of those who lived through the Revolutionary years. There is heart and compassion here as well as wit and intelligence: Popkin does not flinch from recounting the Revolution's more sombre legacies, but can still elicit in his readers a bitter-sweet sense of excitement about a moment in western history when, indeed, a new epoch in the history of humanity seemed to be blossoming."—Colin Jones, author of The Great Nation: France from Louis XV to Napoleon 1715-99
  • "Sweeping in coverage, A New World Begins offers a fresh and richly detailed account of French revolutionary politics. Jeremy Popkin is an outstanding scholar of the French and Haitian Revolutions, and his deep layers of expertise shine through the pages of this book. This thought-provoking account will push readers to reflect deeply on the contradictions and complexities of modern democracy."—Suzanne Desan, professor of history, University of Wisconsin-Madison and author of TheFamily on Trial in Revolutionary France
  • "Based on nearly half a century of research and teaching, Jeremy Popkin's new study of the French Revolution brilliantly brings alive the complex goals and emotions of the men and women and people of color struggling to create a new world. It is especially effective in exploring what that struggle meant, both for the generation of Revolutionaries and for our own day. A New World Begins is an outstanding synthesis that is sure to stand as basic reading on the subject for many years to come."—Timothy Tackett, professor emeritus of history, UC Irvine and author of Becoming a Revolutionary

On Sale
Dec 10, 2019
Page Count
640 pages
Basic Books

Jeremy Popkin

About the Author

Jeremy D. Popkin holds the William T. Bryan chair of history at the University of Kentucky. He is the author of many books, including You Are All Free and A Short History of the French Revolution. He lives in Lexington, Kentucky.

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