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Revolutionary Ideas: An Intellectual History of the French Revolution from The Rights of Man to Robespierre

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Historians of the French Revolution used to take for granted what was also obvious to its contemporary observers—that the Revolution was caused by the radical ideas of the Enlightenment. Yet in recent decades scholars have argued that the Revolution was brought about by social forces, politics, economics, or culture—almost anything but abstract notions like liberty or equality. In Revolutionary Ideas, one of the world's leading historians of the Enlightenment restores the Revolution's intellectual history to its rightful central role. Drawing widely on primary sources, Jonathan Israel shows how the Revolution was set in motion by radical eighteenth-century doctrines, how these ideas divided revolutionary leaders into vehemently opposed ideological blocs, and how these clashes drove the turning points of the Revolution.

Revolutionary Ideas demonstrates that the Revolution was really three different revolutions vying for supremacy—a conflict between constitutional monarchists such as Lafayette who advocated moderate Enlightenment ideas; democratic republicans allied to Tom Paine who fought for Radical Enlightenment ideas; and authoritarian populists, such as Robespierre, who violently rejected key Enlightenment ideas and should ultimately be seen as Counter-Enlightenment figures. The book tells how the fierce rivalry between these groups shaped the course of the Revolution, from the Declaration of Rights, through liberal monarchism and democratic republicanism, to the Terror and the Post-Thermidor reaction.

In this compelling account, the French Revolution stands once again as a culmination of the emancipatory and democratic ideals of the Enlightenment. That it ended in the Terror represented a betrayal of those ideas—not their fulfillment.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"[A]dvances an erudite and persuasive argument. . . . Israel's categorization of the various revolutionary factions offers fascinating new insights, and his knack for uncovering interesting but neglected individuals and texts is second to none . . . rich and thought provoking book. It is remarkable and significant."—Rachel Hammersley, Times Literary Supplement

"[C]losely argued. . . . Israel can be understood as a historian in the long liberal tradition stretching back to Madame de Stael, who herself witnessed the revolution and saw it as a story of the betrayal of liberty."—Ruth Scurr, Wall Street Journal

"[W]ith typical boldness Israel invites us to reconceptualise our very idea of the Revolution."—Jeremy Jennings, Standpoint

"Overwhelmingly impressive."—Peter Watson, Times

"[P]acked with details . . . [Revolutionary Ideas] is part of Israel's major project to give the Enlightenment, especially the Radical Enlightenment as he calls it, new luster."—NRC Handelsblad

"[M]ajestic."—Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe, Trinidad and Tobago News

"Israel, a professor of modern European history at Princeton, is a world authority on the 18th-century Enlightenment. Here he constructs a bold and brilliantly argued case that the 1789 French Revolution was propelled by the clash of innovative political doctrines that supported or contested Enlightenment values."—Tony Barber, Financial Times

"Israel, author of the pathbreaking studies on the Dutch Republic, European Jews, and more recently the radical Enlightenment, now turns his attention to the French Revolution, arguing that the underlying cause was ideological—namely, the impact of the radical Enlightenment resulting from the work of philosophers Denis Diderot, Claude Adrien Helvetius, and Paul-Henry Thiry, Baron d'Holbach. . . . Israel takes them at their word, painstakingly poring through voluminous revolutionary newspapers and the archives parlementaires, records of the revolutionary national assemblies. . . . This significant and nuanced study is a major reinterpretation."Choice

"A racy account of the concepts that shaped the French Revolution and its people. . . . The book leaves the reader with a strong impression of the power of ideas that unlock political energy and the strength of leadership needed to withstand fickle popular opinion."—Tom Watson, New Statesman

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780691151724
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press
  • Publication date: 3/23/2014
  • Pages: 888
  • Sales rank: 196,963
  • Product dimensions: 6.60 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 2.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Jonathan Israel is professor of modern history at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. His books include "A Revolution of the Mind: Radical Enlightenment and the Intellectual Origins of Modern Democracy" (Princeton) and a monumental history of the Enlightenment in three volumes: "Radical Enlightenment", "Enlightenment Contested", and "Democratic Enlightenment".

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Table of Contents

List of Figures vii
Acknowledgments ix
Prologue 1
Chapter 1 Introduction 6
Chapter 2 Revolution of the Press (1788-90) 30
Chapter 3 From Estates-General to National Assembly (April-June 1789) 53
Chapter 4 The Rights of Man: Summer and Autumn 1789 72
Chapter 5 Democratizing the Revolution 103
Chapter 6 Deadlock (November 1790-July 1791) 141
Chapter 7 War with the Church (1788-92) 180
Chapter 8 The Feuillant Revolution ( July 1791-April 1792) 204
Chapter 9 The "General Revolution" Begins (1791-92) 231
Chapter 10 The Revolutionary Summer of 1792 246
Chapter 11 Republicans Divided (September 1792-March 1793) 278
Chapter 12 The "General Revolution" from Valmy to the Fall of Mainz (1792-93) 316
Chapter 13 The World's First Democratic Constitution (1793) 345
Chapter 14 Education: Securing the Revolution 374
Chapter 15 Black Emancipation 396
Chapter 16 Robespierre's Putsch ( June 1793) 420
Chapter 17 The Summer of 1793: Overturning the Revolution's Core Values 450
Chapter 18 De-Christianization (1793-94) 479
Chapter 19 "The Terror" (September 1793-March 1794) 503
Chapter 20 The Terror's Last Months (March-July 1794) 545
Chapter 21 Thermidor 574
Chapter 22 Post-Thermidor (1795-97) 593
Chapter 23 The "General Revolution" (1795-1800): Holland, Italy, and the Levant 635
Chapter 24 The Failed Revolution (1797-99) 670
Chapter 25 Conclusion: The Revolution as the Outcome of the Radical Enlightenment 695
Cast of Main Participants 709
Notes 733
Bibliography 803
Index 833

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  • Posted June 1, 2014

    Very " enlightening"

    This is a great book opening up an entirely new way of looking at the French Revolution. Israel establishes the central importance of the Radical Enlightenment as the central basis for the Revolution. He weaves a lucid history of the Revolution from its' antecedents to 18 Brumaire by tracking the role of ideas over this tumultuous period. The Revolution's ups and downs in relation to the core values it fostered provides a very meaningful thread linking the events of the decade.

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