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A New World Begins: The History of the French Revolution

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From an award-winning historian, a magisterial account of the revolution that created the modern world The principles of the French Revolution remain the only possible basis for a just society -- even if, after more than two hundred years, they are more contested than ever before. In A New World Begins, Jeremy D. Popkin offers a riveting account of the revolution that puts From an award-winning historian, a magisterial account of the revolution that created the modern world The principles of the French Revolution remain the only possible basis for a just society -- even if, after more than two hundred years, they are 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 of 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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From an award-winning historian, a magisterial account of the revolution that created the modern world The principles of the French Revolution remain the only possible basis for a just society -- even if, after more than two hundred years, they are more contested than ever before. In A New World Begins, Jeremy D. Popkin offers a riveting account of the revolution that puts From an award-winning historian, a magisterial account of the revolution that created the modern world The principles of the French Revolution remain the only possible basis for a just society -- even if, after more than two hundred years, they are 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 of 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.

30 review for A New World Begins: The History of the French Revolution

  1. 5 out of 5

    Matt

    “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 Re “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…’” - Jeremy D. Popkin, A New World Begins: The History of the French Revolution The French Revolution is one of the more momentous and complex events in history. Somehow, over the course of a single decade, France’s dire financial straits led to the overthrow and execution of a king, a massive social reordering, the gruesome execution of thousands, and ultimately, years of bloody warfare that killed tens of thousands of people all across Europe. The reverberations have never fully subsided, and exist down to our own day. To put it in television terms, there is enough drama here for six or seven seasons of prestige drama on Netflix or HBO. Of course, if you want to read something while waiting for the show, you will find no shortage of books on the French Revolution. Up until now, however, I have found it difficult to find a volume that does not already presuppose a rather broad working knowledge of the subject. My past efforts to study this event has been stymied by unexplained concepts, authorial assumptions, and the parroting of the Revolutionaries’ proto-Orwellian Newspeak. I have been hampered by my preternatural inability to differentiate between Jacobins, Girondins, and Montagnards. I would read about sans culottes, and be left puzzling over why these people didn’t have culottes. The great thing about Jeremy Popkin’s A New World Begins is that even though it is written by an expert, he’s an expert who doesn’t mind explaining things to a relative ignoramus such as myself. This is a book that can make a learned case for revising our view of Maximilien Robespierre, but only after properly introducing Robespierre and identifying his role in the proceedings. Another great thing is that A New World Begins is a complete history. It begins with the fall of the Old Regime, and ends with the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte. Thus, instead of focusing on a discrete part of the Revolution, such as the Reign of Terror, Popkin tries to embrace it all. Reading this provides an all-important framework for understanding the ebb and flow of things, for seeing how one moment – after a fashion – led to another. Not only has this given me a better springboard for learning about the Napoleonic Wars, it also affords a fuller sense of other historical eruptions, such as the Bolshevik Revolution during the First World War. Popkin begins this sweeping tale with a fun introductory chapter, comparing and contrasting the lives of two Frenchmen on the eve of tumultuous times. The first is Jacques-Louis Menetra, a glazier who later became one of the few “ordinary people” to leave an account of his life during the Revolution. The other is Louis XVI, the King of France and “heir to fourteen centuries of French monarchy.” By giving an overview of the roads traveled by these two men, Popkin provides a panoramic view of the country just before it changed forever. From there, A New World Begins takes you through the upheavals, the upheavals, and the upheavals that marked the years from 1789 to 1799. Popkin approaches the material chronologically, and as I mentioned above, he finds the sweet balance between accessibility and scholarliness. In 560-pages of text, he manages to touch on just about everything, from the storming of the Bastille to the writing of the Declaration of the Rights of Man, from the death of a King to the Revolution’s consumption of its own. With a topic this vast, no single volume can hope to give every aspect the depth it really needs. Because space is at a premium, Popkin never takes the time to build a scene or deliver a satisfactory narrative set-piece. The trial and execution of Louis XVI, for instance, is covered in barely two pages. A book that did not have quite so much other ground to cover might have taken this sequence as an opportunity to provide some of the novelistic details that truly bring the past to life. Furthermore, while Popkin does an exceptional job of keeping all the players straight, we rarely get an insight into what men like Danton, Marat, and Mirabeau were like as people. That said, I was impressed with Popkin’s ability to broaden his scope beyond the continental Revolution in order to cover France’s colonies as well. In what becomes a major sub-theme of A New World Begins, Popkin spends a lot of time with Toussaint Louverture in Saint-Domingue (now Haiti), as he forged a revolutionary movement out of an insurrection against his enslavers. It makes sense that Popkin would cover this angle in some detail, since he has written a book about the Haitian Revolution, and doing so allows for an exploration of both the French Revolution’s ideals and limitations. Popkin is certainly an admirer of the French Revolution, and there are good reasons for this. Unlike the earlier American Revolution, the French counterpart seriously grappled with the notion and meaning of equality. Revolutionary France outlawed slavery and even welcomed representatives of color into the legislature. It broadened suffrage, at least for men. It rid itself of laws criminalizing homosexual activity. It even had meaningful discussions about the role of women in society, instead of operating under the broad assumption that women did not have a role in society, outside the home. Not all of these ideals and practices – especially with regard to slavery – outlasted the Revolution, but it cannot be said that Revolutionary France did not try to put enlightenment thought into the daily workings of the state. Yet for all that, the French Revolution is also a bit terrifying, and Popkin does not shy away from that. The guillotine fell thousands of times, taking the heads of people who did nothing more than think differently than the Revolutionaries. Indeed, many of those who lost their heads weren’t even guilty of that. They were simply caught up in a frenzy in which it was very easy to even old scores by a simple accusation. Trials for the accused – if trials were even held – were often farcical. When the defendants started to make their point, they were often removed from the courtroom. Beyond the blade in Paris, innocents were slaughtered throughout France, including the hideous drownings in Nantes. An omelet, we are often told, cannot be made without breaking a few eggs. The cliché is used to express a utilitarian ethic, in which some loss is acceptable as long as it is for the greater good. To me, the French Revolution is the perfect representation of this expression, as the Revolutionaries truly believed that the only way to achieve their righteous ends was through a painful transformation that leveled an old world to make way for the new. Popkin does justice to this material by acknowledging the virtues of the Revolution, while dutifully tallying its costs. This is necessary, because too often when we talk about omelet making, we only focus on the chef and the diners, without worrying too much about the opinion of the eggs.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Justin Evans

    Sometimes, you just want a perfectly solid history of a major event, informed by recent research. Here you go. This is easy to read, if not a Gibbonesque masterpiece; it includes Haiti, and women, and slavery, without pointing giant fingers at itself to make you aware of its own moral rectitude; it does cultural stuff and political stuff and military stuff; it doesn't try to blow your mind. If you would like to learn about the French revolution, this is your book. Sometimes, you just want a perfectly solid history of a major event, informed by recent research. Here you go. This is easy to read, if not a Gibbonesque masterpiece; it includes Haiti, and women, and slavery, without pointing giant fingers at itself to make you aware of its own moral rectitude; it does cultural stuff and political stuff and military stuff; it doesn't try to blow your mind. If you would like to learn about the French revolution, this is your book.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Steve

    Beginning with Louis XVI and ending with Napoleon Bonaparte, this excellent work felt as if I were viewing a kaleidoscope while riding a carousal, so many chaotic events, so many diverse characters. The history of the French Revolution records only one set of outcomes from a series of extremely randomized social and political events, initially set in motion by clueless, reactionary aristocrats, that easily could have veered in other numerous unpredictable directions. I thought of the comparison w Beginning with Louis XVI and ending with Napoleon Bonaparte, this excellent work felt as if I were viewing a kaleidoscope while riding a carousal, so many chaotic events, so many diverse characters. The history of the French Revolution records only one set of outcomes from a series of extremely randomized social and political events, initially set in motion by clueless, reactionary aristocrats, that easily could have veered in other numerous unpredictable directions. I thought of the comparison with the 1917 Russian Revolution, which Professor Popkin remarked on at the end of his work. Then I thought, too, of how Putin compares in so many ways with Napoleon. I also wondered for the importance of creating institutional boundaries to limit, if not prevent, the destructive capacities of our brethren when left to their bloody ambitions. And yes, those persons still live among us, I’m afraid. Despite the potency of recorded history, our base emotions remain exposed to gross manipulation and always will be.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Z. F.

    Like—I suspect—most Americans, I never really understood the French Revolution. I knew about the guillotine and the storming of the Bastille, I'd heard of Robespierre and the Jacobins and Marie-Antoinette, but I couldn't have put the major events in chronological order or even told you what the ultimate objective of all this storming and head-removing was supposed to be. The Revolution crops up constantly in Western literature, movies, magazine titles, and memes, but always with the assumption t Like—I suspect—most Americans, I never really understood the French Revolution. I knew about the guillotine and the storming of the Bastille, I'd heard of Robespierre and the Jacobins and Marie-Antoinette, but I couldn't have put the major events in chronological order or even told you what the ultimate objective of all this storming and head-removing was supposed to be. The Revolution crops up constantly in Western literature, movies, magazine titles, and memes, but always with the assumption that the audience either has all the relevant background already or else doesn't need to know anything beyond Louis XVI + guillotine = Viva la Révolution! Since I like to be informed on such things generally and also have a personal interest in revolutionary movements past and present, my ignorance on this particular topic had started to weigh on me. So when I learned about this recently-published overview of the subject via a GR review, I decided it was time to educate myself. And that was the right call, because this is exactly the book anyone in a position like mine should start with. A New World Begins is the type of popular nonfiction you don't see enough of these days: the kind written by a credentialed expert who's not compelled to make his own presence felt or push an exciting new theory, but who aims instead to inform ordinary readers about the basic contours of a broad and multifaceted subject. Popkin's book simply tells the story of the French Revolution, from its very first rumblings decades before the Bastille to the official death of the Republic at the coronation of Napoleon in 1804. It's detailed—by the time we arrive at July 14, 1789, a hundred or more pages have already passed—but not exhaustive. I can now tell my Montagnards from my Girondins, the sans-culottes from the muscadins, and the Directory from the Committee of Public Safety, but it's a general enough sort of knowledge that I'm sure I could follow this up with any number of other books on more specific Revolutionary topics and not be bored by repetition. In service of his humble (yet momentous) task, Popkin's prose is direct and unembellished. At first I was almost put off by the borderline-bland simplicity of the writing, but I quickly came to appreciate the way Popkin's straightforward sentences balance out the increasingly convoluted events he's using them to describe. Of course, the downside of both his sweeping scope and his dutiful style is that you rarely get the kinds of illustrative character sketches or quotes which do so much to add color and flavor to more stylish works of history. The mode here is definitely more textbook than page-turner (as evinced by the fact that it took me more than three months to turn these 600-ish pages), and Popkin never goes out of his way to set a scene or put you in a particular personage's head. I was happy to have recently read Hilary Mantel's Mantel Pieces , which includes some very writerly essays on Robespierre, Danton, and Marie-Antoinette and helped me go into this with a fuller picture of those individuals' respective personalities, at least. I said a couple paragraphs ago that Popkin isn't interested in pushing an agenda, but the work of a historian is the work of interpretation and Popkin's interpretations of these events do of course shade A New World Begins. I'm not really qualified to guess to what extent his views depart from the established orthodoxy, but for the most part his book is sympathetic to the Revolutionaries while also skeptical of their more bloody and indiscriminate tactics and more than fair to their opponents, too. He often flags up the Revolution's unique social justice accomplishments, and only occasionally feels the need to editorialize (e.g. comparing the Terror to the authoritarian regimes of the 20th century). Popkin's most obvious rehabilitation effort here is his treatment of Robespierre: he informs us that the man never possessed—or sought—any sort of exclusive political authority, and that he differed from his Revolutionary colleagues primarily in his nearly-unwavering commitment to his radical convictions. Those convictions led him to sign off on plenty of unnecessary killings, of course, and gradually he was consumed by a (reasonable enough) paranoia which only escalated the bloodshed; but he was also a highly visible and not especially charismatic figurehead for a very dark period of the Revolution, and when that period ended it was easy—and convenient—to pile all the blame on him specifically. (This is also more or less Mantel's conclusion.) Napoleon, on the other hand, comes off here as a violent and frequently incompetent narcissist with a genius for self-promotion, obsessed with personal power above all else and eager to crush the very Revolution which created him in service of his own planet-sized ego. It's interesting to contrast these two men's lives and personalities, as well as the way in which history has remembered them both. Also interesting is the fact that, having now read 600 pages of explanation, I still don't really know what to make of the decade-plus jumble of events we call the French Revolution. It would be almost impossible to place the various factions on a modern political compass (though Louis XVI donning a tricolor brocade and doing PR appearances for the Revolutionaries the day after they took the Bastille is now my favorite illustration for the way in which powerful people still try to co-opt radical movements), and even the period's most progressive figures frequently displayed shockingly conservative or even reactionary ideals, too. At various points the Revolutionaries professed advocacy for all people, all white people, all white men, or all white property-owning men, and each of these contradictory shifts were reflected to varying degrees in the laws they passed and the actions they took. On the one hand, French Revolutionaries beheaded an absolute monarch and established something which at least resembled a representative democracy; (briefly) abolished slavery and extended equal rights to people of color; granted marriage rights to women and inheritance rights to illegitimate children; decriminalized homosexuality; broke down legal barriers between classes and drove most of the nobility out of the country; demolished the influence of the Catholic Church in France and even established a new secular calendar (albeit one with a nine-day work week, ugh). On the other hand, they willfully embroiled themselves in various wars of aggression (in order to "spread the ideals of liberty," naturally); clung to France's colonial holdings and sought new ones; forcefully squashed anti-capitalist sentiments wherever they arose; massacred peasants of all ages in the name of counter-insurgency; suspended democratic functions whenever it became convenient to do so; consistently failed to prioritize women's rights, despite the massive Revolutionary role played by women; and spent most of the Revolution more inclined to appease slaveholders than to free those they enslaved, at least until Toussaint Louverture and co. took matters into their own hands. And all that's to say nothing of the constant vacillation and in-fighting in the Revolutionaries' own ranks, the periodic shifts from radicalism to centrism to conservatism and back to radicalism again. It's dizzying just to think about, and it's no wonder most people opt for a more simplified version of the story. But A New World Begins is not, gratefully, the simplified version. While Popkin's book may be somewhat lacking as a work of literature, it is an undeniably solid work of history. I read this mainly as background for other books—this specific Revolution has never caught my interest much, hence my ignorance about its details—but I can say sincerely that Popkin kept me engaged throughout, and that he even has me considering some follow-up reading on the subject. It may be true that I finished this book almost more perplexed than I was when I started, but in this particular case I think that means the author did his job admirably.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Andrea

    Popkin's lifetime of scholarship brings a richness and depth to material, that, for a former scholar of the 18th century like myself, I thought I knew inside out. Because of his knowledge of Haitian history and his use of new understandings of disease, health and history, Popkin shed light on the French Revolution and its place in the history of ideas that was totally new to me. An amazing work of scholarship. Reasonably accessible to the general reader but the detail might seem a little tiresom Popkin's lifetime of scholarship brings a richness and depth to material, that, for a former scholar of the 18th century like myself, I thought I knew inside out. Because of his knowledge of Haitian history and his use of new understandings of disease, health and history, Popkin shed light on the French Revolution and its place in the history of ideas that was totally new to me. An amazing work of scholarship. Reasonably accessible to the general reader but the detail might seem a little tiresome to many.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Ozymandias

    The French Revolution is a massive contradiction. It was one of the most progressive movements of all time. Revolutionary France was: The first European state to decriminalize homosexuality. The first to declare nonwhites citizens. The first to have universal manhood suffrage. The first to have nonwhite representatives. Among the first to support feminism. These are a big deal, and some aren’t something you’ll see again for more than a century! And then there’s the flipside. The Revolution was a period The French Revolution is a massive contradiction. It was one of the most progressive movements of all time. Revolutionary France was: The first European state to decriminalize homosexuality. The first to declare nonwhites citizens. The first to have universal manhood suffrage. The first to have nonwhite representatives. Among the first to support feminism. These are a big deal, and some aren’t something you’ll see again for more than a century! And then there’s the flipside. The Revolution was a period of mass slaughter of a sort not seen before. Mob violence ruled the streets and mob justice saw the slaughter of perceived traitors and political adversaries. Thousands of executions following brief show trials, were carried out en masse by guillotines set up on the public squares of Paris. War was declared against all neighbors as the largest army the world had ever seen to date was used to spread revolutionary ideals to all the subjugated people of Europe by force. The Revolutionary leadership ate itself until few remained of the original members. Long before Napoleon the Republic had descended into dictatorship and authoritarian excess. It’s a contradiction. Or is it? While he doesn’t lay the comparison on thick, Popkin’s presentation seems to suggest that the French Revolution was not so different from later events such as the Communist Revolution in Russia. The Communists had a lot of good ideas, especially given the repressive regime of the Romanovs, but ultimately when their goal of reforming the social order conflicted with matters of justice or representation they barely hesitated. Ideology trumped practicality. Fanaticism replaced compromise. Disagreements became treason. A rainbow of views became enforced conformity. Simply put, they were both social movements more than objections to specific abuses. The new regime cared even less for the lives of its supporters than the old. For what could be more noble than to die for their ends? What is odd to me is that the men who carried out the worst atrocities were actually the moderates, although what that position meant depended on when in the Revolution you were. The Rightists who dominated the early years of the Revolution were the extreme Leftists of the Old Regime. They wanted traditional liberal things: voting rights for all landowning males, a free market economy, and the protection of property rights. The Cordeliers were far more extreme. They wanted universal male suffrage, price controls on essential food items, and the confiscation of noble and church estates. And then you get the Jacobins in between the two, who murdered both sides of the argument. Because what was truly radical about them was not their goals but their methods. The crimes of the old regime paled in comparison to those of the new, but the men who had been the loudest protestors of those abuses were the perpetrators of these worse ones. Why? Because their motives were pure. Anything done to preserve the revolution was necessary. Censorship of the press, murder of political opponents, trials without the right of defense, summary justice, violation of property, etc. They formed an unholy alliance with the mobs of Paris that allowed them to seize control but left them unable to (and uninterested in honestly) control mob violence. And so the guillotines began chopping heads. Another thing that the author didn’t necessarily say but seemed to imply is that the Revolution (and the Enlightenment in general) still thought in terms of corporate interests. What was important was to protect the interests of the citizens en masse, and if a few thousand of those citizens had to be executed without trial for the greater good then so be it. The book doesn’t really try to explain the Revolution’s failure. I suppose a more pertinent question would be what made the American Revolution succeed, for it truly is the outlier in these matters. Still, a few issues keep cropping up: 1. The Third Estate was filled with people of wildly different backgroundsand most of the leaders didn’t recognize that. Lawyers and shopkeepers were as ignorant of the needs of peasants and city-folk as the nobles had been, but were so accustomed to being grouped together they thought they knew better. 2. The needs of Paris were opposed to many of the needs of the provinces, yet since the Assembly was located in Paris it had to adopt policies that the rest of the country couldn’t accept. 3. Some factions used mob violence to advance their power. This committed them to more and more extreme measures. So what makes this book better than others on the same topic? I’ve only read Simon Schama’s Citizens, but I felt like this book had a much clearer focus on ideology. In fact, if I had to define the book’s main topics it would be (in descending order): ideology, reforms, individuals. I never really had a sense of Jacobin goals before this and found that this explained the nature of their cause as well as the reason for their descent into sheer butchery. As a book of the 21st century it also includes a strong focus on issues that wouldn’t necessarily come to the fore in earlier overviews. Women’s rights, for example, appear repeatedly. As does the anti-slavery campaign and colonial affairs in general. Toussaint Louverture justly receives more attention than Napoleon.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Brooke Davis

    Excellent! The first history of the French Revolution that I’ve been able to get through without falling asleep. Not only that–I found it very moving at times. Popkin brings late-18th century France to life, drawing on the perspectives of those who lived through it rather than giving a dry overview of events. He provides a balanced portrayal of all the Revolution’s atrocities and triumphs, evoking the excitement, fervor, and fear that permeated the events that shaped the Republic, and he shows h Excellent! The first history of the French Revolution that I’ve been able to get through without falling asleep. Not only that–I found it very moving at times. Popkin brings late-18th century France to life, drawing on the perspectives of those who lived through it rather than giving a dry overview of events. He provides a balanced portrayal of all the Revolution’s atrocities and triumphs, evoking the excitement, fervor, and fear that permeated the events that shaped the Republic, and he shows how its ideals still echo through the generations. Highly recommend to anyone interested in the period!

  8. 5 out of 5

    Linda R,

    A very well written and documented history of France through the turbulent and formative years of The French Revolution of the 18th century. It was exciting, thrilling even in places, to read but it has the seriousness of an academic work as well. It took me days to wade through the exercise but I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. I recommend this book.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Jerome

    A clear, well-written and well-researched work. Popkin begins with the revolution’s background and origins and ends with Napoleon’s coronation as emperor in 1803 (he is pretty critical of Napoleon, unlike some recent works) He doesn’t provide a lot of new information, and for the most part Popkin deals with the politics of the Revolution. Along with root political and social causes, Popkin pays a lot of attention to the role played by contingency and by individuals. He provides us with enough inf A clear, well-written and well-researched work. Popkin begins with the revolution’s background and origins and ends with Napoleon’s coronation as emperor in 1803 (he is pretty critical of Napoleon, unlike some recent works) He doesn’t provide a lot of new information, and for the most part Popkin deals with the politics of the Revolution. Along with root political and social causes, Popkin pays a lot of attention to the role played by contingency and by individuals. He provides us with enough information about these people to shed light on the broader story, without getting bogged down in tangents. He also does a great job covering issues like religion, women, slavery, the colonies, foreign policy, France’s revolutionary wars, and the revolution in Saint-Domingue. He considers the revolution a “laboratory” where a lot of modern political ideas were created and tested. The narrative is evenhanded and very engaging. It moves along at a fast pace, and he can cover complex issues and events in clear and insightful ways. Sometimes, though, the narrative jumps back and forth. Also, it seems that Popkin believes that Napoleon’s takeover was ultimately a bad thing, but his coverage of this could have been more balanced and nuanced. At one point Popkin calls Robespierre “the last figure who could truly claim to have embodied the vision of liberty and equality,” (meaning what?) then writes that “Even in hindsight, it is difficult to say that the basic achievements of the Revolution could have been preserved in 1793 and 1794 without something resembling a revolutionary dictatorship.” Um, I would certainly hope that there are ways to achieve reforms that don’t involve violent dictatorships. Still, a comprehensive and readable work.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Liviu

    I read lots of books about or set during the French Revolution, so there wasn't that much new overall here, though it followed the fates of some lesser-known participants contrasting them with one another or with famous persons, as well as intertwined the story of slavery and civil rights in Haiti (and France which was the first western country to seat black deputies in the parliament in 1793 though it turned out to be temporary of course) for the black and mixed-race population which brought ma I read lots of books about or set during the French Revolution, so there wasn't that much new overall here, though it followed the fates of some lesser-known participants contrasting them with one another or with famous persons, as well as intertwined the story of slavery and civil rights in Haiti (and France which was the first western country to seat black deputies in the parliament in 1793 though it turned out to be temporary of course) for the black and mixed-race population which brought many contradictions of the Revolution to light, but overall the book was still gripping and quite balanced read that went beyond the usual customary Thermidor reaction to Napoleon's coronation when the Revolution was finally dead, so in particular, the lesser-known story of the Directory government of 1795-1799 with its twists and turns gets a full airing here Highly recommended

  11. 4 out of 5

    Christopher Saunders

    Jeremy Popkin's A New World Begins offers a solid, workmanlike recapitulation of the 18th Century's greatest upheaval. The book offers colorful sketches of France's long road to revolution: the decaying Ancien Regime and the decadence of the Bourbons, juxtaposed with middle class ferment and peasant unrest. The American Revolution's financial cost, the ineptitude of Louis XVI and the unwillingness of king and ministers to consider reforms turned France into a powder keg which exploded in July 17 Jeremy Popkin's A New World Begins offers a solid, workmanlike recapitulation of the 18th Century's greatest upheaval. The book offers colorful sketches of France's long road to revolution: the decaying Ancien Regime and the decadence of the Bourbons, juxtaposed with middle class ferment and peasant unrest. The American Revolution's financial cost, the ineptitude of Louis XVI and the unwillingness of king and ministers to consider reforms turned France into a powder keg which exploded in July 1789, changing Europe forever. Popkin takes us through the familiar events and flamboyant personages: the Vendee counterrevolution, the rise and fall of Robespierre and the Reign of Terror, the King and Queen's execution, foreign intervention and Thermadorian. As a primer on this most complex of its events it's commendable and ably clear-minded, incorporating elements like Haiti's slave rebellion and the role of women that are often reduced to footnotes. But Popkin lacks much in the way of prose style or flare, with the book often feeling like a rote listing of facts and figures. Nor does he bring much fresh interpretation to these well-trod events, beyond concluding that the Revolution's gains probably weren't sustainable without some descent into dictatorship considering the opposition they faced. I'm torn between recommending this book as a fine account of the French Revolution, and wishing it had been more fresh or engaging.

  12. 4 out of 5

    shoesforall

    How do you make the French Revolution so BORING?

  13. 5 out of 5

    Brian Willis

    Probably the best recent French Revolution book, this is a thorough review of the period which begins with the conditions that lead to the the Estates General and ends with the coronation of Napoleon. Inbetween, this very complicated and rapidly evolving political situation is lucidly explained, but not to the point of tedium. If you want a recent book on this period, you cannot go wrong with Popkin's account, and you will be well served by his narrative. Personally, it didn't quite touch my 5 st Probably the best recent French Revolution book, this is a thorough review of the period which begins with the conditions that lead to the the Estates General and ends with the coronation of Napoleon. Inbetween, this very complicated and rapidly evolving political situation is lucidly explained, but not to the point of tedium. If you want a recent book on this period, you cannot go wrong with Popkin's account, and you will be well served by his narrative. Personally, it didn't quite touch my 5 star button prose wise. It's not something I can place my finger on, but that's my own tastes. It also contains next to no illustrations (6-8 black and white political cartoons, tops within the text). Inexplicable. Besides that, it is a great addition to French history on any bookshelf.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Medhat The Book Fanatic

    The French Revolution is a subject that I've always been fascinated by, despite not knowing that much about it. Due to this book's size, I was afraid that it might be written as if it is expecting you to already have knowledge about the Revolution. From start to finish, this book explores the Revolution with an insight and through the immense scope of history, philosophy, society, politics, art, and military. One of things that this book did great was establishing the events that led to the start The French Revolution is a subject that I've always been fascinated by, despite not knowing that much about it. Due to this book's size, I was afraid that it might be written as if it is expecting you to already have knowledge about the Revolution. From start to finish, this book explores the Revolution with an insight and through the immense scope of history, philosophy, society, politics, art, and military. One of things that this book did great was establishing the events that led to the start of the French Revolution. It did not lend on the very first page or chapter right into the midst of it. We were led to the Revolution in an organic transformation of events by showcasing the tribulations of the French population the political establishment during the reign of King Louis XVI. The author also equally focused on the different classes of that era, telling the stories of everyone and without discounting certain factions (all classes, both men and women, and the black people in the French colonies), and their importance to the development and disintegration of this event . . . and not making "The Terror" the sole focus of this book, but both the bad and the good that this Revolution had given birth to. Something else that the author did great was foreshadowing Napoleon's reign and mentioning here and there little snippets about what he was up to during the first third of the book . . . making his leading role and influence later on much more impactful . . . after all the book ends with him after he became an emperor, but it was the gradual and organic build-up to this climax that fascinated me the most about this book.

  15. 4 out of 5

    William Bahr

    Another title: "A Tale of Two Men"? This is a gem of a book about the French Revolution based upon Dr. Popkin’s lifetime study of that immensely historic event. His previous seven editions of “A Short History of the French Revolution” dealt with the Revolution’s most important events within a space of around 160 pages. Now, in what may be called one of the French Revolution’s “definitive histories,” he provides some 640 pages of interesting information, four times the earlier page count. This ex Another title: "A Tale of Two Men"? This is a gem of a book about the French Revolution based upon Dr. Popkin’s lifetime study of that immensely historic event. His previous seven editions of “A Short History of the French Revolution” dealt with the Revolution’s most important events within a space of around 160 pages. Now, in what may be called one of the French Revolution’s “definitive histories,” he provides some 640 pages of interesting information, four times the earlier page count. This expanded page count allows him to delve deep into the interesting background that forced the major events. It also allows him to tell how the Revolution developed from the perspective of two interesting characters, King Louis XVI and the artisan glasscutter Ménétra, one of the very few commoners who wrote a memoir of his life during the Revolution. Extremely well-written and documented, it’s truly a joy to read and an excellent example of how otherwise dry history can be “turned” into a page-turner.” A must-read for those wishing to understand the underpinnings of man’s quest for a just society. Bottom line from a fellow author, highly recommended! NB: In consideration of Dr. Popkins' next edition, I offer up that on Kindle page 16 (book 17), he comments that Louis’ high-tech-at-the-time locksmithing skill, encouraged as a youth, was "regarded as a bizarre eccentricity" as an adult. However, locksmithing was one interest Louis XVI shared with his 4x great-grandfather, Louis XIII. But, yes, Louis XVI's excessive interest and time spent in locksmithing, along with hunting, took him away from his important state obligations. Also, on page 309, the author mentions that the “locksmith Gamain, who had taught Louis XVI his craft so many years earlier,” helped authorities discover the King’s hidden safe full of incriminating papers. Actually, the teacher was Nicholas Gamain. The tattle-tale was his son, Francois, who alongside Louis, learned the art of making locks and keys from his father, Nicolas. It was Francois' disclosure that provided the critical evidence needed for moving the King to trial and execution for treason.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Jim Bogue

    This book demonstrates intensive research, often focused on those who did not make the pages of most histories. The author covers the period from just before the calling of the Estates General to Napoleon proclaiming himself Emperor. He follows the convoluted politics- as today’s liberal hero becomes tomorrow’s reactionary villain - with conviction and often insight. The reader interested in the Revolution and its politics could do far worse. But, and to me this is a huge flaw, there are always This book demonstrates intensive research, often focused on those who did not make the pages of most histories. The author covers the period from just before the calling of the Estates General to Napoleon proclaiming himself Emperor. He follows the convoluted politics- as today’s liberal hero becomes tomorrow’s reactionary villain - with conviction and often insight. The reader interested in the Revolution and its politics could do far worse. But, and to me this is a huge flaw, there are always the clear good guys (often “the people”). The radicals are on the right (ok, left) side of history. Shame they had to murder so many people to get there. They had ideals, and fought bravely for them. So, of course, did the SS. From my viewpoint, too many eggs were slaughtered to build that particular failed omelet. And, while the author admits the failings, he remains far too partial.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Matt

    You looking for a readable, informative introduction to the French Revolution. Your search has ended, this book is for you

  18. 4 out of 5

    Frank

    Well Researched but over whelmingly boring....I understand your points and intentions but this reads like a technical manual. I would rather watch paint dry.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Cliff Moyce

    For someone that knows nothing about the French Revolution (eg me) this is the perfect book. Written as the great (though horrific and salutary) tale that it was, rather than as a dry academic text, I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It takes you from the increased demands for representation from the bourgeoisie in the 1780’s; through to the end of absolute monarchy and a period of constitutional monarchy; followed by democracy / anarchy / civil war, before the arrival of a new type of For someone that knows nothing about the French Revolution (eg me) this is the perfect book. Written as the great (though horrific and salutary) tale that it was, rather than as a dry academic text, I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It takes you from the increased demands for representation from the bourgeoisie in the 1780’s; through to the end of absolute monarchy and a period of constitutional monarchy; followed by democracy / anarchy / civil war, before the arrival of a new type of monarch-dictator in the form of mumbling psychopath Emperor Napoleon in 1804. In summary, from monarchy to monarchy, with only a change of family name and few hundred thousand dead in the the meantime. Many thousands of people died violent / cruel / pitiful deaths, including the little-remembered loss of 250,000 people in a civil war in the Vendee (who weren’t very keen on a republic led by Tony Blair types in Paris). Though we associate the guillotine with the revolution, it was a much better end than most victims got. As with all socialist revolutions the economy collapsed, Mickey-mouse currencies came and went, and everyone apart from Marie Antoinette and Josephine Bonaparte starved. Why the Russians would go on to have a revolution based on the same principles is baffling. I can only assume it was because they didn’t have this book available to them... Perhaps the most sobering aspect of the story is that all of the worst types of human behaviour were writ large in this period. Witch hunts, sadistic cruelty and human blood-sport (including the routine murders of women and children), were the order of the day. The more barbarous the method the better (many people were torn limb from limb after being found ‘guilty’ and thrown out of the front doors of courthouses to the waiting crowds). A solution to prison overcrowding (used several times) was to go from cell to cell and kill every prisoner, even though many had not been convicted of any crime. What struck me most perhaps was how the soldiers of France (once the fools in charge decided that they should export their form of republicanism) were always regarded as expendable resources. Literally cannon fodder / numbers not names. Remember that if you are ever thinking of signing up...

  20. 5 out of 5

    Brian Olinger

    Well written and well paced..... I read a lot of U.S. history focused on the revolutionary war period and the French Revolution played a large inspiration in that period. Having known little about the topic, I wanted to find a book that could give me a good primer. This is a fact based book, focused on The who and the what with little analysis. The author wrote an engaging narrative that paced well. I recommend this for someone who wants to understand the facts and players. If you are looking for Well written and well paced..... I read a lot of U.S. history focused on the revolutionary war period and the French Revolution played a large inspiration in that period. Having known little about the topic, I wanted to find a book that could give me a good primer. This is a fact based book, focused on The who and the what with little analysis. The author wrote an engaging narrative that paced well. I recommend this for someone who wants to understand the facts and players. If you are looking for a more analysis based work, there are likely better options.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Kevin Mitchell Mercer

    Last book of 2020, and one of the best history books I've read this year. Does a fantastic job of slowing down the complicated events of revolutionary and first republic France in a way to both highlights the key events and figures while also brilliantly narrating the causality and repercussions of revolution. I was particularly impressed with the integration of the Saint-Domingue revolution as well. Last book of 2020, and one of the best history books I've read this year. Does a fantastic job of slowing down the complicated events of revolutionary and first republic France in a way to both highlights the key events and figures while also brilliantly narrating the causality and repercussions of revolution. I was particularly impressed with the integration of the Saint-Domingue revolution as well.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Stephen

    A recommended study of the French Revolution & all its inconsistencies. Revolution against the revolutionaries, equality for all except slaves, the lack of genuine universal suffrage whilst promoting freedom for all. It isn’t a fast read & if you skim you will miss something. It is a solid & fascinating work with a polyglot character collection on all sides of the fence.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Alenka of Bohemia

    Very informative and well-researched, and I would say it is a great book if you want a clear, concise resource for everything French revolution related. Unlike many other sources, it makes a point of including the questions of racism and misogyny, in a clear attempt to show that "liberty, freedom and equality" did not cover everyone. At the same time, I found the writing style, even though neat and straightforward, a bit dry. The lack of an emotional appeal in form of a life story or two also ma Very informative and well-researched, and I would say it is a great book if you want a clear, concise resource for everything French revolution related. Unlike many other sources, it makes a point of including the questions of racism and misogyny, in a clear attempt to show that "liberty, freedom and equality" did not cover everyone. At the same time, I found the writing style, even though neat and straightforward, a bit dry. The lack of an emotional appeal in form of a life story or two also makes the events blurring together in their similarity quite soon.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Eric Smith

    Finally, a full French Revolution Narrative in English I bought "Citizens" by Simon Schama when it came out in 1991 and read about a third of it—such a disappointment to me. It ends halfway through the revolution, is non-linear, and hard to follow (at least for me). Since then, I've been looking for an alternative. It's here. This book covers the entire French Revolution—one of Earth's most meaningful events—beginning in 1789, covering the entire Revolution, and ending in 1804 when Napoleon announ Finally, a full French Revolution Narrative in English I bought "Citizens" by Simon Schama when it came out in 1991 and read about a third of it—such a disappointment to me. It ends halfway through the revolution, is non-linear, and hard to follow (at least for me). Since then, I've been looking for an alternative. It's here. This book covers the entire French Revolution—one of Earth's most meaningful events—beginning in 1789, covering the entire Revolution, and ending in 1804 when Napoleon announces that he is now the emperor. We now have the whole picture, in English. And now I understand, mostly, how the French Revolution devolved into that military dictatorship and why it took the better part of 80 more years to get past the Napoleonic era. I highly recommend this book and would give it five stars, but for two issues: one, there is one map(!), so you need to brush up on your French geography (where is the Vendée again? Lyon?), and two, there is no dramatis personae list, and there are many people in this book. It's almost Tolstoyian in the number and specificity of characters, which is both this book's joy and problem. But if you can deal with these, you'll get much out of the book and the fantastic times of the French Revolution. I bet this book remains the definitive book, in English, on the French Revolution for at least a generation. We'll see.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Denise

    You'd think by now I've read so many books on the French Revolution that it's all old hat and any new text covering the subject would bore me to tears. You'd be mistaken. Popkin's expansive new history of the topic is excellently researched, accessible, engagingly written, and covers important ground such as the consequences of events in mainland France in its overseas colonies, most notably Haiti, that are frequently left out of other accounts. Definitely recommended to anyone interested in the You'd think by now I've read so many books on the French Revolution that it's all old hat and any new text covering the subject would bore me to tears. You'd be mistaken. Popkin's expansive new history of the topic is excellently researched, accessible, engagingly written, and covers important ground such as the consequences of events in mainland France in its overseas colonies, most notably Haiti, that are frequently left out of other accounts. Definitely recommended to anyone interested in the subject.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Erin

    This is a biggun, but it is THOROUGH.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Tony Gualtieri

    Excellent overview given a unique perspective by the author's emphasis on the revolution's often contradictory views on the rights of women and on slavery in the Caribbean colonies. I much preferred this to Simon Schama's Citizens. Excellent overview given a unique perspective by the author's emphasis on the revolution's often contradictory views on the rights of women and on slavery in the Caribbean colonies. I much preferred this to Simon Schama's Citizens.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Kate

    As someone who loves history but knew nothing about the French Revolution, I struggled to stay interested. Perhaps I needed more of an overview than this thoroughly researched book provided.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Zulu Fox

    An impressive work of scholarship, but not a great introduction to the subject of the French Revolution - especially if you have no prior background in it. If you’ve already read a few books on the French Revolution and are looking for some recent scholarship that draws on primary sources you likely haven’t been exposed to before and which more explicitly ties in events in France’s New World possessions (especially Saint-Domingue (Haïti)), this book will probably be informative and enjoyable for An impressive work of scholarship, but not a great introduction to the subject of the French Revolution - especially if you have no prior background in it. If you’ve already read a few books on the French Revolution and are looking for some recent scholarship that draws on primary sources you likely haven’t been exposed to before and which more explicitly ties in events in France’s New World possessions (especially Saint-Domingue (Haïti)), this book will probably be informative and enjoyable for you. If you’re new to the subject, like I am, you’ll likely find it dry, meandering, and at times strangely light on explanation. For example, my first action upon finishing this 550 page book on the French Revolution was to Wikipedia the causes of the French Revolution, because that really wasn’t made clear to me. Somehow, for me, that got lost in the noise. Instead, the reader is treated to many blow-by-blow accounts of the politicking and thinking of various key actors at various key assemblies and debates. So, while there are some awesome, highly granular breakdowns of some key events, I found the narrative had a way of flitting from one thing to another, getting really into the weeds in some things while being oddly silent on others. Another example of that would be the treatment of Robespierre. Obviously a central figure and one the author has thought a lot about, but I felt I never really got a good sense of the man. When it came to his downfall, suddenly we learn he’s alienated his peers and within a page he’s guillotined. I wouldn’t haven’t minded more time spent on what happened there and less time on, well, lots of the other stuff. The French Revolution is clearly a complicated and prolonged historical event with numerous actors to consider. It’s clear form reading this that the author has done an immense amount of work on the subject and knows it exceedingly well - but the problem is: I haven’t and I don’t. I really would have appreciated more attempts to introduce the subject and provide some analyses instead of always charging ahead through the chronology with detours to consider the thinking and proposals of various delegates. Don’t get me wrong, I did learn a lot and clearly A LOT of primary sources were painstakingly consulted to produce this book, I really appreciate that. For a student of the period I’m sure this book would be a great addition to your library, but for the uninitiated, it wasn’t the most ideal introduction.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Joe Johnson

    A New World Begins is one of the best treatments of the French Revolution that I have come across. Beginning with the problems besetting the monarchy under Louis XVI in the 1780s to Napoleon's coronation as emperor in 1804, it's all here. The author has done an amazing job of providing a compelling narrative of the revolution, as it begins and then twists and turns and eventually morphs into something quite different from what it was at the start. One of my history professors once told us that t A New World Begins is one of the best treatments of the French Revolution that I have come across. Beginning with the problems besetting the monarchy under Louis XVI in the 1780s to Napoleon's coronation as emperor in 1804, it's all here. The author has done an amazing job of providing a compelling narrative of the revolution, as it begins and then twists and turns and eventually morphs into something quite different from what it was at the start. One of my history professors once told us that the French Revolution was really the beginning of modern politics, and as I read this book, I was again reminded of his observation. There's a lot of material in this book, too much to really go into, but I do want to mention two topics that are not often found in books dealing with the French Revolution, but are covered in some detail here: the role of women in the Revolution, and the question of slavery and the rights of people of color. If you are interested in this period of history, I strongly recommend this book.

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