The French Revolution was the “big bang” out of which all the elements of modern politics and social conflicts were formed. Democracy, populism, liberalism, conservatism, socialism, nationalism, feminism, abolitionism, and “enlightened” imperialism are heir to the momentous upheaval that began in Paris in 1789. To some, the French Revolution might seem only a distant memory of a middle-sized country, but as esteemed historian Jeremy Popkin demonstrates in A New World Begins, the principles of the French Revolution remain the only possible basis for a just society — even if, after more than two hundred years, these ideals have not been realized and are still often contested.
The French Revolution is also perhaps the most dramatic episode in human history. Popkin takes us from the storming of the Bastille and the drafting of the Declaration of the Rights of Man in 1789, and from the descent of the Reign of Terror (and the execution of Louis XIV) to the rise of Napoleon. His gripping narrative follows the French revolutionaries as they attempted to realize the principle that people “are born and remain free and equal in rights,” and he shows how this revolutionary idea led both to incredible progress and murderous conflicts in the span of mere months. He paints vivid portraits of the (in)famous leaders of the Revolution, including Robespierre, Danton and Mirabeau and at the same time surfaces lesser-known figures, such as Jean-Marie Goujon, the idealistic Jacobin who told his beloved she would always be second in his mind to the Fatherland and François Molin, the anti-revolutionary priest who became so accustomed to leading underground religious services that he trembled when he performed mass in public again for the first time. This masterful account is also the first to show how women and violence in France’s overseas possessions helped determine the course of the Revolution.
Drawing on a career spent studying the Revolution and synthesising the last thirty years of historical scholarship, Popkin gives us a history of the French Revolution for our own time, when so many of the Revolution’s legacies are facing renewed challenges across the world.