Polychronicon 150: Interpreting the French Revolution

Teaching History feature

By David Andress, published 22nd March 2013

For most of the last two centuries, historical interpretations of the French Revolution have focused on its place in a grand narrative of modernity. For the most ‘counter-revolutionary' writers, the Revolution showed why modernity was to be resisted - destroying traditional institutions and disrupting all that was valuable in an older moral order. For those who we can broadly call ‘liberals', the opposite was true. For them, revolutionary upheaval had been an essential component of progress towards a just and open society, in which the talents of the rising middle classes could be fairly rewarded, and where the rights of individual citizens could be guaranteed, and acted upon. For many liberals, the French Revolution's evocation of national identity as an active force in history, displacing dynastic loyalties and raising up ‘the people' to new dignity, was also a core contribution to historical progress...

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