The French Revolution (French: Révolution française) was an influential period of social and political upheaval in France that lasted from 1789 until 1799, and was partially carried forward by Napoleon during the later expansion of the French Empire. The Revolution overthrew the monarchy, established a republic, experienced violent periods of political turmoil, and finally culminated in a dictatorship by Napoleon that rapidly brought many of its principles to Western Europe and beyond. Inspired by liberal and radical ideas, the Revolution profoundly altered the course of modern history, triggering the global decline of theocracies and absolute monarchies while replacing them with republics and democracies. Through the Revolutionary Wars, it unleashed a wave of global conflicts that extended from the Caribbean to the Middle East.
- Quotes are arranged alphabetically by author
A - F
- It was the French and not the American Revolution that set the world on fire, and it was consequently from the course of the French Revolution, and not from the course of events in America or from the acts of the Founding Fathers, that our present use of the word "revolution" received its connotations and overtones everywhere, this country not excluded.
- Hannah Arendt, On Revolution (1963)
- [T]wo parties diametrically opposed by their system and their plan for the public administration... I am ready to believe that both desire the republic, but each wants a republic after its own fashion. One wants it to be bourgeois and aristocratic; the other believes that they have achieved it, and that it should remain wholly popular and democratic. One wants the republic of a million which was always the enemy, the dominator, the exactor, the oppressor, the bloodsucker of the twenty-four other millions, of the million which has disported itself in idleness for centuries at the expense of our sweat and labor; the other party wants a republic of those other twenty four millions, who laid down its foundations and cemented them with their blood, who are defending it and dying for its safety and glory.
- Gracchus Babeuf, Manifesto of the Plebeians (1796)
- The grandeur of the Revolution in the eyes of those who had witnessed it, or had received its tradition from actors in it, would not have been apparent without its patriotic aspect and its military glory... If France had not been delivered from that anarchy by the indirect means of exterior military conquest, and reorganised by the same instrument, little would have been heard of the grandeur of the French Revolution, though some of the most ecstatic in its praise are those who most deplore the means which made it glorious and fashioned out of its chaos a new France.
- John Edward Courtenay Bodley, France, Volume I (1898), pp. 98-99
- Since the great French Revolution all colour has been gradually dying out of the male costume, until we have got reduced to our present gamut of brown, black and neutral tint; which, combined with the chimney-pot hat and the swallow-tailed coat, form a costume by no means particularly adapted to refresh the eye seeking for form or colour.
- William Burges, Art applied to industry: a series of lectures (1865), p. 8
- After 1789 the very state of emergency—as well as the foreign war which resulted from the Revolution—withered the flower of the liberalism and diverted the course to one of "post-democratic tyranny". If the French Revolution produced anything original it was a state organized by the Jacobins for war in a way never dreamed of before in Christian times, a state demanding the full collaboration, the entire absorption, of its citizens; culminating in the Bonapartist Consulate, the dictatorship based on the plebiscite.
- Herbert Butterfield, The Englishman and His History (1944), p. 110
- I do not know who could deny that the French Revolution brought tragedy for the generation upon which it fell—tragedy for France and for Europe not unlike that which resulted from the Nazi Revolution of 1933.
- Herbert Butterfield, The Englishman and His History (1944), p. 110
- There is clear truth in the idea that a struggle from the lower classes of society, towards the upper regions and rewards of society, must ever continue. Strong men are born there, who ought to stand elsewhere than there.
For Men of Letters, as for all other sorts of men. How to regulate that struggle? There is the whole question. To leave it as it is, at the mercy of blind Chance; a whirl of distracted atoms, one cancelling the other; one of the thousand arriving saved, nine hundred and ninety-nine lost by the way; your royal Johnson languishing inactive in garrets, or harnessed to the yoke of Printer Cave; your Burns dying broken-hearted as a Gauger; your Rousseau driven into mad exasperation, kindling French Revolutions by his paradoxes: this, as we said, is clearly enough the worst regulation. The best, alas, is far from us!
- Thomas Carlyle Heroes and Hero-Worship (1840) The Hero as Man of Letters
- The essential result of the French revolution was to establish the doctrine of popular sovereignty as the foundation of modern Europe, though with no more precise definition of that elusive category "the people" than that popular sovereignty was the antithesis of the personal authority of the monarch.
- E. H. Carr, "From Napoleon to Stalin" (1950)
- There is a noticeable general difference between the sciences and mathematics on the one hand, and the humanities and social sciences on the other. It's a first approximation, but one that is real. In the former, the factors of integrity tend to dominate more over the factors of ideology. It's not that scientists are more honest people. It's just that nature is a harsh taskmaster. You can lie or distort the story of the French Revolution as long as you like, and nothing will happen. Propose a false theory in chemistry, and it'll be refuted tomorrow.
- Whether we like it or not, whether it pleases us or shocks us, the French Revolution is a bloc ... a bloc from which nothing can be separated, because historical truth does not permit it... the Revolution is not finished, it is still continuing, we are actors in it, the same men are still in conflict with the same enemies. The struggle will go on, until the final day of victory, and until that day we will not allow you to throw mud at the Revolution.
- Georges Clemenceau, speech to the Chamber of Deputies (29 January 1891), quoted in David Robin Watson, Georges Clemenceau: A Political Biography (1974), p. 119
- The French Revolution qualitatively transformed all aspects of human culture, including science, for better or worse. The institutional ideological changes wrought in French science by the Revolution and its aftermath shaped the subsequent course of modern science everywhere. The essential underlying factor, as the Hessen thesis maintains, was the victory of capitalism, which the Revolution consolidated. The new social order spread to Europe and the rest of the world, everywhere subordinating the further development of science to capitalist interests.
- Clifford D. Conner, A People's History of Science (2005)
- Ever since the French revolution there has developed a vicious, cretinizing tendency to consider a genius (apart from his work) as a human being more or less the same in every sense as other ordinary mortals. This is wrong. And if this is wrong for me, the genius of the greatest spiritual order or our day, a true modern genius, it is even more wrong when applied to those who incarnated the almost divine genius of the Renaissance, such as Raphael.
- Salvador Dalí Diary of a Genius (1964) p. 1
- It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, . . . it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us.
- Charles Dickens
- Note: The opening words of Charles Dickens’ literary masterpiece A Tale of Two Cities skillfully contrast how events can affect our thinking, our feelings, and our outlook. The two cities referred to were London and Paris during the turmoil of the French Revolution. For the oppressed citizens of 18th-century France, the revolution’s proclamation of the rights of man was indeed a “spring of hope.” But for those of the ancien régime, or the outgoing political system, it was a “winter of despair,” leading to death and destruction.
- It was not reason that besieged Troy; it was not reason that sent forth the Saracen from the desert to conquer the world; that inspired the crusades; that instituted the monastic orders; it was not reason that produced the Jesuits; above all, it was not reason that created the French Revolution. Man is only great when he acts from the passions; never irresistible but when he appeals to the imagination.
- [T]he French Revolution, which has not yet ended, and which is certainly the greatest event that has happened in the history of man. Only the fall of the Roman Empire can be compared to it... Look at the Europe of the present day and the Europe of a century ago. It is not the same Europe. Its very form is changed.
- Benjamin Disraeli, speech to the Oxford Diocesan Conference (25 November 1864), quoted in William Flavelle Monypenny and George Earle Buckle, The Life of Benjamin Disraeli, Earl of Beaconsfield. Volume II. 1860–1881 (1929), p. 107
- So, while the people are indeed supreme over the written Constitution, the spiritual constitution is supreme over them. The French Revolutionists wrote constitutions too—every drunken writer among them tossed off a constitution. Where are they? All vanished. Why? Because they were not in harmony with the constitution of the universe. The power of the Constitution is not dependent on any Government, but on its inherent rightness and practicability.
- Henry Ford (1922). Ford Ideals: Being a Selection from "Mr. Ford's Page" in The Dearborn Independent. p. 323
G - L
- On every generation to which it gave birth, the French Revolution left its mark. A mark of hope for a new dawn, a new order of the world, but also a mark of tragedy, of a project that came to grief in anarchy, bloodletting and despotism. It proclaimed the power of man's reason to achieve progress and happiness in the world, the rights of man to liberty and equality which every government should protect, the sovereignty of the people, the virtues of self-government, and the duty of French citizens to spread liberty among oppressed peoples abroad. And yet the Revolution spawned new tyrannies, the tyranny of the masses who insulted and abused their elected representatives, a revolutionary dictatorship that terrorized its enemies and the plebiscitary dictatorship of Napoleon Bonaparte who appealed to the disgruntled masses over the heads of the politicians. Liberty was sacrificed to equality, and difference was eliminated in the name of the public interest. The fanaticism attributed to religion was replaced by a revolutionary fanaticism that persecuted its enemies and then consumed its own in a fratricidal struggle. Revolutionaries spawned new armies that set fire to Europe for a generation in the first manifestation of total war.
- Robert Gildea, Children of the Revolution: The French, 1799–1914 (2008), p. 1
- [W]hat truly makes the French Revolution the first fascist revolution was its effort to turn politics into a religion. (In this the revolutionaries were inspired by Rousseau, whose concept of the general will divinized the people while rendering the person an afterthought.)
- Do not smile at my advice -- the advice of a dreamer who warns you against Kantians, Fichteans, and philosophers of nature. Do not smile at the visionary who anticipates the same revolution in the realm of the visible as has taken place in the spiritual. Thought precedes action as lightning precedes thunder. German thunder is of true Germanic character; it is not very nimble, but rumbles along ponderously. Yet, it will come and when you hear a crashing such as never before has been heard in the world's history, then you know that the German thunderbolt has fallen at last. At that uproar the eagles of the air will drop dead, and lions in the remotest deserts of Africa will hide in their royal dens. A play will be performed in Germany which will make the French Revolution look like an innocent idyll.
- Heinrich Heine (1797–1856) "The History of Religion and Philosophy in Germany"
- Since the outbreak of the French Revolution, the world has been moving with ever increasing speed towards a new conflict, the most extreme solution of which is called Bolshevism, and the essence and goal of Bolshevism is the elimination of those strata of mankind which have hitherto provided the leadership and their replacement by world-wide Jewry.
- You can lock the door upon them, but they burst open their shaky lattices and call out over the house-tops so that men cannot but hear. You hounded wild Rousseau into the meanest garret of the Rue St. Jacques and jeered at his angry shrieks. But the thin, piping tones swelled a hundred years later into the sullen roar of the French Revolution, and civilization to this day is quivering to the reverberations of his voice.
- According to my judgement, the French Revolution and the doings of Napoleon opened the eyes of the world. The nations knew nothing before and the people thought that kings were gods upon the earth and that they were bound to say that whatever they did as well done.
- Theodoros Kolokotronis (1770-1843) Kolokotronis Memoirs, edited by Georgios Tertsetis
- Did the French Revolution leave anything positive to posterity? Only the metric system.
- Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, "Operation Parricide: Sade, Robespierre, and the French Revolution," Fidelity Magazine, October 1989.
- One shouldn't forget that much of what may appear positive to us today - liberality, intellectuality, humanitarianism - had all been already brought to us by the liberal, courtly absolutism, while the French Revolution which used all these words in reality did nothing more than brutally extinguish them.
- Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, "Operation Parricide: Sade, Robespierre, and the French Revolution," Fidelity Magazine, October 1989.
- In the French Revolution the scum of France succumbed to blood lust and opened the door to evil.
M - R
- Men do not lead the revolution; it is the Revolution that uses men. They are right when they say it goes all alone. This phrase means that never has the Divinity shown itself so clearly in any human event. If the vilest instruments are employed, punishment is for the sake of regeneration.
- Too many French scholars were the principal authors of the Revolution, too many approved and gave their support so long as the Revolution, like Tarquinius' sceptre, struck down only the tallest heads. Like so many others, they said, It is impossible to make a great revolution without incurring misfortunes. But when a philosopher justifies evil by the end in view, when he says in his heart, Let there be a hundred thousand murders, provided we are free, and Providence replies, I accept your offer, but you must be included in the number, where is the injustice?
- What distinguishes the French Revolution and makes it an event unique in history is that it is radically bad. No element of good disturbs the eye of the observer; it is the highest degree of corruption ever known; it is pure impurity.
- In order to bring about the French Revolution, it was necessary to overthrow religion, outrage morality, violate every propriety, and commit every crime. This diabolical work required the employment of such a number of vicious men that perhaps never before had so many vices acted together to accomplish any evil whatsoever.
- Because every plebeian tyranny is by its very nature impetuous, insulting, and ruthless, that which accomplished the French Revolution had to push these characteristics to excess. The world has never seen a baser or more absolute tyranny.
- But Rousseau — to what did he really want to return? Rousseau, this first modern man, idealist and rabble in one person — one who needed moral "dignity" to be able to stand his own sight, sick with unbridled vanity and unbridled self-contempt. This miscarriage, couched on the threshold of modern times, also wanted a "return to nature"; to ask this once more, to what did Rousseau want to return? I still hate Rousseau in the French Revolution: it is the world-historical expression of this duality of idealist and rabble. The bloody farce which became an aspect of the Revolution, its "immorality," is of little concern to me: what I hate is its Rousseauan morality — the so-called "truths" of the Revolution through which it still works and attracts everything shallow and mediocre. The doctrine of equality! There is no more poisonous poison anywhere: for it seems to be preached by justice itself, whereas it really is the termination of justice. "Equal to the equal, unequal to the unequal" — that would be the true slogan of justice; and also its corollary: "Never make equal what is unequal." That this doctrine of equality was surrounded by such gruesome and bloody events, that has given this "modern idea" par excellence a kind of glory and fiery aura so that the Revolution as a spectacle has seduced even the noblest spirits.
- Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols (1889), translator Walter Kauffman
- Jules Ferry, a former French colonial minister, explained that the French Revolution was not fought on behalf of the blacks of Africa. Bourgeois liberty, equality, and fraternity was not for colonial subjects. Africans had to make do with bayonets, riot acts, and gunboats.
- The war which is being waged today by the German armed forces under the highest command of Adolf Hitler is a war of an immense reform. It does not only overcome the world of ideas of the French Revolution, but it also exterminates directly all those racially infecting germs of Jewry and its bastards, which now since over a hundred years could develop without check among the European nations.
S - Z
- When I started writing [Citizens], I thought the revolution of 1789 then goes on the skids and turns into the Terror of 1793. But I became more and more alarmed by what happened in 1789, and more and more bleak about what it is we are supposed to be celebrating. It dawned on me that no sooner had the Declaration of the Rights of Man been signed than a law was passed which allowed opening of mail, stopped freedom of movement and had a brutal attitude to who was a patriot and who was not.
Then there was the violence. It was not the fact of decapitation so much as the way these people self-consciously understood what you could do with violence, the way violence could construct allegiances.
I'm not saying no good came of the revolution. There was the definition of a citizen with equal rights before the law, the emancipation of the Jews and black slaves – these were intrinsically noble. But the way the revolution enacts these doesn't accidentally produce violence. It necessarily produces violence. And if you look at the landscape of France in 1799 with Bonapartist military dictatorship, the balance is unhappy rather than happy.
- Simon Schama, interview with Bryan Appleyard, quoted in Bryan Appleyard, 'The revolutionary historian', The Times (13 May 1989), p. 31
- As in so much else, the French revolutionary regime (1789–94) was the precursor of the centralized, totalitarian, managerial, pseudo-democratic despotisms that now reign over the West. It is also reminder that mass democracy and inflation go together, as surely as thunder and lightning. Let us revisit the Revolution, from a free-market, hard-money perspective.
- Scott Trask, Inflation and the French Revolution: The Story of a Monetary Catastrophe, The Mises Institute, 23 November 2020
- In not more than a month’s time terror will assume very violent forms, after the example of the great French Revolution; the guillotine... will be ready for our enemies... that remarkable invention of the French Revolution which makes man shorter by a head.
- Leon Trotsky As quoted in The Cheka : Lenin’s Political Police (1981) by George Leggett, p. 54
- There were two “Reigns of Terror,” if we would but remember it and consider it; the one wrought murder in hot passion, the other in heartless cold blood; the one lasted mere months, the other had lasted a thousand years; the one inflicted death upon ten thousand persons, the other upon a hundred millions; but our shudders are all for the “horrors” of the minor Terror, the momentary Terror, so to speak; whereas, what is the horror of swift death by the axe, compared with lifelong death from hunger, cold, insult, cruelty, and heart-break? What is swift death by lightning compared with death by slow fire at the stake? A city cemetery could contain the coffins filled by that brief Terror which we have all been so diligently taught to shiver at and mourn over; but all France could hardly contain the coffins filled by that older and real Terror—that unspeakably bitter and awful Terror which none of us has been taught to see in its vastness or pity as it deserves.
- Mark Twain, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, 1889.
- From 1789 to late in 1791 the French Revolution was an orderly process, and from the summer of 1794 the Republic was an orderly and victorious state. The Terror was not the work of the whole country, but of the town mob which owed its existence and its savagery to the misrule, and social injustice of the ancient regime and the explosion of the Terror could have happened only through the persistent treacherous disloyalty of the royalists which, while it raised the extremists to frenzy, disinclined the mass of moderate republicans from any intervention.
- More lives were wasted by the British generals alone on the opening day of what is known as the Somme offensive of July, 1916 than in the whole French Revolution from start to finish.
- The french revolution has not received more attention than it deserves; but in comparison disproportionately little attention has been given to the English Civil Wars of the seventeenth century. In a more modest way, these too helped fix the shape of the modern world. Specifically, most of the devices and ideas which have found expression in subsequent constitutions date from the experiments and theories of that day.
- Francis D. Wormuth, The Origins of Modern Constitutionalism (1949), Preface
- American Revolution
- History of the World: Part I#The French Revolution
- Nineteen Eighty-Four, by George Orwell (1949)
- Nonviolent resistance
- Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth, by Buckminster Fuller, (1969)