The Decline and Fall of the French Revolution

A Critical Dictionary of the French Revolution

edited by François Furet and Mona Ozouf, translated by Arthur Goldhammer
Harvard University Press (Belknap Press), 1064 pp., $85.00


It was a splendid idea to compile a critical dictionary of the French Revolution, and the idea has been splendidly executed. Intellectually, the publication of this dictionary was the most significant event of the bicentenary year. In their preface, François Furet and Mona Ozouf define the nature of their enterprise:

This book is not an encyclopedia or even a dictionary in the ordinary sense of the word. The revolutionary text is vast, and we do not pretend to have spelled out its full alphabet. How could anyone even think of compressing an event as complex as the French Revolution, as extravagant, as often retold and as overburdened with interpretations and commentaries, into the 1200-odd pages of a dictionary? We have produced a “dictionary,” rather, in the sense made familiar by the Enlightenment. Its principle: a set of key words, which suggest not only the state of current scholarship but even more a shift in the nature of the questions posed. Its objective: to recover both the strangeness and the disruptive force of the founding event of modern French history. Its unity: the stress placed on the political event and its creative capacity.

An inventory will give some idea of the riches stored in this dictionary. There are five main headings or “parts” (chapîtres, in the French original), as follows: “Events,” “Actors,” “Institutions and Creations,” “Ideas,” and “Historians and Commentators.”

Under “Events” there are seventeen entries, as follows: Chouannerie, Coups d’Etat, De-Christianization, Elections, Estates General, Federalism, Federation, Great Fear, Italian Campaign, King’s Trial, Night of August 4, The Revolution and Europe, Revolutionary Journées, Terror, Treaties of Basel and The Hague, Varennes, and Vendée.

Under “Actors,” there is a division between “individuals” and “groups.” “Individuals” comprise Babeuf, Barnave, Carnot, Condorcet, Danton, Lafayette, Louis XVI, Marat, Marie Antoinette, Mirabeau, Napoleon Bonaparte, Necker, Robespierre, Sieyès. “Groups” comprise Emigrés, Enragés, Feuillants, Girondins, Hébertists, Monarchiens, Montagnards, Sans-culottes, Thermidorians.

Under “Institutions and Creations” there are entries for: Army, Assignats, Civil Code, Civil Constitution of the Clergy, Clubs and Popular Societies, Committee of Public Safety, Constitution, Département, Maximum, National Properties, Paris Commune, Revolutionary Assemblies, Revolutionary Calendar, Revolutionary Government, Revolutionary Religion, Suffrage, Taxes.

Under “Ideas” we find: American Revolution, Ancien Régime, Aristocracy, Centralization, Counterrevolution, Democracy, Enlightenment, Equality, Feudal System, Fraternity, Jacobinism, Liberty, Montesquieu, Nation, Natural Borders, Physiocrats, Public Spirit, Regeneration, Republic, Revolution, Rights of Man, Rousseau, Sovereignty, Vandalism, Voltaire.

Under “Historians and Commentators” are: Academic History of the Revolution, Blanc, Buchez, Burke, Constant, Fichte, Guizot, Hegel, Jaurès, Kant, Maistre, Marx, Michelet, Quinet, Stäel, Taine, Tocqueville.

As is fitting, the book is most handsomely produced, with a wealth of illustrations (mostly contemporary with the Revolution) divided among the five “parts” of the dictionary’s structure.

Among the entries, I find only one surprising omission: Saint-Just is not among the “individuals” listed under “Actors.” Not only as “actor” but also as ideologue and symbol, Saint-Just was surely more important than eight of the fourteen people listed. I suspect deadline delinquency on the part of a contributor, or contributors.…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.