The French Revolution of 1789 astonished the world, and then came Napoleon Bonaparte, one of those rare historical figures who defined an epoch. The cascade of events between 1789 and Napoleon’s final defeat in 1815 gave birth to much of what we know as modern politics: revolution as a leap into the future, “right” and “left” as political markers, the notion of universal human rights, the extension of voting rights to most men, the “emancipation” of the Jews, the first successful slave revolt and the first abolition of slavery, not to mention the use of terror as an instrument of government and guerrilla warfare as a tactic of resistance, along with the police state, authoritarianism, and the cult of personality as ways of circumventing democratic aspirations.
Those are just the obvious political consequences of these upheavals. A dangerously unstable element was added in 1792: warfare that continued with little respite for twenty-three years. The fighting eventually touched virtually every continent and sea, took the lives of at least four million people and upended the existence of millions more, redrew national boundaries, led to the creation of new states, and struck fear into the hearts of every traditional ruler from New Spain (Mexico) to Java. France’s war with most of Europe unraveled the fragile democratic promise of 1789, as national security undermined rights at home and French aggrandizement abroad undercut any notion of liberating other peoples.
It is no wonder, then, that so many have tried to decipher the meaning of these events and that consensus about them remains elusive. Unlike its counterpart across the Atlantic, the first French republic has not attracted warmhearted biographies of its founding fathers because no one seems to fit the description. The French hero of the American War of Independence, the Marquis de Lafayette, at first supported the revolution but forsook his command of one of the French armies in 1792, then spent five miserable years in Prussian and Austrian prisons. The ardent republican Maximilien Robespierre argued against the death penalty and the practice of slavery and then justified the use of the new killing machine, the guillotine, against supposed enemies of the people whom he defined in ever broader terms. Napoleon, Corsican by birth and allegiance, established many important French institutions, from the Bank of France to the Legion of Honor, yet in the end he was forced to abdicate by his own handpicked officials.
While George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson all died in their beds, Robespierre was outlawed by his fellow deputies and guillotined, and Napoleon expired in exile more than four thousand miles from France. Lafayette survived to lead another revolution in 1830 against the restored Bourbons but was more celebrated in the United States than at home. Some…
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