David A. Bell is Sidney and Ruth Lapidus Professor of History at Princeton. His book Men on Horseback: Charisma and Power in the Age of Revolutions will be published next year. (June 2019)


From Readers to Revolutionaries

Léonard Defrance de Liège: The Shield of Minerva, 1781. The painting was inspired by the Austrian emperor Joseph II’s 1781 edict of religious tolerance. Announcements of works by Enlightenment philosophers are posted on the walls of the bookstore, while the bundles of books stacked outside for shipment to other countries signify the free diffusion of ideas.

A Literary Tour de France: The World of Books on the Eve of the French Revolution

by Robert Darnton
In 1789 and for long afterward, in France and elsewhere, a single word often sufficed to explain the origins of the French Revolution: books. Just days after the fall of the Bastille, the radical journalist and politician Bertrand Barère wrote, “Books did it all. Books created opinion, books brought enlightenment …

The Many Lives of Liberalism

Eugène Delacroix: Liberty Leading the People, 1830

Can Democracy Work?: A Short History of a Radical Idea, from Ancient Athens to Our World

by James Miller

The Lost History of Liberalism: From Ancient Rome to the Twenty-First Century

by Helena Rosenblatt
While the collapse of communism did not bring history to an end, it did, briefly, seem to establish a worldwide consensus of sorts. Had one particular social and political system, by dint of hard experience, proven superior to all its rivals? Apparently yes. That system was what could be called the liberal ideal, constructed around representative democracy, human rights, and free-market capitalism complemented by a strong social safety net. That consensus seemed to hold even after the bloody disintegration of Yugoslavia and the September 11 attacks. Now, however, it is fracturing.

‘Pity Is Treason’

The execution of Maximilien Robespierre in Paris on July 28, 1794

A Genealogy of Terror in Eighteenth-Century France

by Ronald Schechter
It is clearly impossible to identify a birthdate for terrorism. There are vociferous disagreements about its definition, and even more vociferous arguments about which actions actually count as terrorism. As the old saying goes, your evil terrorist is my heroic freedom fighter. Were the bomb-throwing anarchists of late-nineteenth-century Europe terrorists? …

A Very Different French Revolution

‘The Tennis Court Oath, 1789’; oil sketch by Jacques-Louis David

Revolutionary Ideas: An Intellectual History of the French Revolution from The Rights of Man to Robespierre

by Jonathan Israel
Did a secret society bring about the French Revolution? In the classic fictional version of this widely believed conspiracy theory, Alexandre Dumas’s novel Joseph Balsamo, a Masonic society known as the Illuminati gather in a ruined castle in 1770 and plot the overthrow of the French monarchy. Their leader, called …