I first properly studied the French Revolution in college, taking a graduate course on the topic from Simon Schama's protogee, Kathleen Kete. I did well in the course, and wrote my final project on Marie Antoinette, but I really didn't absorb as much as I could have. (At the time, I was a Royalist through and through.)
Since then, I've read a lot more about the Revolution, spurred by my trip to Paris in 2005, where I saw a lot of the historical sites, and picked up some books about the topic. The book that stands out most in my mind is The Lost King of France, by Deborah Cadbury. It's a short book, but gives an excellent overview of the Revolution and the Terror.
At the Museum of Fine Arts, the latest exhibit is Napoleon: Symbols of Power. The review of how the Empire style developed paints a picture of the Revolution as well, showing how the Democratic ideals of the Revolution eventually gave way to Napoleon's imperial domination.
It's strange to consider the American relationship to the Revolution; had Louis XVI not spent so much money supporting the American Revolution, he might have had more funding to feed the Third Estate, and the Revolution might have gone very differently. It might not have happened at all.
And now, Francois Furstenberg provides another Franco-American link through the Revolution:
I was surprised to learn the origin of the word "terrorist," and the connection is chillingly apt. I am not the only person who feels that the term terrorist applies equally to Osama bin Laden and George W. Bush.
If the French Terror had a slogan, it was that attributed to the great orator Louis de Saint-Just: “No liberty for the enemies of liberty.” Saint-Just’s pithy phrase (like President Bush’s variant, “We must not let foreign enemies use the forums of liberty to destroy liberty itself”) could serve as the very antithesis of the Western liberal tradition.
On this principle, the Terror demonized its political opponents, imprisoned suspected enemies without trial and eventually sent thousands to the guillotine. All of these actions emerged from the Jacobin worldview that the enemies of liberty deserved no rights.
Though it has been a topic of much attention in recent years, the origin of the term “terrorist” has gone largely unnoticed by politicians and pundits alike. The word was an invention of the French Revolution, and it referred not to those who hate freedom, nor to non-state actors, nor of course to “Islamofascism.”
A terroriste was, in its original meaning, a Jacobin leader who ruled France during la Terreur.
A part of me looks at the way the country has allowed George Bush to erode the powers of Congress, and make himself a more imperial leader, and I shudder to think of the future. Part of me wonders if it wouldn't be better if we all rose up in revolution, razed the current administration and rewrote the Constitution to be more precise in guaranteeing rights to all. I'd like to see the Electoral College replaced with one vote for each person. I'd like fair voting rights for all, and rid ourselves of measures that keep minorities from voting. I would like to make all people equal, that a poor man could have as much chance for running for office as a poor man. I would like to see campaign spending limits, to prevent money from dictating our leaders.
I want my own Revolution. But a safe one, without Terror.