In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section The French Revolution

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals
  • Reference Works
  • The Revolution’s Atlantic Economy
  • The Two Revolutions Question
  • The Influence of North America
  • The Impact of France on the Americas
  • The Revolution and Latin America
  • Atlantic Emigrés
  • Atlantic Colonization
  • Slavery

Atlantic History The French Revolution
Allan Potofsky
  • LAST REVIEWED: 14 December 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 June 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0026


Was the French Revolution part of a single movement that historians conceptualize as the revolutionary Atlantic or was it a unique event? The history of the impact, consequences, and broader meaning of the French Revolution in the Atlantic is dominated by revolutionary exceptionalism. Much as with the English and American cases, exceptionalism attracted historians to focus exclusively on the Revolution, as a favored terrain, because of its nearly transcendental distinctiveness. It was the founding national moment for France, the West, and indeed, perhaps, of modernity itself. But such a historical perspective, centered on the uniqueness of the Revolution, also divorces events within the French métropole from an international context—to such an extent that, until very recently, scholars of the French Revolution rarely included the colonies and the Empire in their narrative of the incomparable events in France. The new French Atlantic paradigm, with its emphasis on colonization, slavery, native peoples, and anti-imperialism, opened Revolutionary-era studies to broader fields of inquiry. Moreover, rather than diminishing its meaning, a reexamination of the Revolution and the first French empire in the Americas reinforces the argument for the Revolution’s Atlantic significance. The revolutionary Atlantic was a movement of public opinion, protest, and representative institutions that grew out of independence and democratic movements spanning the ocean. Atlantic historians point not only to the French Revolution’s role in the rise of radical politics in the United States of the 1790s but also to its relationship with the less familiar Swiss, Dutch, Corsican, Polish, and Belgian revolts, as well as the Haitian revolution and Latin American independence movements. Most recently, historians examining these and other questions have viewed the issue of the Revolution abroad as the origin of modern French colonialism. International relations, commercial diplomacy, and the demands of war compelled the revolutionaries to broaden the global ambitions of revolutionary France with consequences up through the 19th century.

General Overviews

The points of departure of discussions of the French Revolution’s Atlantic influence are Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America (Tocqueville 2004) and his The Old Regime and Revolution (Tocqueville 1998). Tocqueville’s core argument was that the social conditions and political traditions in America, and America alone, unified to create a truly democratic form of government. France’s Rousseauist past was hostile to civic traditions. A centralizing state crushed social intermediaries—both under the old regime and Revolution—and structured the political life of unmediated subjects and citizens. The finest general treatment of the French Revolution’s impact in the Atlantic is, however, distinctly anti-Tocquevillian: R. R. Palmer’s two-volume masterpiece, Palmer 1959–1964, emphasizes not differences but the interconnections between the American and French models, extending the discussion to cover a vast canvas of revolutionary interaction. The universality of the aspirations and politics of 18th-century revolutionary movements, from North America to Europe, and from Latin America to the Haitian revolution, anchored the Age of Democratic Revolution firmly in the Atlantic. Collaborating closely with Palmer, and following his insights, Godechot 1965 and Echeverria 1957 demonstrate social, diplomatic, literary, and economic commonalities between revolutionary France and the broader Atlantic world. Jourdain 2004 adds Anglo-American radicalism to the Atlantic synthesis. By contrast, the political theorist Hannah Arendt (Arendt 1961) proposes a neo-Tocquevillian analysis, foreshadowing the anti-Marxist “Furet school” in France and the United States in developing an unrelenting critique of the Revolution’s trajectory toward radicalization. Rousseau, not Locke, alone inspired the French Revolution. More recently, Stone 2002 seeks to transcend the previous terms of the French revolutionary debate with an emphasis on a “world-historical” perspective. The French Revolution was fundamentally about restructuring the state to meet challenges of evolving world orders. But if the dynamic of future revolutions flowed from other causes, their immediate origins must be found in the same sense of inequality or injustice as well as the promise of universal human rights. A postideological approach to the French Revolution in the Atlantic awaits its historian.

  • Arendt, Hannah. On Revolution. New York: Viking, 1961.

    An influential political theorist’s comparative assessment of the American and French revolutions to the stark advantage of the former and the disadvantage of the latter. To Arendt, Americans accepted a constitutional compromise that excluded discussion of social issues and the French applied radical solutions to eradicate inequality. A classic Tocquevillian formulation on the tragedy in France of the utopian ambition to resolve “the social question” at the cost of imperfect but more consensual solutions.

  • Echeverria, Durand. Mirage in the West: A History of the French Image of American Society to 1815. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1957.

    Discusses manifestations of the twin sentiments of Américanophilie and Francophilie as well as the opposite phobias these engendered on both sides of the Atlantic. A lyrical and congenial study, graced with many epigrammatic insights and beautifully written, but which ultimately focused on stereotypes, caricatures, and simplistic descriptions of life in America and politics in France.

  • Godechot, Jacques. France and the Atlantic Revolution of the Eighteenth Century, 1770–1799. Translated by Herbert H. Rowen. New York: Free Press, 1965.

    A dated but representative study of older approaches to Atlantic history, which is conceived as the history of French coastal cities in their social, diplomatic, and economic interconnections. Here the historical focus is on the Revolution’s unfolding in seaports as viewed by ministerial officials concerned with the métropole’s policies rather than the broader Atlantic. The original French publication is entitled La grande nation: L’expansion révolutionnaire de la France dans le monde de 1789 à 1799, first published in 1956.

  • Jourdain, Annie. La Révolution: Une exception française? Paris: Flammarion, 2004.

    Jourdain dissolves the specificities of the French Revolution into a broader movement seeking an irreparable rupture with the past by means of forces from within society. A political analysis of the extensive borrowing by French revolutionaries of the ideas, the culture, and the institutional reforms of 18th-century American revolutionaries in particular.

  • Palmer, R. R. The Age of the Democratic Revolution: A Political History of Europe and America, 1760–1800. 2 vols. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1959–1964.

    Palmer famously demonstrated that constituent bodies—the British Parliament, American Houses of Burgesses, the French Parlements, the Dutch Estates-General, and independent clubs—were the locus of powerful criticism of royal absolutism and became dynamic centers of opposition to monarchies nearly everywhere. A rare narrative coherence systematizes Palmer’s vast panorama, which remains deeply pertinent for historians of the Atlantic more than half a century after its publication.

  • Stone, Bailey. Reinterpreting the French Revolution: A Global-Historical Perspective. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511614941

    A synthetic essay arguing for the centrality of international diplomatic and geopolitical concerns during the French Revolution. The French state’s drive for survival, power, and prestige in an international order inspired many supposedly domestic developments of the Revolution itself, such as provisions of the 1793–1794 Terror.

  • Tocqueville, Alexis de. The Old Regime and Revolution. Vol. 1, The Complete Text. Translated by Alan S. Kahan. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.

    Tocqueville concluded that the French Revolution was not a rupture but rather completed a long process that dismantled French civil society and reinforced state control. While not an Atlantic study, this argument influenced subsequent analysis of the impact of the Revolution in comparative contexts. Originally published 1856.

  • Tocqueville, Alexis de. Democracy in America. Translated by Arthur Goldhammer. New York: Library of America, 2004.

    The classic analysis of the “model” of American democracy as constituting the political and social antipode of French Jacobin statist centralization. An excellent translation by Arthur Goldhammer brings Tocqueville back to life. Originally published 1835–1840.

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