International Law French Revolution
Marc Belissa
  • LAST REVIEWED: 06 February 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199796953-0111


The French Revolution is not a strictly national phenomenon confined within the boundaries of the kingdom of France. On the one hand, it is part of a chain of revolutionary movements in Europe (such as the Belgian, Liège, Genevan, and Batavian revolutions); on the other, it has a universal and cosmopolitan dimension that was immediately clear to all contemporaries. Finally, because France was a central actor within the diplomatic European order at the end of the 18th century, its revolution was bound to have important consequences on western European geopolitics (and also in America due to its colonies) and on the law of nations, as it was commonly admitted as well. The revolutionary decade (1789–1799) witnessed a twofold evolution: First, the debates on the rights of nations became increasingly present in the writings of philosophers, jurists, and legislators, and also in the public sphere, through the press, theater, images, and the like. Secondly, “regenerated France” proclaimed its intention to rethink to reform the law of nations by making the principle of popular sovereignty a normative one. But, as France was also involved in diplomatic relations of the time, revolutionary France was also obliged to get along with the rules and treaties of the ancien régime. This resulted in a permanent contradiction between the proclaimed principles and the obligation to deal with the kings and princes of Europe. This contradiction has often been interpreted in black-and-white terms: principles versus realpolitik. In the early 20th century, a neo-Kantian interpretation insisted on the radicalness of the proclamation of revolutionary principles within the sphere of the law of nations, while a “realist” interpretation (in the international relations theories sense) defended on the contrary the idea that revolutionary principles were merely a form of justification of the spirit of conquest proper to France. If this dispute has not disappeared from current interpretations, academic works of the end of the 20th century and of the beginning of the 21st century try to understand how revolutionaries sought to reconcile universal brotherhood and national interest.

General Overviews

The historiography of the French Revolution in international relations can be divided into three periods: the first one begins at the end of the 19th/beginning of the 20th century with the beginnings of diplomatic history. The major work of this period is Sorel 1885–1904. The second period lies in the 1950s with the publication of the series Histoire des Relations Internationales adapted by Pierre Renouvin for his collection published by the prestigious Presses Universitaires de France (Fugier 1954). The change of terms was conceived as an effort to get over the traditional diplomatic history per se. Godechot 1956 was also published in this period. It is still one important milestone of French historiography. A new period begins with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the return of a more structural approach of the concept of international order. Schroeder 1994 is emblematic of this approach, and it has provoked many debates among academics. Black 2002 and Bois 2003 are two later syntheses conceived for undergraduates. The French Revolution is included in an analysis of the long term from the Treaty of Westphalia to the Congress of Vienna for Black and from the Peace of Utrecht to the Congress of Vienna for Bois.

  • Black, Jeremy. European International Relations, 1648–1815. New York: Palgrave, 2002.

    Black’s approach is deliberately pragmatic and historic. Black is rather suspicious of theories of international relations (notably Schroeder’s) and seeks to reevaluate the importance of the events and of contingencies in the evolution of international structures during the French Revolution.

  • Bois, Jean-Pierre. De la paix des rois à l’ordre des empereurs, 1714–1815. Paris: Seuil, 2003.

    Jean-Pierre Bois is particularly attentive to the question of peace and to the continuities with and inheritances from the ancien régime in revolutionary France’s foreign policy. He deals also with the philosophical and juridical debates about political conceptions of relations between peoples in the modern era. The long 18th century is considered here as the moment of transition from a world dominated by the interests of princes and dynasties to a world in which nations appear as the subjects of real international relations.

  • Fugier, André. La Révolution française et l’Empire napoléonien. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1954.

    André Fugier wrote this volume on French Revolution and the First Empire in the series Histoire des Relations Internationales directed by Pierre Renouvin. He insists on economical and demographic forces and on the strategic stakes posed by the Revolution in Europe. This collection was an important one in the historiography of international relations until the 1980s.

  • Godechot, Jacques. La Grande Nation: L’expansion révolutionnaire de la France dans le monde de 1789 à 1799. Paris: Aubier, 1956.

    This book was for a long time one of the few works on the international dimension of the French Revolution. Godechot develops here his thesis of an Atlantic revolutionary “wave” that provoked in the 1950s a debate, at times very intense, with, among others, Albert Soboul, who accused Godechot of underestimating the exceptionality of the French Revolution in the cycle of revolutions of the 18th century.

  • Schroeder, Paul W. The Transformation of European Politics, 1763–1848. Oxford: Clarendon, 1994.

    Paul Schroeder’s synthesis was written during the period after the fall of the Berlin Wall. It presents the revolutionary period in a long-term perspective from the end of the Seven Years’ War to the revolutions of 1848. This allows him to consider international transformations in a more structural approach compared to the old diplomatic history.

  • Sorel, Albert. L’Europe et la révolution française. 8 vols. Paris: Plon, 1885–1904.

    Albert Sorel was a disciple of the antirevolutionary writer Hippolyte Taine. He sees in the French Revolution’s foreign policy the continuation of monarchical traditions and in the revolutionary spirit an avatar of the spirit of the Crusades. Sorel’s conservative interpretation has had an enormous influence on international relations historiography. One can still see this influence in the works of the Furetian school.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.