International Law French Revolution
Marc Belissa
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 September 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 September 2023
  • 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 hand, 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 eighteenth 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. Second, “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 twentieth 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 twentieth century and of the beginning of the twenty-first century try to understand how revolutionaries sought to reconcile universal brotherhood and national interest.

Primary Sources

Primary sources on international relations and on debates about the law of nations during the Revolution are very numerous. One can find several references in Marc Belissa (Belissa 1998 and Belissa 2006, both cited under the French Revolution and International Law).

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