The French Revolution: A History

The French Revolution: A History was written by the Scottish essayist, philosopher, and historian Thomas Carlyle. The three-volume work, first published in 1837 (with a revised edition in print by 1857), charts the course of the French Revolution from 1789 to the height of the Reign of Terror (1793–94) and culminates in 1795. A massive undertaking which draws together a wide variety of sources, Carlyle's history—despite the unusual style in which it is written—is considered to be an authoritative account of the early course of the Revolution.

The French Revolution: A History
Title page of the first edition from 1837.
AuthorThomas Carlyle
CountryUnited Kingdom
SubjectThe French Revolution
PublisherChapman & Hall, London
Publication date

Production and reception

John Stuart Mill, a friend of Carlyle's, found himself caught up in other projects and unable to meet the terms of a contract he had signed with his publisher for a history of the French Revolution. Mill proposed that Carlyle produce the work instead; Mill even sent his friend a library of books and other materials concerning the Revolution, and by 1834 Carlyle was working furiously on the project. When he had completed the first volume, Carlyle sent his only complete manuscript to Mill. While in Mill's care the manuscript was destroyed, according to Mill by a careless household maid who mistook it for trash and used it as a firelighter. Carlyle then rewrote the entire manuscript, achieving what he described as a book that came "direct and flamingly from the heart."[1]

The book immediately established Carlyle's reputation as an important 19th century intellectual. It also served as a major influence on a number of his contemporaries, including Charles Dickens, who compulsively carried the book around with him,[2] and drew on it while producing A Tale of Two Cities for his crowd scenes in particular.[3] The book was closely studied by Mark Twain during the last year of his life, and it was reported to be the last book he read before his death.[4]


As a historical account, The French Revolution has been both enthusiastically praised and bitterly criticized for its style of writing, which is highly unorthodox within historiography. Where most professional historians attempt to assume a neutral, detached tone of writing, or a semi-official style in the tradition of Thomas Babington Macaulay,[5] Carlyle unfolds his history by often writing in present-tense first-person plural[6] as though he and the reader were observers, indeed almost participants, on the streets of Paris at the fall of the Bastille or the public execution of Louis XVI. This, naturally, involves the reader by simulating the history itself instead of solely recounting historical events.

Carlyle further augments this dramatic effect by employing a style of prose poetry that makes extensive use of personification and metaphor—a style that critics have called exaggerated, excessive, and irritating. Supporters, on the other hand, often label it as ingenious. John D. Rosenberg, a Professor of humanities at Columbia University and a member of the latter camp, has commented that Carlyle writes "as if he were a witness-survivor of the Apocalypse. [...] Much of the power of The French Revolution lies in the shock of its transpositions, the explosive interpenetration of modern fact and ancient myth, of journalism and Scripture."[7] Take, for example, Carlyle's recounting of the death of Robespierre under the axe of the Guillotine:

Thus, Carlyle invents for himself a style that combines epic poetry with philosophical treatise, exuberant story-telling with scrupulous attention to historical fact. The result is a work of history that is perhaps entirely unique,[9] and one that is still in print nearly 200 years after it was first published. With its (ambivalent) celebration of the coming of Democracy, and its warning to the Victorian Aristocracy, the work was celebrated by Lord Acton as “the volumes that delivered our fathers from thraldom to Burke”.[10]

See also


  1. Eliot, Charles William (ed., 1909–14). "Introductory Note." In: The Harvard Classics, Vol. XXV, Part 3. New York: P.F. Collier & Son, p. 318.
  2. S Heffer, ‘’Moral Desperado’’ (London 1995) p. 173
  3. J Burrow, ‘’A History of Histories’’ (Penguin 2009) p. 384
  4. Mark Twain is Dead at 74 (The New York Times)
  5. J Burrow, ‘’A History of Histories’’ (Penguin 2009) p. 384-5
  6. J Burrow, ‘’A History of Histories’’ (Penguin 2009) p. 382 and 393
  7. Carlyle, Thomas (2002). The French Revolution: A History. New York: The Modern Library, p. xviii.
  8. Carlyle (2002), pp. 743–744.
  9. A Cobban, ‘’A History of Modern France 1’’ (Penguin 1961) p. 275
  10. J Burrow, ‘’A History of Histories’’ (Penguin 2009) p. 380

Further reading

  • Cobban, Alfred (1963). "Carlyle's French Revolution," History, Vol. XLVIII, No. 164, pp. 306–316.
  • Cumming, Mark (1988). A Disimprisoned Epic: Form and Vision in Carlyle's French Revolution. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
  • Harrold, Charles Frederick (1928). "Carlyle's General Method in the French Revolution," PMLA, Vol. 43, No. 4, pp. 1150–1169.
  • Kerlin, Robert T. (1912). "Contemporary Criticism of Carlyle's 'French Revolution'," The Sewanee Review, Vol. 20, No. 3, pp. 282–296.
  • Wilson, H. Schütz (1894). "Carlyle and Taine on the French Revolution," The Gentleman's Magazine, Vol. CCLXXVII, pp. 341–359.
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