Think Globally, Act Historically: Teaching the French Revolution and Napoleon

By Lynn Hunt and Jack R. Censer

The explosive growth of global history is changing the scholarship of the French Revolution and Napoleonic era.  Earlier interest in such a broad framework failed to resonate because the idea of an Atlantic Revolution was quickly, if unfairly, linked to Cold War politics.  Although the books of Jacques Godechot and Robert Palmer attracted readers in the 1960s, few followed their lead. Scholars granted that the French Revolution exported its values but often refused to admit the converse, that the revolution was influenced by developments elsewhere. The remarkable expansion of research on Haiti during the last two decades established the importance of the slave uprising but did little to alter interpretations of events occurring in the metropole.

Book cover of The French Revolution and Napoleon by Lynn Hunt and Jack Censer.

In our new textbook, The French Revolution and Napoleon: The Crucible of the Modern World, metropolitan France is still central, but the global context now plays a much more significant role. Any book that includes Napoleon necessarily pays attention to the effects of constant warfare and recurrent regime change across much of the world, and recent scholarship has shown that those effects were even more extensive than originally thought. The converse also holds; scholars are now showing that revolutionary ideas circulated globally before 1789 and that events in the Atlantic world, in particular, reverberated across many different borders. Leading French revolutionaries of 1789 had met their counterparts either in the British colonies, in London, or in various cities across the European continent, and they continued to collaborate with them in various ways after 1789. French events were not just French.

One global theme receives special emphasis in our volume: the international competition for resources. Spain and Portugal had already blazed the trail in the Americas, reaping riches and power. In the seventeenth century, the French, British, and Dutch joined the competition and expanded the economic and geopolitical reach of their countries by relocating their citizens and transporting Africans to the Americas and the Caribbean. The slave-based plantation system created valuable agricultural products and trading opportunities while disfiguring the lives of millions of Africans. As the French and British established their dominance, they also set themselves on a course of conflict with each other.

In the eighteenth century, France fought two colonial wars against Britain that ended disastrously for the French despite a victory in the American War of Independence. French possessions shrank drastically as a result of the first conflict, the Seven Years’ War, and France joined the American side in 1778 to get revenge. Victory was expensive; military intervention produced enormous deficits that led directly to the revolutionary crisis. In addition, participation on the American side stirred the pot of new political ideas in France. Aristocrats, such as Marquis de Lafayette, and ordinary men alike had seen something previously unimaginable: a country without much hierarchy and a people who insisted on representative government. Pamphlets, declarations, and constitutions soon made their way back to France.

The struggle between Britain and France did not end in 1789. It would shape world politics for another generation. When war and counter-revolution broke out after 1792, the British funded resistance inside France, as well as the military attack by European powers. Even when the French managed to turn the tide and sweep into the low countries and the German and Italian states, British naval power remained beyond their reach, as the catastrophic sinking in 1798 of the French fleet off the coast of Egypt made all too evident.

Napoleon would try again and again to counter Britain, whether by attempting to retake Saint Domingue and re-establish slavery, planning an invasion of Britain itself, allying with Russia in the hopes of grabbing territory from the Ottomans to establish an overland route to India, or invading Portugal because they were allied with the British. Imagining that the nation of shopkeepers was no match for his land base, Napoleon instituted the Continental System to block British trade with the continent. Like his other plans, this one, too, ultimately failed.

The loss of Saint Domingue blew up Napoleon’s dream of global empire. The French had barely managed to keep control of the island by agreeing to the abolition of slavery in 1793-94. The slave uprising in 1791 had destroyed many plantations, infuriated white owners who plotted with Britain, and ultimately produced a series of talented military leaders among the freed slaves and men of mixed race. Napoleon determined to take the island back and in 1802 sent an expeditionary force led by his brother-in-law. It succeeded in capturing Toussaint L’Ouverture and dispatching him to prison in France, but it could not keep control as yellow fever decimated the ranks and the former slaves refused to countenance a return to bondage. In 1804, the island declared its independence as Haiti. Giving up on plans of spanning the globe, Napoleon sold the vast Louisiana territory at a bargain price to the fledgling United States.

“Thinking globally” thus produces new perspectives on the way the French Revolution was shaped by ideas and events with global resonance. Yet our approach was just a first step in a longer process. Mastery of the broad spectrum of the revolution ultimately requires many languages, as well as an appreciation for different national historical perspectives. Even something as supposedly straightforward as maps pose problems. In the age of dynasties, boundaries were always unstable, and the wars of the revolution led to massive shifts and renaming of territories. A lack of professionally reviewed regional maps on which to base global ones jeopardizes accuracy.

Chronology, too, poses challenges. Until now, the dates of the most significant events in metropolitan France have governed the narrative: the fall of the Bastille, the fall of the monarchy, the Terror, the rise of Bonaparte. A fuller understanding of the revolution may require a pattern that extends beyond that single skein of political, social, legal, and military landmarks. Just how this can be accomplished without losing sight of the French Revolution as a distinctive event remains to be explored.


Lynn Hunt is Distinguished Research Professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, USA. She is the author of numerous books, including Inventing Human Rights (2007) and, with Jack R. Censer, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity: Exploring the French Revolution (2001). She is also the co-editor, along with Suzanne Desan and William Nelson, of The French Revolution in Global Perspective (2013).

Jack R. Censer is Professor of History at George Mason University, USA. He is the author of several works on eighteenth-century France and the broader history of the press, including The French Press in the Age of Enlightenment (2004). Most recently, he published Debating Modern Revolution: The Evolution of Revolutionary Ideas (Bloomsbury, 2016).  

3 thoughts on “Think Globally, Act Historically: Teaching the French Revolution and Napoleon

  1. I’ve assigned this for my undergraduate course this coming Spring, along with the volume of essays edited by Susan Desan et al on the FR in global perspective. Looking forward to seeing how the students respond.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s