THE REVOLUTION AS ACTIVISM

The French Revolution clearly had repercussions throughout the world. For example, the Napoleonic occupation of Spain in 1808 was the spark that ignited the independence movement in Latin America. Beginning with Mexico in 1810, Central and South American local elites declared their independence from Spain and Portugal. Most countries achieved independence in the 1820s. Others, like the revolutionary Simon Bolívar, rejected the control of these elites, preferring to follow the example of Haiti. The spread of nationalism to Latin America was accompanied by some of the other liberal ideas associated with the French Revolution, but not by all.

Twentieth-century revolutionaries in east Asia were interested not only in the potent ideology of nationalism, but also in the transformative power of revolutions on both society and the state. Exposed early to the model of the French Revolution, those espousing revolutionary change in China and Vietnam made the French Revolution of 1789 topical in a new part of the world.

Outside the realm of politics, the allure of the Revolution remained important, not only for those who wished to comment on contemporary events but also for the innate drama and pathos of many revolutionary events. Alexis de Tocqueville observed, "What remains most alive in the original spirit of the Revolution is in . . . literature. . . . [T]he only Frenchmen who today can be connected by a kind of esprit de corps to their fathers are the men of letters" (Roger Boesche, ed., Alexis de Tocqueville: Selected Letters on Politics and Society, trans. James Toupin and Roger Boesche [Berkeley, 1985], 329). Some of the giants of nineteenth-century European literature wrote about the French Revolution, including Honoré de Balzac, Charles Dickens, Victor Hugo, and Anatole France. These literary treatments kept the people, the events, and the ideas of the Revolution alive for generations. In the twentieth century, the powerful imagery and impact of the Revolution made it an ideal candidate for the cinema. Some of the greatest films in French cinematic history have focused on the revolutionary period. From Abel Gance's Napoleon in 1927 to Andrezj Wajda's Danton in 1984, directors have grappled with the meaning of the events of the French Revolution. The frequent twentieth-century remakes of films about the Scarlet Pimpernel demonstrate that the allure of the Revolution remains alive and well in the English-speaking world too.

Has the importance of the French Revolution now faded? In some ways, it has simply shifted. Scholars continue to be interested in the causes, course, and legacy of the French Revolution, but they have a wider view of it: not only do they seek its meaning in a broader range of events and activities, in the traditional arenas of diplomacy and high politics as well as in the newer ones of festivals, symbols, engravings, and songs. They also seek its significance in many more places, from Haiti and the other French colonies to Egypt, Russia, and wherever the French armies marched, indeed, to wherever the message of the Revolution was heard.

Even before the Revolution had ended, before the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte, enterprising artists and printers had begun to publish collections of engravings that recounted the principal events of the French Revolution for subscribers. Revolutionary governments aimed to spread their message through propaganda, and they left no item of everyday life untouched in their efforts to spread the gospel of revolution.

Memories of the French Revolution of 1789 are not only historical in nature, but also constitute a living legacy. They are found in places, images, and objects. A few liberty trees still stand today, usually large oaks on the village square. Many people kept mementos of the Revolution, whether engravings, ribbons (in the form of cockades), crockery, even bits of the stones of the Bastille prison. Songs continued in popular memory. The sheer weight of these memories can be measured by the very large number of objects and images still in existence. The Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris houses some 30,000 engravings from the time of the French Revolution. Libraries in the United States have many thousands of them too. Museums all over France have material collections of crockery, ribbons, flags, swords, and clothing, all of which could serve as emblems of revolution—or counterrevolution. The Museum of the French Revolution in Vizille, France, has the most systematic and extensive of these collections, which we can only sample here.

 
   
 

THE REVOLUTION AND THE LEFT

 
 

SPREADING LIBERTY

     
 

REVOLUTION AGAINST
IMPERIALISM

     
 

BALZAC!

     

THE KNITTERS

HUGO ON THE CONVENTION

 

THE GODS ARE ATHIRST

 
 
   
 

JEAN RENOIR'S FILM,
"LA MARSEILLAISE" (1938)

 
 
   
   

HISTORY IN PRINT

 
       

SOUVENIRS

   
       
     
     

DEEP ROOTS

   
       
   
 
   
 
 

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