When the Bastille, a great medieval prison at the eastern end of Paris, fell to angry crowds on July 14, 1789, a shock wave spread throughout Europe. This event, immediately perceived as a revolutionary act, amazed contemporaries. Throughout France and even the Western world, this news came as a stunning revelation. Part of the reason that the revolution surprised eighteenth-century men and women was the relative stability of France and its monarchy over centuries. Even though the political system had been in a state of change, it had maintained a monarchy and orderly transitions of power for centuries. To be certain, tensions had been building for months, even years, but this event crystallized the belief that a people could demand its rights and be successful. Furthermore, even if before July 14 careful observers might have noted that revolutionary events had already transpired and have predicted an emotion-filled upheaval, such observers would have only recently arrived at such a view.
Furthermore, contemporaries would have also been impressed by the location of the revolution, for France was arguably the most important nation in the Western world. Its population of 26 million dwarfed the nine million of England, its main geopolitical competitor. Russia rivaled France’s population, but economically there was no comparison. Although the North American colonies had preceded the French in revolution, some discounted this uprising because they saw the Americans simply as a captive people overthrowing an oppressor. For others who understood the innovations as revolutionary, America remained a special place whose particular circumstances were unlikely to be copied by a more established country. Although the American experience ignited excitement, it could not rival seeing powerful France being turned upside down.
If contemporaries experienced the French Revolution as a shock, and at first a pleasant one, historians have spent the last two centuries looking for deeper roots for it. How could such a cataclysm occur? Such a large event must have resulted from important long-range factors or “forces.” Yet others see accidental factors, or, in some cases, even conspiracies. And even in explaining such an event, historians have to grapple with its comparative aspects. In searching for causes and circumstances, one must select a combination of factors that explain why the Revolution occurred in France and not elsewhere.
In the multimedia clip here, we attempt to combine insights from those who argue long term developments with those who emphasize contingencies — accidents or unforeseen events. We also endeavor to construct a theory which specifies why France, all but alone in Europe, experienced an eighteenth-century revolution. But scholars, politicians, and mere interested parties from the very first debated the causes of the Revolution. We urge you to dig deeper into the French Revolution to come to your own understanding of these occurrences which, though beginning in France, have since changed the entire world.