A New World Begins: The history of the French Revolution
by Jeremy D. Popkin
Basic Books, $49.99 hb, 627 pp
Jeremy D. Popkin, a historian at the University of Kentucky, fittingly begins his account of the French Revolution with a printer in Lexington enthusing in late 1793 about the ideals of the Revolution of 1789 in his Kentucky Almanac. The printer’s geographic distance from the events in Paris meant that his idealistic vision of the Revolution coincided with its most violent and repressive period in 1793–94, later dubbed ‘the Reign of Terror’. This juxtaposition of 1789 and 1793 is useful for Popkin to make his key point that, ‘despite its shortcomings, however, the French Revolution remains a vital part of the heritage of democracy’.
The explanatory power of Popkin’s richly detailed account comes from ‘deep narrative’: the interplay of ideology and circumstance, choice and necessity. While Louis XVI’s regime was mired in financial crisis and corroded by ‘Enlightenment’ challenges to traditional sources of authority, the Revolution of 1789 was not inevitable. Rather, Louis’s government mismanaged crisis, offering the prospect of sweeping reform without a clear strategy for achieving it.