Enter a Digitized Collection of 38,000 Pamphlets & Periodicals From the French Revolution

“What oth­er solu­tion but rev­o­lu­tion?” asks Jon­ah Wal­ters of the con­di­tions for most of the pop­u­la­tion in late-18th cen­tu­ry France. The major­i­ty lived in abject pover­ty; “the eco­nom­ic sub­ju­ga­tion in the coun­try­side was pro­found.” The urban workers—or sans-culottes—fared lit­tle bet­ter. “The cler­gy and nobil­i­ty,” on the oth­er hand, “com­pris­ing about 1.6 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion, were doing just fine—most nobles lived in extreme opu­lence.” This out­line sketch­es the barest con­text for the resent­ment that fueled the vio­lence of the French Rev­o­lu­tion and the thou­sands of exe­cu­tions even­tu­al­ly car­ried out by the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Tri­bunal.

Lawyer and ora­tor Georges Dan­ton, who had argued force­ful­ly for the killing of Louis XVI, pro­posed the Tri­bunal, in fact, as a means of stem­ming ter­ror. “I shall go so far as to say,” he declared, “that if a tri­bunal had been in exis­tence” in the years between 1789 and 1793, “the peo­ple, who have been so often and so cru­el­ly rebuked for the actions of these days, would not have cov­ered them with blood.” He advo­cat­ed that the tri­bunal “be ter­ri­ble in order that the peo­ple may be spared the neces­si­ty of being ter­ri­ble.” The fol­low­ing year, Dan­ton him­self was behead­ed, accused of lenien­cy and self-indul­gence.

Like his con­tem­po­raries Robe­spierre and Marat, Danton’s sto­ry illus­trates the rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies’ elo­quent ide­al­ism and their com­mit­ment to the exe­cu­tion of roy­al­ists, coun­ter­rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies, and thou­sands of accused crim­i­nals as a means of remak­ing the nation and ful­ly destroy­ing the Ancien Régime. Kingston University’s Marisa Lin­ton sums up the polit­i­cal cri­sis:

The French went almost overnight from being an absolute monar­chy to a polit­i­cal sys­tem in which the will of the peo­ple replaced that of the king. In the absence of tra­di­tions of par­lia­men­tary rule, the French fell back on uni­ver­sal­ist abstract prin­ci­ples and Enlight­en­ment rhetoric which were to prove increas­ing­ly divi­sive and leave no space for legit­i­mate oppo­si­tion. In this cli­mate, all polit­i­cal rivals had the poten­tial to be denounced as con­spir­a­tors against pop­u­lar sov­er­eign­ty.

As in the Amer­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion a few years ear­li­er, these debates took place in pub­lic via speech­es, peri­od­i­cals, and pam­phlets, which were print­ed by the tens of thou­sands. Chicago’s New­ber­ry Library French Rev­o­lu­tion Col­lec­tion hous­es on the Inter­net Archive “more than 30,000” such pam­phlets and “more than 23,000 issues of 180 peri­od­i­cals pub­lished between 1780 and 1810…. The col­lec­tion rep­re­sents the opin­ions of all the fac­tions that opposed and defend­ed the monar­chy dur­ing the tur­bu­lent peri­od between 1789 and 1799 and also con­tains innu­mer­able ephemer­al pub­li­ca­tions of the ear­ly Repub­lic.”

Much of the impres­sive New­ber­ry col­lec­tion, “among the most com­pre­hen­sive in the world,” has been dig­i­tized and made freely avail­able via the French Rev­o­lu­tion Pam­phlets Dig­i­tal Ini­tia­tive. Addi­tion­al­ly, the New­ber­ry has an open project for trans­lat­ing these pam­phlets into Eng­lish “in order to broad­en access, aid class­room instruc­tion, and sup­port schol­ar­ship.” The over­whelm­ing major­i­ty of the mate­ri­als are, of course, in French, but some few are also in Latin and oth­er lan­guages.

The pam­phlet at the top is one of sev­er­al trans­lat­ed by the stu­dents of DePaul Uni­ver­si­ty Pro­fes­sor Pas­cale-Anne Brault. This doc­u­ment announces the ver­dict of the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Court against Jean-Bap­tiste Car­ri­er, a for­mer deputy of the Nation­al Con­ven­tion who stood accused of hor­rif­ic atroc­i­ties in the com­mis­sion of his duties, includ­ing “drown­ing men, women, chil­dren” and “assas­si­nat­ing a large num­ber of peo­ple and burn­ing towns, where men and women had their throats cut and girls were raped.” The judg­ment claims that “Nero was less blood­thirsty” than Car­ri­er and his accom­plices.

Fur­ther up, we see the first page of a pam­phlet writ­ten by René Louis Delagueulle, a mem­ber of the Nation­al Con­ven­tion, detail­ing plans for “a Repub­li­can Edu­ca­tion of the Peo­ple.” Delagueulle begins his pro­pos­al with a set of jus­ti­fi­ca­tions, among them the need for full employ­ment. “This mea­sure equal­ly oblig­es all cit­i­zens to learn,” he writes, “at a set age, an art, a trade or a pro­fes­sion capa­ble of procur­ing them the means of sub­sis­tence. We have decreed equal­i­ty: we wish it not to be an emp­ty name, that it remain illu­so­ry & with­out real­i­ty; for in a demo­c­ra­t­ic & pop­u­lar Repub­lic, the law of equal­i­ty is the only law that can bring about com­mon hap­pi­ness.”

Just above, see a pam­phlet titled “The Dec­la­ra­tion of the Rights of Women,” penned in 1792 by an anony­mous col­lec­tive of female French cit­i­zens writ­ing under the pseu­do­nym Phi­laletes (Greek for “lover of truth”). The pam­phlet con­sists of sev­en­teen arti­cles enu­mer­at­ing the rights of free speech for French women. “Women are born, live, and die with the right to speak,” states the first arti­cle. “They are equal in their ambi­tion in this regard.” The doc­u­ment ends with a “Ded­i­ca­tion Epis­tle to Female Cit­i­zens,” which begins, “for too long the Assem­blée Nationale has made you wait for the dec­la­ra­tion of your rights; it is essen­tial and urgent that they be pro­claimed.”

These fas­ci­nat­ing doc­u­ments rep­re­sent just a tiny sam­pling of the thou­sands of pam­phlets avail­able, though most of them remain to be trans­lat­ed into Eng­lish. You can vol­un­teer to help with the trans­la­tion ini­tia­tive here. And enter the enor­mous archive of near­ly 40,000 pam­phlets, orga­nized by year, sub­ject, cre­ator, col­lec­tion, and lan­guage, here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

14,000 Free Images from the French Rev­o­lu­tion Now Avail­able Online

Explore 5,300 Rare Man­u­scripts Dig­i­tized by the Vat­i­can: From The Ili­ad & Aeneid, to Japan­ese & Aztec Illus­tra­tions

3,500 Occult Man­u­scripts Will Be Dig­i­tized & Made Freely Avail­able Online, Thanks to Da Vin­ci Code Author Dan Brown

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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