The 25 years between the onset of the French Revolution in 1789 and the Bourbon Restoration after Napoleon in 1814 is an astonishing period in world history. This era shook the foundations of the old world and marked a permanent shift for politics, religion, and society—not just for France, but for all of Europe. An account of the events alone reads like something out of a thrilling novel:
- France’s oppressed and hungry masses rise up against their government.
- In Paris, crowds storm the Bastille looking for bread and weaponry.
- Rumors, panic, and fear grip the nation as it faces an uncertain future.
- The National Assembly adopts the Declaration of the Rights of Man, the first bold step toward the invention of democratic politics and a republican state.
- King Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette try to flee the country under cover of darkness.
- After the king’s execution, the government takes emergency measures that lead to the Terror, when thousands will be put to death by the guillotine.
- A young Corsican named Napoleon Bonaparte stuns Europe with his military strategy and political boldness.
- At the end of his empire, Napoleon escapes Elba to confront the Duke of Wellington at the famous Battle of Waterloo.
Living the French Revolution and the Age of Napoleon is your opportunity to learn the full story of this captivating period. Taught by Dr. Suzanne M. Desan, a distinguished professor of history at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, these 48 exciting lectures give you a broad and comprehensive survey of one of the most important eras in modern history.
What makes this course such a rare treat is that Professor Desan introduces you to all sides of the story. A people’s revolution for liberty and equality is an exciting moment in history, and indeed the crowds that rose up against the Old Regime were infused with optimism. Yet there is a darker side of the story as well:
- The tyranny of Robespierre and his ardent support of the Terror
- Revolutionary tribunals and the Committee of Public Safety, which were meant to maintain the peace but which exacerbated the fear
- The tens of thousands who were executed, many without trial
How did the French attempt to create a democratic republic? How did such an optimistic movement, such an idealistic new government, morph into the Terror? Was an authoritarian regime an inevitable response to the Revolution? There are no easy answers to these questions; yet they speak to some of the same events in our contemporary history, from the quest for civil rights in the United States to the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Living the French Revolution and the Age of Napoleon introduces you to the hotly contested invention of modern politics—the oppression, the freedom, the turmoil, the violence, the passion, and the hope of the era. When you complete this course, you’ll have a new appreciation for this history, and you’ll understand how profoundly it changed the rest of Europe.
Learn about the People, the Politics, and the Culture of the Revolution
The French Revolution raised a host of questions that are still with us today: What happens when people living under a traditional monarchy try to invent a democracy and an egalitarian society? How do you wrench the modern world out of the old? How do you secure equality for everyone in society? And how do you maintain the peace and deliver on the promises of the Revolution during the transition?
You’ll study these philosophical questions through the eyes of the people—the leaders and the citizens, the famous and the infamous, the soldiers and the writers, the wealthy and the hungry—as they struggled to advance their cause and come to terms with each new development. For instance, you’ll
- learn about the brutality of life under the Old Regime, and see how the burden of taxes, tithes to the church, and the unequal distribution of wealth affected ordinary citizens in the Third Estate;
- examine the political parties, from the Girondins and Jacobins in the government to the sans-culottes in the streets, that jockeyed for control of the direction of France;
- meet women such as Olympe de Gouges, who struggled for their rights and demanded divorce and equal inheritance laws; and
- consider the debates in the international arena, such as those between the conservative Edmund Burke, who defended the aristocracy, and the liberal Thomas Paine, who advocated the rights of man.
You’ll laugh at the absurd hedgehog hairstyles of the aristocratic elites; you’ll marvel at Louis and Marie-Antoinette’s escape coach as they tried to flee France; and you’ll be amazed by Napoleon’s dramatic escape from Elba. From the machinations of the highest officers to the violence of the hungry crowds; from the battles and international treaties to the bedrooms of Versailles and jail cells of the Bastille; Professor Desan takes you into this era from every angle.
A Deep, Immersive Study
Living the French Revolution and the Age of Napoleon covers an impressive amount of ground. You’ll investigate the causes of the Revolution—a perfect storm of famine, war debt, social inequality, and economic downturn; you’ll trace the era’s major events, from the storming of the Bastille in 1789 to the execution of King Louis XVI to Napoleon’s major campaigns; and you’ll learn about the many governments the French people experienced in such a short period—the monarchy, the republic, the empire, and more.
But the true joy of this course lies in the unique insights Professor Desan provides. Fascinating nuggets, small details, and little-known ironies of history bring this era to life:
- The original ending to “Little Red Riding Hood” provides a bleak look at many people’s constant struggle to survive.
- The revolutionaries tried hard to remake society after overthrowing the old system—even trying to de-Christianize the nation and create a new calendar.
- The Revolution shaped events in the rest of the world—including America, which eventually benefited from the Louisiana Purchase.
- We think of Robespierre as the face of the Terror, but he was a complex figure who argued against the death penalty two years before he called for the king’s head.
- The Directory is a less-studied yet intriguing wedge between the Terror and Napoleon.
- Napoleon was thrown from his horse just days before he seized power—nearly putting a halt to the empire before it even existed.
Professor Desan notes that there have been more studies written about Napoleon than there have been days since he died. An examination of this period would not be complete without a thorough look at this engaging figure, the man who paid his soldiers in cash and inspired a wave of “Egypto-mania” after his expedition in Egypt. You’ll explore in detail what made him such a powerful leader—how he was able to combine repression with conciliation at home, and diplomacy with military might abroad.
You’ll be surprised to learn that this man who crowned himself emperor and led France into war against every other major European power also was a child of the Revolution. He kept many of the reforms enacted by the revolutionaries. Despite Napoleon’s reputation as a powerful, nearly invincible figure, Professor Desan presents him as a flesh-and-blood human being with all the requisite contradictions.
You’ll also enjoy learning about the impact of the Revolution beyond the borders of France—particularly in the colony of Saint-Domingue, now known as Haiti. Did the struggle for human rights apply to the slaves in the colonies? You’ll meet such figures as Vincent Ogé and Toussaint Louverture who led uprisings that eventually resulted in a free and independent Haiti.
A Dynamic and Engaging Professor
These are powerful lectures indeed, both for their content and for their presentation. Professor Desan has had a lifelong passion for the subject, and she brings a deeply personal enthusiasm to each lecture. No wooden speaker behind a podium, she has a dynamic stage presence that draws you into the powerful story.
Additionally, for video customers, her lectures are enhanced by an array of maps and illustrations, cartoons, battle movement plans, and other visual elements that help bring the period to life.
This is the very human, very emotional side of the Revolution. You’ll feel the swell of the crowds again and again as they chant and protest. You’ll react to the cauldron of crisis and fear in the months leading up to the Terror. And you’ll come away with a new viewpoint—not just on this era, but on our own.
The next time you open any newspaper, you’ll see headlines that echo the struggles of France between 1789 and 1814. That dramatic period has reverberated through the ages. Freedom, equality, revolution, political factionalism—the hopes and questions of this gripping story have profound implications for us today.
Enjoy the lectures