Dr. Rebecca L. Spang’s course The French Revolution and Napoleon delves into the impact of one of the most influential events in European history. This course studies work influential during this time and draws comparisons to today. An interview with Dr. Rebecca Spang, a professor in the Department of History, is below.
Why did you choose to teach a class on the topic the French Revolution and Napoleon?
Spang: The French Revolution introduced the idea of human rights. It proclaimed sovereignty to reside in the nation and laws to be an expression of the general will. If those are not fundamental tenets of democracy, I don’t know what is!
American political pundits often make casual and, frankly, error-ridden references to the French Revolution.
Why is it important for students to take this course? What knowledge or skills do you hope they gain?
Spang: American political pundits often make casual and, frankly, error-ridden references to the French Revolution. (See, for example, Bret Stephens, “Robespierre’s America,” New York Times July 4, 2019 or Peggy Noonan, “What were Robespierre’s Pronouns?” Wall Street Journal July 25, 2019). To be an informed citizen and active member of our democracy today, it’s important to know about the French Revolution as well as the American one.
What type of students would you encourage to take this course?
Spang: I really like this course because we have an entire semester to focus on 25 years. So it gives students a “deep dive” into a particular period, rather than an overview of centuries. Many of the required readings are from the period itself. So it’s good for any student who wants to know how political transformations happen, who likes old stuff, or who just wonders what it was like to live through a completely unexpected and dramatic change [a bit like our current semester!].
It’s important to know that nobody planned the French Revolution.
What were the main causes of the French Revolution? Do you see any parallels today?
Spang: It’s important to know that nobody planned the French Revolution (unlike, say, the Russian Revolution). Some important contributing factors: supposedly representative institutions were recognized as not representing most of the population (compare the Electoral College and gerrymandered districts today); rumour, misinformation, and an explosion of new media outlets (#FakeNews); and concern about the level of government debt. Does any of that sound familiar? On the first, see this article that I published last Bastille Day in the Washington Post.
In terms of a general comparison, you might want to read this piece I just published in The Atlantic.
What would be one impact of the French Revolution that Europe or the U.S. still sees today?
Spang: Perhaps the biggest one is “nationalism”—the idea that a group of people who form a nation (on the basis of something they are believed to have in common, be it history, language, ethnicity) have the right to govern themselves. This contrasts sharply with the multinational empires that were the norm in the preceding centuries. Some historians argue that even the whole idea of “nations” was created in eighteenth-century France.
Your class is about Napoleon, as well as the French Revolution. How does Napoleon relate to democracy?
Spang: Napoleon’s official biography—the myth, the legend!—is all about “meritocracy”: the idea that anybody can rise up to do great things, based on individual merit. He was born on an island in the Mediterranean that had just barely become part of France, was commissioned as an army corporal, and within five years was a general commanding armies that conquered much of Europe. He went from being nobody to being Emperor (and then back to “nobody”). Isn’t that a democratic story?