1. The Influence of Ideas: Mathiez: "The Revolution had been accomplished in the minds of men long before it was translated into fact." Taylor: Revolutionary ideology was the product, not the cause, of a political and social crisis of revolutionary proportions. A revolutionary situation emerged first and revolutionary thinking came out of that situation.
2. The role of the people and violence:
a. "This contrast between theory and practice, between good intentions and acts of savage violence, which was the salient feature of the French Revolution, becomes less startling when we remember that the Revolution, though sponsored by the most civilized classes of the nation, was carried out by its least educated and most unruly elements."
Alexis de Tocqueville, The Old Regime and the French Revolution, 1858
b. "The French Revolution gave peoples the sense that history could be changed by their action, and it gave them, incidentally, what remains to this day the single most powerful slogan ever formulated for the politics of democracy and common people which it inaugurated: Liberty, Equality, Fraternity. . . . The French Revolution demonstrated the power of the common people in a manner that no subsequent government has ever allowed itself to forget--if only in the form of untrained, improvised, conscript armies, defeating the conjunction of the finest and most experienced troops of the old regimes. When the common people did intervene in July and August of 1789, they transformed conflict among elites into something quite different, if only by bringing about, within a matter of weeks, the collapse of state power and administration and the power of the rural ruling class in the countryside. This is what gave the Declaration of the Rights of Man a far greater international resonance than the American models that inspired it; what made the innovations of France--including its new political vocabulary--more readily accepted outside; which created its ambiguities and conflicts; and, not least, what turned it into the epic, the terrible, the spectacular, the apocalyptic event which gave it a sort of uniqueness, both horrifying and inspiring."
E.J. Hobsbawm, Echoes of the Marseillaise, 1990
3. The Revolution as a tragedy vs. progressive change:
a. "This great drama [the French Revolution] transformed the whole meaning of political change, and the contemporary world would be inconceivable if it had not happened. . . . In other words it transformed men's outlook. The writers of the Enlightenment, so revered by the intelligentsia who made the Revolution, had always believed it could be done if men dared to seize control of their own destiny. The men of 1789 did so, in a rare moment of courage, altruism, and idealism which took away the breath of educated Europe. What they failed to see, as their inspirers had not foreseen, was that reason and good intentions were not enough by themselves to transform the lot of their fellow men. Mistakes would be made when the accumulated experience of generations was pushed aside as so much routine, prejudice, fanaticism, and superstition. The generation forced to live through the upheavals of the next twenty-six years paid the price. Already by 1802 a million French citizens lay dead; a million more would perish under Napoleon, and untold more abroad. How many millions more still had their lives ruined? Inspiring and ennobling, the prospect of the French Revolution is also moving and appalling: in every sense a tragedy."
William Doyle, The Oxford History of the French Revolution 1989
b. "The French Revolution was both destructive and creative. It represented an unprecedented effort to break with the past and to forge a new state and new national community based on the principles of liberty, equality, and fraternity. After the old government was replaced, differences over the meaning of those principles and the ways they were to be put into practice grew more salient and serious. Thus the revolution continued until a stable state organization was consolidated, in part through the use of military force. Shaped and driven by passionate ideological differences, violence, and war, the revolution bequeathed to the French and to the World a new and enduring political vision: at the heart of progress lay liberation from the past, egalitarianism, and broadly based representative government."
c. The French Revolution was, essentially, the invention of a new political culture: "In my view the social and economic changes brought about by the Revolution were not revolutionary. Nobles were able to return to their titles and to much of their land. Although considerable amounts of land changed hands during the Revolution, the structure of landholding remained much the same; the rich got richer, and the small peasants consolidated their hold, thanks to the abolition of feudal dues. Industrial capitalism grew at a snail's pace. In the real of politics, in contrast, almost everything changed. Thousands of men and even many women gained firsthand experience in the political arena: they talked, read, and listened in new ways; they voted; they joined new organizations; and they marched for their political goals. Revolution became a tradition, and republicanism an enduring option. Afterward, kings could not rule without assemblies, and noble domination of public affairs only provoked more revolution. As a result, France in the nineteenth century had the most bourgeois polity in Europe, even though France was never the leading industrial power. . . . Lynn Hunt, Politics, Culture, and Class, 1984
4. A Marxist Interpretation: "After ten years of revolutionary changes and vicissitudes, the structure of French society had undergone a momentous transformation. The aristocracy of the Old Regime had been stripped of its privileges and social preponderance; feudal society had been destroyed. By wiping out every vestige of feudalism, by freeing the peasants from seigneurial dues and ecclesiastical tithes--and also to some degree from the constraints imposed by their communities--by abolishing privileged corporations and their monopolies, and by unifying the national market, the French Revolution marked a decisive stage in the transition from feudalism to capitalism."
Albert Soboul, The French Revolution, 1965