Browse Primary Sources
Primary sources from world and global history, including images, objects, texts, and digitally-born materials – annotations by scholars contextualize sources.

Mr. de Lafayette, Commander of the Paris National Guard, Receives the City’s 'Sword for the Defense of Liberty'

During the French Revolution the most visible connection between America and France was Lafayette, who had volunteered for service in the American Revolution and had been mentored by Washington and Jefferson. This special status vaulted him to prominence in 1789 as he became a delegate in the Estates–General, head of the National Guard, and a general in the military.

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Triumph of Napoleon, First Consul

Napoleon encouraged comparisons between the post-revolution French republic and the Roman republic. The French adoption of the term "Consul" was a clear reference to the Roman Republic, for that was the name given the men chosen to direct the republican government in Roman times.

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British Liberty Tree

These painted engravings ridicule the unrest wrought by French revolutionaries by contrasting French subversion with British stability. The "British Liberty Tree" in this image is assigned to the mock Latin genus of "Stabilissimus," while the more sickly looking "Foreign Tree" (depicted in the following image) is put in the genus "Subitarius."

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Bonaparte Visiting the Hospital in Jaffa

This undated post-French Revolutionary print shows Bonaparte visiting a hospital in Jaffa. Of classical proportions, this image is centered on Bonaparte, who appears to be bringing order to an otherwise disorderly and chaotic scene. However, Napoleon’s actual interest was limited, far less than this print would suggest.

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Festival of Supreme Being

These depictions show the Festival of the Supreme Being during the French Revolution, a massive pageant staged by Jacques–Louis David on 8 June 1794, in open air on the "Field of Reunion," formerly the royal army’s parade ground. At David’s orders, a huge mountain was erected on the field, as seen in this engraving.

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Expulsion of the Girondins

Throughout the spring of 1793, radicals in the Convention, in the Paris Commune, and in the sections struggled for power against Brissot and his allies, known as the "Girondins." They differed over how the Revolution should be affected by popular pressure. In late May, Robespierre proposed a motion that accused the Girondins of being a threat to the Republic and ordered their arrest.

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The Tragic End of Louis XVI

As 80,000 crowded into the square to watch the execution of Louis XVI, they cannot have been unaware that the guillotine sat where a statue of Louis XV had been. Here Sanson, the executioner, snatches the detached head of Louis XVI to show to the crowd. He leans forward with approving eagerness.

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Robespierre’s Second Speech (28 December 1792)

As part of his defense, Louis’s lawyers had suggested the King should be judged not by the representatives of the people in the Convention but by the people themselves through a referendum. The Jacobins opposed this idea, fearing it would undermine the Convention’s position as embodying the will of the people.

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The Petition of Right

In 1628, the position of Charles I of England had gone from bad to worse. Rash enterprises, lavish and illegal expenditure, and broken promises of better government had almost ruptured relations between the monarch and his subjects. The King offered to grant a "Confirmation of the Great Charter," such as had often been issued and then disregarded by former monarchs.

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Liberty

Even before the French Revolution, the French had used a woman in a toga to symbolize liberty. By July 1789 this symbol had become quite common and would only grow more familiar over the revolutionary decade. Generally the female Liberty was a poised counterpart to the frantic actions of the Revolution. She represented calm like a saint.

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