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

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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Reason

To contemporaries who subscribed to the Enlightenment principles, preceding the French Revolution, the term "reason" was to be contrasted to superstition. Even though Christians, too, believed in reason, they also wanted to make room for the possibility of God’s intervention, particularly in miracles.

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French Constitution, Rights of Man and Citizen

This image of the Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizen includes a fascinating mix of symbols. By arranging the articles on tablets, the artist clearly meant to associate this document with Moses’ Ten Commandments. Such a link could establish the French revolutionaries’ handiwork as equivalent to that of God. Reinforcing this is the all–seeing eye located at the top of the tableau.

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Louis XVI distributes aid to the Poor

Here Louis XVI is portrayed as a benevolent king distributing alms to the poor, an appropriate action for the "Father of his people." However, his rich fur–clad outfit contrasts with the abject poverty of the common people, suggesting to those inclined to be critical that the King did not understand the true state of popular misery during some of the 1780s, preceding the French Revolution.

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Louis the Sixteenth, King of France and of Navarre

This portrait demonstrates Louis at the height of his power and authority on the eve of the French Revolution.

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Removal of the Parlements

The French Revolutionary engraving's depiction of the physical eviction of the black–robed magistrates in front of a female audience has a somewhat ambiguous message. On the one hand, noting the female figure on the dias in the back, this image could suggest excessive female authority at court, notably that of the Countess du Barry.

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Damiens Being Broken on the Wheel

This straightforward representation of Damiens gives no hint of sympathy for a would–be pre-revolutionary royal assassin.

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