Monday, September 29, 2014

European History, Day 10

Last Thursday in European History Since 1648 at UNLV we tackled the French Revolution.  If you’re thinking that zipping through arguably one of the most important events of the last four hundred years—an event many historians use to mark the beginning of “modern” history—in just over an hour sounds absurd, you’re correct!
And to add to the absurdity, the first part of class was spent on an exercise getting students to think about how to combine primary and secondary sources with an aim to asking good historical questions of an appropriate scale for a research project they might do for a class like ours.  Each of six groups of students was given a different source, along with the “master list” of all six sources.  They had to determine whether their source was “primary” or “secondary”, what its “takeaway” was, how it fit with the other six sources, what research questions they could ask based on this grouping of sources, and what kind of additional information or source material they would need to be successful in their research.
We reconvened as a class and discussed their ideas.  Only time will tell if it was worth sacrificing some of the little time we had to deal with the French Revolution, but I enjoyed hearing students thoughts develop as they scrutinized the sources.
Being even more pressed for time than before, we talked our way through the French Revolution in lieu of lecture, using the five short texts the students had read.  These allowed us to discuss the organization of French society and politics before the Revolution, identify key grievances of revolutionaries, discuss the rhetoric those revolutionaries deployed as they took power (and compare and contrast it to the language of the U.S. constitution), and discuss the limitations of the Revolution.
Students seemed most interested in material from Olympe de Gouges, a feminist critic of a “Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizen” which left women out; and Maximilien Robespierre, whose discussion of “terror” and “virtue” marked a turning point of the Revolution.  This sparked an interesting discussion about the balance between “liberty” and “order” which was just getting going when the clock called time on class.
Hopefully we’ll be able to return to the discussion in the coming days and weeks.


  1. I recently watched the John Adams mini-series, and it sort of renewed by curiosity about the connections between the french and american revolutions.

    Where there any interesting thoughts in class about the connection?

    1. As I recall, students were struck most by the similarities, and then tried to think about the factors that might explain the wildly different trajectories of the two revolutions. They thought that the more entrenched interests (church, nobility) in France made it harder to achieve the kind of political break that would have been necessary. Might also explain the greater role that a lot of historians see ideology as playing in the French Revolution.
      In terms of specific connections between them, we didn't talk about that so just came up that the French saved our bacon, that Lafayette was an early leader after 1789, and the links between the foundational documents.
      I didn't assign them any of our founding documents, but next time that might be a good idea.
      How was the Adams mini-series? There was also a recent one on the Roosevelts that looked like it could be didn't happen to see that, did you?

  2. I liked the Adam’s ministers, good performances, nice sets, and an interesting portrait of t he early republic though a founding father who often gets neglected between Washington and Jefferson. Looking at events through Adam’s eyes you get to focus on stuff that is often neglected: negotiations with Europe during the revolution, the kind of squalor of early D.C., the passing of the first generation of leaders to the second.
    It also gave considerable time to the relationship between Adams and Jefferson, which in many ways influenced the shape of the early republic. It gave some insgith on questions about the relationship between federal and state power, what was the proper role for the state.

    It was a dramatic portrait as opposed to the Ken Burns documentary on the Roosevelts. So some liberties were probably taken, but everything I questioned at least agreed with the Wikipedia. I haven’t seen the Roosevelt documentary, though I have heard good things. It is supposedly an honest and interesting look at three members of one of those powerful and rich dynastic political families that you love so well☺

    1. I'll have to make some time to see the Adams series. A couple of Americanist colleagues were just saying good things about the Roosevelt series, too. I just read Jean Smith's eponymous biography, FDR, a month or two back, and enjoyed it.
      At least FDR was remembered as a class traitor by his fellow aristocrats! But reading the biography it was just very striking how effortless his ascent seemed!