Document Type


Date of Award



France, History, Louis XVI, Pamphlets, French society

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Charles E. Freedman

Second Advisor

Thadd E. Hall


Historians, long in the habit of looking upon the French Revolution as the "beginning" of the modern world, have concentrated their attention on the spectacular events of 1789 and later and have neglected in comparison the history of the years immediately preceding the Revolution. This imbalance between our knowledge of the Revolution and what we know of the events that led up to it has distorted our perspectives of the period. Consequently, the discontinuities of the era have been overemphasized while the importance of the continuities have been inaccurately minimized. In addition, despite the fact that the French Revolution is the most thoroughly studied event in modern history, large and surprising gaps remain in our knowledge of its “origins” and “causes.”

The origins of the Revolution have long been the subject of heated debate among historians. In recent years this debate has intensified and has brought into question certain fundamental and long-accepted interpretations of the period. One part of this debate has been the trend in recent historiography toward placing the Revolution in broader perspective by studying in greater detail the relationships between it and the ancien régime. Special attention is now being paid to the period from January, 1787, through late 1788. It is increasingly recognized that these years, known as the pre-revolutionary period, were a time of crucial transition, distinct in character from the French Revolution that followed, during which a distinctive change took place in the nature of events transpiring in France. During the thirty months that preceded the taking of the Bastille in July, 1789, a constantly escalating state of crisis developed in France. A major contention of this study is that a radical reorientation of the sentiments and perceptions of significant numbers of Frenchmen immediately preceded and prepared the way for the revolution that began in the summer of 1789.

The details and patterns of these changes are the subjects of this study. The effort to map them out has involved extensive readings in the political pamphlets that witnesses, on the eve of the Revolution, described as falling like autumn leaves. At the minimum, two thousand five hundred were published in France between January, 1787, and July, 1789. Contemporaries repeatedly described the pamphlets as being a major cause of the crisis of these months. Historians since have likewise ascribed great importance to this literature, but their accounts have differed on many points and misunderstanding continues to shroud the pamphlets and their significance. This study, which attempts to resolve some of these misunderstandings, is undertaken in the belief that the pamphlets can provide new and valuable information about the social dynamics of the pre-revolutionary period and about the origins of the Revolution.