Recommended Translations: The Old Regime and the Revolution, Volume I, ed. Francois Furet and Francoise Melonio, trans. Alan S. Kahan. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998). The Old Regime and the Revolution, Volume II, ed. Francois Furet and Francoise Melonio, trans. Alan S. Kahan. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001).
The book I now publish is not a history of the Revolution. That history has been too brilliantly written for me to think of writing it afresh. This is a mere essay on the Revolution.
The French made, in 1789, the greatest effort that has ever been made by any people to sever their history into two parts, so to speak, and to tear open a gulf between their past and their future. In this design, they took the greatest care to leave every trace of their past condition behind them; they imposed all kinds of restraints upon themselves in order to be different from their ancestry; they omitted nothing which could disguise them.
I have always fancied that they were less successful in this enterprise than has been generally believed abroad, or even supposed at home. I have always suspected that they unconsciously retained most of the sentiments, habits, and ideas which the old regime had taught them, and by whose aid they achieved the Revolution; and that, without intending it, they used its ruins as materials for the construction of their new society. Hence it seemed that the proper way of studying the Revolution was to forget, for a time, the France we see before us, and to examine, in its grave, the France that is gone. That is the task which I have here endeavored to perform; it has been more arduous than I had imagined.
The early ages of the monarchy, the Middle Ages, and the period of revival have been thoroughly studied; the labors of the authors who have chosen them for their theme have acquainted us not only with the events of history, but also with the laws, the customs, the spirit of the government and of the nation in those days. No one has yet thought of examining the eighteenth century in the same close, careful manner. We fancy that we are familiar with the French society of that age because we see clearly what glittered on its surface, and possess detailed biographies of the illustrious characters, and ingenious or eloquent criticisms on the works of the great writers who flourished at the time. But of the manner in which public business was transacted, of the real working of institutions, of the true relative position of the various classes of society, of the condition and feelings of those classes which were neither heard nor seen, of the actual opinions and customs of the day, we have only confused and frequently erroneous notions.
I have undertaken to grope into the heart of this old regime. It is not far distant from us in years, but the Revolution hides it.