A Revolution Doesn’t Look Like a Revolution

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Or consider the French Revolution. In the summer of 1789, King Louis XVI convened roughly 1,100 men from France’s tiny elite (aristocratic military officers, major landowners, lawyers, clergy) for the first meeting of the Estates-General (the closest thing the kingdom had to a national parliament) in 175 years. Refusing to abide by rules that effectively silenced most of those notionally represented (as gerrymandering and voter suppression thwart the popular will today), many delegates instead proclaimed themselves members of the National Assembly, a new, constitution-writing body. This was a standstill, not a revolution.

A few weeks later, the king summoned troops to Paris and fired his most popular adviser. Parisians poured into the streets; on July 14, about 800 of them swarmed to the Bastille, a fortress on the city’s edge, where they hoped to find weapons and gunpowder. First welcomed by the…

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