First step on the road to Waterloo

Marisa Linton explains how Jacques-Pierre Brissot helped to initiate the French revolutionary wars, as he and Robespierre debated whether conflict with Austria should be a ‘crusade for universal liberty’.

There will be many occasions in 2015 to recall the conflict that culminated in the Battle of Waterloo, but it is equally worth remembering how that conflict originated. Waterloo was the final step in a war that dragged on almost continually for more than 23 years and whose origins lay in the turbulent politics of the French Revolution. One man played a key role in unleashing that war: the revolutionary leader, Jacques-Pierre Brissot. Few people now know much about Brissot; there has been no full-length biography of him since that by the US historian, Eloise Ellery, a century ago. When Brissot is remembered it is either as a struggling pre-revolutionary political thinker and writer, or as the leader of the ‘moderate’ Girondin faction that perished under the Terror in October 1793. Brissot’s apologists state that his nemesis was Maximilien Robespierre. Like many historical narratives, accounts of Brissot as the ‘moderate’ victim of a ‘bloodthirsty’ Robespierre have been simplified: the reality was more complex. Between the winter of 1791 and spring 1792 these two men were locked in a war of words over whether France should go to war with its neighbours. The parts that both men played in this debate were very different from the choices they made once the war had begun. 

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First step on the road to Waterloo