Throughout history, major revolutions have resulted in massive ideological and political shifts that changed the world. But no two revolutions are the same. They may happen relatively quickly or span years - or even decades. Protests, fighting, and even efforts at peace all characterize revolutions, with varying degrees of hardship and hope experienced by participants and bystanders.
To get a look at how insurrections took shape and played out, history books provide comprehensive discussions of people, events, and outcomes. By looking at the accounts of people who actually participated in the revolutions, we can get an entirely different perspective on what happened.
From casual observers to individuals who simply wanted to survive, these firsthand accounts of some of history's most significant coups truly offer a new perspective on the past.
The French Revolution lasted for years, with many phases characterizing the country's long struggle to institute a liberal democracy. During the early stage, members of the Third Estate - the woefully under-represented nonaristocrats - took a stand against their colleagues in the Estates-General.
When it was established in the early 17th century, the Estates-General had a tripartite construct, with each of the three estates having a vote in governmental matters. The First Estate comprised nobility, the Second Estate comprised the clergy, and the Third Estate was essentially everyone else in society.
After the Third Estate broke away from the larger body, it formed the National Assembly in 1789. Its members took the so-called Tennis Court Oath to affirm their dedication to constitutional reform. Within a month, enthusiasm and anxiety about social and political changes resulted in a riot at the Bastille prison and fortress in Paris on July 14, 1789.
Thomas Jefferson, serving as the American minister to France, was in Paris in the days leading up to the storming of the Bastille. He wrote about "great tumults in Paris last night, and engagements between the mob, and some of the foreign troops" in a letter dated July 13. His words mirrored a report from The London Gazette from the same day:
All the Shops were shut; all public and private Employments at a Stand, and scarcely a Person to be seen in the Streets, except the armed Burghers, who acted as a temporary Police for the Protection of private Property, to replace the established one, which had no longer any influence.
A letter from one resident of Paris provided more details as to the happenings at the Bastille itself:
The Bastille made some Resistance but was taken yesterday Evening. The Governor and sub-Governor had their Heads cut off, which were carried in Triumph around the City.
The storming of the Bastille was a victory for revolutionaries in Paris - a symbolic end to the tyrannical monarchy they were hoping to abolish. The military governor, Bernard-René Jordan de Launay, was merely one among many individuals who would go on to lose their heads during the decade-long French Revolution.884Fascinating firsthand account?
American Revolution, 1765-1783
The Revolutionary War started in 1775, but the American Revolution didn't officially end until the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783. The entire effort by North American colonists to challenge British authority is peppered with events like the Boston Tea Party (1773) and other protests that occurred before fighting ever broke out. Violence wasn't limited to the war either, as demonstrated by the Boston Massacre of 1770.
In an anonymous account of what took place in Boston in March 1770, the palpable tension between British troops and colonists - supporters of the Crown and the revolution alike - is clear. The exchange between colonists and British troops on March 5 resulted in 11 deaths, ultimately leading to the arrest of Captain Thomas Preston and eight of his men. According to the anonymous source, Preston ordered his men to fire after snowballs were thrown at them:
One gun was fired first; then others in succession and with deliberation, till ten or a dozen guns were fired; or till that number of discharges were made from the guns that were fired.
While in confinement, Preston wrote his own version of what took place:
I saw the people in great commotion, and heard them use the most cruel and horrid threats against the troops... The mob still increased and were more outrageous, striking their clubs or bludgeons one against another, and calling out, come on you rascals, you bloody backs, you lobster scoundrels, fire if you dare, G-d damn you, fire and be damned, we know you dare not, and much more such language was used.
Despite escalation, Preston insisted he gave no order to fire, but said, "don't fire, stop your firing" instead.682Fascinating firsthand account?
Haitian Revolution, 1791-1804
The Haitian Revolution included more than a decade of struggles between enslaved residents of the French colony and their European overseers. Known as Saint-Domingue at the time, Haiti experienced what has been called the only successful - and largest - slave rebellion in history.
Led by former slave Toussaint L'Ouverture and his two generals, Jean-Jacques Dessalines and Henry Christophe, the initial stages of the revolution resulted in the abolition of slavery in 1795. In his autobiography, L'Ouverture described some of the battles he and his colleagues fought, such as the struggle at Verrettes:
This battle was so fierce that the roads were filled with the dead, and rivers of blood were seen on every side. I took all the baggage and ammunition of the enemy, and a large number of prisoners.
He went on to detail his own sacrifices:
Several times I narrowly escaped being made prisoner; I shed my blood for my country; I received a ball in the right hip which remains there still; I received a violent blow on the head from a cannon-ball, which knocked out the greater part of my teeth, and loosened the rest. In short, I received upon different occasions seventeen wounds, whose honorable scars still remain.
L'Ouverture became the governor-general of the colony the following year and took control of the Spanish-controlled portion of the island of Hispaniola in 1801. Continued tumult, fighting, and unrest prompted Napoleon Bonaparte to invade Haiti in 1802. As Bonaparte's forces reasserted French authority on the island, L'Ouverture was forced to surrender, imprisoned, and later sent to Europe where he succumbed to consumption.7411Fascinating firsthand account?
The Cuban Revolution culminated in the establishment of a revolutionary government under the leadership of Fidel Castro. On January 1, 1959, Castro and his fellow revolutionaries ousted dictator Fulgencio Batista after years of guerrilla strikes.
Arthur Brice was only 5 years old when he heard about Batista's removal from office from a passerby as he walked to the local bakery with his father. He remembered his parents being quiet, opting to stay indoors rather than risk any harm. Later that night, he recalled that "we heard loud gunshots as rebels hunted down Batista officials and supporters door-to-door."
Brice recalled much more than the events of that one day. He explained how his entire childhood was marked by horrifying moments, such as the following:
My dad unsuccessfully trying to push my head down in the back seat so I couldn’t see the body lying next to the highway, barbed wire strung around the man’s neck... [and] seeing a car full of young men chasing a screaming woman down the middle of the street. The men’s arms stretched out of the windows as they pointed weapons at the woman.
A young Cuban named Janet described her own childhood during the revolution:
You learned to come in if the bullets were flying more than a couple miles close to the house. You learned to do that... You kept the windows closed at Christmas because Christmas trees were counter-revolutionary, and things like that.
I spent some nights under my mother's bed, unbeknownst to her, sometimes, and I learned to avoid the windows when they were moving medications through our yards as they would shoot around the windows. I collected bullets of various calibers and could identify the size of the holes in my house by the caliber or by ear, at a distance.585Fascinating firsthand account?