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Podcast / Revolutions

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Revolutions (2013-present) is the second history podcast by Mike Duncan. Unlike his previous podcast, Revolutions is not the history of one society or polity but rather a thematic series focusing on particular revolutions in the history of the modern world.

To effectuate this, it is divided into seasons, with each season focusing on a particular revolution. These are:

  • Season 1 (September 2013-January 2014; 16 episodes plus 7 supplementals): The English Civil War
  • Season 2 (February-May 2014; 15 episodes plus 2 supplementals): The American Revolution
  • Season 3 (July 2014-August 2015; 55 episodes plus 5 supplementals): The French Revolution
  • Season 4 (September 2015-April 2016; 19 episodes plus 1 supplemental): The Haitian Revolution
  • Season 5 (June 2016-February 2017; 27 episodes plus 1 supplemental): The South American wars of independence, with a particular focus on Simón Bolívar
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  • Season 6 (March-May 2017; 7 episodes plus 5 supplementals): The July Revolution of 1830, with some additional supplements on the Belgian Revolution, the June Rebellion of 1832note , the Carbonari, and Metternich.
  • Season 7 (July 2017-March 2018; 32 episodes): The Revolutions of 1848. note 
  • Season 8 (April-June 2018; 8 episodes): The Paris Commune. Another "mini-season", but with a lot of buildup. The first episode dealt with the history of the Second Empire up until the Franco-Prussian War, and the next three were about the war itself (particularly the Siege of Paris); the actual Commune doesn’t get started until the fifth episode.
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  • Season 9 (August 2018-March 2019, 27 episodes): The Mexican Revolution. This one was also open-ended, due to its complexity and length, as well as needing several episodes to set the table. (Also, Duncan was producing from Paris, where he lived from July 2018 through April 2021 while writing a biography of the Marquis de La Fayette; the irony that he moved there after finishing the last and most Paris-centric French revolution was not lost on him.)
  • Season 10 (May 2019-?): The Russian Revolution. Officially surpassed The French Revolution as the podcast's longest season in July 2021. A doozy of a season, based on the length of the hiatus (which he described as less a break and more a "short sabbatical") and the amount of background information needed to set the table for it (as for the Russian Revolution to make sense, you have to explain the various ideologies of the late Imperial Russian Left, which meant Duncan had to spend the first several episodes explaining the International Workingmen's Association, which required an explanation of the tensions between Marxist historical-materialist socialism and Bakunin's collectivist anarchism, which in turn required crash courses on both theories, which in turn required summaries of the lives and times of Karl Marx and Mikhail Bakunin—all before even starting to lay out the pre-revolutionary situation in Russia).

The podcast's final season will be season 10, as Duncan has stated he will finish it sometime in 2021 or possibly 2022. What he will do after that he has not mentioned.


  • Alas, Poor Scrappy: invoked In his "obituaries" (when the point in the narrative where a significant figure dies comes, he often does a short summary of their life and career often including an appraisal of their role, their virtues and their shortcomings as well as a glimpse what their death might mean given the circumstances of the time it happened in. This is a holdover from The History of Rome, and has been copied by other narrative-history podcasts following in Duncan's footsteps) for Charles I and Louis XVI, he ruthlessly lists all the reasons why they ended up executed by their (former) subjects, but also points out that they were neither tyrants nor inherently evil people. It's quite evident that he bemoans their fate, even though he clearly sees it as inevitable given their actions. He does something similar to Louis Philippe, even though he was merely exiled, not executed.
  • Awesome, but Impractical: In every Revolutions fundraiser, Duncan offered the opportunity to choose which revolution he would cover in a forthcoming season. He was clear that he was totally sincere about the offer. The cost? $25,000. No one ever ponied up.
  • And Now For Something Completely Different: A snafu in the third season resulted in Duncan accidentally uploading a garbled version of the previous episode instead of a new episode. Some commenters on the podcast website used the comment thread for that episode to write an intentionally ridiculous story touching on Star Wars, Dune, Starship Troopers and a bunch of other science fiction works. So Duncan recorded an episode where he just read the story as though it was a standard historical narrative (it was only a couple minutes long, fortunately).
  • Backstory: The 10th season, dedicated to the Russian Revolution, begins with kind of a staggering amount. The season starts with an eight-episode “prologue” focusing on Marx and Engels, then launches into essentially a complete history of Russia (this being the first season where Russia is really in focus). It takes more than 20 episodes to even get to the year 1900. Duncan is not above lampshading this.
  • Better Than a Bare Bulb: Mike frequently stops the narrative to discuss his storytelling techniques, explaining or justifying why he chose to introduce certain events and people in specific ways. It usually comes down to pacing reasons, and Mike's intent to keep the story focused and to make sure those who are hearing this history for the first time aren't confused.
  • Book Smart: This is how Duncan portrays the future czar Nicholas II when describing his childhood education. Nicholas was a good student with a great memory and spoke four languages fluently. Unfortunately, while Nicholas was good at learning and retaining things, he didn't have the abstract reasoning ability or critical thinking skills to go from knowing specific things to coming up with his own ideas based off those things. And it's not like the tutors or family members surrounding young Nicholas were interested in helping him hone those skills.
  • Bourgeois Bohemian: One reason Duncan is skeptical of revolutions is that he notes that most revolutionaries whether English, American or French, exaggerate their "oppression" and invoke fears of "slavery" to justify their revolution. In most cases, he notes that they start out as functionaries in the old order, some of them even being nobles, who basically bite the hand that fed them. They also were mostly well-off and slept in comfortable beds unlike the vast majority of the population. The one exception noted by Duncan, is the Haitian Revolution, where actual slaves and oppressed people revolt, against real and actual tyranny and are honest and free of exaggerations.
  • Breather Episode: Much like on his previous Podcast, Duncan does occasional episodes on a particular topic or person in depth - they are often interspersed at a point where a long break would otherwise have to be taken due to him being occupied by his travels or his private life.
  • Cadre of Foreign Bodyguards: The French King had one at the outset of the French Revolution (actual Swiss Guards to boot); Duncan points out that they were in anything but an enviable position.
  • Catchphrase: During the French Revolution, Mike likes to note executions by guillotine with "Zip, thud, the end."
  • A Day in the Limelight: Duncan will include "supplemental" episodes on people and groups who might appear in the main narrative but whose full stories can't be fully integrated into it without disrupting the flow. These include the Diggers and the Earl of Clarendon (in Season 1) and Talleyrand and Philippe of Orléans/Égalité (in Season 3).
  • Determinator: How Duncan portrays Bolívar in Season 5. It's entirely accurate.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Most of Duncan's humor is delivered this way. When he was discussing the Thermidorians who brought down Robespierre and the Committee of public safety, he said "their principled opposition to the terror turned out to have been a principled opposition to being on the wrong side of the terror."
  • Enemy Mine: France really, really, really did not like Austria, but when the "stately Quadrille" turned round and allying with Austria was the thing to do to give it to the English, ally with Austria they did. Duncan points out that this alliance (and the Seven Years' War that resulted from it) were very unpopular in France and sad unpopularity rubbed off on Marie Antoinette and at least in part explains the Girondin war fever (Austria was to be the main target) and the eagerness with which conspiracy theories about a royalist/Austrian conspiracy behind all evils befalling France were believed.
  • For Want of a Nail:
    • The first three seasons are full of examples where military or political blunders turned what could have been a minor squabble or an easily suppressed revolt into the earth shattering revolutions they eventually turned out to be. In Season 3 there are several episodes that could all be titled "How and when did all this become inevitable" and Duncan's answer clearly lays some blame on less-than-inspired leadership and unwillingness and inability to reform.
    • Duncan from time to time dwells on the consequences of a particular decision or stroke of luck and what would have happened, had things gone the other way. For instance, he wonders what Napoleon could have done allying with the army of Toussaint L'Ouverture instead of fighting him.
    • He also points out that the French Revolution could have avoided going out of control entirely 1) Had they not put into effect the Civil Constitution of the Clergy which proved effective propaganda for the counter-revolution. He pointed out the Vendee uprising would not have occurred had this been cancelled or even modified to remove its most odious bits (like the requirement for priests to swear loyalty to the Nation above even the Pope instead of, say, having them simply swear to not preach against the Nation),[[note]]It's important here to remember that the Pope was still the secular ruler of a substantial territory. Centuries of Gallicanism ensured that everyone in France accepted that in the event of war with the Papal States, the French government had some right to expect that the priests wouldn't be preaching enemy propaganda from their pulpits every Sunday. However, the Civil Constitution went beyond that, insisting that priests back the government every time it disagreed with the Pope—possibly including over spiritual matters—which made a mockery of the core Catholic doctrine of papal primacy. 2) Had the Girondins not fomented war in 1791-92, at a time when there was no threat to France from external powers. Without War, there would have been no Reign of Terror and no Napoleon Bonaparte.
    • Simón Bolívar ends up on both sides of this. First, he loses a fortress, a city, and one war all because the officer in charge of a the fortress left to attend a wedding. His treacherous second-in-command then releases captured Royalist prisoners, who proceed to take over the fort and convince a large proportion of Bolívar's Republican soldiers to switch sides.
    • Bolívar's dispute with his landlady in Jamaica ends up saving his life when he moves out just before his servant's assassination attempt. The servant mistakes an old acquaintance sleeping in Bolívar's hammock for the man himself and kills him instead.
  • Framing the Guilty Party: Duncan points out that many of the kangaroo courts during the French Revolution actually had a case to make, but hurt their own credibility by making up ridiculous claims of supposed crimes that clearly did not exist. For example, the revolutionary tribunal could have focused on Marie Antoinette's undeniable efforts to escape France and come back with a foreign army to crush the revolution. Instead, it threw in some truly horrific and obviously false accusations that Antoinette had sexually abused her son, which appalled even observers who hated the former queen and wanted her killed.
  • Breather Episode: Due to Duncan's travels (he does Revolutions and The History of Rome themed tours with fans) and the birth of his second child, he sometimes had to bridge a gap of several weeks. He decided to pre-record a number of supplementals (apparently they are easier to produce) on a range of subjects and release them during his absence to keep the wait time manageable.
  • Heroic BSoD: Duncan speculates that this happened to Robespierre in his final months. This theory has been advocated by biographers such as Peter McPhee and Timothy Tackett. He noted that until Robespierre's final months, he was generally pragmatic and balanced as a politician, even sparing some Girondins from joining the purge, supported Desmoulins' call for a Committee of Clemency, but he noted that at some point in 1794, after a period of absence where he collapsed from exhaustion, Robespierre became more erratic, fevered and paranoid, moving into a self-destructive spiral.
  • Historical Villain Upgrade: Duncan does on occasion weigh in on the common portrayal and appraisal of the historical figures he talks about. He's particularly fascinated by the different judgment Lafayette receives in the US (where he is widely regarded as a hero and a military genius) and France (where he is widely regarded as an inept moderate who badly misjudged his own ability and popularity). Duncan tends towards the American view of Lafayette and is happy to see some French opinions on him shift (he's even written a book about Lafayette and his role in the various revolutions).
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: It comes up so often, it's difficult to pinpoint individual instances. Especially prominent in the French Revolution. Just one example is the same mobs and public opinion that allowed the Parlementsnote  to pick a fight with the King over noble privileges and win leading to their own dissolution and the end of those same noble privileges when public opinion turned on them.
  • It Is Pronounced "Tro-PAY": There's a lot of French names in Seasons 3-4, and Duncan mangles at least half of them. He's very self-deprecating about it. He does a little better with the Spanish in Season 5, but he still managed to completely mangle to pronunciation of the major Colombian city of Cartagena in the first episode. Duncan has had a particularly hard time with the Vendée region of France, which was the epicenter of a royalist uprising during the French Revolution and which he mispronounced several different ways (as can be seen by comments suggesting he should instead try saying it like this or like that). And in the 1830 miniseries he deliberately pronounces Reims "reems" and admits that he knows it's not pronounced this way, but try as he might, he's just not able to get out the correct French pronunciation. By Season 8, however, he's pronouncing French as well as can be expected for an American who picked up the language as an adult—as well he should have, being as he was preparing to spend what turned out to be nearly three years (June 2018-April 2021) in France researching Hero of Two Worlds.
  • Last Stand: As Revolutions live and die on idealism, those happen sometimes, but the last episode of the 1848 series has four of them at once. With one exception (Hungary) the defenders get off surprisingly lightly, thanks in large part to the leniency of Marshal Radetzky (of military music fame).
  • Magnificent Bastard:invoked Duncan's opinion of Talleyrand (whom he considers highly fascinating), which he highlights both in the main narrative and in the supplemental episode dedicated to him. Duncan points out Talleyrand's rampant corruption (which, Duncan notes, basically started The Quasi War between France and the United States) and his willingness to sell out/betray almost any master he served as well and lists the number of different regimes Talleyrand thrived under.
  • Majored in Western Hypocrisy: Many leaders of the early phases of the Haitian Revolution (especially those belonging to the "free coloreds") were educated in France, which led to their indignation at the racist laws in Saint Domingue and (relatively) egalitarian views, as Duncan points out. (These leaders were mostly overtaken by Black former slaves in the final push to independence,note  though a few of them—most notably the Colored Alexandre Pétion—managed to break into that circle.)
  • Mission Creep: Duncan is fascinated by how revolutions start small and almost modestly but progressively become bigger and greater in scope, far beyond the intentions and purposes that its original authors envisioned.
    • As he notes, the English Parliamentarians and the American Revolutionaries were not really intending or seeking to upturn the social order. They were looking for modest concessions but circumstances made them take stands that they would otherwise not have taken. He notes that the Declaration of Independence was not as bold as its language would lead one to believe, that the Continental Congress came to it as an afterthought and improvised it along the way. The French Revolution began with an attempt to reform finances, summoned by the King but it brought out social tensions and the original Third Estate delegates upon convening became radicalized and set about writing a constitution that slowly overturned the social order.
    • invokedDuncan cites the 1792 Insurrection that was led by Georges Danton as a Genre Turning Point. He notes that while Bastille and earlier uprisings were spontaneous and unplanned events, the 1792 Insurrection was a planned revolution with a definite political program and that it would inspire and codify the revolutions of the 19th and 20th Century. He notes that Vladimir Lenin cited Danton as the great revolutionary strategist precisely because he wanted to use a chaotic situation to create a new form of government rather than improvise and radicalise in response to reactionary backlash.
    • In a more meta-sense, Duncan initially planned his seasons to have "about fifteen episodes", the very idea of "supplementals" grew out of his description of the armies in one of the first episodes on the English Civil War being too long (and hence getting its own episode) and he planned the "mini-series" on 1830 to be six episodes. Not that anybody is complaining... (well maybe Mike's family, but he never mentioned it)
  • Nice to the Waiter: This is how Duncan portrays the young future Czar Nicholas II — yes, he was a spoiled rich kid, but he wasn't a Spoiled Brat. Nicholas liked hanging out and drinking with lower-ranking officials, especially the military servicemen he felt a particular fondness for.
  • Obligatory War Crime Scene: While seasons 1, 2, and 6 are thankfully light on them (as were the real life events Duncan recounts), Seasons 3, 4, 5, 8, and 9 have them in abundance. Season 7 falls about in the middle (1848 having featured quite a bit of fighting but few massacres), as does the first half of Season 10 (with the important exception of Bloody Sunday); however, the second half of Season 10 (which Duncan expects to run through Stalin's purges) promises to be the bloodiest of all. Duncan does not seem to relish in describing the gory details, but he clearly does not flinch from mentioning them and considers them important enough for his narrative to include. More than once he invokes Pragmatic Villainy, quoting the Talleyrandian dictum about the execution of a minor German noble on flimsy grounds, "It was worse than a crime, it was a mistake." He very clearly makes that point about Dessalines' massacre of almost all white Haitians left on the island during the tail end of the Haitian revolution, but he also points out that some atrocities wound up backfiring horribly as they inspired more people to join the enemies of the perpetrators of said atrocities.
  • Only Sane Man: The way Duncan assumes the two halfway competent Prime Ministers of Nicholas II, Sergei Witte (an economics expert who dragged Russia kicking and screaming into the Industrial Age) and Piotr Stolypin (a Magnificent Bastard who used every trick up his sleeve to bend Russia's political system to his will) saw themselves. Duncan mostly agrees with that assessment of their competence, even if he does not agree with their methods. Of course having a Pointy-Haired Boss like Nicholas II, their careers both ended badly.
  • Previously On…: Most episodes begin with a very short recap of the previous episode covered — usually just a couple sentences. Season 10, on the other hand, had an entire Previously On… episode recapping what the season covered before Duncan went on his extended hiatus. And later in the season, when discussing the origins of World War I, there was an episode running down everything relevant they had discussed throughout the entire run of the podcast to show how much of the background to that war the show had already covered.
  • Real Life Writes the Plot: While Season 3 was already the longest season up to that point, Duncan's decision to take 18 Brumaire as the cutoff point (as opposed to the Bourbon restoration or Waterloo) has as much to do with the birth of Duncan's second child as it has with the narrative of the revolution. Napoleon fans would still get ample treatment of his exploits (albeit from unusual perspectives) first in the "retrospective" episode on the French Revolution and then in Seasons four and five which dealt extensively with the Leclerc Expedition and the "Spanish Ulcer" respectively, albeit from a Haitian / Spanish American perspective rather than from a European one. Duncan also discusses the Napoleonic Wars in Episode 10.11 ("War and Peace"), dealing with the war from a Russian perspective, and Episode 10.12 ("The Decembrists") shows the impact of the war on Russian society and politics.
  • Rebellious Rebel: Naturally, people change sides or rebel against the initial rebellion more than once. Duncan has a particular fascination with those that started out at the most radical and leading edge of a particular revolutionary wave only to be overtaken by events ultimately to be branded conservatives or even reactionaries, not because their own opinions had changed, but because the views which were considered "radical" had shifted so drastically.
  • Ridiculous Future Inflation: Seasons 2 and 3 both involved governments (the Continental Congress and the National Assembly/National Convention) who tried to print their way out of financial problems and ended up with this trope as a result. Also, at one point, Duncan auctioned off an actual French Revolutionary assignat, commenting on how worthless it had been as actual money.
  • Running Gag:
    • "Gentleman Johnny's Party Train" became standard reference for Gen. John Burgoyne's ill-fated Saratoga expedition in Season 2. They even made a T-shirt of it (illustrated by Kate Beaton, no less!)
    • Duncan, who used to be a fishmonger, also seems to have a thing for fishmongers, bringing them up as an example of a "random average citizen" more often than could be explained by mere chance.
    • Duncan's inability to pronounce foreign languages in general, and French in particular, is a repeat source of self-deprecating humor for him.
  • Self-Deprecation: Duncan sometimes turns his Deadpan Snarker tendencies on himself. In the American Revolution season, he referred to a British admiral as being 86 years old. A few episodes later he issued a correction, acknowledging that the admiral was actually 68 years old, not 86, which he admitted made much more sense. In that same episode the admiral made another appearance, and Duncan straight-facedly referred to him as "the 137-year-old" admiral.
  • Slavery Is a Special Kind of Evil: Duncan already made allusions to the hypocrisy of preaching liberty equality and justice while holding slaves in Season 2, but he is particularly hard on slave-holders during season 4 when he talks about the Haitian Revolution. He even compares the founding fathers of the US to the Haitian "big whites", the slaveowners who profited most from the colonial class and race system.
  • Strawman Political: Generally averted but Duncan does have a very liberal perspective i.e. emphasis on reforms from within, focusing on Internal Reformist rather than popular movements from below, which does lead him occasionally to not give some factions and figures within various revolutions their due:
    • He is especially dismissive of the Levellers during the English Civil War, arguing that their egalitarian political proposals failed because they couldn't compromise and that the leadership of the Civil War was right to marginalize them.
    • In the case of the French Revolution, Duncan openly hates Jean-Paul Marat and describes him as the Psycho Party Member of the Revolution, which was indeed the common view of Marat by 19th and early 20th Century historians. He was and indeed remains more controversial than even Robespierre. More recent historians and writers have emphasized Marat's instances of moderation, such as when he opposed the Anglophobia common among Revolutions, defending English culture and arguing against narrow nationalismnote , the fact that he was the only Revolution who advocated colonial independence during the eventsnote , that he often intervened to save political opponents from attacksnote  and that most of his wild accusations in his papers (about Mirabeau's corruption, Dumouriez's defection, the war being a mistake) turned out to be accurate.
    • Duncan is also generally dismissive of Louis Antoine de Saint-Just, whom French leftists and other historians regard as the great tragic prodigy of the revolution but Duncan sees as a dilettante young man too arrogant for his own good, which was the view of Simon Schama, author of the widely divisive Citizens which Duncan cites in his Bibliography.
  • Velvet Revolution: Mostly averted for the revolutions up to and including season 5. In the case of the French Revolution, Duncan discusses the fact that later observers separated the so-called "good" revolution of 1789-1791 from the "bad" revolutions of 1792-1794. This is based on a more classic interpretation of the Revolution (the 19th Century liberal tradition), rather than the 20th Century one which saw the revolution as unified with continuity in all periods. Duncan points out that the violence and fear and factionalism was not so great in the early years of the events, and that the destabilization primarily came from the counter-revolution who opposed and triggered popular agitations, whereas the events that came after saw popular revolutionary violence, war and emergency measures with Icon of Rebellion like Barnave, Mirabeau, Dumouriez, Brissot, Danton, Marat, Robespierre going overnight from heroes to villains.note 
    • The events of season 6 get as close as events Duncan describes can possibly get in this department and even then, there is some barricade fighting in Paris note  and a few dead or injured here or there.


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