David A. Bell

Sidney and Ruth Lapidus Professor in the Era of North Atlantic Revolutions; Professor of History
Office Phone
303 Dickinson Hall
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I am a historian of the early modern Atlantic world, with a particular interest in the political culture of Enlightenment and revolutionary France. I attended graduate school at Princeton, where I worked with Robert Darnton, and received my Ph.D. in 1991. From 1990 to 1996 I taught at Yale, and from 1996 to 2010 at Johns Hopkins, where I held the Andrew W. Mellon chair in the Humanities and served as Dean of Faculty in the School of Arts and Sciences. I joined the Princeton faculty in 2010. I have held fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the American Council of Learned Societies, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library. My books have been recognized with prizes from the Society for French Historical Studies, the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies, and the American Historical Association, and have been translated into French, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese and Turkish. I am a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a corresponding fellow of the British Academy. I am currently writing a history of the Enlightenment.

I have written seven books:

  • Lawyers and Citizens (Oxford University Press, 1994) examined the politicization of the French legal profession in the eighteenth century, showing how spaces for radical criticism of the French monarchy first opened up within the structure of the French state itself.
  • The Cult of the Nation in France (Harvard University Press, 2001) argued that nationalism, as opposed to national sentiment, was a novelty of the French Revolutionary period, and that it arose both out of, and in reaction to, Christianity.
  • The First Total War (Houghton Mifflin, 2007) is a general study of the political culture of war in Europe between 1750 and 1815. It showed how an aristocratic culture of limited warfare gave way to a world in which total war was possible—and in which, between 1792 and 1815, it actually took place. 
  • Napoleon: A Concise Biography (Oxford University Press, 2015) is a short study written for Oxford's "Very Short Introductions" series.
  • Shadows of Revolution: Reflections on France, Past and Present  (Oxford University Press, 2016) is a collection of essays and reviews.
  • The West: A New History (W.W. Norton, 2018) is a full-length European history textbook, co-authored with Anthony Grafton.
  • Men on Horseback: Charisma and Power in the Age of Revolutions (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020) shows how modern forms of political charisma have been inextricably entwined with modern forms of constitutional democracy, with the potential to both reinforce and undermine them. The book ranges widely in its geographical scope, covering the United States, France, Saint-Domingue/Haiti and South America.

I have also co-edited two volumes: Raison universelle et culture nationale au siècle des lumières, with Ludmila Pimenova and Stéphane Pujol (Honoré Champion, 1999), and Rethinking the Age of Revolutions: France and the Birth of the Modern World, with Yair Mintzker (Oxford University Press, 2018).

In addition to my research and teaching, I write frequently for a range of general-interest publications. I am committed to the proposition that serious history can be readable, enjoyable, and accessible to an interested general public.

Teaching Interests

I have regularly taught undergraduate survey courses on European history from 1492 to the present, on the French Revolution, and on the history of warfare in the modern West. Advanced undergraduate seminars include a course on the art of narrative history, and another on the history of the French empire in the Americas. I have taught graduate courses on early modern France, on nationalism, on war, on the first French empire, on the Enlightenment, and on the way thinkers have understood the Enlightenment over the past quarter-millennium. I welcome applications from prospective graduate students interested in working on topics related to the history of France and its empire from 1600 to 1815. While graduate applicants should indicate the sort of topics that interest them, they do not need to present fully fleshed-out research projects.

Area of Interest
(In alphabetical order)
Cultural History
Political History
Home Department & Other Affiliations
17th & 18th Centuries