Robert Roswell Palmer

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Robert Roswell Palmer (January 11, 1909 – June 11, 2002), commonly known as R. R. Palmer, was a distinguished American historian at Princeton and Yale universities, who specialized in eighteenth-century France. His most influential work of scholarship, The Age of the Democratic Revolution: A Political History of Europe and America, 1760-1800 (1959 and 1964), examined an age of democratic revolution that swept the Atlantic civilization between 1760 and 1800. He was awarded the Bancroft Prize in History for the first volume. Palmer also achieved distinction as a history text writer.


Born in Chicago, Illinois, Palmer accelerated through the public schools; by winning a citywide contest for a play written in Latin, he earned a full scholarship to the University of Chicago. He studied with Louis Gottschalk and earned his Ph. B. in 1931. He received his PhD from Cornell University three years later, studying with Carl L. Becker. His dissertation was The French Idea of American Independence on the Eve of the French Revolution.1

In 1936 Palmer began teaching as an instructor at Princeton University, and worked there for nearly three decades, becoming a full professor. He was dean of arts and sciences (1963-1966) at Washington University in St. Louis, then returned to teaching and writing at Yale University, where he retired as professor emeritus. Palmer had visiting professorships at numerous universities, including Berkeley, Chicago, Colorado and Michigan. After retiring in 1977, he returned to Princeton as a guest scholar at its Institute for Advanced Study.1

Palmer married Esther Howard in 1942, and they had three children and four grandchildren. His son, the historian Stanley Palmer, is a professor of history at the University of Texas at Arlington. After R.R. Palmer's death in 2002 at Newtown, Bucks County, Pennsylvania, a memorial service was held at Princeton Chapel.


In 1950 Palmer published A History of the Modern World, which is in its tenth edition as of April 2006. He prepared the later versions with the assistance of Joel Colton and Lloyd Kramer. The text has been translated into six languages and is used in more than 1,000 colleges, and many Advanced Placement History high school classes.2 It is notable for its clear, essay-like writing style.3Palmer's introduction covers the period from the earliest signs of human civilization to 1300 CE. The main body of the text covers events from the Black Death to the Fall of the Soviet Union in European history. The book is grouped into categories based on ideas: for example, the relation of the French Revolution to modern and ancient thought may be mentioned before the French Revolution.

Palmer's most important work of historical scholarship is The Age of the Democratic Revolution: A Political History of Europe and America, 1760-1800. It was published in two volumes: The Challenge (1959), which won the Bancroft Prize in American History, and The Struggle (1964). Palmer's masterwork traced the growth of two competing forces -- ideas of democracy and equality, on the one hand, and the growing power of aristocracies in society, on the other -- and the results of the collision between these forces, including both the American Revolution and the French Revolution. The book foreshadowed the development in the 1990s and early 2000s of ideas of Atlantic history and global history.1 It remains to this day a valuable resource for scholars. In 1971 Palmer published a slightly revised and condensed version of his second volume as The World of the French Revolution.

Also notable is Palmer's 1941 monograph, Twelve Who Ruled. The book has been in print since its first edition, and Princeton University Press reissued it as a Princeton Classic in 2006 as part of its celebration of its hundredth anniversary. The book is a fusion of history and collective biography, focusing on the members of the Committee of Public Safety and their efforts to guide France during the Terror following their Revolution. Columbia University history professor Isser Woloch, a specialist in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic eras, has stated that Twelve Who Ruled "may be the best book on the French Revolution written by an American."2


  • Catholics and Unbelievers in 18th Century France (1939)
  • The age of the democratic revolution: a political history of Europe and America, 1760-1800 (Princeton UP, 1959); vol. 2 (1964) online edition volume 1-2
  • A History of the Modern World (1950; 10th ed. 2006)
  • The Improvement of Humanity: Education and the French Revolution (1985)
  • Two Tocquevilles: Father and Son (1987)
  • From Jacobin to Liberal: Marc-Antoine Jullien, 1775-1848 (1993)
  • The School of the French Revolution: A Documentary History of The College of Louis-le-Grand and Its Director, Jean-François Champagne (1975)


  • Georges Lefebvre, The Coming of the French Revolution,
  • Louis Bergeron, France Under Napoleon, and
  • Jean-Paul Bertaud, The Army of the French Revolution.
  • Editor and translator of the autobiography, From Jacobin to Liberal: Marc-Antoine Jullien, 1775-1848.

Honors and awards


  1. ^ a b c "R.R. Palmer, 1909-2002", American Historical Association memorial notice, Summer 2002, accessed 14 January 2011
  2. ^ a b DOUGLAS MARTIN, "R. R. Palmer, 93, History Text Author, Dies", New York Times, 18 June 2002, accessed 14 January 2011
  3. ^ Julia Johnson, ed. Choice: a classified cumulation : volumes 1-10, March 1964--February 1974, Volume 6 (Rowman and Littlefield, 1976) p 131

Further reading

  • Cox, Marvin R. "Palmer and Furet: A Reassessment of The Age of the Democratic Revolution," Historical Reflections (2011) 37#3 pp. 70-85
  • Friguglietti, James. "A Transatlantic Friendship: The Close Relationship between the Historians Georges Lefebvre and Robert R. Palmer," Historical Reflections (2011) 37#3 pp. 56-69
  • Hanson, Paul. "From Jacobin to Liberal," Historical Reflections (2011) 37#3 pp. 86-100
  • Kramer, Lloyd. "Robert R. Palmer and the History of Big Questions," Historical Reflections (2011) 37#3 pp. 101-122
  • Layton Harvey, John. "Introduction: Robert Roswell Palmer: A Transatlantic Journey of American Liberalism," Historical Reflections (2011) 37#3 pp. 1-17
  • Layton Harvey, John. "'History Written with a Little Spite': Palmer, Brinton, and an American Debate on the French Revolution," Historical Reflections (2011) 37#3 pp. 38-55
  • Van Kley, Dale K. "Robert R. Palmer's Catholics and Unbelievers in Eighteenth-Century France: An Overdue Tribute," Historical Reflections (2011) 37#3 pp. 18-37

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