The French Revolution (1789-1799) was a period of radical social and political upheaval in French and European history. The absolute monarchy that had ruled France for centuries collapsed in three years.
French society underwent an epic transformation as feudal, aristocratic, and religious privileges evaporated under a sustained assault from liberal political groups and the masses on the streets.
Old ideas about hierarchy and tradition succumbed to new Enlightenment principles of citizenship and inalienable rights.
The French Revolution began in 1789 with the convocation of the Estates-General in May. The first year of the Revolution witnessed members of the Third Estate proclaiming the Tennis Court Oath in June, the assault on the Bastille in July, the passage of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen in August, and an epic march on Versailles that forced the royal court back to Paris in October.
The next few years were dominated by tensions between various liberal assemblies and a conservative monarchy intent on thwarting major reforms.
A republic was proclaimed in September 1792 and King Louis XVI was executed the next year. External threats also played a dominant role in the development of the Revolution.
The French Revolutionary Wars started in 1792 and ultimately featured spectacular French victories that facilitated the conquest of the Italian peninsula, the Low Countries, and most territories west of the Rhine achievements that had defied previous french governments for centuries. Internally, popular sentiments radicalized the Revolution significantly, culminating in the brutal Reign of Terror from 1793 until 1794.
After the fall of Robespierre and the Jacobins, the Directory assumed control of the French state in 1795 and held power until 1799, when it was replaced by the Consulate under Napoleon Bonaparte!
The modern era has unfolded in the shadow of the French Revolution. The growth of republics and liberal democracies, the spread of secularism, the development of modern ideologies, and the invention of total war all mark their birth during the Revolution.
Subsequent events that can be traced to the Revolution include the Napoleonic Wars, two separate restorations of the monarchy, and two additional revolutions as modern France took shape. In the following century, France would be governed at one point or another as a republic, constitutional monarchy, and two different empires.
The French Revolution has received enormous amounts of historical attention, both from the general public and from scholars and academics. The views of historians, in particular, have been characterized as falling along ideological lines, with liberal, conservative, communist, and anarchist scholars-among others- disagreeing over the significance and the major developments of the Revolution.
Alexis de Tocqueville argued that the Revolution was a manifestation of a more prosperous middle class becoming conscious of its social importance.
Other thinkers, like the conservative Edmund Burke, maintained that the Revolution was the product of a few conspiratorial individuals who brainwashed the masses into subverting the old order-a claim rooted in the belief that the revolutionaries had no legitimate complaints.
Other historians, influenced by Marxist thinking, have emphasized the importance of the peasants and the urban workers in presenting the ‘Revolution as a gigantic class struggle.
In general, scholarship on the French Revolution initially studied the political ideas and developments of the era, but it has gradually shifted towards social history that analyses the impact of the Revolution on individual lives Historians widely regard the Revolution as one of the most important events in human history, and the end of the early modern period, which started around 1500, is traditionally attributed to the onset of the French Revolution in 1789. The Revolution is, in fact, often seen as marking the “dawn of the modern era”.
Within France itself, the Revolution permanently crippled the power of the aristocracy and drained the wealth of the Church, although the two institutions survived despite the damage they sustained.
After the collapse of the First Empire in 1815, the French public lost the rights and privileges earned since the Revolution, but they remembered the participatory politics that characterized the period, with one historian commenting:
“Thousands of men and even many women gained firsthand experience in the political arena: they talked, read, and listened in new ways; they voted; they joined new organizations; and they marched for their political goals. Revolution became a tradition, and republicanism an enduring option.”
Some historians argue that the French people underwent a fundamental transformation in self-identity, evidenced by the elimination of privileges and their replacement by rights as well as the growing decline in social deference that highlighted the principle of equality throughout the Revolution.
Outside France, the Revolution captured the imagination of the world. It had a profound impact on the Russian Revolution and its ideas were imbibed by Mao Zedong in his efforts at constructing a communist state in China.
At its core, the French Revolution was a political movement devoted to liberty. But what that liberty actually was and what was required to realize it remained open questions during the Revolution, as they have ever since.
Some historians have suggested that what the revolutionaries’ liberty meant in practice was violence and a loss of personal security that pointed to the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century.
This negative view had its roots in the ideas of many counter-revolutionaries, who criticized the Revolution from its beginning. These ideas gained new popularity during the period of reaction that set in after Napoleon’s final defeat in 1815, when the monarchy and its counter-revolutionary allies were restored to power.
However, the majority of Europeans and non-Europeans came to see the Revolution as much more than a bloody tragedy. These people were more impressed by what the Revolution accomplished than by what it failed to do.
They recalled the Revolution’s abolition of serfdom, slavery, inherited privilege, and judicial torture; its experiments with democracy; and its opening of opportunities to those who, for reasons of social status or religion, had been traditionally excluded.
One of the most important contributions of the French Revolution was to make revolution part of the world’s political tradition. The French Revolution continued to provide instruction for revolutionaries in the 19th and 20th centuries, as peoples in Europe and around the world sought to realize their different versions of freedom.
Karl Marx would, at least at the outset, pattern his notion of a proletarian revolution on the French Revolution of 1789. And 200 years later Chinese students, who weeks before had fought their government in Tiananmen Square, confirmed the contemporary relevance of the French Revolution when they led the revolutionary bicentennial parade in Paris on July 14, 1989.
Along with offering lessons about liberty and democracy, the Revolution also promoted nationalism. Napoleon’s occupation provoked nationalist groups to organize in Italy and Germany. Also influential was the revolutionaries’ belief that a nation was not a group of royal subjects but a society of equal citizens.
The fact that most European countries are or are becoming parliamentary democracies, along the lines set out by the French Revolution, suggests its enduring influence.
Socially, the Revolution was also important. Clearly, society in France and to a lesser extent in other parts of Europe would never be the same. Once the ancient structure of privilege was smashed, it could not be pieced together again. The Revolution did not fundamentally alter the distribution of wealth, but that had not been the intention of most of the revolutionaries. Insofar as legal equality gradually became the norm in France and Europe, the revolutionaries succeeded.
The cultural impact is harder to assess. The Revolution did not succeed in establishing the national school system it envisioned, but it did found some of France’s elite educational institutions that have produced some of that nation’s greatest leaders.
Its attack on the church had profound repercussions, making the status of the church a central political issue, which even today divides France politically and culturally.
As for economic development, the Revolution probably hurt more than it helped. In the long term, the liberation of the economy from royal controls, the standardization of weights and measures, and the development of a uniform civil law code helped pave the way for the Industrial Revolution.
But the disruptive effects of war on the French economy offset the positive effects of these changes. In terms of total output, the economy was probably set back a generation.
The impact that the French example had on other countries was equally as great and disturbing. For the two hundred years since the Bastille fell, countries from Europe, Africa, Asia and South America have been inspired by the French Revolution.
Often, the revolutions that have resulted have been even deadlier than the original. The French Revolution, as the “Mother of Modernity” as well as the “Mother of Revolution” is responsible for the conception of the three basic and sometime intermingling political undercurrents of the past two centuries; democracy, communism, and fascism.
The French Revolution, much more than its American predecessor, gave wing to the ideals of all those who yearned for the equality and tolerance of Enlightenment to be applied to governments.
France, the most powerful nation of its time, was in a far more influential position than the break-away American colonies and naturally captured the attention of those sympathetic to democratic ideals from around the globe. And the French Revolution did give birth to democracy as we now know it.
In the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen of 1789 all men were declared equal under law and God. People were stated to have the right to governments that didn’t oppress them. Freedom consisted of “being able to do that which does not harm others.”
Freedom of the press was ‘declared, as was freedom of speech, religion and jury by one’s peers the French Republic was the first government to allow universal suffrage regardless of property. It was the first major country to have a black representative in its legislative.
The French Revolution ended legal discrimination by race, ethnicity or religion. It did away with tax privileges granted on the grounds of family name or established lineage, and provided equality of opportunity under law.
In 1793, the French Republic became the first major country to use “democracy” to describe something that was actually desired rather than as a despicable state of mob anarchy. The early phase of the French Revolution was, and continues to be, very inspiring to all those who dreamed of more equity and liberty in their own nations.