The French Revolution was a culmination of ideas of the eighteenth century. The Enlightenment played a significant role in bringing about the French Revolution the financial crisis sparked the beginning of the revolution. The revolution embodied most of the Enlightenment ideas. Enlightenment thinkers such as Montesquieu had a major influence in the French revolution. His dominant ideas expounded in his masterpiece “L’Esprit des lois” that was published in 1753 were brought out in the French revolution. In his work, he advocated for a liberal constitutional monarchy as the appropriate system of government for those who valued freedom. He based his argument on the division of the nation among several centers of power provided a permanent check on those who became despotic. Montesquieu also suggested that the English had met their achievements by sharing sovereignty between the Crown, law courts and Parliament. The French, he suggested, would need to make use of the estates such as the Crown, the church and aristocratic courts, the landed nobility and the chartered cities, if they were to adopt the same idea. His ideas were exhibited in the monarchy by the end of the revolution. The Enlightenment produced numerous essays, books, scientific discoveries, inventions, laws, wars and revolutions. The Napoleon Bonapartes reign had the most significance in the French revolution. During his reign, the main ideals of the revolution were fully implemented by the Légion dhonneur. Changes such as the centralization of government, reforms in education and banking, support in science and arts, streamlined legal system and the improved relations with the church were evident during the period. To fully evaluate the French revolution, we will look at the changes in systems of governments and the socio-economic changes in each phase of the revolution.
Gregory explains that, the revolution made several accomplishments. First, the revolution was strong to weaken political influence and leadership. Privileges were not on birth but wealth and property. Prior to the revolution, high positions in the state were accessed by the bourgeoisie since careers were open to talents. The French state throughout the 19th century was controlled by the bourgeoisie. The bourgeoisies were of the middle class and therefore echoed middle-class values and needs. Sans-culottes realized that it was simply an act of one evil replacing another. Secondly, the old dynastic state was transformed into a modern state which was no longer private property of the monarchs. Citizens of the state acquired rights and duties unlike the older regimes where individuals were subjects of the state. Thirdly, the revolution brought about the application of principles of equality before the law, freedom of speech, religion and press and trial by jury. (Gregory 2007)
Enlightenment was a contributory factor, and it gave flavor to the French Revolution that has reverberated through the many years. The lofty ideals became the language of revolution. The ideal of equality took priority and became the motivator in the political movements. This was something that not even the American war of independence from England embodied.
In addition, the works of Jean Jacques Rousseau pushed forward the French Revolution, despite the fact that he died before it commenced. “Le Contrat Social” was the blueprint for the desired society. The people at the centre stage of the revolution found it to be a great tool of reference. It resulted to the radicalization of the French society where new egalitarian forms were established while old forms of address were abolished. The church was dispossessed and largely lost its influence. Religious ties were purged and consequently, the calendar was also reformed.
Finally, for a time, Atheism was replaced by a generic, new religion sponsored by Robespierre, who was a disciple of Rousseau to the pursuit of the revolutionary fervent. The end of Robespierre rule brought an end radicalism of the revolution. Eventually, Napoleon set in, and his genius allowed the revolution fairly to continue. By the end of Napoleonic era, a new form of French society had been established. Napoleon allowed only parts of the revolution ideals to remain. Thus, the enlightenment ideas found expression in a person who fitted the mold of an enlightenment era monarch. The cause of the revolution in France, therefore, was advanced by the enlightenment period ideals, which Napoleon further advanced throughout Europe.
The French revolution
According to William, The French revolution became a public opinion Ten years after 1789. Historians have discerned its components to reflect elements of rationalism and anti-aristocratic passion which emerge from Universalist nationalism. There was implicit demand for a radical king different from other kings one who would be born of peoples sovereignty and reason. The description suited the king of French revolution Napoleon Bonaparte. France was a republic under monarchy. Napoleon Bonaparte created a monarchy under the name of a republic ten years later. (William 1980)
Various phases of the Revolution
France was in the brink of bankruptcy as the 18th century drew to a close as a result of extravagant spending by King Louis XVI (1754-1793) and its costly involvement in the American Revolution. Kings Louis XVI predecessor had also left the country in a bad state. The country had experienced two decades of drought, poor cereal harvest, price inflation, cattle diseases and from peasants and urban poor. There was desperation from the people as a result of government imposition of heavy taxes and its failure to provide relief. The resentment was in the form of striking, rioting and looting. Another factor that contributed significantly to the French revolution was the increasingly prosperous elite of bourgeoisie who represented wealthy commoners. The peasants were less willing to support the burdensome and anachronistic feudal system. Also, philosophers who advocated political and social reforms influenced the revolution.
In 1786, Charles Alexandre de Calonne (1734-1802) who was Louis XVIs controller general anticipated a financial reform package that would include a universal land tax. The proposed reform would not exempt the privileged class. The proposed reforms were necessary to avert the growing aristocratic revolt and garner support. The king summoned, for the first time since 1614, the estate general which was an assembly representing nobles, middle class and France clergy. The meeting was scheduled for May 5, 1789. The delegates were required to compile a list of grievances to present to king. (Noah Shusterman 2013)
Thomas Carlyle describes that the revolution was after enraged Parisian men and women attacked the kings palace and killed several hundred Swiss Guards. Louis and Marie Antoinette fled and took refuge in the Legislative Assembly. The royal family put under house arrest where the king could not perform any political function. The revolutionaries had their constitution draft in place even though they did not have a monarch. (Thomas, 1837)The leadership the revolution became more radical, and the national convention was dominated by moderate. Moderate reformers included the Girondins, who preferred a decentralized government where various provinces would carry out their affairs independently. They were also against government interference with the economy. Later in June 1793, disputes led to the replacement of Girondins with Jacobins, a more radical group. Jacobins preferred a more central government which would control the economy from Paris. They managed to gather support from the sans-culottes. Some Girondin members of the convention were arrested and the Jacobins of the convention and the nation. They were determined to keep sans- culottes satisfied in order to push ahead the revolution. The committee of public safety (CPS) that was a branch of the national convention assumed leadership led by Maximilien Robespierre. The committee imposed government authority across the country and arrested and tried counter-revolutionaries.( Francois, 1981)He and the committee instituted the reign of terror. Girondins, counter- revolutionaries, priest, aristocrats and nobles were treated with suspicion and execution was performed on anyone who sought peace with Europe. (Richard, 1968)
By 1795, the government had passed into the hands of the five-man Directory. They tried to preserve the revolution. They opposed the reinstitution of past regimes. They were against Jacobins and sans- culottes extreme radicalism. Under their leadership, French revolution ended and the French tried to return to normalcy in their businesses. Despite end of the revolution, France remained at war with the rest of Europe. Leadership passed in the hands of generals. General napoleon Bonaparte seized government control in November 1799 and declared himself emperor in December 2, 1804. Apart from ending the revolution, he implemented significant civil reforms. He completely re-wrote the legal code in a span of few years. The code enabled the restoration of financial stability, centralized the government system, reformed the system of education and implemented an extensive public works program. The dispute that existed in the Catholic Church was also settled.
Napoleon Bonaparte managed to implement the French revolution ideals by promoting and advancing people from all ranks of the society including nobles. The Légion dhonneur was an order of merit that admitted men of any class. They were judged by scientific, military or artistic prowess rather by ancestry and wealth. The implementation of the code eventually led to the fall of monarchies, and legitimate government replaced the system. It freed the Jews, reorganized civil administrations and did away with discriminatory trade guilds. Under napoleons administration, the first seed of nationalism was sowed which served the original goal of the declaration of war in 1792. (Frank, 2011)
Frank McLynn (2011) Napoleon: A Biography. Arcade Publishers
Noah Shusterman (2013) The French Revolution: Faith, Desire, and Politics: Faith, Desire and Politics Routledge publishers
Thomas Carlyle (1837). The French Revolution: A History Harvard University
Francois Furet (1981) Interpreting the French Revolution Cambridge University Press
Richard Thomas Bienvenu (1968) The Ninth of Thermidor: the Fall of Robespierre New York
Gregory Fremont Barnes (2007) Encyclopedia of Political Revolutions and New Ideologies, 1760-1815 Greenwood Publishing Group
William Hamilton Sewell (1980) Revolution in France The Language from the Old Regime to 1848 Cambridge University Press
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