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The French Revolution: Liberté, Egalité, and Fraternité

Have You Ever?

Your teacher assigns you to work on a group project with Joris and his friend Lena. Joris was chosen by your teacher to lead the group, and he’s very particular about how everything should be done. He and Lena don’t let you give any input but force you to do all the work. The day before the project is due, you tell your partners that you can’t complete the project on time without their help. They are furious. What do you do? Do you get the teacher involved? Do you pull an all-nighter to finish? Do you demand your partners finish the project themselves? You don’t want to upset your partners, but you also can’t let them get credit without doing any work.

Explanation

Your dilemma and conflicting feelings are similar to those of  French peasants during the late eighteen hundreds. In 1789, France experienced a famine. Starving peasants turned to their king for help, but he did little to aid them. They eventually rioted, leading to the French Revolution.

The French Revolution

The French Revolution was a product of the oppressive taxation of French peasants and the famine of 1789. It lasted from 1789 to 1795. The French peasants overthrew the monarchy and created a new government based on the principles of Liberté, Egalité, and Fraternité (Liberty, Equality, and Brotherhood, respectively).

The History

In combination with the famine, large loans given to American colonists during their Revolution put France in a poor financial situation. Thus, King Louis XVI called for an Estates-General, a meeting where representatives from each of France's three estates would advise him. The First Estate was the Catholic Church, the Second Estate was the nobility, and the Third Estate consisted of everyone else. The Third Estate pushed for each representative to have a vote while the First and Second Estates wanted to vote as Estates. After debate, the Third Estate won double representation to reflect their larger population, but voting was held "by orders," meaning that their collective votes held the same weight as each of the other Estates.

Thoroughly enraged, members of the Third Estate created their own government, the National Assembly. After they were locked out of their meeting room, the National Assembly went to the tennis court and swore to continue the Revolution, an event later called the Tennis Court Oath. King Louis XVI ordered the army to disband the National Assembly, but the rebels didn't stop. On July 14, 1789, French peasants stormed the Bastille, a prison and armory. This major victory for the Revolution inspired peasants to revolt across the countryside. No longer fighting for representation, peasants called for the end of the feudal system. 

Nobles, afraid of losing their wealth and power, joined the Revolutionary cause. On August 26, the National Assembly published the Declaration of the Rights of Man, which created a representative government, guaranteed equality before the law, and promised the freedoms of speech, press, and religion. These reforms were so radical that King Louis XVI refused to acknowledge the Declaration.

In 1790, the National Assembly wrote a new Constitution. The king was still the official head of state, but the National Assembly held all legislative power. The administrative state was broken up into departments, and France was split up into Cantons, or provinces.

The following year, the Royal family unsuccessfully tried to flee France. This, along with France's failed war on Austria, led the National Assembly to use King Louis XVI as a scapegoat and strip him of his title. The National Assembly declared France a Republic in 1792.

That year, the guillotine was introduced as a way to end a person's life quickly and painlessly. From January 1793 to July 1794, thousands of counterrevolutionaries were executed during what came to be known as the Reign of Terror. The killing continued until Maximillian Robespierre, a radical leader of the French Revolution, was executed.

As a result, a new government was formed. The Directory, a group of five men, led the Executive branch, and there was a dual-chamber legislature.  Due to France's ongoing wars with many European countries, proper rebuilding never took place. In 1799, Napoleon Bonaparte overthrew the Directory and declared himself Emperor.

So What?

The French Revolution started on the promise of fair representation and finished with an Emperor as the head of state. Even though free speech was guaranteed by the Declaration of the Rights of Man, only the revolutionaries in power could exercise it. It is crucial, especially now, to remember that the human voice has power. We should cherish and protect that power, not deprive people of it. Speaking out against injustice allowed the French Revolution to occur, but silencing dissent led to its downfall.

The French Revolution was impactful because it showed that a country's citizens have the right to choose their leadership and change it if they are not satisfied. The citizens of France used many ideas from previous years, a period known as the French Enlightenment, to create a better future for themselves. The belief that a government's priority was to protect its people, society should be judged on reason and merit, and every person should have a skeptical attitude toward tradition primed French citizens for revolt. Despite the Revolution's end, the impact of these ideas can still be felt in modern-day France.

Think Further

  1. To what extent was the French Revolution successful? What determines the success of a revolution?
  2. Could the French Revolution be considered a Civil War between the First and Second Estates and the Third Estate?
  3. Can elements of the Reign of Terror be seen today? Explain.

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  1. de Tocqueville, Alexis. Old Regime and the Revolution. Trans. John Bonner. New York: Harper & Brothers, Publishers, 1856.
  2. Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “French Revolution.” Encyclopædia Britannica, 15 May 2020. Web. 29 May 2020.
  3. “The French Revolution.” American Experience. PBS, n.d. Web. 29 May 2020.