“Liberty! Equality! Fraternity!”
"What is the Third Estate? Nothing. What does it want to be? Something."
During the French Revolution (1789 – 1799) a new generation risked their lives to make the ideals of the Enlightenment a reality. They overthrew the Monarchy, established the first modern Republic, and proclaimed the universal rights of man. In the short run, their Revolution was a bloody catastrophe. In the long run, it swept everything before it.
On the eve of the Revolution France was in a state of deepening crisis. Louis XV (r. 1715 – 1774) had been an uninspiring, lecherous, do-nothing king. Sensing the revolutionary danger in the Enlightenment, he is supposed to have said “after me, the deluge.” His grandson, Louis XVI, was kindly, fat, and simple, while his wife, an Austrian princess, spent fantastic sums of money on parties and jewelry. France had gone deeply into debt to finance America’s bid for independence, and, though it had the satisfaction of avenging itself for earlier defeats at the hands of Great Britain, it could not recover. Also, as Louis’ advisers had warned him, the success of the American Revolution encouraged similar experiments in France. Tax collectors were corrupt and inefficient, and the people knew where their money was going. By ancient custom, the aristocracy and the church paid nothing.
A series of bad harvests forced the government into bankruptcy in 1789, and Louis called for a meeting of the ancient legislature of France – the Estates General. The leaders of the aristocracy and the clergy marched out in a huff when they realized they could not control it, as they had in the past, while the lower orders joined the representatives of the common people in declaring themselves the true government of France. Finding themselves locked out of the assembly hall one day (it turns out, by accident), they declared they would never submit to tyranny and swore to continue meeting until France had a constitution.
Meanwhile, popular excitement was getting out of control. In July a crowd of Parisians stormed the Bastille, famous as a political prison and symbol of arbitrary power. When the commandant of the prison surrendered, the crowd cut his head off, stuck it on a pike, and paraded up and down the streets with it. A few months later another crowd descended on the royal palace at Versailles, abducted the king, and brought him back to Paris, where he could be watched more closely. In the countryside peasants broke into seigneurial estates, took what they wanted, burned documents that proved their servile status, and occasionally killed their lords. Frightened aristocrats began to flee to Austria. There they agitated for an invasion to avenge their humiliation. Marie Antoinette’s brother, Leopold II, looked on the turmoil with increasing alarm.
In September 91 the Assembly abolished feudal and ecclesiastical privileges, declared limited manhood suffrage, conferred the right to trial by jury, and gave France a constitutional monarchy. Careers would be open to talent. In June the king and his family, fearing for their lives, fled the capital. They were recognized near the Austrian border, sent back to Paris, and for all intents and purposes kept under house arrest from that time on.
In April 92 Austria declared war, and its general, the Duke of Brunswick, threatened the Parisians with bloody retribution if they mistreated the royal family. They responded by abolishing the monarchy and arresting the king (August 92). A year later Louis and Marie they were executed. Their son, Louis XVII in royalist memory, died in a Paris prison in 1795. He was ten years old. Meanwhile the small but professional Austrian army was overwhelmed at Valmy by a new sight on the European battlefield – a huge army of poorly trained, poorly equipped, but fanatically determined citizen-soldiers. For the next decade these armies consistently trounced their royalist opponents, and filled the treasuries of France with the plunder of foreign conquest.
Under the pressure of war and a continual climate of fear and uncertainty, politics within the Assembly grew increasingly radical. When the king was executed conservatives (the Gironde), feared for their lives and quit the assembly, leaving their sometimes allies, the moderates (Cordeliers), to face the extremist Jacobins (the Montange) alone. Huge crowds of working class spectators (Sans-culottes) waited outside the assembly and listened to every word. Popular newspapers hinted darkly of conspiracies against the people, and from time to time the Sans-culottes burst into the assembly and threatened the legislators with violence. The Jacobins, both fearing and wanting to harness their power, created a new constitution (June 93.) It made work and basic necessities human rights, and gave the vote to all men of military age. Dissension had become dangerous, and not a few legislators were arrested and executed for untimely opposition. In March 1793 a “committee of public safety” was formed. Its leader, Robespierre, was a populist dictator in all but name.
Outside Paris opposition to the Revolution was growing. Uprisings in the Vendee and Lyon (Western and Southern France) were bloodily suppressed, and commissioners were sent out with arbitrary and unlimited powers. Secret police spread throughout the country, and informers used them to settle old grudges and personal disputes. A hush descended over the country, as even a hint of opposition could lead to arrest and execution. As many as forty thousand people were guillotined. The Jacobins abolished the old (Catholic) calendar and unveiled a new religion – the Cult of the Supreme Being. Churches were turned into Temples of Reason, Saints were replaced by Martyrs of the Revolution, and effigies of the Goddess of Reason were paraded through the streets. The official state religion was briefly a form of humanist atheism which borrowed and transformed as much as it could from the Church it was replacing. Christianity was outlawed.
By July 94 Paris had had enough of the Jacobins. Robespierre lost a key vote, and, sensing weakness, the assembly shouted him down and removed him from the podium. The Jacobin party was outlawed, Robespierre and his leading accomplices were arrested, and they were all swiftly executed - the terror was over. For five years a new government, called the Directory, muddled along. Although it was not particularly violent, it was faction-ridden, corrupt, ineffectual, and unpopular. Its political police suppressed extremists on the right and left. In 1799 Sieyes, one of the leaders of the directory and a veteran of the revolution, decided to abolish the Directory and set himself up as dictator. To do this he called on the help of a brilliant young general, fresh from the conquest of Egypt. But Napoleon Bonaparte had ideas of his own…
The French Revolution is important in intellectual history because it demonstrated the power of modern institutions and ideals, and because responses to it have defined much political philosophy ever since. The Enlightenment did not spread through mere force of argument - it was carried to every corner of Europe by the victorious French armies, as it was carried to every corner of the world by the British. In the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars, the power of enlightenment ideals was no longer open to dispute. Although France was eventually defeated, for twenty years it had dominated every other power on the continent. For the next two centuries, modernization meant power, and that power could only be secured by embracing the ideals of the Enlightenment. However, the dangers of modernization were also immediately apparent. The old world had known nothing of democracy or the rights of man, it was true – but it hadn't known anything about state terror or totalitarianism either. For the next century, the promise of the Enlightenment was inescapably caught up with the ideals, the power, and the terror of the French Revolution.
What is the Third Estate? (1789)http://legacy.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/sieyes.asp
Declaration of the Rights of Man (1789)http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/rightsof.asp
Declaration of the Rights of Woman (1791) http://www.historyguide.org/intellect/declaration.html
The Last Will and Testament of Louis XVI (1792) http://www.andrewcusack.com/2006/the-last-will-and-testament-of-louis-xvi/
Robespierre's Speech: On the Festival of the Supreme Being (1794) http://www.historyplace.com/speeches/robespierre.htm
Excerpts from the Napoleonic Code (1804)http://www.historyguide.org/intellect/code_nap.html
The Tennis Court Oath (1791)
Storming of the Bastille (1789)
Saturn devouring his son (c. 1820)
Death of Marat (1793)
Napoleon Crossing the Alps (c. 1803)
Part of a series on the Enlightenment (XI of XVII)