Legacies of the French Revolution

The French Revolution beginning in 1789, ushered in a new era for European society and politics. While the period was marked by social upheaval, political uncertainty, radicalism, and mass terror, both the direct and indirect consequences of the revolution would have a profound effect on the development of Europe and ultimately the modern world. It challenged the traditional social structure, called for equality for all men, demanded protection of human rights, and would inspire future revolutionaries and movements against unjust authorities. Unfortunately, there were indirect ramifications that arose, such as an undercurrent of counter revolution and conservatism, overt nationalism, and extremism that would contribute to some of the most tragic events in the twentieth century.

Perhaps the most significant consequence of the French Revolution was the challenge it posed to the traditional social structure of France. Divided into three ‘estates’, the clergy, nobility, and common people, the large majority of the population was trapped in their designated social class and unable to obtain the privileges granted to the lucky few. Wealth and true success was unattainable to the third estate who were overtaxed and living in poverty. The Enlightenment had ushered in a new age of thinking and reasoning that existed outside traditional constraints. Inspired by this thinking, the instigators of the revolution sought to topple their absolutist monarchy, remove the division of estates, and create equality for all men. The bourgeoisie were wealthy but lacked the prestige that comes with nobility and so were particularly active in the revolution. With the peasants, they challenged the established authority and installed a system whereby social mobility was determined by merit rather than hereditary privilege. The importance of these actions cannot be underestimated, as they completely overturned the accepted beliefs of France and later Europe.

Such equality had previously been unheard of and with the introduction of the founding document of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, the protection of basic human rights was proposed for the very first time. Much of this document was also inspired by Enlightenment thinkers, one of which was John Locke. The state no longer belonged to a God appointed monarchy, but instead belonged to the people. Legitimacy of power rested on the condition that the people granted power to the authorities. Other consequences of the Declaration included a fairer justice system, which included habeas corpus and trial by jury. Secularism, including abolishing religious persecution and church involvement in state, was another pillar of the revolution which directly led to the secularist ‘ideals’ of contemporary government. Finally, commonly accepted ideas of freedom of speech and press were also included in the Declaration.

While some oppressed members of society were not exclusively included in the declaration it created a platform from which groups such as women and slaves could fight for greater freedom and equality. Women’s rights would not receive much attention until after the revolution broke out in France, but it would see the first explicit feminist movement in history develop. French women faced many obstacles during the revolution but they were able to achieve some civil liberties previously unattainable, such as equal access to divorce and to inheritance laws. The other oppressed minority were the slaves of the French colonies and they too did not receive a mention in the Declaration. However, the words of the document reached the colony of Saint-Domingue and inspired the future Haitian Revolution that is known as the first successful slave revolt in the New World. While the French revolutionaries may not have intended to address these vital social injustices, their intentions inspired their eventual overthrow.

Inspiration is perhaps one of the greatest legacies of the French Revolution. The ideals that were fought for and introduced by people such as Robespierre were sometimes basic in nature. However, the spirit and character of the revolution would come to inspire such revolutionaries as Karl Marx and proceeding Marxist followers. Napoleon was also a product of the revolution, who would not have come to power if the estate system had not been abolished. His empire spread throughout continental Europe, establishing many of the ideals that had originated in France. He used this moral standpoint from which to gain support within his empire. It has been argued that without Napoleon’s conquests, French liberalism and modern ideas of equality would not have succeeded to the extent that they did. Although an indirect consequence of the revolution, such advances significantly contributed to the modern world.

Of course with many revolutions, the French Revolution had its undesired and unhappy consequences. Although clearly the revolution was popular among the majority of the French, there were those who felt neglected by the revolution, such as the nobility and clergy. They would form the basis of an extreme conservative group who would last well into the future and come to be embodied in movements such as fascism in the twentieth century. The other undesired consequence was overt nationalism, which had actually been beneficial in early revolutionary France and particularly in Napoleon’s European takeover. Devotion as a citizen to France could be manipulated to wage war and expand into foreign territories. The ruling Jacobin party in the 1790s strongly encouraged nationalism and such thinking induced dangerous and dedicated emotions that would ultimately result in ‘The Terror’, thus stimulating extremist behavior, resulting in violence and murder. The terrible aftermath of nationalistic and revolutionary tendencies evident in the French Revolution would come to be repeated in modern revolutions in Russia, Germany (Nazism), China, and many more.

Clearly the French Revolution had consequences which extended well into the modern world. Notions of social mobility, equality, and protection of human rights, which are largely taken as a given in the modern world, were envisioned in the Enlightenment and acted upon in the French Revolution. However, extreme conservatism, passionate nationalism, and revolutionary extremism were also consequences that would indirectly lead to movements such as fascism, Nazism, and other extremist revolutions. The legacies of the French Revolution are both positive and negative, as with most revolutions in history. However, it is clear that modern beliefs such as liberty, equality, accountability of government, human rights, freedom of speech and press, and justice for all exist largely because the oppressed and ignored in 18th century France had the courage and drive to stand up and fight against their oppressive authorities. Perhaps our modern world was inevitable, but as history stands, we owe much to the French Revolution for the freedom we now enjoy.