French Revolution, Cause and Effect 1789

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The pivotal event of European history in the eighteenth century was the French Revolution. From its outbreak in 1789, the Revolution touched and transformed social values and political systems in France, in Europe, and eventually throughout the world. France's revolutionary regime conquered much of Western Europe with its arms and with its ideology. But not without considerable opposition at home and abroad. Its ideals defined the essential aspirations of modern liberal society, while its bloody conflicts posed the brutal dilemma of means versus ends.

The revolutionaries advocated individual liberty, rejecting all forms of arbitrary constraint: monopolies on commerce, feudal charges laid upon the land, vestiges of servitude such as serfdom, and even (in 1794) black slavery overseas. They held that political legitimacy required constitutional government, elections, and legislative supremacy. They demanded civil equality for all, denying the claims of privileged groups, localities, or religions to special treatment and requiring the equality of all citizens before the law. A final revolutionary goal was expressed by the concept of fraternity, which meant that all citizens regardless of social class, region, or religion shared a common fate in society, and that the well-being of the nation sometimes superseded the interests of individuals. The resounding slogan of Liberty, Equality, Fraternity expressed social ideals to which most contemporary citizens of the Western world would still subscribe.

I. Origins

Those who made the Revolution believed they were rising against tyrannical government, in which the people had no voice, and against inequality in the way obligations such as taxes were imposed and benefits distributed. Yet the government of France at that time was no more tyrannical or unjust than it had been in the past. On the contrary, a gradual process of reform had long been underway. What, then, set off the revolutionary upheaval? What had changed?

An easy answer would be to point to the incompetence of King Louis XVI (1774-1792) and his queen, Marie Antoinette. Good-natured but weak and indecisive, Louis was a man of limited intelligence who lacked self-confidence. Worse yet, his young queen, a Hapsburg princess, was frivolous, meddlesome, and tactless. But even the most capable ruler could not have escaped challenge and crisis in the late eighteenth century. The roots of that crisis, not its mismanagement, claim the principal interest of historians. The philosophes

In eighteenth-century France, as we have seen, intellectual ferment preceded political revolt. For decades the philosophes had bombarded traditional beliefs, institutions, and prejudices with devastating salvos. They undermined the confidence that traditional ways were the best ways. Yet the philosophes were anything but revolutionaries. Nor did they question the fact that elites should rule society, but wished only that the elites should be more enlightened and more open.

Indeed, the Enlightenment had become respectable by the 1780s, a kind of intellectual establishment. Diderot's Encyclopedia, banned in the 1750s, was reprinted in a less expensive format with government approval in the 1770s. Most of France's 30 provincial academies_learned societies of educated citizens in the larger towns had by that time been won over to the critical spirit and reformism of the Enlightenment, though not to its sometimes extreme secularism. Among the younger generation, the great cultural hero was Rousseau (see picture), whose Confessions (published posthumously in 1781) caused a sensation. Here Rousseau attacked the hypocrisy, conformity, cynicism, and corruption of high society's salons and aristocratic ways.

Though he had not exemplified this in his personal life, Rousseau came across in his novels and autobiography as the apostle of a simple, wholesome family life; of conscience, purity, and virtue. As such, he was the great inspiration to the...
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