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of social class, region, or religion shared a common fate in society, and that the well-being of the nation sometimes superseded the interests of individuals.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?...
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