The powerful influence of the French Revolution can be traced in the reactions of those who witnessed the event firsthand and in the strong emotions it has aroused ever since. For some, the French Revolution was a beacon of light that gave a world dominated by aristocratic privilege and monarchical tyranny a hope of freedom. Nineteenth-century revolutionaries and nationalists frequently harkened back to the days of 1789, sometimes even taking up the names, terms, colors, and rituals of the original French Revolution. Twentieth-century revolutionaries looked to 1789 as a kind of template for revolutionary events. If Robespierre could come on the heels of Lafayette and he, in turn, could give way to Napoleon, then might modern revolutions inevitably follow a similar scripted path, toward authoritarianism? Did revolutions always begin with hope and enthusiasm only to turn violently radical and then permit an authoritarian, even dictatorial figure, to seize power? Were revolutions like some sort of political fever, with distinct symptoms? Scholars and political activists continue to argue these questions. Yet no matter what their interpretation, the lessons and impact of the Revolution continue to be at the heart of several different historical and contemporary political debates.
Part I: Contemporary Reactions to the French Revolution
The events of the French Revolution alternately energized and repulsed contemporaries. Many experienced what English poet William Wordsworth immortalized in his poem French Revolution As It Appears to Enthusiasts (1804; also in Prelude): "Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive/ But to be young was very heaven!" The French overthrow of the old regime and all it stood for was celebrated and commemorated in songs, engravings, poems, paintings, and music. Some, like Wordsworth, even voyaged to France to see events firsthand. Yet from the first months of the Revolution, others saw a darker side of the unfolding drama. The first major debate about the French Revolution outside of France was sparked by a lively polemical tract written by Edmund Burke just months after the fall of the Bastille. A member of the British Parliament, Burke had gained a reputation defending the Americans in their revolt against the British crown. He was much less favorably impressed by the French Revolution, however. In Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), he expressed reservations about the revolutionaries' reliance on reason as the sole standard of government and predicted, quite presciently it turned out, that the French would eventually turn to violence to enforce their decisions. Burke went beyond criticizing the French revolutionaries; he offered the first systematic defense of "conservative" principles, arguing that gradual change and a kind of organic continuity in society stretching across the generations were preferable to violent, rapid upheavals in the structure of government. From its very beginning then, the French Revolution stimulated profound political controversy and equally profound rethinking of the nature of government itself. Because the revolutionaries aimed to rebuild government from the foundation upward, substituting reason for tradition and equal rights for privilege, they inevitably provoked wide-ranging reactions.
Burke's attack set off a firestorm of protest within Great Britain. His passing reference to the lower classes as "the swinish multitude" got him swift responses, with titles such as "Hog's Wash" and "Pig's Meat" and an "Address to the Hon. Edmund Burke from the Swinish Multitude." The most effective response was that of Thomas Paine, the English author of the famous defense of the American cause, Common Sense (1776). Paine's Rights of Man: Being an Answer to Mr. Burke's Attack on the French Revolution (1791 and 1792) laid out a cogent defense of the use of reason in remaking the forms of government. Paine insisted that good government depended on establishing a...
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