French Revolution – All Classes of Society against the Old System of Government?
Without a doubt, the French Revolution was not a revolution in which all the classes went against the old, established form of government, being a monarchy under the rule of King Louis XVI. For the most part, the classes that were heavily involved in the revolution were the lower and middle classes, especially those that lived under conditions of extreme poverty while Louis XVI and his wife Marie Antoinette enjoyed the pleasures and riches at the palace of Versailles.
Generally speaking, the French Revolution was started by a number of revolutionary liberals who wanted to do away with the outmoded and corrupted government controlled by the French aristocracy, especially the monarchy of Louis XVI which did nothing for the common French citizen and curtailed the natural rights of all French citizens to live as free and equal individuals. As pointed out by Georges Lefebvre, the old system had to be “replaced by one that focused on the individual as expressed in the ‘Declarations of the Rights of Man’ which established a free and democratic society” as contrasted with the ancient monarchical system (1969, pg. 15). In addition, while Louis XVI and his queen Marie Antoinette lived in opulent splendor, most of the common people of France survived very precariously in abject poverty which certainly played a major role in the first outburst of rebellion on July 14, 1789, commonly referred to as “Bastille Day.”
Liberalism, or that which was espoused by the lower and middle classes, “focused on progress and reform that was favorable to individual freedom as guaranteed by natural law. Civil liberties were also of paramount importance, not to mention an open-minded and tolerant system devoid of the ideals expressed during the Age of Enlightenment” (Gershoy 1957, pg. 75). These French liberals wished to help the lower classes in French society to have more control over their own lives by creating an environment that did not affect how a person should live his/her own life. They also wanted firm laws that would guarantee failures of judgment related to the monarchy would not deeply affect the common man or woman and that every French citizen should have personal responsibility and self-reliance within the new social system. However, the monarchy was dead set against these ideals, for if such a thing were to happen, the power of the monarchy and the aristocrats would be greatly lessened and would place them in a very dangerous situation.
Historically, the country of France was greatly changed by the Industrial Revolution which altered France from an agrarian nation to one based on industry, being the production of goods and commodities and the manufacture of machines that in many instances replaced manual labor. The lowest economic class, the proletariat, “was the most affected because of the absence of any way to profit from their own labor which forced them to sell their labor while being paid low wages” (Price 1987, pg. 198). Of course, this new industrialization greatly aided the bourgeois elite who wanted to keep their private investments and properties while the lower classes suffered under extreme conditions of poverty and want. Thus, the proletariat classes revolted against the bourgeois which brought about the first events of the French Revolution in 1789.
During the French Revolution, a number of prominent socialists arose, three of the most important being Comte de Saint-Simon, Charles Fourier and Robert Owen. These men has contrasting views on exactly how the revolution should progress and who should benefit the most from the revolt against the monarchy. But more importantly, these men were convinced that the revolution must bring about economic freedom for all French citizens in order for society to remain prosperous and free of the shackles of the monarchy. Saint-Simon held the theory that all production linked to manufacturing must be regulated and controlled by the state and not by the common citizen. For the most part, Saint-Simon believed (wrongly, however) that those in power would form working-class cooperatives that would help to eliminate poverty in the lower classes. In contrast, Fourier and Owens believed that the workers and not the rich and powerful industrialists should be responsible for the organization and distribution of goods and commodities produced in the factories. However, all three were in agreement that cooperation among all the classes would eventually eliminate class struggle, something that indeed did not occur during the French Revolution.
In May of that year, King Louis XVI made a bold attempt at enforcing limited economic reforms in order to keep his fellow French citizens as far down the economic ladder as possible. In June, the Third Estate, composed of representatives of the common French people, established itself as the National Assembly which went against the will of Louis XVI and his monarchy. One month later, a Paris mob, made up of people from mostly the lower classes, stormed the Bastille, a huge government-run prison, which marked the beginning of the end for the French monarchy and for those associated with it, such as the aristocrats appointed by Louis XVI who owned and operated vast landed estates, full of wealth and power.
In August, the Constituent Assembly was created which then ratified the “Declarations of the Rights of Man” that abolished feudalism, the old system of the lord of the estate and his serfs who worked the land for no pay or recognition, and established a constitution which greatly limited the powers of the French monarchy. One particular reformer at this time was Abbe Sieyes whose radical pamphlet “What Is the Third Estate?” attacked “the nobles and clerical privileges and was very popular throughout France with those that demanded social reform” (Forsyth 1987, pg. 167). However, a large number of official grievance petitions were filed by the common citizens of France which illustrated their views on a whole range of topics, such as economic fairness, a living wage and freedom from the oppression of the French monarchy. Yet the monarchy was helped by some of these petitions, for they demonstrated the ignorance of the lower classes, most of whom were illiterate and very uneducated.
But in 1793, some three years after the storming of the Bastille, the French Revolution began to experience much divisiveness which brought about “The Terror,” along with many related uprisings and counter-revolutionary revolts. “The Terror,” supported and encouraged by Robespierre, was highly affected by the execution of Louis XVI in 1793, and less than two months later, the Revolutionary Tribunal was created which marked the true beginning of “The Terror.” During this very turbulent time, the rebel leader and writer Jean-Paul Marat was killed by Charlotte Corday which, in essence, brought about even more disruption in the lives of the common French citizens. Unfortunately, this event created much hypocrisy among the lower classes, for they took on new ideals that were closely related to those of the aristocracy, meaning that the lower classes began to see themselves as superior to the other classes.
It is nearly impossible to speak of the French Revolution without mentioning the power of nationalism. As an extension of the revolution, several examples of nationalism arose in France between 1789 and 1793, such as governmental nationalism which appointed the power to the state and its people regardless of class position or status and opposition nationalism, another vision pursued by those that opposed any and all governmental interference in the new society.
These two examples then created other branches of nationalism, being separation (i.e., the opposition nationalists who wished to hold and maintain power via autonomy); reform nationalism (aimed at overthrowing all governing parties), and unification (the struggle to unify France as a whole and equal nation with all classes sharing in the responsibilities of the state).
As its legacy, the French Revolution allowed nationalism to spread to all portions of the country and greatly aided in the design of other governments which often controlled their citizens much like the aristocracy that ruled the land prior to the revolution of 1789. In essence, without nationalism, the lower classes in France which initially began the revolution would not have been able to unite as a group and thus overthrow the French monarchy; French nationalism also made it possible for other revolutions in Europe where the people were in similar economic and political straits as those in France.
As to the classes themselves, it is clear that the bourgeois elites, being those with wealth and power, only wanted to see those in similar social settings as themselves rise to the status of authority in the new nation. They also held little sympathy for the laboring poor whom they saw as a vile, classless mob with socialist ideals which threatened private property and personal wealth; however, the bourgeois elites failed to understand that the lower classes considered them to be nothing more than oppressors, much like the French monarchy and Louis XVI. In regard to the monarchy, being a class within itself, the power of the king and the aristocrats had to be maintained at all costs, due to the belief that the monarchy was a God-given priority which was destined to rule over all those with less social standing.
In conclusion, the French Revolution introduced not only in France but the entire western world to the concept of political revolution at the hands of the lower classes. It also provided some hard-earned lessons on what exactly makes up a democracy where all citizens are treated fairly and equally. In addition, the revolution brought to light the idea that a nation such as France is constructed of more than just citizens loyal or disloyal to a particular monarchy, for it is in reality a social system where all the people must be free to choose their own destinies.
Of course, many scholars have taken on the question as to whether the French Revolution could have been prevented, but due to the conditions within France before the outbreak of revolt, it is clear that such a thing was impossible. Undoubtedly, the monarchy of Louis XVI was greatly responsible for the revolution as were the nobility and the aristocrats who only wished to retain the old system. In fact, King Louis XVI should have seen the revolution coming and should have done everything in his power to prevent it. But he did not act accordingly, for at first he saw the uprising as nothing to be overtly concerned about. Surely, the French Revolution was something that did not happen all of a sudden, for the pressure, both political and social, had been building for many centuries. Thus, as Lynn Hunt points out, the French Revolution “was the result of the lower classes struggling against the mighty monarchy which was incapable of sustaining its old system based on outmoded thoughts and ideals” (1984, pg. 245).
Forsyth, Murray. (1987), Reason and revolution: The political thought of Abbe Sieyes, Leicester University Press, New York.
Gershoy, Leo. (1957), the era of the french revolution: 1789-1799, Van Nostrand, New York.
Hunt, Lynn. (1984), Politics, culture and class in the french revolution, Longman, London.
Lefbvre, Georges. (1969), the french revolution: From 1793 to 1799, Routledge & Kegan Paul, New York.
Price, Robert. (1987), a social history of nineteenth-century france, Hutchinson, London.
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