Too many people think of the French Revolution merely because of the guillotine or Marie Antoinette’s remark (which she never made): “If they have no bread, let them eat cake”. Much like the American Revolution which preceded it thousands of miles away, the revolt of the “ordinary French people against the tyrannical and autocratic rule of a few wealthy aristocrats and land owners brought about a vast change in the decades in the future. Whereas George III was far distant, Louis XVI and his circle of aristocrats were on hand each day, a day which continued to oppress a people all too used to being kept in their place, struggling to survive. One can argue loud and long about whether the French Revolution was mainly political or social; and whether the resultant purges of aristocrats, the political infighting among those who thought of themselves as a sort of 18th century freedom fighters, and the resultant Napoleonic Empire really was as earth-shaking as some history books indicate.
What really happened during the end of the Eighteenth Century in Europe to change nations and people? One must admit that Reilly’s intrusively naïve introduction is supposed to make this period of history “easier” to understand. He writes” “The modern world puts its faith in science, reason, and democracy” (Reilly 2000 157). If Reilly had been (and continues to read) headlines – not merely about the lack of democracy in Third World nations, but a fairly “unreasonable” refusal to assist American efforts by, yes, FRANCE, perhaps there is a pedantic rationale to align the France and the Europe that was with an Enlightenment that has not survived the Nineteenth, and certainly the Twentieth and Twenty-first centuries.
Some philosophers, as Reilly does point out(157) wanted people to be free, but felt they were unprepared to be free and ther3efore were incapable of self-rule. The obvious question then, if not the “ordinary” people, who? If for economic reasons, again who won? The same question might be focused on political, social, and scientific reasons: If we see the French Revolution as a sort of turning point in Europe, we need to examine whether that is a fair assumption, or merely wishful thinking by Francophiles.
Let’s begin with the assumption that there were some people who felt the leadership void, given the removal of royalty, should be in the hands of the Church. Of course, the Church was as much at fault as the aristocrats in continuing oppression of the so-called “ordinary” Frenchman. The Church promised miracles to the faithful, Hume, for one, disagreed writing that “no t4stimony for any kind of miracle has ever amounted to a probability (Reilly 161). While it might be reasonable to state that the Church lost some of its power as a result of the Revolution, to most Frenchmen it was the economic “revolution” that gathered the greatest amount of interest. Perhaps many Frenchmen were already aware of that fact, feeling that the Revolution would at least bring about a far more important miracle- self-sustenance: the ability to farm their lands, or ply their trade without oppressive taxes, controls, or literally economical slavery. It would be truly a stretch to say that the French Revolution either brought about or speeded the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.
Even prior to the political Revolution, the Age of Science was changing “man’s attitude toward custom and tradition….that melioration depends, not upon ‘change from within’….but ‘change from without’ (scientific and social mechanics)” (Reilly 119). Even as the economic focus of the world shifted its center to Western Europe, the Atlantic and even the English Channel, France could hardly be called a pioneer in economic thought. They were, in a sense, observers. “‘I perceive.’ Said the ‘Countess’ in Fontenelle’s popular dialogue of 1686, ‘Philosophy is now become very Mechanical'” (Reilly 122). Observers and commentators, and recipients of others’ scientific and philosophical progress. But, it would seem fair to assume the French movers and shakers would prefer to have someone else get their hands dirty, while they waited for the results.
Reilly quotes various intellectuals of the time to stimulate our agreement that the French Revolution was wise, but at the same time indicative of people’s inability to govern themselves. Reilly introduces Kant’s philosophy: “he shows us how the Enlightenment’s quest for scientific reason led to a demand, sometimes revolutionary, for political freedom” (Reilly 162). Kant says that one should have courage to use one’s own reason (162). This, he claims, is the motto of enlightenment. But, the French Revolution was hardly one of reason, and not always of courage to promote reason.
In retrospect, this seems a fair statement to make, since the admirable French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, unlike the American Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, failed in action what its lofty words promised. “Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite” was a cry to action, but the end result was never what was promised. The French revolution, whether historians agree or not, was a political ands philosophical failure. Reilly himself admits: “The French Declaration is full of abstract, universal principles” (174). Abstractions seldom get the expected results. In this case, the end result of the Revolution was neither liberty, nor equality, but Napoleon and his dreams and realization of a French Empire that went far beyond what the Bourbons had imagined a generation earlier.
What is somehow bothersome is the fact that, even today, we tend to idealize the French Declaration and the ensuing French revolution. We use it as romantic backdrops, from Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities” to the action adventure of “The Scarlet Pimpernel” and countless movies made about that period.
Instead of liberated peasants now able to till their own soil, our memories are of Madame LaFarge knitting every time a royal head falls from the guillotine.
There are many who today believe the French Revolution was somewhat of a failure (certainly compared to the American Revolution). Tom Paine, at the time, is paraphrased as saying: “The French intended to replace rule of law by rule of reason- their own reason; that was what put their revolution on the skids” (Morison 1965 336). As Morison (1965) claims, the French revolution seemed to some to be a clear-cut contest between monarchy and republicanism, while others saw it as a fresh breaking out of the eternal strife between poverty and prosperity, even anarchy versus order. It is one thing, as the Declaration of the Rights of Man states: “The aim of every political association is the preservation of the natural and inalienable rights of man…” (Reilly 175); it is quite something else for diverse political associations to agree. The so-called Age of Reason had turned into a changing age of disavowal. Danton and Marat, for example, were correct one day, and dead the next, victims of the Age of Unreason .
Now, as for social change. What were the effects of the French revolution? For a time, monarchists, elitists and aristocrats were pushed into oblivion, to be replaced by commoners (yes, “little corporals”) who assumed their place with equal vigor and ruthlessness. Reilly is correct in asking: “Was the French declaration more likely to create equality than the American Declaration of Independence?” (174). No, because the French people had no true concept of equality, never having experienced it. The very word “equality” is dangerous because so few people truly understand its meaning. One is reminded of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, where the powe4ful pig says adamantly that some are more equal than others. More than anything in either Declaration, that sentiment sticks to my mind because it is more relevant to us today.
One can sum up the entire question of the impact of the Fr4ench revolution by stating that it really had little lasting effect- both on the French as well as other Europeans. The biggest economic, social, and political change was due to the Industrial revolution- the separation of capitalists from workers, rather than aristocrats and commoners. Once Napoleon was gone, there was no modern Joan of Arc to rescue France from becoming a lesser nation, never to be truly egalitarian.
Morison, S.E. The Oxford History of the American People: Oxford UK Oxford University Press (1965)
Reilly, K.: Worlds of History Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s (2000)