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French Revolution


End of Absolute Monarchy: The French Revolution dealt a death-blow to absolute monarchies all over Europe. Even though the monarchy was restored for a period in France, from that point on there was constant pressure on European monarchs to make concessions to some form of constitutional monarchy that limited their powers. The ones that did not respond were all overthrown. Professor Lynn Hunt of UCLA, regarded the creation of a new democratic political culture from scratch as the Revolution's greatest achievement.5 At the same time she also interpreted the political Revolution as an enormous dysfunctional family haunted by patricide: Louis as father, Marie-Antoinette as mother, and the revolutionaries as an unruly mob of brothers.6

Demise of the Feudal System: The Revolution held up equality as an ideal for all the citizens of France and forcibly eliminated the traditional rights and privileges of the aristocratic class. Some revisionist historians such as Alfred Cobban have recently argued that feudalism had long since disappeared in France; that the Revolution did not transform French society, and that it was principally a political revolution and not a social one as socialists had previously believed.7

Rights: The Revolution made a significant contribution to the theory of human rights even if there were gross violations in the first few years of the Revolution. The language of abstract rights that has come to dominate current political discourse has its roots in the French Revolution. These are not discrete clearly described rights that are circumscribed by law and custom but abstractions bestowed by the State which may undercut tradition, custom, law and traditional liberties.

Modernization: The French Revolution originated the idea that ancien regimes should be "modernized" according to the principles of a rational state. Modernization extended to the military, the administrative system, and other aspects of French life, with effective results. The very idea of modernity can be traced to the revolution.

Administrative and judicial reforms: These survive to this day as a positive legacy for France, having made the country's polity more rational and fair for all its citizens. The greater freedom and equality made society more meritocratic. The Civil Code remains the basis of French law and has influenced other European legal systems.

Decimal and metric systems were first introduced in 1795 and have been adopted by much of the world.

Freedom of religion particularly for Protestants and Jews. Wherever Napoleon's armies went, Jews were emancipated and given the opportunity to participate as equals in European society.

Disestablishment of the Church Education and social welfare programs that had traditionally been provided by the Catholic Church declined dramatically with the Revolution's attack on the church. The state was unable to provide alternative provision for many decades. The revolution destroyed the "religious, cultural and moral underpinnings of the communities" in which ordinary French people lived.8

Violence The Revolution's anticlericalism led to the repudiation of Christian virtues and sentiments. The revolution injected hate into the political process. The violence that characterized the revolution was a response to the resistance it encountered. It was naive to expect the nobility to welcome the abolition of their ancient status and privileges especially as the reforms were enforced hastily, without negotiation or compensation. This use of violence and terror has been adopted by revolutionaries around the world who regard it as legitimate and unavoidable.

War The Revolutionary Wars and Napoleonic Wars convulsed and changed the map and future of Europe. The character of war itself was changed. France mobilized all its resources to fight the wars and other countries had to do the same to defend themselves and defeat France. This required a huge rise in taxation and expansion of the power of the state. The wars had a world wide impact drawing in the colonies of both sides. These wars were also ideological and thus a precursor of the world wars of the next century.

Nationalism French revolutionary principles were exported and imposed on much of Europe. It led to the rise of nationalism as one of the key principles of the revolution was that people should think of themselves as citizens and have as their highest and sole source of identity the nation state. This fostered national hatred and conflict. Germany for example was 'tidied up'. Napoleon abolished the Holy Roman Empire and reduced the 396 principalities and free cities to 40. This imposition French rationalism and culture stirred up a reaction which poisoned Europe in the following century. The counter-Enlightenment with its rejection of abstract rationalism and emphasis on romanticism and blood ties blossomed in Germany, leading to a wounded German nationalism. Bismarck completed the unification so as to prevent the French, or anyone else, trampling over and humiliating Germany again.

Revolution Revolutionaries for the past 200 years have regarded the French Revolution as a model to be emulated. Ever since there have been revolutionary figures hanging around plotting and waiting for the opportunity to seize power. These rebellions are against the supposed violation of abstract rights rather than existing laws. The revolution was a source of inspiration to radicals all over the world who wanted to destroy the ancien regimes in their countries. Some officers of the Russian Army that occupied Paris took home with them revolutionary ideas which fermented and directly contributed to the ideological background of the Russian Revolution. Historian François Furet in his work, Le Passe d'une illusion (1995) (The Passing of An Illusion (1999) in English translation) explores in detail the similarities between the French Revolution and the Russian Revolution of 1917 more than a century later, arguing that the former was taken as a model by Russian revolutionaries.

Secularization The anti-clericalism and de-Christianization policies created a deep and lasting gulf in France pitting the two sides against each other. This had a social and political expression too. Socialists and trade unionists throughout continental Europe have tended to be atheists. The strict separation of church and state took traditional Christian values out of public life. Citizenship is still the only sort of identity recognized by the French State which has made it harder for France to integrate religious minorities such as Muslims who find their identity elsewhere.

Democracy The revolution was carried out in the name of democracy and has spread the message to the world that the people are, or ought to be, sovereign. The French version of democracy has had a tendency to become intolerant of dissent and totalitarian. The modern democratic terminology of left-wing and right-wing comes from the seating arrangements of two main groupings in the Constituent Assembly.


  1. ↑ A recent study of El Niño patterns suggests that the poor crop yields of 1788-1789 in Europe resulted from an unusually strong El Niño effect between 1789 and 1793. Richard H. Grove, “Global Impact of the 1789-93 El Niño,” Nature 393 (1998): 318-319.
  2. ↑ M. Walzer, "Citizenship," in T. Ball & J. Farr & R. Hanson, (eds.) Political Innovation and Conceptual Change (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1989).
  3. ↑ John Hall Stewart, A Documentary Survey of the French Revolution (New York: Macmillan, 1951), 86.
  4. ↑ Christopher Hibbert, The Days of the French Revolution (New York: Morrow Quill Paperbacks, 1981), 93.
  5. ↑ William H. Sewell, Review of Politics, Culture, and Class in the French Revolution by Lynn Hunt. In Theory and Society 15 (6) (Nov 1986): 915-917.
  6. ↑ Jeff Goodwin, Review of The Family Romance of the French Revolution by Lynn Hunt. In Contemporary Sociology 23 (1) (Jan 1994): 71-72; quote from Madelyn Gutwirth. "Sacred Father; Profane Sons: Lynn Hunt's French Revolution." French Historical Studies 19 (2) (Autumn 1995): 261-276.
  7. ↑ Alfred Cobban, The Social Interpretation of the French Revolution (Cambridge, 1963, ISBN 0521667674).
  8. ↑ William Doyle, The Oxford History of the French Revolution (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989).


  • Andress, David. The Terror: The Merciless War for Freedom in Revolutionary France. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005. ISBN 0374530734 (Recently published history concentrating on the radical phase of the revolution)
  • Ball, Terence, James Farr, and Russell L. Hanson (eds.). Political Innovation and Conceptual Change. Cambridge University Press, 1989. ISBN 978-0521359788.
  • Carlyle, Thomas. The French Revolution: A History. (original 1837) New York: The Modern Library, 2002. ISBN 0375760229. (A history of the early course of the Revolution (1789-1795) written in high-style poetic prose, but everywhere scrupulously grounded in historical fact)
  • Cobban, Alfred. The Social Interpretation of the French Revolution. Cambridge, 1963. ISBN 0521667674.
  • Dickens, Charles. A Tale of Two Cities. Ignatius Press Critical edition, 2012. ISBN 978-1586174422. (Fiction, Dickens' work captures the spirit of the Revolution well.)
  • Doyle, William. Oxford history of the French Revolution, 2nd ed., Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002. ISBN 019925298X
  • Doyle, William. Origins of the French Revolution, 3rd ed., Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999. ISBN 0198731752
  • Furet, François. The Passing of an Illusion: The Idea of Communism in the Twentieth Century. University of Chicago, Chicago, 1999. ISBN 0225273407 (originally published as Le passe d'une illusion (1995). Includes a perceptive linking of the nature and events of the Russian Revolution with the French Revolution.)
  • Furet, François. La révolution en débat. Paris: Gallimard, 1999. ISBN 2070407845 (In French) (A short but important book with a series of articles on the historiography of the revolution)
  • Hibbert, Christopher. The Days of the French Revolution. New York: Morrow Quill Paperbacks, 1981. ISBN 0688007465. (well researched classic)
  • Hunt, Lynn. Politics, Culture, and Class in the French Revolution. London: Routledge, 1986. ISBN 0416425402
  • Legrand, Jacques. Chronicle of the French Revolution 1788-1799. London: Longman and Chronicle Communications, 1989. ISBN 0582051940. (English-language edition of the collaborative work Chronique de la Révolution 1788-1799. Paris: Larousse, 1988 ISBN 2035032504, produced under the direction of Jean Favier and others.)
  • Loomis, Stanley. Paris in the Terror, June 1793 - July 1794. Drum Book, 1986. ISBN 0931933188
  • McPhee, Peter. The French Revolution, 1789-1799. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002. ISBN 0199244146. (short, up-to-date and useful book which covers many areas including feminism and environment)
  • Schama, Simon. Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution. London: Penguin, 1989. ISBN 0140172068 (This is well researched and written with illustrations an excellent study of the Revolution.)
  • Sobel, Robert. The French Revolution. Peter Smith, 1973. ISBN 978-0844609225.
  • Steel, Mark. Vive La Revolution: A Standup history of the French Revolution. 2004. ISBN 0743208064. (Satirical history of the revolution. A cross between a history of the French Revolution and a spirited defense of the ideals that inspired it.)
  • Stewart, John Hall. A Documentary Survey of the French Revolution. New York: Macmillan, 1951. ASIN B002ASGV7Q
  • Tackett, Timothy. Becoming a Revolutionary: the deputies of the French National Assembly and the emergence of a revolutionary culture (1789-1790). Princeton, NJ; Chichester: Princeton University Press, 1996. ISBN 0691043841. (The most thorough research on the deputies of the Estates General and the National Assembly.)
  • Vermeil, Jean. L'autre Histoire de France. Paris: Editions du Félin, 1993. ISBN 2866451392. ("The exactions of the revolutionaries in the Vendée" (Chapters 13 to 16). (In French)

External Links

All links retrieved May 11, 2017.