History 151  The French Revolution: Causes, Outcomes, Conflicting Interpretations

Mr. Schwartz


Causes of the French Revolution

1. International: struggle for hegemony and Empire outstrips the fiscal resources of the state

2. Political conflict: conflict between the Monarchy and the nobility over the “reform” of the tax system led to paralysis and bankruptcy.

3. The Enlightenment: impulse for reform intensifies political conflicts; reinforces traditional aristocratic constitutionalism, one variant of which was laid out in Montequieu’s Spirit of the Laws; introduces new notions of good government, the most radical being popular sovereignty, as in Rousseau’s Social Contract [1762]; the attack on the regime and privileged class by the Literary Underground of “Grub Street;” the broadening influence of public opinion.

4. Social antagonisms between two rising groups: the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie

5. Ineffective ruler: Louis XVI

6. Economic hardship, especially the agrarian crisis of 1788-89 generates popular discontent and disorders caused by food shortages.


Revolutionary situation:  when the government's monopoly of power is effectively challenged by some groups who no longer recognize its legitimate authority, no longer grant it loyalty, and no longer obey its commands.  Dual or multiple sovereignty is the identifying feature of a revolutionary situation - the fragmentation of an existing polity into two or more blocs, each of which exercises control over some part of the government and lays claim to its exclusive control over the government.  A revolutionary situation continues until a single, sovereign polity is reconstituted.  The Third Estate’s Oath of the Tennis Court in June 1789 and its claim of representing the sovereignty of the nation creates a revolutionary situation in France.


Revolutionary Process or Stages:

·        One interpretation from this definition is that a revolution will continue until a single sovereign order has been restored either by agreement or force. As the French Revolution demonstrated, the level of violence is likely to be greater after the first outbreak of revolution or revolutionary situation, as one group claiming sovereignty seeks to vanquish one or more other rival groups also claiming sovereignty.

o       A good example in the French Revolution is the events leading up to the overthrow of the Constitutional Monarch on August 1792—often called the “Second Revolution”—and the establishment of the First French Republic.

o       After the establishment of the Republic, the level of violence grew as the Republican regime sought to repress counter-revolutionary movements in France (Federalist revolts and the Vendée uprising) while struggling at the same time to prevent defeat in war by the combined forces of Austria, Prussia, and Britain. The so-called reign of Terror was instituted to quash both internal and foreign forces of counter revolution.  But once these internal and foreign threats were under control in the spring of 1794, Terror continued at the direction of the Committee of Public Safety, the most famous member of which was Maximiliean Robespierre. This last period of Terror was aimed at eliminating political rivals of Robespierre and the Committee, which included Danton. The excesses that resulted led to the overthrow of Robespierre and the Committee on the 9th of Thermidor, Year II (July 27 1994).

o       After the overthrow of Robespierre, the revolution continued still longer as the moderate leaders of the newly established government called the Directory (1795-1799) attempted to bring the revolution to a close in keeping with the principles of 1789 that would be under bourgeois control and freed from the intervention and pressures of the popular movement.  This effort entailed the forceful repression of 1) the popular movement in Paris by Napoleon’s so-called “whiff of grapeshot.” the overturning of elections in 1797 (to oust neo-Jacobins seen as too radical) and again in 1798 (to oust ultra conservatives).  The Directory relied on the army and military force to carry out these repressive acts at the same time it supported the army and Napoleon in an aggressive war of expansion in Europe and Egypt.  Having relied on the army so much, the Directory was in the end overthrown by Napoleon and military might.

·        Another interpretation of the Revolution divides the period of 1789-1799 into stages or phases:

o       A liberal, constitutional phase of 1789-1792

o       A radical, republican phase that led to authoritarian terror of the Committee of Public Safety August 10 1792 to 9 Thermidor 1794

o       Thermidor: A reactionary phase in response to the excesses of radical republicanism (universal male franchise) and of Terror.

o       The Napoleonic coup d’etat, the ending of the Revolution by military coup and the restoration of “order” and domestic peace through an authoritarian regime.  


Outcomes of the French Revolution, 1789-1799(1815)

1. Representative government vs. authoritarianism (the Terror, Napoleon): two different new models of government

2. Stronger, further centralized state with a larger, more effective and more intrusive administration.

3. Abolition of special fiscal privileges, seigneurial dues owed by peasants to lords, internal tariffs, and the establishment of uniform tax system based in principle on one’s income.

4. Creation and extension of new civil rights:

a. equality before the law

b. careers open to talent

c. participation in elections or certain government positions based on property qualifications

5. Socio-economic changes

a. single commercial code

b. abolition of guilds, i.e., workers right to organize in “unions”

c. business becomes an honorable profession

d. (wealthier) peasants acquire land and more peasants become independent proprietors

e. increase in the size and influence of the bourgeoisie, through the acquisition of church lands, greater wealth, and offices as political representatives and government officials

6. Changes in ideas and political culture:

a. Liberty, Equality, Fraternity ; popular sovereignty : sovereignty rested with the “people” not in the king, or any narrower group such as the aristocracy; democratic republicanism

b. Nationalism -

c. decline in religiosity, in the influence and authority of the church -

d. formation of a revolutionary tradition centered on the belief that revolution was a means for bringing progressive change and further extension of popular participation and popular sovereignty.


Conflicting Interpretations of the Revolution: Causes, nature, outcomes.

1.  The Influence of Ideas: Mathiez:  “The Revolution had been accomplished in the minds of men long before it was translated into fact.”  Taylor: Revolutionary ideology was the product, not the cause, of a political and social crisis of revolutionary proportions.  A revolutionary situation emerged first and revolutionary thinking came out of that situation.

2. The role of the people and violence:

a.  “This contrast between theory and practice, between good intentions and acts of savage violence, which was the salient feature of the French Revolution, becomes less startling when we remember that the Revolution, though sponsored by the most civilized classes of the nation, was carried out by its least educated and most unruly elements."

            Alexis de Tocqueville, The Old Regime and the French Revolution, 1858

b. "The French Revolution gave peoples the sense that history could be changed by their action, and it gave them, incidentally, what remains to this day the single most powerful slogan ever formulated for the politics of democracy and common people which it inaugurated: Liberty, Equality, Fraternity. . . . The French Revolution demonstrated the power of the common people in a manner that no subsequent government has ever allowed itself to forget--if only in the form of untrained, improvised, conscript armies, defeating the conjunction of the finest and most experienced troops of the old regimes.    When the common people did intervene in July and August of 1789, they transformed conflict among elites into something quite different, if only by bringing about, within a matter of weeks, the collapse of state power and administration and the power of the rural ruling class in the countryside. This is what gave the Declaration of the Rights of Man a far greater international resonance than the American models that inspired it; what made the innovations of France--including its new political vocabulary--more readily accepted outside; which created its ambiguities and conflicts; and, not least, what turned it into the epic, the terrible, the spectacular, the apocalyptic event which gave it a sort of uniqueness, both horrifying and inspiring."

            E.J. Hobsbawm, Echoes of the Marseillaise, 1990


3.  The Revolution as a tragedy vs. progressive change:

a. "This great drama [the French Revolution] transformed the whole meaning of political change, and the contemporary world would be inconceivable if it had not happened. . . . In other words it transformed men's outlook. The writers of the Enlightenment, so revered by the intelligentsia who made the Revolution, had always believed it could be done if men dared to seize control of their own destiny. The men of 1789 did so, in a rare moment of courage, altruism, and idealism which took away the breath of educated Europe. What they failed to see, as their inspirers had not foreseen, was that reason and good intentions were not enough by themselves to transform the lot of their fellow men. Mistakes would be made when the accumulated experience of generations was pushed aside as so much routine, prejudice, fanaticism, and superstition. The generation forced to live through the upheavals of the next twenty-six years paid the price. Already by 1802 a million French citizens lay dead; a million more would perish under Napoleon, and untold more abroad. How many millions more still had their lives ruined? Inspiring and ennobling, the prospect of the French Revolution is also moving and appalling: in every sense a tragedy."

            William Doyle, The Oxford History of the French Revolution 1989


b. "The French Revolution was both destructive and creative.  It represented an unprecedented effort to break with the past and to forge a new state and new national community based on the principles of liberty, equality, and fraternity.  After the old government was replaced, differences over the meaning of those principles and the ways they were to be put into practice grew more salient and serious.  Thus the revolution continued until a stable state organization was consolidated, in part through the use of military force.  Shaped and driven by passionate ideological differences, violence, and war, the revolution bequeathed to the French and to the World a new and enduring political vision: at the heart of progress lay liberation from the past, egalitarianism, and broadly based representative government."

            Robert Schwartz


c. The French Revolution was, essentially, the invention of a new political culture:  "In my view the social and economic changes brought about by the Revolution were not revolutionary. Nobles were able to return to their titles and to much of their land. Although considerable amounts of land changed hands during the Revolution, the structure of landholding remained much the same; the rich got richer, and the small peasants consolidated their hold, thanks to the abolition of feudal dues. Industrial capitalism grew at a snail's pace. In the real of politics, in contrast, almost everything changed.  Thousands of men and even many women gained firsthand experience in the political arena: they talked, read, and listened in new ways; they voted; they joined new organizations; and they marched for their political goals. Revolution became a tradition, and republicanism an enduring option. Afterward, kings could not rule without assemblies, and noble domination of public affairs only provoked more revolution. As a result, France in the nineteenth century had the most bourgeois polity in Europe, even though France was never the leading industrial power. . . . Lynn Hunt, Politics, Culture, and Class, 1984


4. A Marxist Interpretation: "After ten years of revolutionary changes and vicissitudes, the structure of French society had undergone a momentous transformation. The aristocracy of the Old Regime had been stripped of its privileges and social preponderance; feudal society had been destroyed. By wiping out every vestige of feudalism, by freeing the peasants from seigneurial dues and ecclesiastical tithes--and also to some degree from the constraints imposed by their communities--by abolishing privileged corporations and their monopolies, and by unifying the national market, the French Revolution marked a decisive stage in the transition from feudalism to capitalism."

            Albert Soboul, The French Revolution, 1965


Further issues: Was the Revolution a failure? For whom?  Not worth the cost in lives and treasure? Was it a social revolution resulting in the displacement of one social class/group by another?  Was it only a political revolution: change in government and governing principles but the elites remain largely in control?  Had the revolution gone far enough?