Introduction:- This course provides a basic historical background to the French Revolution. It will show that the Revolution accelerated intellectual, cultural, and psychological change, and opened up new horizons and possibilities. In fact, while much controversy and skepticism remain as to the real extent of underlying change in the social and economic structure of France, it is generally agreed by scholars that the Revolution stimulated a widening of expectations and imaginative awareness: a belief, inherited from the Enlightenment, in the possibility of progress, as well as a conviction that state and society could be reconstituted with a view to realizing social and individual aspirations and human happiness generally. As it degenerated into violence and bloodshed, however, the Revolution also provoked skepticism and pessimism about progress and human nature. The two basic types of modern political outlook, progressive and conservative, date from this experience. Which, if any, of these sets of beliefs was true is not at issue here. What matters is that the Revolution gave rise to them and gave them lasting life.


1. The French Revolution was a great event in the history not only of France & Europe but of mankind as a whole. It gave to humanity new ideas of 'Liberty & Equality & Fraternity'.
2. The French Revolution is the name given to the struggle which swept away the Old Regime in France and brought about fundamental changes in the socio-political set-up.
3. This political upheaval began in 1789. King Louis XIV and his successors had brought divine-right absolutism to the peak. The French king, in the 18th century, had unlimited powers. Opponents were put in prison without trial.
4. French society consisted of three estates or classes. The first (clergy) and second (nobility) estates were privileged in many ways. Members of third estate - commoners (middle class, workers & peasants) were the 'underdogs'. They made 90% of the population. Almost the entire tax burden fell on third estate. But the privileged classes were exempted from these taxes.
5. These undemocratic features of French society were sharply criticised by able writers and thinkers like Montesquieu (1689-1775), Voltaire (1694-1778) and Rousseau (1712-1778).
6. The immediate cause of the French Revolution was the bankrupt condition of the French treasury brought about in part by the extravagant expenditure and inefficiency of Louis XV & Louis XVI.
7. The French Revolution started with the fall of Bastille Fort. The mobs in Paris attacked the Bastille on July 14, 1789, killed its governor and freed the prisoners. This ancient fortress, where political prisoners were kept, was the symbol of tyranny in France. Its capture aroused the whole nation. Peasants in the provinces plundered and burnt several castles.
8. 'Liberty, Equality and Fraternity' became the watchword.
9. Government in France broke down, as royal officials fled and the people stopped paying taxes. The National Assembly governed France from 1789-1791. It drafted a constitution which created a limited monarchy. Its preamble was the famous Declaration of the Rights of Man. All feudal rights were abolished. Local government was reorganised. The old provinces were replaced by 83 departments. Church lands were confiscated and sold to peasants. Special Church privileges were abolished. The first Republic was proclaimed on sep. 21, 1792. King Louis XVI and his queen Marie Antoinette were beheaded on the guillotine on Jan. 21, 1793 and oct. 16, 1793 respectively on charges of treason. Napolean, after some time, emerged as the strong man of France.
10. The French Revolution was an event of fundamental importance not only for France but for whole of Europe and ultimately for the whole world. In France, the Revolution established the political supremacy of the middle class in the towns and transferred the bulk of the landed property to the peasantry in the countryside. For Europe and the world, it represented an ideal of popular sovereignty and equality before the law.

Enlightenment, liberty and revolution

The main aim of this course is to provide you with basic historical background on the French Revolution, which marked a watershed in the history and culture of the period 1780–1830. The documents and illustrations associated with it are there to illustrate and bring out the points made. The first exercise is preceded by an extended preamble designed to facilitate your reading and understanding of the first document. This should in turn point a way towards engaging with other documents and illustrations associated with the course.

The French Revolution, or at least its impact on France and Europe, lies at the heart of the cultural shift from Enlightenment to Romanticism. It not only marked a decisive break in the history of France and Europe, but also accelerated intellectual, cultural and psychological change. It opened up new horizons and possibilities. Indeed, while there remain much controversy and scepticism as to the real extent of underlying change in the social and economic structure of France, scholars generally agree that the Revolution brought a widening of expectations and imaginative awareness: a belief, inherited from the Enlightenment, in the possibility of progress, as well as a conviction that state and society could be reconstituted with a view to realising social and individual aspirations and human happiness generally. As it degenerated into violence and bloodshed, however, the Revolution also provoked scepticism and pessimism about progress and human nature. The two basic types of modern political outlook, progressive and conservative, date from this experience. Which, if any, of these sets of beliefs was true is not at issue here. What matters is that the Revolution gave rise to them and gave them lasting life.

It is not possible in one course to do justice to the complexity of the French Revolution, whose significance preoccupied contemporaries and has continued to engage historians ever since. Suffice it to say that it was, and was considered by those who lived through it to be, the most momentous turning-point in modern history thus far, ‘a traumatic convulsion’ (Doyle, 2001, p. 2) that made its impact on the way people lived and thought across Europe throughout most of this period. The revolutionaries themselves recognised the break with the past by naming the social and political order before 1789 the ‘Old Regime’ (ancien régime).

The Revolution aroused the deepest passions, from ardent enthusiasm to inveterate hostility. Some of its enemies attributed it to a conspiracy hatched by freemasons or even by leading figures of the Enlightenment. Catherine the Great of Russia, once the darling of two of those leading figures, Voltaire and Diderot, was by 1794 voicing the suspicion ‘that the aim of the philosophes was to overturn all thrones, and that the Encyclopédie was written with no other end in view than to destroy all kings and all religions’ (Lentin, 1985, p. 269). This was a wild exaggeration, but it illustrates the shock caused by the Revolution, and it raises the important question how far the Revolution was a result of the Enlightenment. Others stress the role of chance and personality in the Revolution (for example, the weakness or folly of the French king and queen, the fanaticism of the Jacobins) and the pressure of events and forces (mass violence, civil war, invasion) which took on a momentum of their own, often overwhelming and sometimes destroying the revolutionaries themselves. This course condenses a sequence of tumultuous happenings in France and Europe in the decade 1789–99 (and a bewildering succession of political constitutions and legislative acts), in order to focus on the Revolution's more important stages or turning-points and their significance.

The main target of the Revolution was the political and social privilege entrenched under the Old Regime. Power in Europe rested, as it had for centuries, with a privileged nobility. Social status and political influence depended on birth, hereditary title to land or office (which could also be purchased), and the unearned income derived from land and the right to peasants' contributions in cash, kind or labor. In France, in the generation before the Revolution, almost every one of the king's ministers, provincial governors, and bishops was a nobleman. The watchword ‘liberty’ sums up the main slogan and aspiration of the Revolution: liberation from political despotism, social exclusion, and discrimination. The second watchword, closely related to liberty’, was ‘equality’. Both ‘liberty’ and ‘equality’ were supposed to be inspired by and suffused with a third – ‘fraternity’ or brotherly love. The historian Francois Furet insists that the appeal of liberty, equality, and fraternity, which proved so infectious, stemmed from what he calls the Revolution's ‘deepest motivating force: hatred of the aristocracy’ (Furet, 1996, p. 51). Be that as it may, on the eve of the Revolution, ‘in all countries the distinction between the noble or gentleman and the rest of the population was the cardinal fact of social life’ (Hampson, 1969, p. 55).

The immediate cause of the Revolution was that the French monarchy faced imminent bankruptcy. (This was partly because of the enormous sums it had spent assisting the American Revolution between 1778 and 1781 in order to discomfort the traditional enemy, Britain.) Neither nobility nor clergy paid direct tax. Without the consent of the established orders of society to a reorganization of the tax burden so as to restore its finances, the government could no longer function. Successive ministers tried to win over influential sections of the nobility to various reform proposals, with inconclusive results. In 1788 the helpless King Louis XVI was advised to turn for help to the nation as a whole in the shape of its representatives duly elected and convened in the ancient form: the Estates-General.

On 5 May 1789, this body was therefore assembled at Versailles for the first time since 1614. It consisted of elected representatives of the three orders or estates of the realm: clergy, nobility, and the Third Estate, or commoners, the remaining 95 percent of the population. The representatives of the Third Estate were mainly officials, lawyers, landowners, and merchants. If the precedent of 1614 was followed, each of the orders would assemble separately, and if the clergy and nobility voted as estates, they could outvote the Third Estate by two to one. In 1789, however, ‘nobody knew what the Estates-General would do … There was a complete vacuum of power. The French Revolution was the process by which this vacuum was filled’ (Doyle, 2001, p. 36).

Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyès (1748–1836) trained as a priest and became assistant to a bishop. He had no religious vocation, however, and his fame arose as the author of a highly influential pamphlet, What is the Third Estate?, published in January 1789, on the strength of which Sieyes was elected a deputy to the Estates-General. Four editions or 30,000 copies of the book came out within months of its appearance, at a time of heightened consciousness that great changes were afoot. What is Sieyès's argument, how does he present it, and what is the significance of his book?

Let us take a closer look at part of this document before attempting the exercise below. This preamble should help you to relate to similar exercises in this course. The document is quite long, by far the longest one associated with this course; but you should not find it difficult to read it through fairly quickly and to extract its main points, to grasp Sieyès's ‘message’, and to note how he conveyed it. After you have read it through once, re-read it from the beginning up to ‘a nation within a nation’.

The fact of its immediate success and large print run already suggests that What is the Third Estate? was crisply written, had a clear and timely message, and was readily and immediately understood and appreciated. Sieyès is methodical, concise and to the point. He tells us straightaway that ‘we have three questions to ask ourselves’ about the Third Estate. He sets out those three questions in numerical order. To each question he gives a one-word answer. He then states, ‘We shall see if these are the right answers’, and undertakes to provide ‘the supporting evidence’.

This down-to-earth, systematic approach is very much in the style and spirit of the Encyclopédie in its clarity of presentation, its promise of logical argument based on supporting evidence, and its conclusions critical of existing institutions. Sieyès does not express his conclusions as views personal to himself but as demonstrable statements of objective fact.

‘What is a nation?’, and proceeds to give a definition. Again, his method and his objective are clear and logical. You will note, however, that this time he does not offer any supporting evidence for his statement. Why not? Presumably, he believed that his definition was self-evident and would be found so by his readers, as indeed it was.

Sieyès's basic idea of a nation was not new. It drew on Enlightenment concepts familiar to any educated reader. Diderot, in his article ‘Political authority’ published in the Encydopédie in 1751, discussed terms and ideas which by 1789 had become the staple of political thought. He argued that sovereignty, or ultimate political power in a state, derives not from the monarch but from the ‘people’ or ‘nation’, that it must be exercised in their interest and for their benefit, that it should be controlled and circumscribed by laws, and that the ruler's tenure of office is in the nature of a trust exercised for the people's benefit and with their consent, underpinned by an implicit agreement or ‘social contract’ (Gendzier, 1967, pp. 185–8).

Against this familiar background, Sieyès takes a further easy and logical step by postulating another characteristic of a nation: namely, that it has an elected, representative legislative (law-making) assembly. This too follows implicitly from ideas popularized in the Encyclopédie, but it received a tremendous additional boost, first from the success of the American Revolution and the summoning of a constitutional convention by the United States in 1787, and now in France by the summoning of the Estates-General. The French people, or nation, were at last to be ‘represented’ in an assembly or, as it was soon to be called, a National Assembly, through which it too would be enabled to express its political will, frame its own laws and shape its own national destiny.

After this definition of a nation, uncontroversial in its Enlightenment borrowings but now suddenly fresh and revolutionary in its immediate relevance in 1789, Sieyès makes a further claim, all the more unexpected because of the equable tone and calm logic employed by him thus far. He suddenly claims that the nobility, by reason of its ‘privileges and exemptions’, is not part of the nation at all, but ‘a nation within a nation’. This, he states rhetorically, ‘is only too clear, isn't it’. The reader will take the implicit point (soon to be made explicit) that not only is this indeed the case but that such a situation is illogical, unjust, and wrong, no longer tenable or tolerable. Sieyès's purpose is to isolate and marginalize the nobility in his readers’ eyes, and to expose it to their critical censure. In the circumstances of 1789, his message took on startling implications about the respective roles of the nobility and the Third Estate in the Estates-General.

 We see here a reference to another Enlightenment touchstone – ‘the rights of man’ – and also to the ‘petitions’ (Cahiers de doléances) which the representatives at the Estates-General brought with them from their constituents. In invoking ‘the rights of man’, Sieyès again draws on a common background and strikes a common chord with his readers in his references to the political terminology of the Enlightenment. Again, too, in mentioning the petitions, there is the striking topicality of his comments as the Estates-General assembled to air the nation's grievances.

Popular posts from this blog

Write a Note on Mughal Mansabdari System

Describe Issues Emerges in Enforcement of National Environment Legislations

How do I get Adsense approval with a