The French Revolution: was it worth it?
This post owes a great deal to William Doyle's The Old European Order, 2nd edn. (Oxford, 1992) and also to a wide range of other works on the French Revolution.
What changed as a result of the French Revolution?
Following on from the American Revolution and the Declaration of Independence, the French provided a detailed programme for a new type of polity. The ideology of the French Revolution was spread by the revolutionary armies, who brought with them an agenda for the destruction of the old order. By 1800 Europe was ideologically divided in a way that had not been seen since the religious wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
'Economically the Revolution was a disaster for France’ (Doyle, 362). The poor harvests were outside the control of the governments, but the crisis was worsened by government decisions. One was the decision to confiscate and sell church lands, which (Doyle argues) threw about a quarter of the land of France onto the open market. This land was bought by the bourgeoisie, who tied up their resources in landed property rather than in investment in industry.
The government depreciation of the paper currency, the assignat, caused inflation until the experiment was ended in 1797. The only real beneficiaries were the debtors who had been able to pay off their debts in depreciated currency. Public credit collapsed and precious metals were driven out of circulation.
The luxury and service sectors suffered from the Revolution. Urban unemployment soared and the population dropped.
However the unprecedented mobilization associated with the levée en masse provided a positive stimulus to the economy.
Overall, however, the Revolution did more economic harm than good, at a time when British productivity was soaring because of the Industrial Revolution. Was French industrialization delayed for a generation?
The sans-culottes were ‘the first self-consciously political popular movement in history’ (Doyle, 366). In two important ways the ‘people’ benefited from the Revolution. Firstly, farmers and peasant proprietors were relieved of the burden of serfdom. Secondly, for a period ordinary men (and women?) had a voice in national decision-making. But this was a brief moment, permitted because of divisions within the Revolutionary governments, and by 1800 this power had been taken away from them. Political rights were still linked to property.
Only the richest peasants benefited from the transfer of land while the rural industries on which many depended were suppressed. Military conscription took a heavy toll of able-bodied farm hands. Unsurprisingly as many as a third of the émigrés were artisans or peasants.
Unemployment rose for the townspeople. The Le Chapelier law (14 June 1791) made unions of working men illegal. The break with the Church reduced the number of saints’ days and the working week was further extended by the (understandably unpopular!) introduction of the ten day revolutionary calendar in 1793.
The poor suffered most of all, as the Revolution destroyed the bulk of the revenue of hospitals and charitable institutions and dried up the stream of private charity. Women, children, the old and the sick suffered disproportionately.
Former nobles lost their privileges and the émigrés lost their lands. However, in spite of some spectacular and famous names, they were not the main victims of the Terror. Most did not emigrate but lived quietly in the country and emerged at the end of the 1790s with much of their prestige intact. During the Napoleonic period they enjoyed an Indian summer.
A quarter of the émigrés were clergy and 5,000 might have died during the Revolution. But the Catholic Church survived and the closing years of the 18th century saw a religious revival in France and throughout Europe papal authority revived. However the close link between Church and state had gone.
Historians have been unanimous that the French Revolution marked the triumph of the bourgeoisie, the former Third Estate (Doyle, 374-5). Thanks to their purchase of nationalized Church lands, their share of landed property increased dramatically. They gained more than any other group from the abolition of noble privileges and the career open to talents. The Revolution was a triumph for the property-owning classes.
What about women, a topic ignored by Doyle? Overall, they lost out in the Revolution. After a brief period of feminist writings and of the formation of female revolutionary clubs, they were denied a public voice. The good citizeness was the exemplary wife and mother, rather than the political activist. Look at what happened to Olympe de Gouges. Women religious suffered intense economic hardship. Some feminist historians have seen the French Revolution as a profoundly misogynistic movement, with Marie Antoinette the most prominent victim of this misogyny.
Question: Why did French women not get the vote until 1944?
The French Revolution caused thousands of deaths - though even more people died in Poland and Ireland during the 1790s. It has been estimated that 40,000 died at the height of the Terror; those who were not guillotined were shot (as in Lyons) or drowned (as in Nantes). This isn't counting those who died in battle or of malnutrition. The Terror can be explained by the threats to France, both from anti-revolutionaries inside the country and from invading armies. But it also revealed some very uncomfortable facts about human nature - a self-righteous moral certainty that expressed itself in vicious cruelty.
The other side of the sheet is the doctrine of human rights (droits d'homme). The Declaration of the Rights of Man led eventually to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights promulgated by the UN in 1948.
The total break between Church and state was enshrined in the law of 1905 which established the principle of laïcité. This means that there can be no religious instruction in state schools. It is also the rationale for the banning of the hijab in state-run institutions.
Unlike France, Britain blurs the distinction between sacred and secular. Darwin was buried in Westminster Abbey. French secular heroes are buried in the Panthéon, a deconsecrated church.