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French Revolution
French Revolution

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1 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 unearned income derived from land and the right to peasants' contributions in cash, kind or labour. 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).