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French Revolution
French Revolution

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7.2 The main consequences of the Revolution

What were the main consequences of the Revolution? Any answer demands so many qualifications that the question may be best answered in broad terms. ‘The Revolution’, says Norman Hampson, ‘put an end to a way of life’ (1975, p. 174). Suddenly, the traditional assumptions of the Old Regime, the old certainties, were gone, transformed. New perspectives and new expectations took their place. ‘In the long run,’ Norman Davies argues, ‘the Revolution probably had its greatest impact in the realm of pure ideas’ (1997, p. 713), and to William Doyle, ‘the real message’ of the Revolution was that ‘the world could be changed; fresh starts could be made’ (1989, p.8). Thomas Paine had said in Common Sense as early as 1776 under the stimulus of the American Revolution: ‘We have it in our power to begin the world over again.’ He expressed the same radical conviction with equal confidence in 1791 in The Rights of Man, his robust reply to Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France. In The Prelude Wordsworth recalled

… a time when Europe was rejoiced,

France standing on the top of golden hours,

And human nature seeming born again.

(The Prelude, VI.352–4)

How people responded to the Revolution determined the shape of future political discourse in Europe. Broadly speaking, there were progressives – liberals and radicals on the left, who applauded its aims and achievements (or some of them) – and conservatives on the right, who did not. What was there in the Revolution to applaud or deplore? What precedents and challenges did it set to Europe as a whole?

  • Rule by divine right and absolute monarchy were challenged by the principle of national sovereignty proclaimed by the Revolution. The nation, not the king, was recognized as the ultimate legitimate and legitimising source of authority in the French state. This became explicit with the establishment of the republic in 1792. Written constitutions introduced a representative assembly, a legislature elected by popular suffrage.

  • A hierarchical society juridically divided into social orders (estates), headed by a privileged nobility set apart by birth and caste, was challenged by the inclusive concept of citizenship and equality before the law. Offices of state were thrown open, theoretically at least, to individual merit, and the turmoil of events propelled new men into positions of authority in France.

  • The Catholic Church as an estate of the realm in a confessional state was displaced by the concept of the French nation or people as a focus of common allegiance in a secular state. Church and state, identified for centuries, were separated. Freedom of religion was established and non-Catholics achieved civic equality. Civil marriage was introduced in 1792, together with divorce and some measure of greater equality between the sexes.

  • The rights of man, drawn from Enlightenment ideals, were formally proclaimed. The French Revolution, as Robespierre declared, was, so far as Europe was concerned, ‘the first revolution to be founded on the theory of the rights of humanity’ (Furet and Ozouf, 1988, p. 685).

  • Liberty, equality, fraternity: these were among the potent revolutionary symbols and ideas for which people were willing to die – and to kill.

  • The people, the nation, the fatherland, the republic, citizens, the nation in arms: these slogans had a revolutionary dynamic of their own. Under the Old Regime, government, especially foreign policy, was the private business of the king and his ministers. After the Revolution, domestic and foreign policy was something in which citizens were encouraged to feel they had a personal stake and a common interest as ‘children of the fatherland’ (in the words of the Marseillaise) and members of a national army of citizen conscripts marching to the strains of a national anthem.

Revolutionary changes were introduced by the French armies into the territories annexed by France. By 1799 the republic had incorporated the papal enclaves of Avignon and Comtat-Venaissin (1791), Savoy (1792), Nice (1793), Belgium (formerly the Austrian Netherlands) (1795), the left bank of the Rhine and Geneva (1798). The same thing happened in the six satellite states or ‘sister republics’: Holland (‘the Batavian Republic’), Switzerland (‘the Helvetic Republic’) and the four Italian republics (see Figures 8 and 9). Each republic had its constitution, based on the French model. The constitution proclaimed the sovereignty of the people, as laid down in article 3 of the Declaration of the Rights of Man, and ‘the nation's rightful power to determine its own destiny’ (quoted in Bouloiseau, 1983, p. 10); that is, it invoked the principle of self-determination, denying the right of kings to dispose of peoples without their consent.

Figure 8
Figure 8 The departments of revolutionary France, 1793–9. Photo: William Doyle, The Oxford History of the French Revolution, Oxford University Press, 1989. By permission of Oxford University Press
Figure 9
Figure 9 The expansion of revolutionary France, 1793–9. Photo: E.J. Knapton, Revolutionary and Imperial France 1750–1815, Scribner, New York, 1972