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Name Subject Professor Date Enlightenment Influence on Political, Social and Cultural Policies of French Revolutionary
The age of enlightenment led by influential intellectuals during the 18th century Europe greatly inspired the French citizens, especially the peasants, leading to the revolutionary period culminating from 1789 to 1799. The enlightenment is hailed as the foundation of today’s western political and intellectual culture.1 Growth of liberal democracies and democracies, the spread of secularism, invention of total war and the development of modern ideologies all mark their foundation during the French revolutionary period. Factors identified to have stimulated the war are mostly economic. Immediately before 1789, majority of the nation’s destitute citizens experienced hunger and malnutrition due to rising bread prices and several years of poor grain harvest due to El Nino rains and volcanic activities at Laki and Grimsvotn. A poor transportation system hindered shipment of bulk foods from the country side to the populous urban centers. Also, France had effectively become bankrupt after participating in the American Revolutionary War for 7 years and losing its colonies. These factors destabilized the French society leading to resentment of King Louis XVI rule which culminated in the revolution. Enlightenment ideals led to resentment of royal absolutism; resentment by laborers, peasants and the bourgeoisie toward the traditional privileges
Kennedy, Emmet. A Cultural History of the French Revolution. New Haven: Yale University
possessed by the nobility; aspirations for freedom of religion; resentment by the poorer rural clergy toward the aristocratic bishops; resentment toward the church’s influence over public
policy; hatred of queen Marie-Antoinette who was seen to be spendthrift while the majority was
languishing in abject poverty; aspirations for social, political and economic equality. Furthermore, the French people were angered by King Louis XVI decision to fire Jacques Necker, who had been appointed comptroller-general of finance. He was popular with the majority for noting that the French taxation system was regressive and subjected the lower classes to a heavy burden. He further proposed that exemptions enjoyed by the clergy and the nobility be reduced to reduce the nation’s debt since the masses could no longer be taxed. This did not go down well with the king and other nobles and was seen as the reason why he got fired. During this period, France underwent great transformation politically, socially and culturally. Before the revolution, philosophers sought to promote intellectual interchange. They were opposed to intolerance and abuses by the church and state. This promoted reasoning by the general public leading to wide acceptance of reformist writings that recommended critical changes in the socio-political and cultural arena. This period saw the absolute monarchy that had formerly ruled France for hundreds of years collapse in only three years period. The French society went through an epic transformation that saw abolishment of aristocratic, feudal and religious privileges due to assault from masses on the streets and political groups.3 Old traditions and a hierarchical monarchy succumbed to the modern enlightenment principles of citizenship and inalienable rights. On 4 August 1789, feudalism was abolished by the National Constituent Assembly effectively sweeping away rights of the tithes gathered by the first estate and the second estate.
As a result, the clergy, nobles, towns, cities, provinces, and companies lost their special
privileges. On 29th of the same month, the declaration of the rights of man and of the citizen was
published. It comprised statements of principles rather than a legal constitution. In addition, the revolution resulted to a massive shift of power to the state from the Roman Catholic Church which previously was the largest single landowner. Furthermore, it levied a tithe-10% tax on income on the general population but it was exempt from paying taxes. Enlightenment thinker Voltaire is credited with fueling this resentment towards the Catholic Church thus destabilizing the monarchy. The national assembly enacted social and economic reforms that saw the church’s authority to impose the tithe abolished. King Louis XVI faced treason charges in front of the National Convention and was executed on Jan. 21, 1793. Power was left in the hands of the Montagnards who began adopting radical social and economic policies that met opposition further fueling the revolution in what was known as the reign of terror. Royalists tried seizing power in Paris, but were crushed by Napoleon Bonaparte who by 17 99 declared himself the leader of France after staging several coups d’états. Napoleon became Emperor of the French from 1804 to 1815. It is during this time period that the series of Napoleonic wars sparked by the French revolution of 1789 occurred. The wars revolutionized European armies mainly due to application of modern day mass conscription. French power rose rapidly as Napoleon’s armies conquered Europe but collapsed quickly after the disastrous invasion of Russia during winter in 1812.4 This weakened Napoleon’s military, and he suffered military defeat consequently leading to restoration of the Bourbon monarchy in France. The wars further led to dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire leading to the emergence
McManners, John. The French Revolution and the Church. New York: Harper and Row, 1969
of nascent nationalism in Italy and Germany. Spanish Empire was weakened by the French occupation of its colonies. As a direct result of these wars the British Empire emerged the world power for the next century. Napoleonic wars came to an end after Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo and the Second Treaty of Paris. To conclude, though the French revolution seemed a failure in 1799 and appeared nullified after the reign of Napoleon Bonaparte in 1815, it had far-reaching consequences. In France, the landowning classes and the bourgeois emerged as the dominant power. Contractual relations and social order were consolidated by the Code Napoleon. The Napoleonic code revolutionized legal reforms worldwide especially the section civil law jurisdiction. Napoleon is credited with spreading of revolutionary ideas during the 19 century, and his successes in most battles fought during the Napoleonic wars have catapulted him to be regarded as the greatest commander of all time. France unification and transfer of greater powers to the state are credited to the revolution which further tore down the earlier structure of governance in Europe, hastening the advent of nationalism, and inaugurating the era of modern, total warfare. Some historians concur that the reign of terror in France played a great role in establishing the precedents of democratic institutions such as elections, constitutions and representative governments. While historian’s interpretation of the revolution differs greatly, they all concur that it influenced greatly on the making of the modern world.
Notes 1. Doyle, William. The French Revolution: A very short introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001 2. Hunt, Lynn. Politics, Culture, and Class in the French Revolution. Berkley: University of California Press, 1984 3. Kennedy, Emmet. A Cultural History of the French Revolution. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989 4. McManners, John. The French Revolution and the Church. New York: Harper and Row, 1969
Bibliography Doyle, William. The French Revolution: A very short introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001 Hunt, Lynn. Politics, Culture, and Class in the French Revolution. Berkley: University of California Press, 1984 Kennedy, Emmet. A Cultural History of the French Revolution. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989 McManners, John. The French Revolution and the Church. New York: Harper and Row, 1969
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