The French Revolution
The French and American Revolutions have had a deep impact on the course of political history and statehood. In fact, the two events marked the transition of the world from an antiquated political, economic and social order that had lost its utility in the light of contemporary philosophical ideas. The two events are credited with introducing several ideas such as republicanism, nationalism and equal rights in the modern state.
These movements are also credited with highlighting the significance of liberty and freedom for all citizens. As a result of these movements, states were created where equality of opportunity and individual freedoms were guaranteed to the citizens. The exploitative relationship between the ruler and the ruled was transformed and governed by the laws of the constitution. This paper discusses the factors behind the French Revolution and its immediate consequences. This is followed by a discussion of the similarities and differences between the French and American Revolutions.
Conditions Leading to the French Revolution
There were several factors behind the French Revolution on 1789. Some of the important social, political and economic factors are discussed below:
The Spread of Enlightenment Ideas. The rapid spread of Enlightenment ideals among the French population in the years immediately preceding the French Revolution is noteworthy. Although the French intellectuals had been espousing Enlightenment ideals for many years, the ideals gained prominence and appeal in the United States before the French people became inspired to bring about a revolution.
Through the actions of the pamphleteers, the teachings of philosophers such as Voltaire and Rosseau began to reach the common French people and provided a justification for them to revolt against the established social and political order of the day (Rude, 7). The people were no longer willing to accept the aloofness of the aristocrats as their inevitable fate.
The Burden of Taxation. Although the French common peasant and middle class citizens enjoyed greater freedom than in other parts of Europe, the economic structure of France created some unique conditions that hastened the onset of the French Revolution. Firstly, due to the vast size of the French economy, the middle class had grown considerably in the country. They also paid a lot of taxes to support the aristocracy.
However, the political power remained concentrated within the aristocrats. This created a lot of resentment among the French bourgeoisie and they intensified their struggle to gain greater power and influence.
Secondly, the peasant class was also burdened with various forms of taxation including a capitation tax, income taxes, salt taxes and tithes (Rude, 7). These taxes made life difficult for the people and increased the desire to create a more equitable economic and social system.
Famine and Starvation. The agricultural sector in France was tightly regulated by the government to ensure that the capital was ell-supplied with bread at all times. Unfortunately, there were major crop failures during the years 1787-1789 (Neely, 72). This led the government to increase the price of bread to ensure that the limited supplies were accessible only to the wealthy.
With rapidly depleting stocks of grain and bread in the market, the French peasants found it extremely difficult to feed their families while paying the numerous mandatory taxes to the government. Riots started to break out regularly as people attacked bakeries and shops for food. Over time, this anger was to culminate into the French Revolution.
The Growing Power of the Bourgeoise. As has been discussed earlier, the growing French bourgeoise was experiencing resentment because of not having substantial influence in policy matters despite having amassed much economic power. They got their opportunity during the last decade of the eighteenth century. As a result of the wars with England, the French economy had suffered a lot of damage, which had hampered the growth prospects of the merchant class.
In addition, the country was divided into a number of districts that imposed tariffs on trade with other districts. As the merchants gradually came into positions of influence following the wars, they determined to increase their political power and subvert the established order (Heller, 86).
Changes in France after the Revolution
A number of dramatic changes took place in the aftermath of the French Revolution. Some of the most influential and lasting ones are discussed below:
A Secular State. One of the most significant consequences of the French Revolution was that the state was transformed into a secular republic. Ever since the challenge of Muslim expansion into Europe, France had remained unified under a Christian identity and had sought credibility from the Roman Catholic Church. The continued calls for dechristianization (Arnold, 56) of the French state during the 1790s were realized immediately after the French Revolution as the state severed its dependence on the Roman Catholic Church. The powers of clerics and church officials in the new French state were severely curtailed.
Nationalism. Another significant impact of the French Revolution was the creation of nationalism among the French people. Prior to the Revolution, the parasitic relationship between the nobility and the citizens was based on the duties of the citizens to ensure the rights of the rulers.
After the Revolution, this concept was changed. Under the concept of nationalism, all the citizens enjoyed rights and owed duties towards others (Arnold, 128). During the French Revolution, citizens across the country also felt a common bond in overthrowing the exploitative aristocracy. The break from Rome also motivated the people to find their new identity in a common nationhood.
A Republican State. Along with the break with the Church, another change that resulted from the French Revolution was the creation of the republican state. The absolute power of the monarchy had been done away with and had been replaced by a more representative form of government.
Although there were a number of challenges, Napoleon for example, to be overcome before this ambition was fully realized, the Revolution offered the opportunity to a new breed of leaders to create a republican state after the power of the monarch had been reduced and brought under the control of a constitution. The power to determine prices was now in the hands of a government that had to follow the laws in the constitution.
Equality of All Citizens. After the new government was established in the French Republic, work began on the draft of the declaration of equal rights for all citizens. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen was an ambitious document that promised the rights and freedoms of all citizens of the French Republic.
Under the Declaration, all French citizens were entitled to enjoy liberty and own property (Neely, 56). The citizens also had the right to participate in the formation of the government. They enjoyed freedom of speech and expression. The oppressive taxations system was destroyed and a new unbiased system of taxation was proposed. The ideal of separation of powers was also enshrined in the Declaration to ensure that the liberty of citizens was upheld and they were not subjected to undue oppression.
Similarities between the French Revolution and the American Revolution
Despite being separated by thousands of miles, the revolutions that took place in American and France within a few years of one another share a number of similarities. Some of the important similarities are discussed below:
Ideals of Enlightenment. Both the French and American Revolutions were inspired by the ideals of Enlightenment. The teachings of philosophers such as Montesquieu and Rousseau inspired the American revolutionists and they evoked those ideals to articulate their complaints against the British crown. A few years after the success of the American Revolution, the French Revolution also echoed with the ideals of liberty and equality for all citizens. The revolutions culminated in the declaration of the rights of citizens stressing equality before law (Dunn, 18).
Unfair Taxation. The motivations for the French and American Revolutions were quite similar. The problems that caused people to rebel were mainly of an economic nature. Both the American and French people were being exploited by an oppressive and unfair taxation system that created anger and resentment among the middle and lower classes in both countries. The Americans were increasingly raising their voices against not being given their due share out of the taxation proceeds by the British government (Dunn, 167).
At the same time, the French peasants and merchants were becoming frustrated by the complex taxation system that included a range of Church tithes, land taxes, capitation taxes as well as trade tariffs for trading across the French districts. Due to the influence of Enlightenment ideals that were being transferred across France and America, the people in both the regions started to feel empowered to subvert the exploitative system and create a fairer social and political structure.
Declaration of Rights. The French and American Revolutions are similar in that they both culminated in the creation of a declaration of the rights of man in the new state. The Declaration of the Rights of Man presented by the French National Assembly promised every citizen the right to be treated equally before the law and the right to own property. The citizens were also granted the freedom of expression and religion. Similarly, the American Declaration of Independence specified the inalienable rights of men to life, freedom and pursuing the means for the happiness (McNeese, 4).
Contrasts between the French Revolution and the American Revolution
In spite of a number of similarities, the French and American Revolutions differed in some fundamental ways that influenced how the new states would be structured and governed. Some of the notable differences are elaborated below:
Colonialism and Absolutism. A fundamental point of difference between the American and French Revolutions was the objective of the two movements. The French Revolution was aimed at transforming the social order of the country by restructuring the relationship between the ruler and the ruled. It was a rebellion against the absolute power of the French monarchy. In essence, the French Revolution was aimed at fighting against other French people. On the other hand, the American Revolution was a rebellion against the colonial control of Britain and voiced a demand to gain the due rights of the people in the colonial territories (Arnold, 7).
Differences in International Support. The outcome of the two revolutions differed in that France came to be governed by a dictator while America became a federal state. This can be explained by as a result of the international support and security threat posed by the international community.
While America received considerable assistance from European powers such as France itself, the French Revolution received no assistance from beyond its borders (Arnold, 7). This led to a scramble for stability following widespread chaos and confusion in France. Hence, while the French Revolution was followed by a long period of bloodshed and uncertainty, the American Revolution led to a smoother transition of power.
The Desired Form of Government. The two Revolutions also differed in the kind of government they envisioned as an outcome of their efforts. American leaders of the Revolution such as Jefferson were opposed to the British monarchy and wanted to create a federal state after the end of the Revolution.
On the other hand, the leaders of the French Revolution were not completely opposed to the idea of a monarch. In fact, at the time of the Revolution, they were contemplating the likelihood of creating a constitutional monarchy (Arnold, 94) where the monarch would exercise his powers within the boundaries of the constitution.
The French Revolution is a defining moment in modern history as it helped to define the relationship between state, government and citizen in the modern world. In the age of Enlightenment, the French Revolution illustrates a violent phase in the transition from an obsolete political system to a system based on individual rights and duties of the citizens. Together with the American Revolution across the Atlantic, the French Revolution ensured the foundation of a new western political order that would then be transported to other parts of Europe and eventually the world. Although briefly overshadowed by the violence of the Napoleonic Wars, the French Revolution eventually paved the way for the modern nation state.