How revolutionary was the French Revolution?

9 termidoro

9 Termidoro at the National Convention, by Scuola Frances

“If the mainspring of popular government in peacetime is virtue, amid revolution it is at once virtue and terror: virtue, without which terror is fatal; terror, without which virtue is impotent.”

– Robespierre to the Convention on 5. February 1794 –



Robespierre’s address, representing a brief period, might be taken as an expression what the French Revolution encompasses at its most radical moment: a redefinition of ethics. There is hardly anything more revolutionary. In the interpretation of some historians [1], the Terror is even considered characteristic of the whole event. However, it does injustice to the versatility of the process and its reverberations. Yet, it raises awareness to the question how revolutionary the French Revolution was.

If we were content with the stage of the National Convent under the Jacobins as the gist of the French Revolution, we could indeed, albeit prematurely, argue that it was revolutionary by ridding France of the acien regime, even though not for the benefit of a ruling Bourgeoisie – the Jacobin’s alliance with the sans-culottes and their welfare policy [2] can hardly be seen as bourgeoisie key interests. The dynamics which began in 1789 surely were not dead and done with after Robespierre’s demise. Instead, it created a melting pot for various movements, experiments and first origins, reverberating into the present. Hence, when investigating the question what replaced absolute monarchy, we venture a look into its most significant consequences for the various key social groups.

Prior to the revolution, the nobility had featured themselves by three hallmarks: venal offices, exemption from taxation and feudal landownership. However, these were privileges of societal status, not of economical power [3]. With the shift of the basis of privilege away from birth towards talent and merit, the deprivation of feudal landownership and introduction of state taxation, the pillars of their natural privileges crumbled. Becoming landlords instead of seigneurs, the Nobility’s wealth grew dependent on the incomes of the peasantry. They either had to engage in Bourgeoisie economy, running estates as a business, or distinguish themselves by representative status [4]. The formerly reign of he Second Estate had become less a natural matter of course, but of economical power.

Related to that redistribution of land for the benefit of commoners [5], the life of rural populace was transforming. Whereas their daily lifes maintained a great deal of continuity, both their sensed and factual identity as a occupational stand transformed significantly. By becoming tenants or owners of land, the peasantry experienced an upgrade of self-esteem. Moreover, with market liberation and a national unification of currency and units, they, even though inadvertently, came under the paradigm of economical efficiency. Hence, they were inching towards being entrepreneurs rather than serfs, responsible for their own economical sustenance. Here, we may find the first wellspring of the feeling of freedom and pride farmers in the 19th century felt, spreading to the West frontiers of the United States.

The urban workers, with their alliance with the Jacobins, and their reputation of having saved the revolution [6], may have felt, for the first time, being a political power. By bolstering their self-esteem, their self-conception as a political group awakened. However, their gain was a blanket too small to warm the whole body. While they were granted equality before the law, with the system being reshaped into a market-oriented economy under new owners of the means of production [7], they came under the exploitation of a Nobles-Bourgeoisie economy. Together with social welfare put on the back burner until the latter half of the nineteenth century [8], the mixture of having political clout with still being a disadvantaged group, turned the working class into an entity for later socialist theories and experiments.

While the high clergy, by abolition of divine monarchy, land expropriation and religious freedom, had lost in political, economical and spiritual power, the consequences for common priests were less dramatic. Small parish priests had been relatively poor before the revolution, in particular in the Southeast, and were regarded by the rural commoners as their ilk, dispatched as deputies with cahiers to the Estates-General [9]. With tithes abolished, their income came from state salaries, connecting them with the populace. Religiosity, even though oppressed during the reign of Robespierre, was not smothered for long, and coexisted alongside a national identity. Hence, the priests’ role shifted towards satisfying the spiritual needs of their flock, rather than alleviate physical hardship. However, with the Church losing political power, the may have benefited from dissolving of associations with clerical oppression [10].

Women's March on Versailles01

Women’s March on Versailles, 5-6 october 1789.

For most of the slaves around the globe, the French Revolution appeared to have, for another half century, limited consequences. The abolition of slavery at Saint-Domingue in 1875, a consequence of the slave uprising as an attempt of the Convention to regain control, can predominantly be counted as an act of political necessity, even though many members had a stance opposing slavery. The abolition of it in the Unites States may have had an intellectual link to the pride the Convent took in being the first to have done it [11]. The merit of the French Revolution for the majority of slaves worldwide was, for the time being, a symbolic triumph.

Like workers, women had shown clout in 1789 by marching to Versailles. Albeit at times they assumed the role of the fist, their male co-revolutionaries imposed a passive role on them, that of moral support [12]. In a time in which women were exempt from education, they may be seen as fist and heart, but never as the brain of the revolution – and the revolution was underpinned by ideas. Hence, on the intellectual dimension of political influence, they ended up even less benefiting than the workes, who at least become considered a political entity. In the active dimension of political influence, one might argue that, with their newly granted right to inherit property as a consequence of the abolition primogeniture, women gained participation. However, emancipation in private property is confined to private matters, and therefore, has limited direct consequences in terms of political clout. Hence, by effectively still being kept out of active political participation, the disadvantaged role of women was maintained. Peter McPhee speaks of a ‘subordinate political position’. [13]

Judged by the daily lifes of those groups, it is a tranquil dimension to gauge changes of revolutionary magnitude. From a minimalistic perspective, with workers and women still being under oppression, the peasantry liberated but still toiling away, priests retaining spiritual importance and slaves still in bondage until 1848, it seems that predominantly an exchange at the top layer took place. But that’s myopic; dramatic changes in daily life are spawned by new technologies, less by political changes. Instead, there was a profound change in the legitimization for the ruling of the new elite. Absolute rule by divine grace, formerly awarded by the First Estate, was replaced by right per common and rational consent. Governing by nationalized rationality needs respecting and persuading those governed. Hence, as the most profound change, was a new sense of identity in every citizen based on nationality and the creation of self-esteem in the individual.

Klemens Großmann, September 2015


[1] DW, Locations 1434 ,1439 ,1447
Jean Jaurès, Albert Soboul, Albert Mathiez

[2] MCP, Locations 1472-1474
Jacobins saw things differently. ‘In a single instant you can give the French people a real homeland’, promised St-Just, ‘by halting the ravages of inflation, assuring the supply of food, and intimately linking their welfare and their freedom’.

[3] DW, Locations 1011-1012
Feudal rights were not always very lucrative, and their incidence varied enormously. But there was no doubt of their vast symbolic significance

[4] MCP, Locations 2304-2305
The nobility would fuse with the wealthiest echelons of the propertied bourgeoisie into a ruling elite of ‘notables’ which dominated French politics until the 1870s.

[5] MCP, Locations 2273-2274
many small peasants benefited from the sale of émigré property in small lots after 1792.

[6] DW, Locations 1243-1244
The people of Paris had saved the National Assembly on 14 July, and perhaps in October 1789 as well.

[7] MCP, Locations 2247
French Revolution laid the groundwork for the unleashing of market-oriented agriculture and capitalist manufacturing.

[8] MCP, Locations 2360-2361
No doubt, for the sans-culottes the end of the Revolution left a sense of disappointment and failure. Only between 1848 and World War I were democracy, social welfare, workers associations and rights to education again secured.

[9] MCP, Kindle Locations 982-983
The parish priests were held in high esteem, not least because so many of their deputies had sided with the Third Estate in 1789.

[10] MCP, Locations 2227-2228
Religious toleration was one way in which the Catholic Church could never enjoy pre-revolutionary levels of obedience and monopoly of morality.

[11] MCP, Locations 1229-1230
The deputies congratulated themselves on being the first rulers ever to abolish slavery – which they were, but only through recognizing a fait accompli.

[12] MCP, Locations 2160-2161
Similarly, the protective Virgin Mary of Old Regime imagery gave way to the Marianne of the Republic, now in classical garb and liberty cap, but still a feminine allegory watching protectively over men.

[13] MCP, Location 2163


DW Doyle, William (2001-08-23), The French Revolution: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition.

MCP McPhee, Peter (2015-06-02), The French Revolution, Melbourne University Publishing, Kindle Edition.

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