The French Revolution was a major event not only in the history of the French Empire but also in the history of the world. The tumultuous events of the revolution resulted in the spread of ideas of liberty and equality, thereby helping to create a popular movement. This paper aims to discuss social transformations that the revolution sought to achieve.
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The French Revolution came on the heels of the American Revolution of 1776 (Cole et al. 426). Many subjects of the French Empire were inspired by the success of the American uprising. However, unlike American society that was divided into proponents and opponents of British rule, its French counterpart was characterized by conflicts between many social groups. French society was comprised of three legally-recognized classes that were commonly referred to as Three Estates. Whereas the first two estates consisted of the clergymen and the nobility, the third group subsumed remaining social strata. Interestingly enough, legal distinctions between disparate members of the Third Estate were poorly defined.
The group was comprised of layers, entrepreneurs, laborers, and peasants among others (Cole et al. 427). Wealthy members of the Third Estate were unwilling to identify with manual workers whom they despised. Furthermore, legal distinctions between the nobility and rich entrepreneurs who were jealous of their position resulted in social tensions. Abbe Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyes, a distinguished politician of that time, understood the source of the social discontent and argued that the Third Estate contained “within itself everything needful to constitute a complete nation” (qtd. in Cole et al. 431).
To better understand the change promised by the uprising, it is necessary to explore the social conditions of the constituents of the Third Estate. Entrepreneurs, lawyers, and other privileged members of the group criticized the government for a complicated tax code. They believed that undue regulations stifled the country’s economy and “interfered with the natural workings of the market” (Cole et al. 428). Peasants also had their fair share of grievances with the state. Residents of the countryside were subject to tithes, levies, fees, rents, and other forms of taxation. In addition to these financial obligations, peasants had to maintain public roads. Also, they were deprived of hunting privileges, which was a major source of discontent.
Before the revolution, the deterioration of economic conditions resulted in the corrosion of social cohesion. In the 1780s, the empire experienced a rapid increase in bread prices, which was caused by poor harvests (Cole et al. 428). Following the law of supply and demand, the production of manufactured goods rapidly decreased, thereby reducing the incomes of wealthy members of the Third Estate.
The Declaration of the Rights of Man
The Declaration of the Rights of Man, which was issued by the National Assembly in 1789, was a perfect example of social transformations that the revolution attempted to achieve (Cole et al. 431). The document was based on the philosophical concept of natural rights and sought to guarantee liberty, freedom of speech, and equality before the law for all citizens of the future republic (Cole et al. 433). Due process of law was an extremely important aim of the French Revolution because, before the uprising, social distinctions between the country’s residents were associated with the unequal application of laws. The Declaration also introduced a concept of religious toleration, which helped to end the persecution of Jews (Cole et al. 432). Furthermore, the document intended to ban slavery in some regions of France, which was an enormous social change.
The women’s rights movement around 1790 was another instance of the transformation of French society that was facilitated by the revolution (Cole et al. 432). Even though not all prominent thinkers of the era supported the movement, many women wanted to assert their rights and fought to legalize divorce. Unfortunately, revolutionaries were opposed to the emergence of the political consciousness of French women; therefore, female organizations and clubs were forcefully shut down.
Another area of the social transformation was the church. The revolutionaries desired to deprive religious authorities of their lands, thereby solving the economic crisis. Moreover, the National Assembly wanted to institutionalize the church and make it free from the political interference of the pope. Unfortunately, this avenue of change was utterly divisive: many peasants who opposed the reform were forced to revolt. Even though revolutionary leaders espoused egalitarian principles, the Committee of Public Safety, which was formed to crack down on the opposition, gave rise to a reign of terror. In the period between 1792 and 1794, the revolutionary progress was drowned in dictatorial bloodshed (Cole et al. 436). Approximately 40, 000 people were murdered in that period (Cole et al. 436).
The paper has shown that the French Revolution was a popular uprising the aim of which was to introduce major social transformations. Despite the substantial progress of the revolutionaries, many peasants and laborers bore the brunt of the tumultuous events. The revolutionary progress was driven not only by the ideas of freedom and equality but also by tyranny and despotism.