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The French Revolution's Successes and Failures in Upholding Equality, Liberty, and Fraternity
The motto “liberté, egalité, fraternité” is a legacy of the Age of Enlightenment that became the signature motto of the French Revolution. This motto, first expressed by Maximilien Robespierre, translates to “liberty, equality, fraternity.” During the revolts, however, the motto was modified to “unité, indivisibilité de la republique, liberté, egalité, fraternité ou la mort” or “Unity, indivisibility of the Republic; liberty, equality, brotherhood or death (“Liberty, Equality, Fraternity”, n.p.).” The latter version became quite popular and was inscribed in front of houses, but the Republic decided to remove the last part as it is associated with the reign of terror. Thus, Robespierre’s version became the official motto of the Republic. This motto, however, was discarded under the Second Empire, under Napoleon Bonaparte , because it was deemed contradictory (“Liberty, Equality, Fraternity”, n.p.). The motto was reinstated after the 1848 Revolution. Nevertheless, the motto’s meaning continued to be criticized and debated by French thinkers. Different thinkers thought some of the words were either empty, too abstract, or inappropriate for the Republic. Still, it is inarguable that “liberté, egalité, fraternité” are the three foundations of the French revolution, and it guided much of the changes that occurred during the revolution. However, what this research paper shall discuss is how the French Revolution upheld and violated the said motto. This research paper proposes the thesis that the French Revolution granted liberty, equality, and fraternity to a limited degree, such that other sectors of society, namely women and Jews as well as the poor, did not enjoy the same freedoms.
Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité: The French Revolution's Successes and Failures
As discussed earlier, the motto “liberté, egalité, fraternité” is a contentious one in French society. Some of the great French revolutionary thinkers did not agree on the use of the motto, but it played a central role in the development of the French republic. The question to be tackled in the succeeding sections of this research paper is how the French Revolution upheld or violated the motto “liberté, egalité, fraternité.”
Liberty is considered a basic human right in today’s society, but prior to the revolution up to the 19th century, liberty is an abstract concept that cannot be materialized. Spick defines liberty as the freedom from restraint and the freedom to act or to self-determination (Spicker, p.5). Furthermore, if people are to be directed or restrained, it must be to one that they have consented to.
The lack of liberty is one of the main causes of the French Revolution. Wealthy commoners or the bourgeoisie found themselves unable to gain political power while the peasants became extremely aware and unsatisfied with the burden of feudalism that prevented them from progressing. In more ways than one, the people lacked liberty—they were unable to determine the direction of the economy, with which they were vastly unsatisfied, and they were unable to progress in life.
The social and political restraints previously upheld in French society were effectively removed by the French Revolution. The political system of France was restructured, and the monarchy and nobles that historically governed the country were replaced by elected officials composed mainly of the bourgeoisie (Ahmad, p.7). The new representative system of government, despite its flaws, is the first step toward a modern democratic government. This type of government, especially through voting, allowed the people of France to have a certain degree of self-determination in terms of governance. The most significant change instituted by the French Revolution is the Declaration of the Rights of Man , which decreed the most basic freedoms society enjoys today (Ahmad, p.8). Furthermore, basic property rights, education, and the separation of church and state were established. In this sense, thus, the French Revolution upheld liberty, but this liberty is not for all.
Certain sectors of society, specifically women and Jews, were not granted the same liberty as others. Women were still considered properties of men and thus were not granted the freedom to own land, hold office, or vote (Spiegel, n.p.). Women were not given autonomy or the freedom to self-determination. Similarly, Jews were not granted citizenship, which disenfranchised them from various freedoms, such as participating in governance. While these appear to be more shortcomings than outright violations of the motto, the exclusion of certain sectors of society is a symptom of the inherent problems with the newly established order. With these inclusions in mind, it becomes apparent that the French Revolution did not truly restructure society but simply replaced one ruling class with another.
Equality is about advantages and disadvantages. In society, different individuals experience different advantages and disadvantages (Spicker, p.65). In feudal French society, the aristocrats had access to food, clothes, and houses, were treated well in society, and were favored by the law while the peasants hardly had access to their basic needs, were treated poorly in society, and were often unfairly treated by the law. Inequality in terms of class is perhaps the most salient inequality prior to the French Revolution, and it is this inequality that it attempted to resolve.
The revolutionaries recognized that the social inequalities that governed them were rooted in their sociopolitical system. However, removing the nobility and monarchy was not sufficient to achieve equality. Inequality still persisted in terms of the distribution of land and wealth, and consequently power. Inequality still persisted because individuals born in different circumstances were treated differently. A simple example here is the inequality between men and women. Whereas men from different social classes may be able to acquire land and wealth post-revolution, women were not and neither are women allowed to inherit property from their fathers. Thus, French society continued to favor certain sectors or classes over others.
Inequality caused by poverty also continued to exist, however this time in a different form. Although people were free to choose their trade, many remained in poverty and were unable to improve their welfare. People either worked as farmers or helped or became laborers for a wage. Their situations were arguably no better than the peasants of the previous era as they hardly had access to their basic needs. Their poverty also further pushes these people away from being treated equally in society and by the law. It can be concluded, therefore, that the French Revolution failed to uphold equality in various fronts.
Fraternity, according to Spicker, is “based on the idea that people have responsibilities to each other” (p.119). This calls to mind the golden rule “do not do to others what you do not want them to do to you.” At the height of the French Revolution, groups and political factions existed and aided in the success of the revolution. However, guilds and associations were dismantled and in turn left the tradesmen on their own (Vardi, n.p.). As a result of this, incomes declined. Laborers experienced a similar situation as they struggled to earn enough for their basic needs. As merchants and tradesmen strove for prosperity and laborers struggled to earn enough for their basic needs, most people were preoccupied with their own problems. As such fraternity related to nation-building is left to government officials. Brotherhood based on citizenship is not a principle applied by the French at the time.
The years that preceded the French Revolution were characterized by inequality and turmoil. After the chaos and violence of the revolutionary years came nation-building. This is no easy feat and took decades of trial and error. Through those years, the motto “liberté, egalité, fraternité” prevailed. However, as this research paper expounded on, the principles of liberty, equality, and fraternity were upheld in varying degrees by the French Revolution. Although the French Revolution toppled the oppressive monarchy, it failed to liberate the people fundamentally, to institute equality among all sectors of society, nor was fraternity practiced in the sociopolitical arenas.
Ahmad, Farhad. French Revolution: Political Causes And Consequences . 2018. International Islamic University Malaysia, PhD Dissertation. https://www.academia.edu/38301885/POLITICAL_CAUSES_AND_CONSEQUENCES_OF_FRENCH_REVOLUTION_pdf
“Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.” France Diplomacy, https://www.diplomatie.gouv.fr/en/coming-to-france/france-facts/symbols-of-the-republic/article/liberty-equality-fraternity
Spicker, Paul. (2006). Liberty, Equality, Fraternity. Policy Press. https://library.oapen.org/bitstream/id/04cb0317-f8a4-4559-b644-efc853ab2b21/9781847421647.pdf
Spencer, Erika Hope. “Women In the French Revolution.” The Library Of Congress, 14 July 2020, https://blogs.loc.gov/international-collections/2020/07/women-in-the-french-revolution-from-the-salons-to-the-streets/
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Vardi, Liana. “The Abolition Of The Guilds During The French Revolution.” French Historical Studies, vol. 15, no. 4, 1988. https://doi.org/10.2307/286554