10 Things We Owe to the French Revolution of 1789
10 Things We Owe to the French Revolution of 1789

10 Things We Owe to the French Revolution of 1789

Khalid Elhassan - February 24, 2018

10 Things We Owe to the French Revolution of 1789
Liberty, equality, fraternity, or death. Slide Player

“Liberty, Equality, Fraternity”, and the Spread of Secular Idealism

Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite, French for “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity”, was an early motto of the French Revolution that expressed its ideals and aspirations. It was first uttered by Maximilian Robespierre in a 1790 speech that struck a chord, and was widely disseminated. The term, which captured much and condensed it into a brief phrase that had the added benefit of rolling off the tongue easily, entered the popular revolutionary lexicon.

Robespierre drew from the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen in coining the phrase. Article 4 of the Declaration held that “Liberty consists of being able to do anything that does not harm others: thus, the exercise of the natural rights of every man or woman has no bounds other than those that guarantee other members of society the enjoyment of these same rights“.

For the definition of equality, he turned to Article 6 of the Declaration, which held that the law: “must be the same for all, whether it protects or punishes. All citizens, being equal in its eyes, shall be equally eligible to all high offices, public positions and employments, according to their ability, and without other distinction than that of their virtues and talents.”

Fraternity, by contrast was not as readily defined, because it referred to a subjective aspiration and moral obligation, as opposed to a specific right that could be spelled out. Various interpretations were offered, but the definition of fraternity remained rather nebulous, generally revolving around the concept of brotherhood and comradeship. However it was understood, the motto caught contemporary imaginations, and triggered widespread idealistic enthusiasm in France and throughout Europe.

In practice, the Revolutionaries had often fallen short of living up to their motto. Their failure was similar to that of their contemporaries across the Atlantic, who combined “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal” with chattel slavery. Nonetheless, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, just like the ideals of the American Revolution, were and remained attractive aspirations for idealists, then and ever since.

The motto went out of fashion with the fall of Robespierre in 1794, and when Napoleon assumed power, he replaced it with “liberty and public order”. The restored French monarchy banned it altogether after Napoleon’s defeat, but it remained in circulation in secret Republican societies. It was officially adopted by the Second Republic after the 1848 Revolution, only to be banned again during the French Empire of Napoleon III. It was restored again by the Third Republic, and today, Liberté, égalité, fraternité is the national motto of France.

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Sources & Further Reading

Andress, David – The Terror: Civil War in the French Revolution (2006)

Burke, Edmund – Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790)

Doyle, William – The Oxford History of the French Revolution, 2nd Edition (2002)

Encyclopedia Britannica – Lazare Carnot

Encyclopedia Britannica – Maximilien Robespierre

Encyclopedia.Com – Fashion During the French Revolution

Jenkins, Cecil – A Brief History of France (2011)

Palmer, Robert Roswell – The Age of the Democratic Revolution: The struggle (1959)

Palmer, Robert Roswell – Twelve Who Ruled: The Year of Terror in the French Revolution (2005)

Paxton, John – Companion to the French Revolution (1987)

Rowlett, Prof. Russ, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill – How Many? A Dictionary of Units of Measurement: The Metric System

Schama, Simon – Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution (1989)

ThoughtCo – The Napoleonic Code

Wikipedia – 1775-95 in Western Fashion

Wikipedia – Louis Antoine de Saint-Just

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