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
Execution at the Place de la Revolucion during the Reign of Terror. Daily Kos

Revolutionary Terror

The machinery and reach of a modern government, when combined with aroused public passions in order to repress dissent and enforce official state ideology and “revolutionary justice”, is a frightful thing to behold. That, however, was one of the darker legacies of the French Revolution, whose “Reign of Terror” from the summer of 1793 to the summer of 1794 set a sinister example that many have emulated since.

In 1793, France’s nascent republican government was hard pressed and threatened by enemies from without and within. Foreign armies, whose ranks included many French emigre royalists, were pressing in from all directions, with the avowed intent of crushing the Revolution and restoring the monarchy. Simultaneously, civil war and armed uprisings, particularly in the Vendee, posed a grave internal threat.

In response to the emergency, the Revolutionary government determined to crush the enemy within, and on September 5th, 1793, a proposal was adopted by the National Convention to “make terror the order of the day“. Legislation was passed authorizing the harshest of measures against enemies of the Revolution, actual and suspected, and targeting aristocrats, priests, hoarders and speculators.

As Maximilian Robespierre justified what came to be known as the Reign of Terror: “If the basis of popular government in peacetime is virtue, the basis of popular government during a revolution is both virtue and terror; virtue, without which terror is baneful; terror, without which virtue is powerless. Terror is nothing more than speedy, severe and inflexible justice; it is thus an emanation of virtue; it is less a principle in itself, than a consequence of the general principle of democracy, applied to the most pressing needs of the nation“.

A Committee of Public Safety was established, headed by Robespierre, and it proceeded to exercise dictatorial control over the French government. Public tribunals were set up to try suspected counterrevolutionaries, and tens of thousands were condemned to death after perfunctory “trials” that sometimes lasted no more than a minute. Eventually, even that was done away with, and legislation was enacted in June of 1794, stripping away the right to a public trial or to legal counsel. To further stack the odds against the accused and ensure more death sentences, the juries’ choices were limited to only two options: acquittal, or death.

As a result, the Reign of Terror reached its peak in the following month, which came to be known as “The Great Terror”, during which over 1400 people were executed. All the while, Robespierre and his Committee of Public Safety cast an ever wider net in search of more and more “enemies of the Revolution”. Paranoia soon became the rule, and a situation developed akin to that of the Salem Witch Trials. Anybody could be accused, and in the fevered atmosphere of the Terror, coupled with the absence of legal safeguards, an accusation was often all it took to ensure a death sentence.

That led to a backlash from Robespierre’s own party in the French legislature, whose members feared that Robespierre, having already purged his political opponents, might turn on them next. So on July 27th, 1794, in a dramatic showdown on the floor of the French National Convention, Robespierre and members of the Committee of Public Safety were stripped of their powers. Within hours they were hurriedly tried in one of their own public tribunals, sentenced to death, and guillotined.

The Reign of Terror was over, but its legacy remained. Over the following centuries, many revolutionary movements, upon seizing power, set up revolutionary tribunals to go after suspected counterrevolutionaries. Whether Bolshevik Red Terror; Nazi “People’s Courts”; Mao’s village tribunals; or the Khmer Rogue’s genocidal courts in Cambodia: all drew upon one of the French Revolution’s most sinister legacies.

10 Things We Owe to the French Revolution of 1789
Caricature of monks and nuns enjoying their newfound freedom after monastic vows were abolished. History Today

Decline of the Church and the Rise of Secularism

Before the French Revolution, the Catholic Church had been a powerful institution and presence in France. Catholicism was the official religion, and nearly all French were Catholic. As with nearly all institutions of the Ancien Regime, the Catholic Church was corrupt and inequitable. It owned ten percent of the land, making it the country’s single biggest landowner. It collected a ten percent tithe from the general population, which it hoarded for itself and seldom distributed to the needy. It was also exempt from taxation.

After centuries of corruption, abuse, and unearned privilege, the Church was held in low regard by the time revolution broke out in 1789. Particularly among the Revolution’s leaders, who wasted little time in reducing the Church’s power and influence. One of the earliest steps taken by the National Assembly in August of 1789 was to deprive the Church of its authority to tithe. Soon thereafter, the Church’s vast holdings were nationalized, placed “at the disposal of the nation“, and used to back a new currency. Having taken over the Church’s property, the Revolutionary government assumed the Church’s responsibilities of taking care of the poor, orphaned, and sick – which duties the Church had neglected. Legislation was passed abolishing monastic vows, and in early 1790, all religious orders were dissolved.

In the summer of 1790, the government assumed responsibility for paying the clergy’s salaries, turning them into government employees. A system was set up to elect priests and bishops, which created a backlash because it interfered with the authority of the Pope over the French Church. The Revolutionary government did not back down, however, and in late 1790, required an oath of loyalty from all remaining clergy. Most clergy refused, leading to a schism, and even armed uprisings in defense of the Church, which were ruthlessly put down.

The Revolution’s crackdown on the Church reached its height in the Reign of Terror, during which thousands of priests were jailed or massacred, while churches and religious images were destroyed across France. A short-lived “Cult of Reason” was introduced in an effort to replace Christianity, but widespread opposition forced even the radicals to beat a partial retreat. In 1801, Napoleon reached a Concordat with the Church, which normalized and regulated relations between the Catholic Church and France. By then, however, secularism had taken hold, and the Church never came close to regaining the power and influence it had wielded before the French Revolution. The Concordat signed with Napoleon remained in force until 1905, when France finally legislated a complete separation between Church and state.

10 Things We Owe to the French Revolution of 1789
A sans culottes. Wikimedia

Simplified Clothing Fashion

Before the French Revolution, clothing had served as a visible marker of aristocratic privilege and social status. High fashion was derived from the French court’s dress code, based on unbending etiquette introduced by Louis XIV during the seventeenth century. During the eighteenth century, as the French court and government grew increasingly corrupt and outdated, the fashion associated with the regime came to be seen by the enlightened as outmoded symbols of corruption.

The fashion divide was at its most obvious in the early days of the French Revolution, when the king was forced to call the Estates General – an assembly of the aristocracy, the clergy, and the commoners. The aristocrats of the First Estate were clearly marked by their extravagant coats, cloaks, and vests, embroidered with gold; breeches; and powdered wigs; and expensive hats adorned with feathers. The clergy of the Second Estate were dressed in elaborate robes of purple, red, and gold. Everybody else in the Third Estate was dressed in plain suits, with white shirts and simple hats.

When the Ancien Regime was overthrown, and as the Jacobins and radicals came to dominate the revolutionary ranks, a backlash developed against high fashion. The extravagant clothing and elaborate styles prevalent during the Ancien Regime were out, because of their association with royalty and the despised aristocracy. They were replaced by a type of anti-fashion, that emphasized simplicity and modesty for both men and women.

When the Revolution was at its highest fever pitch, fashion ceased being an expression of individual taste, and became an important political statement that could mean the difference between life and death. Ignoring that could be dangerous, and dressing in the elaborate fashions of the Ancien Regime was a surefire way to mark the wearer as suspect, and probably worthy of a date with the Guillotine.

In Revolutionary France, the extravagant fashions of the despised nobility came to be seen expressions and symbols of counterrevolutionary intent. As such, the Revolution set out to suppress elements of dress associated with the aristocracy. Expensive silks, velvets, and other pricey items of clothing were prohibited, as the revolutionaries set out to create a new order marked by fraternity, rather than privilege. Thus, during the Reign of Terror, the workaday outfits of the sans culottes (“without breeches” – the common people of the lower classes) came to the fore, as symbols of revolutionary egalitarianism.

The revolution in fashion was permanent. The Revolution itself went off track, and the revolutionary regime was replaced in turn by the Directory, the Consulate, the Empire, and finally, a restoration of the monarchy following Napoleon’s defeat. However, the extravagant fashions of the Ancien Regime did not return, breeches did not make a comeback, and the elaborate powdered wigs and feathered hats for men were consigned to history.

10 Things We Owe to the French Revolution of 1789
Introduction of the Metric System. The Gist

The Metric System

Before the French Revolution, it was common for units of weight and measurement to vary not only between countries, but between different regions, or even towns, within the same country. In line with the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason, the Revolution sought to bring order to that confusing and conflicting systems of weights and measurements.

The need for a uniform system was obvious to educated people, scientists, and merchants throughout Europe. However, the power of inertia was strong: most people had grown up with and were used to their own traditional systems of weight and measurement, irrational as they might have been. Such systems might have been confusing to outsiders, and might have required conversions that added unnecessary complexity to trade between towns, regions, and countries. However, they were not confusing to most people who used them in their day to day lives, and who were thus loathe to replace them with a new system that they would have to learn from scratch.

Because of that inertia and reluctance to change, it was only within the context of a major revolutionary upheaval that upended and swept all before it that such a major change could be considered. Luckily, the French Revolution was just such a major upheaval. The Metric System was first proposed in the National Assembly in 1791. Legislation was passed in 1795, and in 1799, the first standard meter bar and kilogram bars were adopted.

Unlike the panoply of traditional units based on the human body, such as feet or thumbs that varied from person to person, the Metric System used the Earth itself as the measuring stick. A meter was defined as one ten-millionth of the distance between the North Pole and the Equator. A liter was the volume of one cubic decimeter. A kilogram was the weight of a liter of pure water. It was simple, elegant, and based on the decimal system, lending itself to easy calculations.

It took a while for the new system to take hold, and it was not made compulsory in France until 1837. Indeed, while the Metric System was French in origin, France was not the first country to require its use: the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg made the system compulsory in 1820. However, it was such a rational and simple system, superior to all others, that its use could not help but spread.

By 1850, a global economy was developing, the need for global uniformity in weights and measurements became obvious, and so a movement began in favor of an international system. The Metric System was the only viable option: its only competitor was the British Imperial System, but in addition to being confusing, it was too closely associated with the British Empire for those outside it. In 1875, all industrialized countries, with the exception of Britain, signed a treaty that established the International Bureau of Weights of Measures. It presides to this day over the International System of Units, which governs global measurements and weights.

10 Things We Owe to the French Revolution of 1789
The Napoleonic Code. Boston University

The Napoleonic Code

Although Napoleon hijacked the French Revolution, he cemented its core principles and outcomes in the 1804 French Civil Code, which came to be known as the Napoleonic Code, or Code Napoleon. It was the culmination of efforts, begun by the previous Revolutionary governments, to replace the existing patchwork of feudal laws with clearly written and accessible laws.

Before 1789, French courts had operated under different, and often conflicting, legal system, causing Voltaire to quip that a traveler in France “changes his law almost as often as he changes his horses“. Northern France, including Paris, was governed by customary laws derived from Frankish and Germanic feudal institutions, somewhat similar to English common law. Southern France, by contrast, was governed by Roman law. In the meantime, the Catholic Church’s canon law governed marriage and family relations. Simultaneously, a growing body of case law, beginning in the 16th century, developed out of royal decrees and the decisions of various parlements.

Codification became necessary after the French Revolution. The Church had been suppressed, the provinces had been transformed into subdivisions of a new nation-state, and a uniform legal code was required to help unify the new France. Thus, in 1791, the National Assembly adopted a unanimous resolution that “there shall be a code of civil laws common for the entire realm“. Commissions were appointed to begin the codification process, and their work continued, in fits and starts, throughout the turmoil of the Revolutionary government, and its successors of the Directorate, Consulate, and Empire, before a final version was enacted in 1804.

The Napoleonic Code underwent various revisions in the centuries since its enactment, but it remains operative in France to this day. It went on to become the world’s most influential legal code, influencing the civil codes of most European and Latin American countries. Today, the majority of mankind – with the notable exception of the Anglophone countries, with their common law traditions – lives under the Napoleonic Code or derivatives thereof.

10 Things We Owe to the French Revolution of 1789
France and ‘Sister Republics’ in 1799. University of Oregon

The Spread of Republics

The inherent attractiveness of the French Revolution’s Enlightenment ideals, particularly the espousal of freedom and equality, played a great role in the spread and dissemination of such ideals throughout Europe. However, French Revolutionary armies played an even greater role in spreading and disseminating the Revolution’s ideals throughout Europe.

The most visible manifestation of that came in the form of “Sister Republics”, which proliferated throughout Europe in the 1790s. Most such republics were established directly by French Revolutionary armies in neighboring countries, after beating back foreign attacks and going on the counteroffensive. Others were created by local revolutionaries, and assisted by the French revolutionary government.

Popular sovereignty, representative government, and the rule of law were the expressed ideals of the French revolutionary government. Spreading those republican principles across Europe was seen as a desirable end in of itself, and also as a prophylactic means of protecting the French Revolution at home. Accordingly, dozens of “Sister Republics”, of various sizes, were created in the 1790s, and eventually consolidated into a few larger republics around France’s borders. The logic was similar to that of the USSR seeking to safeguard itself by spreading communism around the world, or that of the US seeking to do the same by spreading free market capitalism and Western democracy.

Many “Sister Republics” did not survive fall of the First French Republic, and many of them were turned into constitutional monarchies by Napoleon, who parceled them off to his relatives. After Napoleon’s final defeat, the victors rearranged the map of Europe, parceling and altering the revolutionary republics beyond all recognition. Nonetheless, there was no returning the republican genie to bottle after it had been freed by the French Revolution.

In the century after Waterloo, nearly all of Europe was governed by restored monarchies, of varying levels of absolutism. It was clear, however, to enlightened thinkers, that they were anachronisms living on borrowed time. That time came to an end with World War I, whose conclusion saw the disappearance of Europe’s biggest absolutist monarchies – the German, Russian, and Austro-Hungarian. The remaining monarchies survived as constitutional figureheads, whose monarchs reigned ceremoniously, but did not rule.

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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