The ideals commonly associated with the French revolution of 1789-1794 are “Liberty, Equality and Fraternity”. Articles like the Cahiers and the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen” published early in the revolution were inspired by the Enlightenment and growing dislike of the Ancien Regime and the king’s oppression.
They are clear demonstrations of the ideals of the revolution- mainly being equality before the law, freedom of speech and a united France.
In the search for achieving these ideals however, violence was used often to an amazing extent as the revolution became radical. Although at first violence was used to progress France by crushing counterrevolutionaries and opposes of the republic, the time known as the Terror was the peak of radicalism and resulted in the triumph of violence over these ideals. Laws such the “Law of Suspects” and “Law of Prairial” were deliberately created to bypass the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. The Terror and the violence associated with it became a form of political oppression as Robespierre rose to the point of dictatorship, thus crushing the ideals of the revolution
The Philosophes were the voice of the Enlightenment and essentially that of the ideals that triggered the beginning of the Revolution. According to Townson “Their aim was to apply rational analysis to all activities… They were very much in favour of liberty- of the press, of speech, of trade and of freedom from arbitrary arrest.” The French Revolution aimed to create this liberty within the social classes by destroying the absolute monarchy and establishing a government of the people, for the people.
The Cahiers collected before the estates general also voiced the main ideals of the revolution. They contained ideas of equality before the law, economic freedom, fiscal equality and they echoed the catchcry of the revolution-being “Liberty, Equality and Fraternity”
These ideals where all further documented in the ‘Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen’ of August 1789, which laid down the principals on
which the new constitution, and France, would be based.
These ideals were widely supported by the sans-culottes and the masses of France, so much so, that many declared their life for France and the Revolution.
According to Boscher, “The Terror was based on the violence of the populous led mainly by educated leaders who approved of popular violence on ideological grounds”
Possibly the first organised use of popular violence which supported the ideals of the revolution was that of August 10, 1792. The populous rose in arms and murdered hundreds to enable the king to be arrested and the Sans-culottes to take control over the Paris Commune. This was the first step towards a ‘government of the people’ which was so desired and the ideals of the revolution. It was also a characteristic expression of popular violence, and was to be followed by much bigger massacres, namely the Terror.
In this early stage of the Terror, violence was indeed used to support the ideals of the revolution. Violence was needed because it was the only way that the masses of France could be heard and exert any control over the government. Their sheer numbers and willingness to fight showed their support and commitment for the radical leaders in the National Convention. It put pressure on the government to make sure they still held the ideals of the revolution as a goal and to implicate them as quickly as possible.
As the revolution progressed however, the situation called for more desperate and extreme measures. The war was not going well for France, there were increasing food shortages, tax, inflation and growing numbers of counter-revolutionaries, especially in areas such as the Vendee’. The government felt such events ‘threatened’ the revolution and as Doyle states: “the system of Terror established itself by force of circumstance”.
The establishment of the Committee of Public Safety was an important step in the rapid growth of unneeded violence in the revolution, and it was from its establishment that Robespierre, the ‘leader’ of the Terror and its violence first came to power.
Marat himself commented on the establishment of the CPS that “Liberty must be established by violence, and the moment has come for the temporary organisation of the despotism of liberty, to destroy the despotism of kings” The CPS was first established to uphold the ideals of the revolution through violence, mainly the ideals of Liberty and Democracy- to be achieved by destroying the absolute power and control of the monarchy.
In attempting to achieve this however, the CPS enabled Robespierre to rise to somewhat of a despot himself, and the level of violence to increase to such an unnecessary level that violence triumphed over the ideals of the Revolution.
Under Robespierre’s rule many of the ideals of the revolution were bypassed or indeed crushed as he searched for his ideal France. As things began to improve for France, with The Federalist Revolt crushed, the foreign war beginning to be won and the food crisis easing, the number of executions increased. Indeed more people were sentenced to death from June 94 to March 95 than in the previous 18 months, most of the victims being from the 3rd estate. Wright rightly states “Such a bloodbath… encouraged the belief that the Terror was no longer a means of preserving the republic, but an instrument of political faction.”
Ideals such as freedom of speech and equality before the law were destroyed with the creation of the “Law of Suspects” and the “Law of Prairial”. Freedom of speech was eradicated for the fear of being named a counterrevolutionary. Freedom of the press was destroyed for the same fear. People who dared oppose this, such as Desmoulins with the publication of his journal-which aimed for moderation in government excesses and violence, were publicly murdered.
The executions of Political leaders who opposed Robespierre such as Desmoulins, Danton and the Herbertists directly ignored the ideal of freedom from arbitrary arrest.
In the search for a united, democratic and equal society, France had created one of fear, speculation and oppression. Although at first the Terror was used in conjunction with the ideals, in the end the search for “Liberty, Equality and Fraternity” was forgotten by those in power, and the Terror was indeed the triumph of violence of ideals.
Doyle, W The Oxford History of the French Revolution
Encyclopaedia Britannica CD- Multi media edition (1998)
Hibbert, C. The French Revolution
Schama, S. Citizens
Sutherland, D.M.G. France 1780-1815:Revolution and Counterrevolution (London 1990)
Townson, D. France in Revolution (London 1990)
Wright, D.G. Revolution and Terror in France, 1789-1795 (Longman 1974)