The French revolution was not only caused by short term causes. The intellectual movement was one of the strongest elements which eventually led to the outbreak of this revolution. These ideas were long culminated since the period of the Renaissance, and eventually through the expedition of several wars, mainly the American War of Independence, 1775-1782. One must not eliminate the immense influence the British society had on French politicians and philosophers.
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French thinkers and philosophers were greatly influenced by the English system, practically because life and institutions were better and different than the French. Voltaire and Montesquieu were the most influenced, whereas Rousseau was the least. However, one could find the latter’s ideals in John Locke’s works. This influence also showed in the way French bourgeoisie dressed and acted since they wanted to be distinguished from the commoners. Later on, English newspapers were circulated among French Intellectuals and the English Club also had a vogue in France.
Several French philosophers expressed themselves in various ways when describing the French society. Voltaire, 1694-1778, expressed himself by means of satiric verses as a weapon to criticize the French society. His life is full of contradictions, and one good example is that he had no love of faith in the common man; however, he went into immense pain to safeguard those who were not treated justly by the French laws. Another good contradiction is that, as an atheist, he saw the Catholic Church and Catholicism, in general, as the essence of superstition and ignorance. However, at the same time, if one of his followers went to extremes in his/her attacks on all religions, he would insist the importance of belief in a Supreme Being. Voltaire opposed the Catholic Church primarily due to its intolerance to other religions; for instance, it only allowed Christian public worship. Voltaire is the one most influenced by the English system, especially after he visited the country himself. He used to exaggerate the liberties of the English in order to intensify the attacks on the French system. In his famous work ‘Letters to the English’, Voltaire emphasized the great tolerance to other religions and even the absence of privileged nobility like the French kind. Later on, in other works, he also praised the trial by jury system and the freedom of the press. However, Voltaire did not favor republicanism and he believed that such reforms could be brought about under monarchy.
Montesquieu, 1689-1755, whose influence was greater, in terms of politics, than that or Voltaire, aimed at reducing the prowess of the monarch. He considered the privileged nobility as being fruitful since, in his opinion, this hindered the power of the monarchy. “He wished for a method of government in which all kinds of interests would have the right to debate and amend the laws before they came into force.”  He wanted to ensure as well, that by the new system, the monarch could never become despotic. By all means, this show to the extend Montesquieu was influenced by the English system. His work influenced those who wanted to maintain the French monarchy, however with some limitations as that in Britain. Montesquieu’s ideals were well expressed in his popular work ‘The Spirit of the Laws’ (1748).
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 1712-1778, was yet another influential French figure in this particular period, and his general idea was that the General will of the people should be the ruling force in a society. Therefore, in other words, he favored the principle of majority. He expressed himself well in his work called ‘The Social Contract’ (or Du Contrat Social). His idea of social contract is basically that ‘when originally people had given their assent to the existence of the kings and governments there had come into being a definite contract between king and people by which the former only ruled by the latter’s consent.’  Rousseau opted for a government made up by the people for the people themselves. He loved the people and believed that all characters should be brought out by a liberal government. He saw his ideal in the peasant and working class, and described men born as free and equal. However, he emphasized that during their lives, men are somehow everywhere in chains, and by this phrase, he wanted to instill the fact that only a small proportion of the population are privileged and accustomed to certain rights, while the majority are enslaved not literally but indirectly through the imposition of several taxes and deprivation of rights. Although Rousseau considered the representative form of government as the ideal one for France, he still didn’t believe in granting equal rights to all citizens. For instance, he thought that the right to vote should only be given to the educated and responsible middle class since he considered the rest of the population as being “abject and brutish populance, easily swayed by agitators.”  Eventually, although he was republican oriented, he still tended to favor monarchy to a certain extent, since he was afraid that a sudden change in society would ultimately lead to confusion and anarchy. Therefore Rousseau applied a dualistic tone to his theory; the first being naturalistic and theoretical, believing in the ‘natural goodness’ of the people, while the second one is practical and cautious, in other words afraid of sudden changes. Certainly, his followers at the time adored the first tone while ignoring completely the second one.
The Enclyopedists were also great intellectual influences in the eighteenth century. Its members’ main aim was to summarize existing knowledge, while finest thinkers contributed to the installments of the Encyclopedie which appeared at irregular interval for over twenty years. However, this movement brought confusion among its followers since it was banned twice by the government and its members were all imprisoned. The latter happened since this did not only contain historical and scientific information, but also direct attacks on the French systems. In fact, some Court Nobility used to plead the king to lift the ban upon it. Parts of the Encyclopedie were even smuggled secretly among its members. Later on, printers started to alter parts of it in order to avoid attacks from the church and state. Some of the members of this movement were Voltaire, Rousseau, and Montesquieu.
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However, another great influence was by all means, the American war of Independence which occurred a few decades before the outbreak of the French revolution. This eventually showed the French people that it is plausible to apply enlightenment principles to the governmental organization. Moreover, some American revolutionaries were even in contact with French intellectual and this eventually led to the spread of revolutionary ideas in France and eventually to the outbreak of the French revolution.
Eventually, a conservative and a liberal school of though were created and described the French revolution in a quite different manner. Both of these are in favor of the American war of Independence, but when it comes to the French revolution, the conservatives blame the Enlightenment and the French Intellectuals for their mistakes and problems while the liberals ‘supported the French revolutionary cause and defended the Enlightenment and the French philosophers.’  Edmund Burke, being a conservative, condemned the French revolutionaries and described them presumptuous doctrinaires since he believed that they did not believe the nature of law and they were just sowing the seed of anarchy and destruction. On the other hand, Thomas Paine, a liberal, emphasized that true liberal ideas were only to be found in the French writings. He also highlighted the fact that several philosophers at the time offered something interesting for readers in every society class and this in the long run made it possible for political inquire to diffuse at the time when there was the quarrel between the Americans and England ongoing. Paine also stated that the changes that took place where necessary and he also said that “that the past belonged to the past. The laws of old were dead because those laws only affected the people at the time these laws were enacted. They, were dead, so it follows in his reasoning, the laws died with them.”  He applauded the Enlightenment’s influence in the French revolution since he believed that the government is in existence for implementing man’s inalienable rights.
These attributes made the French think differently than before and eventually made them react and fight for their own rights. The French population realized that its rights were slaughtered by the ruling class and from now on it sought to fight for its inalienable rights. However, without such enlightened ideals, no one would have realized so and moreover, without a clear example of the scene (i.e. the American war of Independence), no one would have done a move. Later on, these elements were spread throughout Europe and this, in the long run, is an evidence of how powerful they were.
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