The Enlightenment created many new ideas and established views of the world that had never existed before. It was a movement of intellectual thinkers in the 18th century who believed that science could explain everything in nature and society. Enlightenment thinkers at this time began to apply rational thoughts to figure out and understand nature and to guide their human existence. The Enlightenment was the great rebirth and re-creation of world-view brought about by the scientific revolution. It glorified the ability of reason and was an era of thought and intellectual accomplishment. Of all the European countries, France was the most embracing of these new ideas and philosophies and a new class emerged known as the “Philosophes” who encouraged the French public to question their society. These ideas influenced the economical, social, scientific, and political aspects of society and were a direct cause of the French Revolution.
This new idea of government and society based upon the Enlightenment ideals of democracy, citizenship, and human rights, set forward by the works of the Philosophes like Montesquieu, Voltaire, Rousseau, and John Locke spread throughout France. These works changed how people viewed the government and its policies. This “public enlightenment” resulted in the French Revolution, a compound sequence of events between the years 1789 and 1799 which began when the working classes or the “Third Estate” stormed the Bastille on July 14, 1789, a symbol of the king’s dominance over his subjects. These revolutionaries knew that they wanted a new government based upon the ideals brought to masses by the Enlightenment thinkers. These ideals were liberty and equality based upon a government for the people, by the people. These ideals can be seen in the motto of the French Revolution: “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.”
Prior to the Revolution, French citizens were part of a strictly limited society with very little freedom of expression. The government or “The Estates General” was split into the three Estates: The First, the Second. The First and Second Estates were composed of nobles and the clergy who dominated the majority of society which imposed tough, excessive laws on the Third. The Third Estate made up the majority of France, which contained the working classes or the “commoners”. This estate was a mixture of rich members of the middle class, urban workers, and the mass of peasants. Whenever the Estates General met, the Third Estate was easily out-voted two to one. Because of the unfair voting system, the Third Estate felt that all voting should be done by headcount to promote fairness. This would benefit the Third Estate and better represent the general public and their overwhelming needs of the time. They wanted an even, fair government with a stable economy, and a sense of individuality. This proposal based on enlightenment ideals was flatly rejected, causing the Third Estate form the National Assembly, which was formally done during the Tennis Court Oath in 1789.
Soon after the storming of the Bastille, the National Assembly was formed, in which the “Declaration and Rights of Man and Citizen” was created, whose authors were inspired by the American Declaration of Independence and more importantly by the French Enlightenment’s philosophers like Rousseau and who championed a fairly represented government in which the Parliament was given the right to meet and the Estates General was no longer a part of French society. The freedom to worship and the freedom to thought were granted. All of these ideas that were written within this constitution had the enlightenment ideals of liberty and equality as their foundation.
However, this did not satisfy the National Assembly. Soon after, the Constitution of 1791 was drafted, which created a constitutional monarchy, much like that of England. Under this new constitution, the Monarchy was kept, but the major symbols of the “Old Regime” were not. The constitution proclaimed France as a united, sovereign kingdom and the powers of the national government were divided among separate, independent branches, another Enlightenment idea. Evidence for this thinking could be found in Montesquieu’s works which advocated a separation of powers of government of checks and balances and in John Locke’s philosophies of government. People were influenced by their critical ideas and the need for a new government based upon a government that represents the people and their interests. Locke believed that parliament should have more power than the monarchy, so it could keep a close watch over the king. Rousseau also had very similar ideas of new form of government which was reinforced in his writings to the people of France.
This new constitutional monarchy failed because it lacked majority support. The wealthy were satisfied because they were no longer taxed, the middle classes were satisfied because they finally had received their political power, and the peasants were satisfied because they had received land from the Civil Constitution of the Clergy in 1790; However, all of these changes left one group unsatisfied: the Sans-Culotte. The Sans-Culotte or “those without knee breeches” who made up the poorer members of the Third Estate were left with no one to follow, until two groups emerged; The Jacobins, who were led by Robespierre, and the Girondists, who were led by Brissot two French philosophes. Both of these groups wanted a Republic, another result of enlightenment thought, which would give greater equality and fair representation to the people.
The majority of people sided with the Jacobins and The National Constituent Assembly and was created as a result, supported by Robespierre’s enlightenment philosophy of a separation of church and state and further supported by Voltaire’s questioning the beliefs of the Church and their authority. The Assembly in July 1790, published the Civil Constitution of the Clergy which declared the pope no longer the leader of the Catholic Church in France and the right to confiscating all church land that stretched across most of France. This allowed for more Enlightenment ideals like a new age of atheism and secularism to develop.
This representative Assembly was summoned in September, 1792 and abolished the Monarchy, and established the First Republic of France. When this Republic was created, many problems soon developed such as the radicalization of the revolution. This period of the revolution known as the “Terror” and represented the opposite of Enlightenment ideals and ended their influence in the revolution. This led to the fate of the king and the number of wars that would soon follow. The National Convention decided that the king would be tried and was later executed and the numerous wars which followed allowed for a young, charismatic general, named Napoleon Bonaparte to rise to the role of emperor of France.
“Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.” The ideals of the Enlightenment echoed throughout the governments created by the French people between 1789 and 1794. Through this time period, different governments were instituted, but all shared the firm beliefs in liberty and equality. These ideas were taken from the Enlightenment Philosophes and used to create a better system of government for the masses. Although the First Republic was not as successful as it was hoped, France was making strides towards a equally represented government for the first time. Even though it led to the “Reign of Terror”, and then to another absolute ruler, the governments that were developed between 1789 and 1794 contained the ideals of the Enlightenment: democracy, citizenship, and individualism and gave the common people more freedom to express their thoughts. This inspired writers nad Enlightenment thinkers to use reason and created a powerful wave of intellectual revival and emotions which led to new, less imposing laws and to an overall higher standard of living with greater freedoms for French citizens.
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