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Legacies of the French Revolution

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What were the major legacies of the French Revolution to Nineteenth century Europe?

Since the beginning of the nineteenth century the legacies of the French revolution have been hotly debated by historians and political analysts alike. The revolution of 1789 gave birth to the concept of differing political ideologies. [1] Being a defined doctrine of the optimum forms of social and political organisation, this concept of new political ideologies went against the tried and testedAncien Régime that was in place in France at the time; so hated that it is considered one of the main causes of the French revolution. Before the revolution (With the newly formed United States being the greatest exception) most European nations lived under the traditional form of government that had been used for generations, that of hereditary monarchy.[2] After the revolution, no form of government could be accepted without justification; this gave birth to various other political ideologies such as Nationalism, liberalism, socialism and eventually communism.[3] This increased political consciousness was not however the only legacy of the French revolution, neither was it the only political legacy from it, merely the tip of a huge iceberg of cultural social economic and political upheaval that was felt throughout the world. Shaping the lives of nineteenth century Europeans and some argue still shapes the world we live in today. This essay will hope to examine the major legacies of the French revolution and offer explanations as to why they were so important and how they influenced the way of life in nineteenth century Europe.

Political Legacies

Some of the longest lived and prominent legacies of the French revolution were political, whilst this could be seen to be expected as it was a political revolution. The extent of the political change from what was considered the norm in France at the time to what it became is astounding. To accurately note the extent of change, one must first decide when the revolution ends in France. For most the end of the French revolution came on 27th of July 1795 with the fall of the National Convention.[4] The National Convention was a political system implemented in September 1792, this was the first time in France that the rule of the people came to the people, it was lead by Maximilien de Robespierre[5], who was a first among equals, this ruling of France by the National Convention became known as the ‘Reign of Terror’. Approximately 20-40,000 people were executed as enemies of the revolution.[6] The guillotine being the weapon of choice, no longer were aristocrats beheaded by swords, but peasant and king alike faced the guillotine as a weapon of equality, albeit in its most barbaric fashion.[7] Although barbaric and bloody in most eyes the Convention did implement many measures that had a lasting effect in France and a legacy that spread throughout Europe, the fixing of grain prices known as ‘The Maximum’ give a maximum price on bread,[8] this spawned socialist ideas and would become a major influence to early Marxist ideologies.[9] They also introduced conscription in a military capacity in service to France with the Jourdan Law[10], an act that endured until 2001.[11] The National Convention held control through fear and encouraged the act of informing on people.[12] The fall of the National Convention spelled the end for the French revolution, as such consequences that happened because of a direct link to the actions pre conventional fall could be thought of as a legacy of the French revolution. After the fall of the National Convention, there came the Directory.[13] The mob had failed at governing itself as shown with the fall of the Convention; it was now the middle classes turn to offer a measure of stability. They kept the continuity of bread pricing that was introduced by the Convention. And they introduced some measure of democracy to France, albeit with a much reduced electorate. The qualifying criteria being that a voter must be Male aged 40 or more, and paying rates and either married or widowed.[14] This first stab at democracy left a lasting legacy in France with the implemented system being tweaked over time to eventually include universal suffrage and calls for votes for women,[15] long before the introduction of the same ideas in Britain.[16] Britain at this time had a hard political stance; this was through fear of the French revolution. Britain and governments throughout Europe wished never again to see the excesses of the French revolution, and so implemented acts to limit the ability to congregate, in response to the riots in London of 1916 and the Peterloo Massacre also of 1816, there was acts to limit mass political organisation; as a measure of control through fear of the French revolution.[17] The directory also implemented the Declaration of the rights of man and of the citizen, this drew heavily from the newly instated American constitution,[18] in fact there is an argument that Thomas Jefferson one of the signatories of the American constitution and second president of the United States, influenced the writing of this document whilst staying in France through his close friend the Marquis de Lafayette.[19] The document promised equality of law, the freedom of expression and religion, and that a criminal was innocent until proven guilty.[20] This document is still in use in France today and is one of the longest enduring legacies of the French revolution. They are also the basis for the Bill of Human Rights used by the United Nations.[21]

When talking about the French Revolution, one could almost give the answer, which one? If the earlier proposed premise is to be believed; that the French Revolution ended with the fall of the National convention. Then all subsequent could be thought of as a direct legacy of the first, did the Storming of the Bastille on 14th of July 1789 open a door that could not be closed. If this is true then it could be said that the subsequent revolutions in France such as the coup of Napoleon, or the revolutions of 1848, which sparked huge civil unrest in the rest of Europe, were a legacy of the initial French revolution, and that its lasting legacy was the ability to propagate more revolution. The French Revolution continued to provide instruction for revolutionaries in the 19th and 20th centuries, as peoples in Europe and around the world sought to realize their different versions of freedom. Karl Marx would, at least at the outset, pattern his notion of a proletarian revolution on the French Revolution of 1789.[22] And 200 years later Chinese students, who weeks before had fought their government in Tiananmen Square, confirmed the contemporary relevance of the French Revolution when they led the revolutionary bicentennial parade in Paris on July 14, 1989.[23] The aforementioned ‘no government could be accepted without justification’, challenged not only the right to rule in France but also throughout Europe, and challenged the preconceived ideas on the divine right of kings. Clearly, society in France and to a lesser extent in other parts of Europe would never be the same. Once the ancient structure of privilege was smashed, it could not be pieced together again. The French revolution also ushered in an age of liberalist thinking, the liberalism which emerged for the revolutionary regime promoted a central state, but also a free market economy in France. The regime abolished all institutions of civil society and recreated them under the authority of the central state, Loi Le Chapelier’of 1791 banned guilds and fraternities opening up the market to all.[24]


One of the main legacies of the French revolution, not just in France but the rest of the world was Nationalism. People getting themselves willingly organised for a cause of national interest came as a direct result of the French revolution.[25] In France the rise of nationalism is apparent when looking at Napoleon Bonaparte, Nationalism enabled Napoleon to become such and heroic symbol of France that his glory was easily picked up by his Nephew who then went on to become Emperor Napoleon III.[26] Increase in Nationalism also spread to the rest of Europe. Following the defeat of Napoleon, the Congress of Vienna in 1814-1815 wanted to ensure no one came so close to conquering the whole of Europe again. They organized boundaries for a stable Europe and coalitions of Nations, so that one nation could not get out of hand,[27] this along with the alliances formed by the ‘Iron Chancellor’ Otto Von Bismarck, created what became known as the Balkan powder keg in Europe all nations poised to defend their allies at the slightest provocation. This coming together of countries was a direct result of the French revolution, the creation of Belgium and the subsequent emergence of unionism was also another.[28] Increased Nationalism in the Habsburg Empire, led to the creation of independent countries where once it was a joined empire.[29] It could be said that although the variables that led to the First World War, were minute and numerous. The French Revolution was a major contributory factor to the First World War, without it the coalitions of nations and Bismarck’s policy of alliances would not have been implemented. Nationalism would not have gained such popularity if not for the French Revolution, which would in turn prevented the breaking down to some extent of the Habsburg empire, without the French Revolution it could be said that the murder of Franz Ferdinand, the spark to Europe’s powder keg, would not have been as severe without the legacy of the French revolution. Furthermore without the creation of Belgium as a direct link to the Congress of Vienna, Britain would not have had to fulfil its oath to protect Belgium, agreed upon in the treaty of London 1839, and get dragged into conflict.[30] Cultural Legacies


A direct legacy of the French revolution was also the transformation of art styles in France and throughout Europe, before the revolution academies were strongly influenced by the government and aristocracy to reflect ideals favourable to the rich French aristocrats who sponsored these works, and influenced artists in salons.[31] The Rococo style exemplified by Jean-Antoine Watteau, of outdoor events, which pictured peasants as happy and simple, pandered to the laissez-faire attitude of governance, shown by the French upper classes at the time, and was a stark contrast to the poverty and strife that inflicted their day to day lives.[32] These ideals post revolution were challenged and brought in the era of Neo-Classicism. And a truer more realistic depiction of life of the lower classes was not only shown but became acceptable and popular.[33] The French Tricolour flag was also first established as the flag of France during the French revolution and continues to be used to this day,[34] alongside their national anthem Le Marseilles, written in 1792.[35] The French motto which became prevalent in the time of the revolution has also been included in every city hall since the revolution, that of Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité. The Revolution also abolished slavery in France,[36] and opened up opportunities to those that were before excluded for their religion or social status. Building the idea that a nation is not a mass of royal subjects, but a collection of equal citizens. Religious Legacies


Religion was a main target of the French revolution, the separation of Church and State was something that the revolutionaries implemented, this fundamental secularism of the revolutionary powers offended those that preferred state power be dependent on religious authority.[37] Post revolution as previously mentioned ushered in new thinking where no governance could be achieved without justification, and to the revolutionaries the church had none, the new regime stripped their power to educate the young and created new schools where the church could no longer educate the youth of France. When Louis XVIII was for a short time put back on the throne, he attempted to reverse this. Followed by his brother Charles X, who gave the control of education back to the church,[38] this like so much of the work of Louis XVII and Charles X was a contradiction, they took something that worked and replaced it with something that did not. This was rectified by ‘the Commune’ who implemented a complete separation of church and state, with the policy of laïcité in 1905[39] this continues to this day in France, and it is still one of the most secular countries in the world. The French Revolution demonstrated the power of the masses. It challenged the old regimes of monarchy and through it developed Frances first republic, it ushered in ideologies of nationalism alongside liberalism, and was a major influence on early communist thinking. It created a class consciousness that was previously unknown in Europe at the time, the lower classes were expected by their governments to accept their lot, and not rise above their station, the French revolution gave people not only the opportunity to realise that they could fight for a better life if there were unfair practices, but it was also a wakeup call for the rest of Europe to think about the persecution of their working classes, and how it might eventually turn on them. The attempt to re instate a monarchy with Philip Louis shows just how much the French revolution changed not only the thoughts to monarchy, but their thoughts to governance as a whole, whilst it could be said monarchy was hated. Napoleons rise to emperor was accepted because of the strength he displayed, showing the acceptance of an autocratic style of leadership as long as they displayed strength. This is evident in the separation of church and state, whilst originally separating the two, under Louis XVII and Charles X they were again joined, though it was later separated by ‘the Commune’ this shows the continual Revolutionary thinking in the French mindset, particularly as it is still in place today. The attempted turning back of the clocks in France and their reluctance to return to a pre-revolution state shows just how deep the effect of the revolution was. The spread of different political ideologies changed the face of Europe and the way it was governed, the proposed legacy of the French revolution being a major cause of the First World War. Shows just how far reaching not only geographically but chronologically the French Revolution was. The legacies of the French revolution, whether speculated upon, or cold hard fact. Are varied and numerous, whilst trying to explain many this essay pales in comparison to the absolute weight of legacy that Europe experienced as a direct result of that day in July 1789. Or in the words of Premier Zhou Enlai, is it still too early to tell?


[1] Theda Skocpol,States and social revolutions: A comparative analysis of France, Russia and China. (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1979) p. 155

[2] Archibald Alison, History of Europe (from 1789 to 1815). (1843) p. 827 Obtained for free on Kindle at https://archive.org/details/historyeuropefr37alisgoog (accessed 23/04/2014)

[3] Eric J. Hobsbawm,Nations and nationalism since 1780: Programme, myth, reality. (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2012.) p.19

[4] George Rudé,The French Revolution. (New York: Grove Weidenfeld. 1988)p.199

[5] Joseph I. Shulim, "Robespierre and the French Revolution,"American Historical Review(1977) 82#1 pp. 20-38

[6] Shulim, “Robespierre and the French Revolution” pp.20-38

[7] Ludmilla Jordanova, “Medical mediations: Mind, body and the guillotine.” History Workshop Journal(Vol. 28, No. 1, pp. 39-52). (Oxford: Oxford University Press.September 1989)

[8] Eugene White, "The French Revolution and the Politics of Government Finance, 1770–1815."The Journal of Economic History1995, p 244

[9] Albert S. Lindemann,A history of European socialism. (Yale University Press, 1984.) p.14

[10] Alan Forrest,Conscripts and Deserters: The Army and French Society during the Revolution and Empire (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.) p. 35.

[11] “France salutes end of military service” http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/europe/1682777.stm (accessed 23/04/2014)

[12]M. Darrow, "Economic Terror in the City: The General Maximum in Montauban."French Historical Studies1991, p 511

[13] Hugh Chisholm ed. “The French Revolution” Encyclopædia Britannica (Cambridge:Cambridge University Press 1911)

[14]William Doyle,The Oxford History of the French Revolution(2 ed.). (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press. 1990) p.319

[15] “History of women’s right to vote” available http://www.france.fr/en/institutions-and-values/history-womens-right-vote.html (accessed 23/04/2014)

[16] Although proposed the right to vote for women was not granted in France until 29th April 1945.

[17]The French Revolution’s Legacy” Our Time, Melvyn Bragg, BBC Radio 4, London: 14th June 2001.

[18]Jeffrey Kopstein, Comparative Politics: Interests, Identities, and Institutions in a Changing Global Order. (Cambridge:Cambridge University Press.2000) p.72.

[19] George Athan Billias, ed. American Constitutionalism Heard Round the World, 1776-1989: A Global Perspective. (New York: NYU Press. 2009) p.92.

[20] All 17 articles of the Declaration available at http://www.constitution.org/fr/fr_drm.htm (accessed 23/04/2014)

[21] Bill of human rights available http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/ (accessed 23/04/2014)

[22] François Furet,Marx and the French Revolution. (Chicago University of Chicago Press, 1988.) p.12

[23] Dave Martin, Enquiring History: The French Revolution (Hodder Education 2013) p.12

[24] Adrian Pabst, “Liberty, Equality and Fraternity? On the Legacy and Enduring Significance of the French Revolution” Available at http://wpfdc.org/blog/our-columnists/adrian-pabst/18825-liberty-equality-and-fraternity-on-the-legacy-and-enduring-significance-of-the-french-revolution (accessed 23/04/2014)

[25] Michael Rowe, The French Revolution, Napoleon, and Nationalism in Europe (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2013) p.10

[26] Alexander J. Motyl, Encyclopedia of Nationalism, Volume II. (Massachusetts: Academic Press.2000)

[27] Harold Nicolson, The Congress of Vienna: A Study in Allied Unity: 1812-1822 (New York: Grove Press 2000)pp.20-32

[28] “Belgiums independence” http://www.belgium.be/en/about_belgium/country/history/belgium_from_1830/ (accessed 24/04/2014)

[29] Peter F. Sugar, "The Rise of Nationalism in the Habsburg Empire."Austrian History Yearbook3, no. 01 (1967) p. 91-120.

[30] Eric Van Hooydonk, "Chapter 15". In Aldo E. Chircop, O. Lindén.Places of Refuge: The Belgian Experience. (Leiden: Martinus Nijhoff. 2006) p.417

[31] Monique Wagner,From Gaul to De Gaulle: An Outline of French Civilization.(Peter Lang, 2005)p. 139.

[32] “France’s Economic Crisis” Available at http://www.fsmitha.com/h3/h33-fr.html#sub (Accessed 23/04/2014)

[33] Fritz Novotny,Painting and Sculpture in Europe, 1780–1880, (Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1978) p.21

[34] Marie Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert Du Motier Lafayette (marquis de),Memoirs, correspondence and manuscripts of General Lafayette,vol. 2, p. 252.

[35] Eugen Weber, Peasants Into Frenchmen: The Modernization of Rural France, 1870–1914. (California: Stanford University Press 1976) p.439.

[36] Whilst revolutionary France abolished slavery, it was re introduced by Napoleon in 1802.

[37] Michel Troper, "French Secularism, or Laïcité."Cardozo L. Rev.21 (1999):p. 1267

[38] Frank Tallet,Religion, Society and Politics in France Since 1789(London: Continuum International Publishing 1991) pp. 1-17

[39] Evelyn M. Acomb,The French Laic Laws, 1879-1889: The First Anti-Clerical Campaign of the Third French Republic, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1941) p.41

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