Prior to 1789, the year the French Revolution began, the only nations with any true understanding of the modern conception of human rights were Great Britain and its former colony, the United States. To those two nations, the most important rights were political and civil rights—the right to participate in government, freedom of expression, and equality before the law. Human rights also encompass economic and social freedoms—the right to move out of the class into which one was born, for example, and to no longer be dependent on another’s whims for one’s livelihood (as was the case in the eighteenth century for French peasants whose income fluctuated not only due to each season’s crops but also to the number of payments their feudal lords decided to charge). During the last decades of the eighteenth century, two segments of French society—women and the Third Estate (France’s middle-class and poor)—sought to gain all of these rights—political, economic, and social—which had been largely withheld from them. Their efforts to transform France from a nation dominated by the king, clergy, and aristocrats into one that took into account the needs of the entire nation helped lead to the French Revolution. The revolution significantly altered French society, but only for a decade—unfortunately, by the turn of the nineteenth century, when Napoleon Bonaparte ascended to power, France had mostly reverted to its old ways. Several more revolutions were required until France successfully established a republic, a government for all the people.
Life Before the Revolution
In the years before the revolution, French women enjoyed virtually no civil or economic rights. As Darline Gay Levy, Harriet Branson Applewhite, and Mary Durham Johnson explain in the introduction to Women in Revolutionary Paris, 1789–1795: “By and large, women were legally totally subservient to their husbands or fathers in virtually all areas of marriage contracts, inheritance laws, property and tax laws, and child custody arrangements. Marriages were indissoluble.” Noblewomen were not permitted to rule on disputes on properties they held. Meanwhile, working women lacked economic rights and protections; many were concerned about the entrance of men into traditionally female occupations such as seamstress and embroiderer. These women feared that unless such employment was restricted to females, the “fairer sex” would have to look for less respectable jobs.
Women were not the only people in France who were denied basic human rights, of course. Indeed, France’s peasants lived under the worst conditions. Although industry was becoming a more important part of the nation’s economy, France was still largely dependent on the feudal system in which powerful feudal lords (seigneurs) owned profitable farmlands on which peasants lived and worked. Some peasants had managed to earn enough money from their crops to purchase their own small plots of land, but the vast majority lived in poverty, completely under the thumbs of seigneurs. In his book The Old Regime and the French Revolution, nineteenth-century historian Alexis de Tocqueville details the burdens of the typical farmer:
Everywhere the resident seigneur levied dues on fairs and markets, and everywhere enjoyed exclusive rights of hunting. . . . [It] was the general rule that farmers must bring their wheat to their lord’s mill and the grapes to his wine press. A universal and very onerous right was that named lods et ventes; that is to say an impost levied by the lord on transfers of land within his domain. And throughout the whole of France the land was subject to quitrents, ground rents, dues in money or in kind payable by the peasant proprietor to his lord and irredeemable by the former.
Not only did the peasants owe rent and crops to their feudal lords, they also had to pay burdensome taxes to the government. By comparison, as Gwynne Lewis explains in The French Revolution: Rethinking the Debate, “The persistence of feudal social structures meant that the real wealth of the country was not taxed: the great landowners, the Church and the nobility, escaped most of the taxes which fell upon land.”
Even peasants who were landowners were far from comfortable economically. As J.F. Bosher points out in his book, The French Revolution, the typical rural family of five required sixty bushels of wheat per year, “or with the triennial rotation of crops, about 15 acres of land for food.” However, the majority of French peasants— as much as 70 percent in the region of Cambrésis, for example— owned less than two-and-a-half acres of farmland. To make matters worse, France suffered several droughts and harsh winters during the 1780s, and French peasants were unaware of new, more efficient farming techniques; most used outdated tools and methods that dated back to the Middle Ages.
While some peasants could at least hope that they would grow enough grain to cover the money owed to their landlords and the government and provide food for their family, the urban poor— who, if not unemployed, worked primarily in factories and shops—were dependent on the affordability and availability of pre-baked bread. In the summer of 1787, a four-pound loaf, two of which were required daily to feed a family of four, cost eight sous. Due in large part to poor weather and low crop yields, by February 1789 the price had nearly doubled to fifteen sous. In his book Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution, Simon Schama notes: “The average [daily] wage of a manual laborer was between twenty and thirty sous, of a journeyman mason at most forty. The doubling of bread prices—and of firewood—spelled destitution.” Urban workers, especially those in Paris, started to protest the price of bread. When two Parisian manufacturers, Réveillon and Henriot, suggested in late April 1789 that the distribution of bread should be deregulated, thereby lowering prices and reducing both wages and costs of production, riots ensued. Laborers—not only those who worked for bakers—took violent action against Réveillon and Henriot because they feared that other employers would use reduced bread prices as an excuse to cut their own workers’ wages.
Another sector of French society that began to protest unequal treatment was the bourgeoisie, or middle class. Unlike the rural and urban poor, this economic class, whose members would prove so important during the revolution, had already begun to gain economic and social status before 1789. As France’s population started its migration from country to town and factories began to dot the urban landscape, capitalists and financiers saw their wealth steadily increase. Middle-class children had more access to education and culture, and their upbringing brought them in closer contact to the French aristocracy, resulting in many marriages between the upper and middle classes. However, the grow- ing economic strength of France’s middle class was not accompanied by equal political power. Bourgeois members of the Third Estate were particularly aggrieved by the fact that the votes in the Estates-General (a legislative body convened on rare occasion by the king) were counted by estate, not head. Thus the Third Estate often found itself outvoted by the First Estate (clergy) and Second Estate (nobility), which usually voted together for measures that furthered their interests at the expense of the needs of the Third Estate. However, the Third Estate had twice as many deputies as either of the other two estates. Thus, had voting been done by a head count, all a unified Third Estate would need was a single vote from either the nobility or the clergy to establish a majority. An increased political voice was for most middle-class French people the most important human right to be attained. Albert Mathiez, a leading interpreter of the revolution, says of the middle class, “They were advancing steadily [economically]. . . . Their very rise made them more acutely sensitive to the inferior legal status to which they were still condemned.”
The grievances of women, the rural and urban poor, and the middle class culminated in the French Revolution. The revolution began in 1789, with the first demands for greater rights made that January by French women. On January 1, 1789, King Louis XVI was presented with the Petition of Women of the Third Estate to the King. The rights demanded by the women included permission to send female deputies to the Estates-General, the right to an adequate education, and the right to earn a respectable living (and thus avoid drifting into prostitution). These demands were not especially radical—the petition made clear that they were not asking for equality with men. The petitioners explained, “We ask to be enlightened, to have work, not in order to usurp men’s authority, but in order to be better esteemed by them.” They added further, “We implore you, Sire, to set up free schools where we might learn our language on the basis of principles, religion and ethics. . . . Sciences? . . . they only serve to inspire us with a stupid pride, lead us to pedantry, go against the wishes of nature.”
Other women, however, were more radical in their demands. In September 1791 Marie Gouze, under the pseudonym Olympe de Gouges, published a pamphlet, the Declaration of the Rights of Women. The pamphlet, which was addressed to Queen Marie-Antoinette, asserted that women were entitled to seventeen rights, including property rights, free speech, and equal access to public and private “dignities, offices, and employments.” Many women also expressed their political opinions in the salons, clubs that had flourished throughout the eighteenth century, where upper-class and middle-class women could gather with eminent writers and philosophers to discuss important issues.
For some women, however, gathering together to discuss politics with leading philosophers or writing revolutionary pamphlets was hardly practical. To the poorer women in Paris, access to affordable bread was the most important right. In October 1789 a large group of poor women marched to Versailles, the royal palace situated twelve miles beyond the capital, to demand bread, as supplies were limited within the city. Upon reaching the palace, a small delegation of women was granted an audience with King Louis XVI. The women eventually convinced the monarch to sign decrees agreeing to provide Paris with sufficient stores of affordable bread.
French women did not lack male support in their quest for human rights. One of the leading male voices for female political equality was Marie-Jean Caritat, the Marquis de Condorcet. Condorcet, a member of Paris’s municipal assembly, expressed his support for women’s rights in the July 1790 document, “On the Admission of Women to the Rights of Citizenship.” Condorcet argued that, like men, women are able to acquire and analyze moral ideas and therefore are equally entitled to rights. He acknowledged that women may prefer to remain in the domestic sphere and perhaps are not as qualified for political office, but he maintained that such differences should not lead to unequal treatment. According to Condorcet:
It is . . . unjust to advance as grounds for continuing to refuse women the enjoyment of their natural rights those reasons that only have some kind of reality because women do not enjoy these rights in the first place. If one admits such argu- ments against women, it would also be necessary to take away the rights of citizenship from that portion of the people who, having to work without respite, can neither acquire enlightenment nor exercise its reason, and soon little by little the only men who would be permitted to be citizens would be those who had followed a course in public law.
France’s women met several of their early revolutionary goals. Levy, Applewhite, and Johnson conclude in their book that French women became politically influential; the three authors assert that the French government could no longer ignore their female subjects’ demands. Women also benefited economically, with previously gender-biased laws on inheritance and property rights relaxed under the new regime. The divorce law of 1792 further improved women’s civil status by setting seven grounds for divorce that women as well as men could use, including insanity, brutality, and abandonment. The new law made it equally easy for men and women to dissolve marriages quickly and inexpensively.
For peasants, change came swiftly and violently. In July 1789 France was wracked by what became known as the “Great Fear.” On the fourteenth of that month, a riot at the Bastille, a Paris prison and armory, had resulted in the death of more than one hundred people. The riot began when the citizens of Paris—fearful that troops recently sent to the city by King Louis XVI might decide to attack the populace—began collecting weapons at the Bastille. Similar uprisings against the government followed. Rural citizens began hearing rumors that King Louis XVI was ordering his troops into the French countryside to stanch peasant rebellions. Fearful peasants began burning and pillaging manors, destroying feudal records, and reclaiming what had previously been common land. On August 4, 1789, worried that these demonstrations would not cease, the nation’s nobles agreed to give up most of their feudal rights. This decision was codified one week later by the National Assembly. Peasants were now free to earn their own wages, unencumbered by feudal tithes; the economic element of human rights was becoming a reality for the nation’s rural poor. The economic freedoms for urban laborers also widened during the revolution. The abolishment of guilds allowed artisans more oppor- tunities to find jobs, unburdened by a complicated hierarchical system. Workshops established throughout cities were sources of employment for poor women. Urban laborers frequently went on strike, with higher wages a common result. Bread became more affordable; in 1793, the price of a loaf was six sous.
The first great triumph of the bourgeois was the reshaping of the Estates-General into the National Assembly. On May 5, 1789, King Louis XVI convened the Estates-General for its first meeting in 175 years to discuss solutions to France’s economic woes. The delegates also debated on how voting should proceed and whether the system of representation should be altered. The Third Estate walked out of the meeting when the other two estates refused to change the traditional methods of voting. On June 17, 1789, the Third Estate held its own meeting and declared itself the National Assembly, inviting the delegates from the other two estates to join it. In the estimation of Nora Temple, author of The Road to 1789: From Reform to Revolution in France, the establishment of the National Assembly “[was] technically the beginning of the revolution because the Third Estate, and the few clergy who by that stage joined it, knew that they were claiming sovereign power when they assumed the title of National Assembly.” A break from the monarchy, from what would be known as the Ancién Regime, had officially begun.
The second accomplishment of the National Assembly, and the one that had the greatest effect on the concept of modern human rights, was the adoption of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen on August 26, 1789. Debate about what to include in the document had begun earlier in the month, culminating in the decision to pare down the originally conceived twenty-four rights to seventeen. Assembly deputies argued over how much influence the United States’s Declaration of Independence should have on the document; a chief disagreement was whether the American understanding of equality could be transferred successfully to a nation with a long history of aristocracy and feudalism. In the end, while the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen was partly influenced by its American predecessor, the French document proved unique and enduring in its own way. Most important for many revolutionaries, was that the declaration helped the French middle class achieve its greatest goal: the codification of basic political, social, and civil rights.
Historians have long agreed that few documents have been more influential in Western history than the declaration. Geoffrey Best, the editor of The Permanent Revolution: The French Revolution and Its Legacy, 1789–1989, contends that the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen was important because of its realistic understanding that in order to be beneficial, rights cannot be abstract. Rather, they must be codified in well-functioning constitutions. As Best opines, “Modern history is rich in instances of states with constitutions which read excellently, but in whose functioning there are hidden catches or practical failures which rubbish them as far as human rights go.” Best further explains that the declaration was an important achievement because it was a document that expressed the rights of France as a people and as a nation, without regard to previous or current rulers. The opening paragraphs of the declaration help delineate what Lynn Hunt, in her introduction to The French Revolution and Human Rights: A Brief Documentary History, describes as the National Assembly’s “vision of government based on principles completely different from those of the monarchy”:
[The] National Assembly recognizes and declares, in the presence and under the auspices of the Supreme Being, the following rights of man and citizen.
1. Men are born and remain free and equal in rights. Social distinctions can be based only upon public utility.
2. The aim of every political association is the preservation of the natural and imprescriptible [self-evident] rights of man. These rights are liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression.
3. The source of all sovereignty is essentially in the nation; no body, no individual can exercise authority that does not proceed from it in plain terms.
The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen has proved to be one of the most influential documents in history, one that has influenced the quest for human rights in not only Europe but throughout the world. Other accomplishments during the French Revolution turned out to be less enduring.
French women, who had benefited during the early stages of the revolution, found themselves at odds with the Jacobins, a radical party led by Maximilien de Robespierre and Georges Danton. The Jacobins rose to power in 1792 and established the first French Republic. Believing that women did not belong in the political sphere, the Jacobin government closed women’s political clubs in November 1793. The Convention—the ruling body of the French Republic— had made its decision after hearing a report by André Amar, who suggested that it would be dangerous to give women too much political power. He declared, “Women are disposed by their organization to an over-excitation that would be deadly in public affairs. . . . Interests of state would soon be sacrificed to everything which ardor in passion can generate in the way of error and disorder.”
Some of the more prominent revolutionary women lost not only their rights but also their lives. The Jacobin reign has been associated with the Reign of Terror, a nearly year-long stretch between the fall of 1793 and the summer of 1794 when the government arrested and executed more than twenty thousand people it believed were politically dangerous, including women whom it believed failed in their roles as obedient wives and mothers. Olympe de Gouges and Marie-Antoinette were among the victims. The lot of French women did not improve after the more moderate Thermidorians overthrew the Jacobin regime in July 1794. Women’s workshops were disbanded in 1795, with the government urging women to work at home so they could become better wives and mothers.
The modest gains by the urban poor also proved short-lived. The decade-long revolution, which coincided with several wars against European foes, wracked France’s already vulnerable economy. Affordable foodstuffs continued to be a problem for urban families. Despite the riots and the efforts of the Convention to guarantee adequate provisions for the urban poor, the high cost of bread remained a problem. In 1792 hoarding caused a rise in the cost of sugar. Levy, Applewhite, and Johnson explain, “Speculators hoarded vast stores of colonial products such as sugar, coffee, and tea in expectation of future profits from depleted sup- plies.” Concerns over unequal allocations of eggs and butter led to riots in 1793. Urban workers lost the economic power they had gained when the National Assembly passed the Le Chapelier law in 1791, which prohibited all workers’ coalitions and assemblies. A September 1793 law placed limits on wages. Freedom from hunger and want had been the right sought most fervently by the urban poor, but it was a right they were unable to enjoy.
The end of feudalism was on the surface a significant accomplishment for the peasants, who no longer suffered the burden of excessive dues and taxes. Yet not all peasants benefited equally from the revolution. Historian George Lefebvre points out that only well-off peasants could afford to purchase Church properties, which had become available for purchase when the National Assembly seized land held by clerics. Moreover, he explains, the lords who had dominated the countryside before the revolution were merely transformed by the revolution into landlords who still held most of the economic and political power in rural France. He writes, “The consequences of the Revolution from 1789 to the Terror were, for the most part, socially conservative. The effects of much of the legislation of this period played directly to the interests of groups who had done very well at the end of the old regime.”
People of the French middle class had increased their economic power throughout the eighteenth century through trade and industry and had gradually gained social status via marriages into upper-class families. For this group, the primary revolutionary goal was to achieve a commensurate level of political strength. Once those desires were fulfilled with the passage of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen and the establishment of a government that did not favor the wealthy or the Church, the bourgeoisie had little else to demand. With the revolution being, at the end, essentially conservative, it is not surprising that the people from the middle classes who benefited the most were those who were able to enjoy the newfound wealth of land and business ownership that the revolution brought. As long as they remained economically strong, and as long as the monarchy and powerful aristocracy remained a thing of the past, the middle class seemed happy to remain where they were.
The revolution effectively came to an end on November 10, 1799, when Napoleon Bonaparte led a coup of the government and named himself the First Consul; he declared the revolution over on December 15. Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyès, who participated in that coup, penned a new constitution—one that made no mention of human rights or liberty, instead emphasizing peace, security, and property rights. The constitution was followed by the Napoleonic Code, a set of laws that purportedly guaranteed equality under the law but favored the wealthy. Napoleon’s favoring of the wealthy continued throughout his reign. On March 1, 1808, Napoleon created more than three thousand noble titles. For a man who touted the idea of meritocracy—of people improving their social position through talent, not birth—Napoleon seemed to have a less-thanwarm attitude toward the political and economic aspirations of France’s lower classes. His consolidation of power ended the political freedoms of the bourgeois, as there was no longer a national legislature that the middle class could dominate.
The urban and rural poor were also affected under Napoleon’s rule. Napoleon continued the ban on trade unions and introduced passbooks, which limited the ability of urban workers to move freely about the nation. However, he did set maximum prices for bread and flour, thus reducing the threat of either hunger or bread riots. According to Robert B. Holtman, author of The Napoleonic Revolution, peasants did not necessarily fare badly under Napoleon, as he maintained the work the revolutionaries had done (namely, abolishing feudalism). However, other scholars have asserted that Napoleon was largely uninterested in social and economic reforms that would improve the quality of life for his poorer subjects.
The Napoleonic Code also had a deleterious effect on women’s rights. His rewriting of the divorce laws gave more control to husbands while advancements in inheritance and property rights were also swept away. Although French women later participated in their nation’s nineteenth-century revolutions, they continued to lack basic political rights for many more decades; it was not until 1944 that they were given the right to vote.
France’s first attempt at a republic—at a government that would represent the interests of all its citizens, not just the privileged few—came to an end when Napoleon took over. His rule as France’s dictator, and eventually its self-proclaimed emperor, ended in 1815 after his humiliating defeat at the Belgian town of Waterloo at the hands of England’s Duke of Wellington, who led the combined forces of Britain, Belgium, Hanover, and the Netherlands against the French army. The French monarchy reemerged under the Restoration, when the Bourbon family returned to the throne, first with King Louis XVIII and then with Charles X, brothers of Louis XVI, and later in the nineteenth century with Louis Philippe. Napoleon’s nephew Louis Napoleon Bonaparte followed his uncle’s lead by declaring himself emperor in 1852.
Although the power of the first two kings was limited by constitutions (as had also been the case for Louis XVI during his final year as king), distaste for the return of the monarchy led to the revolutions of 1830 and 1848. During those revolutions, the French lower and middle classes fought to regain the rights they had acquired between 1789 and 1799. The Revolution of 1830 stemmed from fears that Charles X sought a return to an absolute monarchy. In July 1830 the king issued ordinances that limited the freedom of the press, dissolved the newly elected, liberaldominated Chamber of Deputies (France’s legislature), and reduced the number of eligible voters. Workers and the middle class demonstrated against the king, who soon fled to England. Louis Philippe, the Duke of Orleans, replaced him as king. Philippe’s reign lasted until 1848. Frustration over a failing economy, political corruption, and voting restrictions led to the Revolution of 1848, France’s third revolution in sixty years. Finally, after a revolution in 1870, France was able to establish a republic, and that system of government has remained intact for over 130 years, except for a period of four years when the Nazis occupied the country during World War II.
British poet William Wordsworth wrote in his 1804 poem, “French Revolution As It Appears to Enthusiasts,” “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive! But to be young was very heaven!” For France’s women, poor, and middle class, the early years of the revolution may indeed have seemed heavenly. They found themselves free to declare their wishes for a political and economic voice in a new France. However, as the revolution continued, the actions of the fledging republic’s leadership clearly showed that the new leaders’ belief in human rights spread to the upper- and middle-class male but no further. The freedom experienced by France’s lessprivileged groups, though brief, ultimately whetted their appetite for more liberty. The French Revolution that began in 1789 may have ended in 1799, but the desire of its citizens for freedom would continue for decades beyond.
In Opposing Viewpoints in World History: The French Revolution, contributors evaluate the causes, controversies, and effects of the revolution in the following chapters: The Causes of the Revolution, The Controversial Events of the Revolution, Social Change in Revolutionary France, Historians Evaluate the French Revolution. In their viewpoints the authors show how the quest for human rights expanded beyond Great Britain and the United States to include a third nation, one determined to move from monarchy to modernity.
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