Chapter 3: Social Change in Revolutionary France
Chapter 3 Preface
The effects of the French Revolution went beyond that nation’s borders. Within France new rights were being granted to previously neglected groups, among them the middle class, women, and Jews. Soon, France found one of its colonies seeking the same freedoms. Through the staunch fighting of its black soldiers and the leadership of Toussaint L’Ouverture, the colony of Saint- Domingue became Haiti, the first black republic, in 1804. Ironically, while Haiti remained independent from that point on, France was not so lucky—by 1804, the nation’s first attempt at a republican government had failed and the nation was under the rule of self-proclaimed emperor Napoleon Bonaparte.
In 1789 Saint-Domingue was the largest of the French West Indian colonies. Five hundred thousand slaves, transported from Africa, worked on coffee, cotton, and sugar plantations. Since 1687 the slaves had lived under the Code Noir, or Black Code. Among the restrictions placed on slaves was that they had to be baptized into the Roman Catholic faith and could not gather with the slaves of other masters.
The inhabitants of Saint-Domingue were aware of the events of the French Revolution. Hearing news of the revolution inspired the aggrieved slaves, who staged a mass revolt on August 20, 1791. Plantation houses were set on fire, and slave masters were forced to flee. Emerging from the revolt as a key leader in the fight for independence was the self-educated slave Toussaint...
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French Women Should Become Politically Active
French women played an important role during the revolution. For example, on October 5, 1789, thousands of women marched to Versailles (the king’s palace, twelve miles outside Paris) to protest the rising cost of bread; the king agreed to provide bread and returned to Paris with the protestors. Many women believed that they could contribute to the revolutionary government. One such woman was the Dutch activist Etta Palm d’Aelders. In the following viewpoint d’Aelders, who lived in France, details several of the ways French women could become involved politically. According to d’Aelders, patriotic women should provide assistance to young impoverished mothers. She also suggests that women supervise public education in order to ensure that French children are taught their rights and responsibilities. D’Aelders argues that allowing patriotic women to serve in government will help foster in the general populace a love of country and respect for the new constitution.
My fellow citizens, my brothers, if my feeble voice could reach your heart, if my zeal for the happiness of Frenchmen could inspire you to some extent, then listen to me. Rally around the tree of the constitution; it is the tree of life. Watch over the sacred fasces of the union; it is the bulwark of your liberty. Go, abjure on the altar of the Fatherland all hatred and partial enmity, all personal jealousies. Relegate to contempt, to anathema, whoever dares malign his brother; may love...
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French Women Should Remain in the Domestic Sphere
In the following viewpoint Louis Marie Prudhomme contends that while French women might be needed to help fight the counterrevolution (a movement against the French Revolution led by loyalists to King Louis XVI), they ultimately belong in the domestic, not political, sphere. He asserts that although women are entitled to the rights of citizenship and free speech, they have never shown a great passion for civil and political liberty and are not suited for politics. Prudhomme maintains that women are only happy when they are taking care of their families and teaching morals to their children. Prudhomme was a bookseller during the revolution and the publisher of the radical newspaper Revolutions of Paris.
Many women have complained to us about the Revolution. In numerous letters they report to us that for two years now it seems there is but one sex in France. In the primary assemblies [for voting], in the sections,1 in the clubs, etc. there is no longer any discussion about women, as if they no longer existed. They are accorded, as if by grace, a few benches for listening to the sessions of the National Assembly [France’s parliament]. Two or three women have appeared at the bar [spoken to the Assembly], but the audience was short, and the Assembly quickly passed on to the order of the day. Can the French people, some ask, not become free without ceasing to be gallant? Long ago, in the time of the Gauls, our good ancestors, women had a...
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French Jews Should Be Granted Citizenship
Approximately thirty thousand Jews lived in France (a mostly Catholic nation) when the French Revolution began. However, unlike Protestants—another religious minority—French Jews did not have the rights of citizens. For nearly two years the National Assembly, France’s legislative body during the first stage of the revolution, debated the question of Jewish citizenship. On September 27, 1791, Jews were finally awarded the rights of citizens.
In the following viewpoint, excerpted from a petition delivered to the National Assembly on January 28, 1790, lawyer Jacques Godard argues in favor of citizenship. According to Godard, who writes on behalf of Jewish communities, Jews deserve citizenship because they have lived as French subjects and, therefore, should not be considered foreigners. He points out that because Jews have paid into the government in the form of taxes, just like other French subjects, they should enjoy the same advantages the government gives in return. Godard also argues that civil rights should be independent of religious beliefs and that no religious group should be permitted to oppress people of other faiths.
Let us begin with the principles that imperiously demand the elevation of the Jews to the rank of citizens.
A first principle is that all men domiciled in an empire, and living as subjects of that empire, must participate without distinctions in the same title and enjoy the same rights. They must all...
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French Jews Should Not Be Granted Citizenship
France had a population of 26 million in 1789, including thirty thousand Jews. Although Jews were allowed to practice their religion, they were not considered citizens. The National Assembly, France’s legislative body during the first two years of the revolution, debated the issue of Jewish citizenship and awarded Jews full civil rights on September 27, 1791.
In the following viewpoint Anne Louis Henri de la Fare, the Bishop of Nancy, argues against citizenship for French Jews. La Fare asserts that Jews should not be granted the same rights as other inhabitants of France because Jews’ customs are completely different from those of the rest of the nation and because Jews are not sufficiently attached to France. According to La Fare, Jews have sought a return to their homeland (Israel) since being expelled two thousand years earlier, first by the Babylonians and later by the Romans, and thus are unlikely to remain attached to any other nation. He also argues that although Jews are entitled to liberty and security, making them citizens could worsen prejudice against them.
Sirs, assure each Jewish individual his liberty, security, and the enjoyment of his property. You owe it to this individual who has strayed into our midst; you owe him nothing more. He is a foreigner to whom, during the time of this passage and his stay, France owes hospitality, protection, and security. But it cannot and should not admit to public posts, to the...
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The French Revolution Transformed Many Elements of French Society
In the following viewpoint William Doyle asserts that although the French Revolution had some negative consequences, such as increased governmental intrusion into personal lives, it ultimately benefited much of French society. According to Doyle, groups who gained economic, political, and social power included property owners, soldiers, Jews, Protestants, and middleclass professionals. Doyle also notes that slaves in the French colony of Saint-Domingue benefited from the revolution. Civil rights proponents active in the revolution called for the abolishment of slavery in all French colonies, and the French government complied in 1794. Ten years later Saint-Domingue became the independent nation of Haiti. Doyle is the chairman of the School of History at the University of Bristol in England.
Was . . . the Revolution worth it in material terms? For most ordinary French subjects turned by it into citizens, it cannot have been. It had made their lives infinitely more precarious, when they had expected the reverse. It had bidden fair to destroy the religious, cultural, and moral underpinnings of the communities in which they lived. The cahiers [letters] of 1789 make overwhelmingly clear that most French people wanted less state interference in their lives, yet it brought far more, and fiercer. Government by terror scarcely outlasted the Year II [September 1793 to September 1794], but nothing like it had ever occurred before. When it ebbed, the power of...
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The French Revolution Did Not Transform French Society
In the following viewpoint Simon Schama asserts that the French Revolution did not significantly transform that nation’s society. According to Schama, the landed classes remained wealthy while the rural poor made virtually no economic advances. He also notes that the revolutionary governments did not solve the financial problems that had been associated with the monarchy. Schama concludes that upon Napoleon’s declaration in 1799 that the revolution had ended, the men who were poised to take power prior to 1789 were able to resume their march to power. Schama is a professor of history at Columbia University in New York City and the author of Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution, the source of the following viewpoint.
Was the world of the village in 1799 so very different from what it had been ten years before? In particular regions of France where there had been heavy emigration and repression, rural life had indeed been emptied of noble dominance. But this obvious rupture disguises a continuity of some importance. It was exactly those sections of the population who had been gaining economically under the old regime that profited most from the sale of noble and church lands. Those sales were declared irreversible, so there was indeed a substantial transfer of wealth. But much of that transfer was within the landed classes—extending from wellto- do farmers up to “patriot” nobles who had managed to stay put and actually...
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