Chapter 4: Historians Evaluate the French Revolution
Chapter 4 Preface
While unquestionably important, the French Revolution was not the seminal event of the eighteenth century in the minds of many American historians. Indeed, in their view, the American Revolution enjoys that honor. In 1775 the American colonies began their fight for independence from Great Britain. By the summer of 1789, when France’s middle and lower classes first threatened the monarchy, the newly formed United States had already written a constitution and elected its first president. A dozen years later the United States had peacefully elected its third president, while France—whose initial attempt at a republic did not survive its seventh year—had fallen under the dictatorship of Napoleon Bonaparte. Although many modern historians have looked at the two revolutions as complementary facets of an “Atlantic Revolution,” American writers and observers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries tended to separate the two events, believing the French Revolution a failure that should not be considered equal to the American triumph.
Americans widely supported the French Revolution during its early years. They saw in the French kindred spirits, men and women who were eager to earn political and civil rights. However, by 1792 the United States began to doubt the path that France’s revolutionary leaders had taken. Maximilien Robespierre and his Jacobin brethren had taken over the government and started to oppress their moderate and conservative...
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The French Revolution Had Largely Negative Effects on the Economy
France’s economic woes under Louis XVI have often been cited as causing the French Revolution. However, as Gwynne Lewis asserts in the following viewpoint, the revolutionary government did little to improve the nation’s economic situation. Although Lewis acknowledges that some industries, notably cotton and iron, flourished during the revolution, and she concedes that France began to take steps toward modern capitalism, she argues that the revolution worsened the preexisting recession. According to Lewis, the value of France’s overseas trade was reduced by half between 1789 and 1799 while the textile and coal industries also experienced losses and stagnation. She notes that hyperinflation and war led the nation to further economic disarray. Lewis is a professor of history at the University of Warwick in Coventry, England, and the author of The French Revolution: Rethinking the Debate, the source of the following viewpoint.
[Historian] Florin Aftalion believes that ‘. . . the return of a degree of economic liberty allowed the French economy to recover slowly from the shock of the Revolution’. The shaky recovery after 1795 may be explained by many other factors, including the creation of a French empire in Europe, offering not only plunder in cash and kind, but new markets for French goods, denied access to British and most colonial ports. But what was the state of the French economy as the 1790s drew to its bloody end? How had the...
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The French Revolution Had Positive Effects on the Economy
Jacques Solomon, a French physicist and socialist who was executed by the Nazis during World War II, praises the economic policies of Maximilien Robespierre and the rest of the Jacobin leadership in the following viewpoint. Solomon asserts that these radical revolutionaries saved France from the dangers posed by foreign invaders and counterrevolutionaries while also stabilizing the French currency. According to Solomon, the Jacobins compelled France’s wealthy subjects to contribute money to support the revolution and the disadvantaged. He also contends that the new government greatly benefited France by stabilizing the paper currency, assignats, by reducing the circulation of money, establishing an official exchange rate, and setting maximum prices that made bread and other provisions affordable without completely eliminating commercial profits.
[Maximilien] Robespierre and his friends succeeded in saving France from counter-revolutionary foreign invaders, despite revolts fomented by the agents of the aristocracy and foreign Powers, and made the currency more stable than before. Let us examine the method of this remarkable and rarely-recognized financial success.
The First Victory
Firstly, despite the Girondins, the Jacobins raised a forced loan of 1,000 millions.1 The law of May 20th, 1793, prescribed: “There shall be a forced levy on all rich citizens of 1,000 millions.” It was definitely voted on...
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French Women Attained Lasting Political Power During the French Revolution
In the following excerpt from their book, Women in Revolutionary Paris: 1789–1795, Darline Gay Levy, Harriet Branson Applewhite, and Mary Durham Johnson contend that French revolutionary women were able to make a lasting political impact on their country. Although Levy, Applewhite, and Johnson acknowledge that many of the political gains women made in the early years of the French Revolution had eroded by 1795, the authors argue that women in later decades were inspired by those early efforts, helping them effect lasting change in French society. The authors assert that France’s revolutionary women became “barometers of political crises,” whose demands could not be neglected. They also maintain that French women contributed to the political education of children. Levy is a history professor at New York University, Applewhite is a political science professor at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven, and Johnson has taught at Temple University in Philadelphia and East Tennessee State University in Johnson City.
After June, 1795, it seemed that the women of Paris were a failure as a political force. First of all, they had lost their supporting institutions. Their clubs were closed, they were shut out of the galleries of the Convention, popular societies were disbanded, and workshops were closed. After that there was no longer any way to coordinate the political efforts of women of all social ranks. Furthermore, once the Jacobins...
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French Women Did Not Attain Lasting Political Power During the French Revolution
French women were thwarted in their attempts to improve their political standing during the revolutionary era, Jane Abray contends in the following viewpoint. In Abray’s opinion, this failure was caused by the lack of support from the revolutionary governments and the inability of French feminists to expand their narrow base. Abray explains that although women were granted more freedom in private affairs—such as inheritance, property rights, and divorce—legislators outlawed women’s political clubs. Eventually, even the advances in civil law that benefited women were swept away when Napoleon took control of the nation. In addition, Abray maintains that French feminists failed to work with each other and were not able to change the opinions of most French women, who generally accepted traditional definitions of gender roles. Abray concludes that the failure of revolutionary feminism shows how the French Revolution was, despite its political upheaval, an essentially conservative era. Abray is a professor of history at the University of Toronto.
French feminism has a long history; its roots go back far beyond the tumult of new ideas that mark the Revolution. Since the Renaissance, indeed since the Middle Ages, French women—and men—had argued for equality of legal and political rights for the sexes. Woman’s education, her economic position, and her relationship to her father and husband had all been worked over time after time. In the eighteenth...
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The French Revolution Spurred a Greater Respect for the Nation-State
Prior to the mid-nineteenth century, several European nations, most notably Germany and Italy, were a loose group of kingdoms and territories that were not wholly unified. In the following viewpoint Conor Cruise O’Brien asserts that the French Revolution helped accelerate the growth of nationalism throughout nineteenth- and twentieth-century Europe, particularly in Germany. He acknowledges that nationalism existed prior to, and helped cause, the revolution, but argues that the French Revolution helped elevate love of the nation-state to a powerful political force. According to O’Brien, Germany experienced this intense love for a country and its native people most strongly. Unfortunately, however, German nationalism soon became imbued with racist and anti-Semitic attitudes, he contends. O’Brien is a politician, journalist, and historian who has written more than twenty books.
Within ten years of the beginning of the Revolution, revolutionary internationalism seemed to have turned to ashes. The French Revolution had made a mockery of les républiques soeurs [sister republics] and had insisted that patriotes be puppets. What stood out, in contrast with those international shams, was the huge exalted and long-triumphant national reality: la grande nation itself. It is hardly surprising if succeeding generations were less inclined to emulate what now looked like shams than to emulate a triumphant reality, with the glory that it...
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The French Revolution Produced a Greater Respect for the Individual
Prior to the French Revolution, most of France’s inhabitants lacked basic human rights such as political representation and economic freedom; power was held largely in the hands of the king, aristocracy, and clergy. The French Revolution is important because it helped establish the idea of human rights, Lynn Hunt asserts in the following viewpoint. Hunt explains that French legislators were influenced by British and American documents, including the 1689 English Bill of Rights and Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. According to Hunt, the French belief in individual rights culminated in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, adopted in August 1789, which gave French citizens the right to free speech, a free press, and equality under the law. She further notes that the discussion of human rights continued in France during the revolutionary era, although some rights were suppressed during the violent regime known as the Terror. Despite these setbacks, Hunt concludes, the idea of human rights originally expressed by the French during the revolution eventually progressed throughout Europe and the rest of the world. Hunt is the Eugen Weber Professor of modern European history at the University of California at Los Angeles and the author or editor of several volumes on the French Revolution, including The French Revolution and Human Rights: A Brief Documentary History, the source of the following viewpoint.
The idea of...
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