Did the French Republic live up to the revolution's ideals of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Not hardly. After the French Revolution of 1789, France was dechristianized, religious clergy were expelled from the country; further agitation radicalized the government, leading to the rise of Maximillian Robespierre and the Jacobins. These Jacobins were the peasants, those who were most oppressed prior to the Revolution.  
The reign of Robespierre lasted from 1793-1794; in the beginning, he acted as a defender of the rights of man. And when certain men did not want the government in the hands of the common man, Robespierre championed such men. He worked tirelessly and was outspoken against the death penalty. But when attempts to set up a constitutional monarchy failed between 1789 and 1792, things started to spiral downward for France as the country became embroiled in wars and plots to restore an absolute monarchy. Later, the Girondins, led by Jacques-Pierre Brissot, urged the counter-revolutionaries to break into open opposition. As one historian writes,

In these circumstances, political views hardened, suspicion and fear increased, and the early optimism of the Revolution vanished. 

As Robespierre urged people against counter-revolution, he became unpopular and began to become isolated politically. After the monarchy was overthrown, a National Convention was formed in 1792. When the Convention met, King Louis XVI was a prisoner of the revolutionaries. This time Robespierre and his colleague Saint-Just, both once opponents of the death penalty, decided that "Louis must die in order for the Revolution to live." After this, Robespierre believed in the ends justifying the means and that bloodshed was justified if it supported the cause of the Revolution. Thus began the Reign of Terror, a period in French history unlike any other because 16,000 to 40,000 people were executed. Since the Terror was legal, having been voted in by the Convention, Robespierre allowed the executions to keep the sans-culottes from taking to the streets to kill. His fellow revolutionary Danton agreed, "let us be terrible in order to stop the people from being so." This Reign of Terror lasted until 1794. During the last year of the Reign of Terror, a civil war in Vendée went on and ended in 1796. According to Jean-Clément Martin, a historian, up to 250,000 insurgents and 200,000 republicans met their deaths in this war. Napoleon came to power after this civil war. His wars killed more French men than did the Reign of Terror.

davmor1973 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

On the whole, one would have to say no. That's not to say that the famous rubric was a complete sham. A corrupt, bankrupt system was replaced by one in which there was far greater participation by ordinary people; slaves in France's overseas colonies were freed; and initially, at least, people were able to take advantage of the right to free speech, something they'd never experienced before.

But the signs of trouble were there from the start. Contrary to popular opinion, violence did not simply arise during the Terror; it had been a constant thread running right throughout French political life since the fall of the Bastille. In that sense, the revolutionary credo, though formally noble, radical and emancipatory, lacked the firm political foundations to give it life. With France embroiled in almost constant turmoil, it became more and more difficult to realize liberty, equality and fraternity in practice.

Domestically, this involved growing repression by the central authority against perceived threats to the French Republic long before Robespierre's formal pronouncement of terror became the order of the day. Although ostensibly universal, the three principles of republican liberty didn't in practice apply to everyone. From the very start, what constituted the Nation was inherently exclusionary. Certain people just didn't belong in the new France. And as such they were to be denied liberty, equality and fraternity.

In foreign affairs, the Revolution also failed to live up to its own principles. As the Revolutionary Army chalked up a string of impressive victories beyond France's boundaries, they began to conquer new territories. On the face of it, this was an attempt to free the oppressed masses of Europe from the tyranny of monarchs and their aristocratic lackeys. In reality, however, the all-conquering revolutionaries merely substituted one tyranny for another, suppressing the national aspirations of others for the benefit of the French nation-at-arms.

The Jacobin Terror was, then, the culmination of a long process in which the founding values of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity had been tested in the maelstrom of rapid historical change and found wanting. Those values, though of continuing relevance, required a more stable, more enduring political settlement to make them real, to fulfil their promise, and to ensure that they were more than just a remote, pious hope.