What was the meaning of the French motto "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, or Death" during the French Revolution?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

It is believed that Maximilien Robespierre was the first to use the phrase "liberty, equality, fraternity" (liberté, equalité, fraternité) during a 1790 speech entitled "On the Organization of the National Guard." He wanted these words to appear on the guards' uniforms and on the tricolor flag of the nation, but his proposal was not accepted.

Later, the slogan was changed to "Unity, indivisibility of the Republic; liberty, equality, brotherhood or death" by a resolution of the Paris Commune in 1793. The Commune ordered the slogan to appear on all the house fronts in Paris, and the residents of other cities also inscribed them on their house fronts. This phrase also appears in Dickens's novel, A Tale of Two Cities, a literary account of the French Revolution. The meaning of this phrase is that if one does not grant liberty, equality, or fraternity to others—one does not treat others like they would treat their own brother—one will meet death. This phrase also foreshadowed the  1793–1794 Reign of Terror. In this period political opponents of the government were targeted and often executed.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The motto "Liberté, Equalité, Fraternité", was originally intended to unite and inspire revolutionaries. The three ideals: freedom, equality and brotherhood were the foundation of the 'new France' that the revolutionaries sought. 

"Or death" was added from 1793, with the full motto often painted on house doors in Paris.

Whether "and", or, "or", this part of the motto demonstrated the resolve of the revolutionaries. Along the same lines as the proverb "better to die on your feet then live on your knees". The motto stated that without basic freedoms and rights, there was no reason to live. Furthermore, the revolutionaries would die in order for their neighbours to share those same rights.

This final section was discouraged, as it was a stark reminder of The Terror - the bloodiest period of the revolution.

The motto (with the reference to death removed) is now inscribed on public buildings, and was written into the Constitution in 1946 and 1958.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
Soaring plane image

We’ll help your grades soar

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial