To a considerable extent, the French Revolutionary motto “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” was a reaction against the dominant values of the old system of government, the ancien regime.
For several centuries, under the rule of successive kings, France had not enjoyed much in the way of liberty, equality, or fraternity. The political system was profoundly unequal, with little or no liberty for those outside the charmed circle of the First and Second Estates, the clergy and the nobility respectively. As for fraternity, there was no sense that men were brothers, united together in a common cause.
The revolution sought to change all that. It promoted ideas which, at that time, were profoundly radical. Revolutionaries passionately argued that all men were brothers—though they conspicuously had little to say about the status of women—and enjoyed full political liberty and equality under the law.
But when the revolution took a violent turn, during the period known to history as the Terror, what had been a liberating slogan turned into something more sinister. Under the despotic rule of Robespierre and the extremists of the Committee of Public Safety “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, or Death” became the order of the day.
What this meant in practice was that anyone deemed by the authorities to be hostile to the values of the revolution was to be put to death on the guillotine. Most of those condemned to this fate were entirely innocent of the charges made against them, but that meant nothing to Robespierre, who saw enemies of the revolution round every corner, seized as he was by an unshakeable belief that he was one of a small handful of revolutionaries genuinely devoted to the principles of “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.”