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

During the French Revolution, the motto “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, or Death” meant that the ideals of the Revolution had to be embraced on pain of death. When the Revolution entered its most violent phase during the Terror, those deemed not to be supportive of its ideals were sent to the guillotine.

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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.”

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The slogan “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité,” or “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, or Death,” has been adopted as the French national motto, but it was originally promulgated as the French Revolution was underway. It is important to recall that the French Revolution was, in many ways, inspired by the American Revolution that took place shortly before. The majority of the French population lived under oppressive conditions where their economic and general security was never certain. By contrast, the French aristocracy generally enjoyed economic benefits and liberties as a result of the work of the masses. The revolution was designed as an attempt by the masses to get out from under the yoke of the heavy tax and labor system that had such a narrow pyramid, with the elite on top and the masses supporting their lifestyles.

Robespierre advocated for this slogan's use as an official part of the revolution to articulately communicate the rationale behind the overthrow of the monarchy and takeover of the government by the people. The motto exemplifies what the people ostensibly were fighting for, which was liberty from the oppression of living under a monarchy and aristocracy that could often be mercurial about administering punishment to the general population. In other words, the French people sought equal treatment across the board, without the sharp differences in treatment that the aristocracy enjoyed compared to the masses. The word fraternity was included to show that the general populous felt that they were all brothers in arms, fighting together for a better life for all, free from the whims of the previously powerful monarchy and aristocracy to mete out an unfair justice. In 1958, the motto was officially written into the French constitution.

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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.

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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.

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