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What are the pros and cons of the French Revolution?

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The French Revolution's pros include ending the oppressive monarchy, establishing civil rights, abolishing class distinctions, and inspiring other nations to seek freedom. It introduced the Declaration of the Rights of Man, promoting liberty, equality, and fraternity. However, its cons involve the violent Reign of Terror, temporary replacement by an emperor, descent into chaos, religious persecution, imperial conquest, and exclusion of women and the working class from political life.

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The pros for the French Revolution include that it put to end to the oppressive monarchal regime that took advantage of the labor of the peasants and did little to ensure their general welfare—or even to ensure they had food.

The French Revolution loosely took its inspiration from the American Revolution. In 1789, some 13 years after the Declaration of Independence, the people of France affirmed the Declaration of the Rights of Man. There are many similarities behind the philosophies of both documents and quest for freedom by the people in both revolutions.

The Declaration of the Rights of Man states that people are born free and remain free, equal, and endowed with certain natural rights. Furthermore, according to the document, social distinctions should not arise from hereditary class status as they did before. In the past, if you were born to a noble or aristocratic family, you inherited that status. Similarly, if you were born to a peasant family, you were essentially forced to remain a peasant for your entire life. The French Revolution sought to end the class distinctions that were passed down generationally. The motto of the French Revolution, which endures to this day, was "Liberté, égalité, fraternité"—"Liberty, equality, fraternity."

The document further stated that the government’s goal should be to preserve people’s rights, including liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression. Just as the Declaration of Independence gave the people the right to choose the nation’s leader, the Declaration of the Rights of Man also said that no single person—we can interpret this to mean no monarch—could claim authority if it did not come directly from the people.

The cons of the French Revolution include that it led to the Reign of Terror, in which the people took out their years of grievances against the nobility through the bloodthirsty and often indiscriminate murder of entire families just because of their aristocratic status. Moreover, the monarchy subsequently was replaced by the rule of an emperor temporarily.

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Pros:

  • The Revolution brought to an end a cruel, repressive, hopelessly inefficient political system. The power of the aristocracy and the Catholic Church, which had crippled France for centuries, was replaced by a system more in touch with the people, especially those who paid taxes.
  • A culture of civil rights was developed. For the first time in the history of France, people could see what they believed to be their natural rights enshrined in law. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen led to the abolition of slavery in French overseas colonies and the establishment of religious freedom in a country where non-Catholics had traditionally been persecuted.
  • The Revolution led to the birth of the modern French nation. For the first time, people from different walks of life now had a common purpose in life. The old class distinctions that had kept people apart were now no longer relevant. What mattered was that everyone could now come together as one in order to achieve the monumental tasks that the Revolution had set for France.
  • The Revolution acted as an inspiration to downtrodden peoples of other countries, encouraging them to throw off the yoke of monarchical oppression and take control of their own lives for the very first time.

Cons:

  • Despite its noble aspirations, the Revolution soon descended into violence, chaos and bloodshed. The revolutionaries had none of the experience or skill necessary to govern a state, and so relied upon abstract political ideas which they then used to construct an artificial system of government. As the system they built had no roots among the traditions of the people, it could only be maintained and defended by violent repression.
  • Though nominally committed to religious liberty, the Revolution led to a vicious campaign of de-Christianization in some parts of France. Priests and nuns were put to death, church property confiscated or destroyed, and a bizarre nature cult established as an alternative to Christianity in order to command the allegiance of the masses.
  • The attempt by French revolutionaries to liberate the oppressed masses of other countries soon degenerated into a campaign of imperial conquest. Many people initially welcomed the French Revolutionary Army as liberators, grateful to them for helping to remove hated monarchies. Unfortunately, the liberators soon turned into oppressors, with the French simply replacing monarchies with tyrannies of their own, riding roughshod over the national aspirations of neighboring peoples.
  • The concept of the Nation as established by the Revolution was inherently exclusionary. Groups such as women and the working-classes were marginalized by what was predominantly a male, bourgeois revolution. Women were systematically excluded from formal participation in French political life and the workers were prohibited from forming unions to campaign for better wages and conditions.

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