FC105E: The Results of the French Revolution

Although it would take until 1871 for the French Revolution to play out, it was triggering profound effects in France and the rest of Europe as early as 1789.  One touchstone by which to analyze the Revolution’s results is its motto: “Liberty, Equality, and Brotherhood.  The power of these three ideas would quickly spread to the rest of Europe, especially after Napoleon’s final defeat in 1815, and eventually across the globe.

Liberty refers to the basic civil rights we often take for granted as being the natural rights of people everywhere, such as speech, press, assembly, religion, and voting for officials and laws, etc.  The last of these, voting, was typically among the last to be extended to all members of society, in particular women.  

Equality meant that everyone should be equal before the law, rather than face unjust double standards.  At times, some of the more subtle effects of such an idea can magnify across history.  This was especially the case with inheritance law in France.  Since all men were seen as equal before the law, primogeniture was outlawed, giving all sons equal shares of an inheritance, and even daughters a portion, although less than the sons got.  The problem with splitting up family lands into several smaller plots was that repeatedly dividing it into ever-smaller plots would make it impossible for all the heirs to support their families.  Therefore, French peasants in the 1800s had a lower birthrate to avoid splitting family lands.  This, however, reverberated over the following century in several ways.   For one thing, few French people emigrated to places like the Americas compared to other European peoples.  Likewise, there were fewer people available for factory work, which slowed France’s rate of industrialization.  Also, the unification of Germany in 1870 prompted rapid industrialization and population growth that rapidly passed up France in both categories.  By  1900 this would generate mounting worries in France about the growing threat of Germany that would help lead to World War I.

Brotherhood (AKA nationalism) was the idea that a people united by a common language; history, culture and geography should have the sovereign right to choose their own destiny.  This would also prove a mixed blessing.  On the plus side, nationalism included everyone sharing the traits just mentioned, bringing them into both a larger and more cohesive group.  However, it also tended to exclude people not sharing the same nationalistic traits.

Another good news/bad news aspect of nationalism was the competition of the nation state with older institutions, in particular the family and religion, for the loyalty of its citizens.  While some argued legalizing divorce and implementing civil marriages and mandatory public education helped nations get past some of the more regressive attitudes and narrow loyalties of the family and religion, the state has had difficulty adequately replacing those institutions in terms of moral and ethical education, social stability, and providing social services that used to be the task of church and family.

Nationalism, by weakening the bonds and influence of family religion, has often been blamed for both domestic and foreign problems.  Domestically, many would say the nation state has contributed to rising crime rates and social misbehavior.  In foreign affairs, nationalism’s exclusive nature has helped create, especially through public education, a sense of superiority over other nations, who reciprocate with their own feelings of superiority.  By 1914 such attitudes would raise international tensions in Europe to levels that would trigger two disastrous world wars in the twentieth century.