Writing Catalog

Stephen Weinberger

Grade: 10

University School - Hunting Valley

Instructor: Molly Klaisner

The French Revolution: Failures and Faithfulness

Critical Essay

The French Revolution: Failures and Faithfulness

The Enlightenment introduced new ideas of thought and political structure to Europe, many of which remain prevalent today, having influenced states and their structures across the world. These ideas and values, largely centered around humans and authored by the likes of Baron de Montesquieu and John Locke, completely revolutionized societal structure. As political and economic turmoil consumed European states such as France, the people became growingly unhappy with the status quo of unequal societies, ruled by an absolute minority where the people had very little protections. In France, the people demanded these enlightenment values in the form of the French Revolution, which was inspired by these values and promised to usher in them in and create a society that reflected them. As France set out to fashion a state in the Enlightenment's image, they attempted to integrate these values and make promises that they surely couldn't keep. The French Revolution, a struggle to bring the Enlightenment values to life, was largely a failure and betrayal of the very thing it set out to honor. The French Revolution, for the most part, did not hold true to Enlightenment values such as a separation of powers and a right to property. However, the right of revolution, a fundamental Enlightenment value, was regularly employed by the French people, suggesting that although the French Revolution was not entirely faithful to the Enlightenment values, it was not a complete betrayal of them.

One of the most well-known values that came out of the Enlightenment, which France attempted to embrace, yet failed to execute, was the idea of a separation of powers in a state's government. Prior to the restructuring of societies which came as a result of the French Revolution, European states were governed by minority ruling classes who retained absolute power. However, this long-time political structure began to come under examination and question, as people observed the risks of absolute power residing in a select few, a system with no checks and balances on the ruling class, opening the doors to tyranny. Baron de Montesquieu, a French political analyst, described the dangers of such a political structure, noting that if "the legislative and executive powers are united in the same person, or in the same body of magistrates, there can be no liberty; because apprehensions may arise lest the same monarch or senate should enact tyrannical laws to execute them in tyrannical manner" (Montesquieu). A government, where absolute power resides in a select few individuals with no checks and balances to limit their power or prevent tyranny, destroys any aspirations of liberty. For these reasons, the French government sought to prevent this, declaring their intentions in The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. However, as a new governing body rose from the ashes of the old, it failed to live up to this Enlightenment value, instead consolidating absolute power and rejecting a separation of powers. After the newly established constitutional monarchy in France quickly broke apart upon King Louis' XVI flight, a power vacuum formed. The Montagnards, a group of radical revolutionaries, seized this power and attacked anyone who dissented with their radical policies, accusing and executing them of treason. For a period during this time, the Montagnards had complete control over the French government. "The Montagnards governed dictatorially… limiting civil liberties and expanding the government's authority" (Crook, 7), a political structure that certainly betrayed the Enlightenment value of a separation of powers. Attacking political rivals, expanding government authority, the Montagnards created a government where they retained absolute power, with nothing able to sidestep them from imposing any policy they wished. This government enacted no separation of powers or system of checks and balances, causing tyranny to run rampant and civil liberties to be suppressed. The French Revolution, although attempting to employ a separation of powers in order to limit tyranny and expand civil liberties, failed in doing so, allowing these dangers to be realized and therefore betraying this Enlightenment value.

Another value introduced during Enlightenment, which France again failed to uphold, was the idea of the unalienable right of property. This right, as described by John Locke, an English political philosopher, is the law of the natural world and is not to be infringed upon. According to Locke, so long as one's property and freedom do not harm that of another, this right is absolute. This Enlightenment value, as written by Locke, plainly states that "all men are naturally in… a state of freedom to order their actions and dispose of their possessions and persons, as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of nature; without asking leave, or depending upon the will of any other man" (Locke). All people have an absolute and unalienable right to property and to what they wish to do with it, so long as it is within the law of nature, that is, not harmful or infringing upon the rights of another. This idea is crucial to a state which hopes to preserve personal liberty, as France so desired during the French Revolution. As French society began to be reconstructed around the preservation of this value, the French Revolution ended up betraying this value which initially greatly inspired it. As governments rose and fell during this period, this natural right was rendered virtually void. Under Napoleon Bonaparte's absolute rule, the French Empire enacted the Continental System, imposing harsh regulations on the property of the people living throughout the French-controlled lands. After years of unsuccessful feuds with Great Britain, Napoleon sought to wage an economic war, on top of the one he was already involved in, against this hated enemy of his. "[T]he Continental System… forbade any of the nations of Europe from trading with the British" (Napoleon ABC-CLIO). Napoleon enforced this system based on nothing but spite for the British and to increase his war efforts against them, directly going against the people's right to property, controlling which property people were allowed to possess and what they wished to do with it. As trading with the British was neither naturally harmful nor inevitably oppressive to the rights of others, this was a direct violation and betrayal of the right to property, an Enlightenment idea that initially inspired the French Revolution, but was then been betrayed by it.

Although the French Revolution repeatedly failed to live up to many of the Enlightenment values which initially inspired it, the French Revolution did in part see some faithful employment of Enlightenment values such as the right to revolution. The right to revolution originates from the idea that a government's sole purpose for existence is to serve the people, by the people, ensuring the protection of the people's rights. Therefore, according to John Locke, when a government breaks this social contract between the people and the state, infringing upon the natural rights of the people, it falls to the people to revolt. The right of revolution, described by John Locke, states that if "the legislative shall transgress the fundamental rule of society…an absolute power over the lives, liberties, and estates of the people, by this breach of trust they forfeit the power…and it devolves to the people, who have a right to resume their original liberty, and, by the establishment of a new legislative" (Locke). When a government, whose sole purpose is to enforce and protect the natural rights of the people, fails to carry out this responsibility and instead rules absolutely, limiting the people's rights and liberty, the people not only have the right but also an obligation to overthrow this illegitimate government and establish a new one which will carry out its responsibility to the people. This fundamental Enlightenment value is constantly seen at work during the French Revolution. Not only did this right initially spark the first revolution against the absolute monarchy, but also every revolt that followed as well. After a period during the French Revolution, known as the Montagnard Dictatorship, marked by a tyrannical government, that reduced liberty and other Enlightenment values and natural rights, the right to revolt against this government fell to the people, who took it. Having failed in their duty to the people, "members of the National Convention turned against the architect [of the tyrannical policies] of the Reign of Terror, Maximilien Robespierre, and his followers and ordered their arrest" (Crook, 7). As the Reign of Terror demonstrated the government's breach of the social construct to protect people's rights, the French people revolted and established a new government that would hopefully better carry out its responsibility to the people. Each time a government was established during the French Revolution, which failed to protect the people's natural rights, the French people, without fail, continued to revolt and exercise their right to revolution, living up to and upholding this Enlightenment value.

The French Revolution, inspired by Enlightenment values, promised to organize the French state in its image, but it largely failed to do so. The Enlightenment, giving birth to ideas such as a separation of powers and a right to property, was betrayed by the French Revolution, which failed to uphold these promised values. However, the pure idea and spark of the French Revolution was in fact an Enlightenment value, as the French people repeatedly exercised their right to revolution against the governments which did not serve them. For this reason, it's impossible to say for certain that the French Revolution was a complete betrayal of the Enlightenment values which initially inspired it. Therefore, the French Revolution was rather a shortcoming, more so than a complete failure, as promises to structure a society around Enlightenment values were made and broken, along with some being carried out faithfully and living up to the Enlightenment. While a system of a separation of powers and an inalienable right to property failed to make its way into the overall French Revolution, the French people repeatedly exercised their right to revolution, suggesting that the French Revolution was in fact not an overall betrayal of the Enlightenment, but rather had both failures and faithfulness to its original inspiration.