The act that we call the French Revolution was truly a world changing event with both social and political consequences. Attempting to determine whether the revolution was political with social consequences or vice versa can be difficult depending on what you study and whose viewpoint you look at. I really feel from my studies this semester that the French Revolution was a revolution that had both social and political consequences, but wasn't necessarily a political revolution or a social revolution either. There are a few reasons that I believe this to be the case which I will carefully outline. Looking back at the revolution and the changes that it inspired and propelled forward, we can see how some of the changes were quite revolutionary and how many changes were in some ways not really a change at all.
The revolution changed France in some ways politically and in some ways kept a bit of the status quo... just under different labels. Early supporters of the revolution did use an excuse that was political in nature for the revolt: that excuse was that power was monopolized in the form of a king and a corrupt and despotic system of government. This really appears to have been either an excuse or an incorrect perception as the reality of the governmental system was not that clean cut. Centuries before the revolution, the poor and disabled had been taken care of by the Catholic church. Many local governmental functions and education of those born to the upper and middle classes was also usually paid for by the church. In the years preceding the revolution, many of those jobs began to be taken on by the French monarchy instead of the church. This brought not only extra expenses, but with the ever growing and expanding populations... even more people who would need relief in emergencies such as famine. The government already had huge money issues due to costly rivalries with other countries (which included funding the American bid for Independence against England) and the monarch's inability to budget the governmental finances appropriately. The royal government had really developed a centralized administrative system that in theory was more streamlined than any other European countries, but in practice it was not smooth and didn't take into account laws from the smaller areas which might not agree with the 'national' laws. Before the Revolution, the monarchy had absolute control over the use of the military, development and implementation of law, and the collection and spending of public money.
With the coming Revolution, the monarchy was gradually removed from power. The National Assembly in 1791 set up a new regime which was a constitutional monarchy- this lasted only ten months. The next governing group was the National Convention whose members were called Jacobins, but that particular group splintered into other groups of like minded individuals that formed their own 'political parties'- the Montagnards and Girondins and also the San-culottes. The king and his family were imprisoned and then in late 1792 King Louis XVI was convicted of treason and executed early in the new year. The new government was now fully run by the National Convention... which was controlled by its largest and most powerful faction called the Montagnards... which was lead by Maximilian Robespierre. The country was then ruled by this man and a 'committee' that Robespierre and the Convention developed to attempt to stop the counter revolution... because by this time not everyone was satisfied with the path that the government was starting to tread. This group, known as the Committee of Public Safety, was charged with setting up revolutionary courts and executing criminals and anyone deemed treasonous or disloyal to the French state and/or the Revolution. This began the Reign of Terror and around 40,000 people were put to death by the guillotine- this included governmental leaders from the convention that didn't agree with Robespierre, women, and simple dissatisfied citizens. By 1794, the policy of 'Terror' had alienated so many people and Convention members that their leader, Maximilian Robespierre, was convicted of treason and, after a failed suicide attempt, he was put to death in July 1974.
The government was then run by the Convention which put down more uprisings with the help of the Army, tried to end the country's war with Spain and Prussia, produced a new constitution and developed a form of leadership called The Directory-it was a five man executive governing council. A two house-legislative assembly was developed and democratic elections were set up, however, the National Convention set up some rules in the new system to favor themselves and rioting began again. The government was ideological divided between members who wanted to bring the monarchy back and those who wanted even more democracy.
When The Directory realized that royalist supporters were becoming the majority in the government, they turned to a general named Napoleon Bonaparte for help. After elections, Bonaparte with the help of another general and large forces of soldiers, helped to take over the government. In this forced takeover, two members of the Dictators were removed, most of the election results were annulled, and power fell literally into the hands of a few members of the National Convention. This led to a fairly ineffective dictatorship until 1799 when a few members of the Convention chose Napoleon Bonaparte to be their leader- when a large amount of Convention members resisted, Bonaparte used the army to effectively take over and become the dictator of France.
So politically, many things didn't really change if you look at the situation with a wide angled lens. The Revolution threw out the absolute monarchy and executed their king... and then accepted Robespierre as almost a one man leader. Robespierre, known as 'the Incorruptible', was eventually thrown out and executed... so that power was transferred to a group of five called the Directory. When the five members of the Directory couldn't agree on public policy, Napoleon Bonaparte was brought in and two members were thrown out. Then, after some time and more infighting, Napoleon Bonaparte effectively took over and became a one man leader- by 1804, he was named hereditary emperor. No matter who was in charge, the government tended to be in many ways reactionary and would perform actions that were some of the people's biggest complaints under the governmental system before the Revolution; arrest warrants of any one without meaningful trials, government appointed and not
democratically elected leaders, special privileges to small percentage of the population, etc... So, while some things changed politically in France, many things remained close to the original status quo... only changing slightly as time moved forward and the society and government was stabilized.
French Society changed a bit in its social structure and culture with in the revolution. Before the revolution, every citizen from the poorest peasant to the wealthiest noble believed that they had rights and privileges that should be defended and this view was strengthened with the behavior and beliefs of the members of parlements... behavior that was unable to be controlled by the monarch due to the permanent circumstances of the parlement judges. Some of these thoughts came from ideas that became popular during the Enlightenment- a period of time where ideas on tradition, science, human reason and ability as well as religion changed and shifted in the minds of many. (And Paris was said to be the 'heart' of the Enlightenment movement.) Education became more important and more and more people were educated, literate and able to better participate in the world and politics around them. In short, most enlightenment thought was based on differing ideas of freedom and liberty... and was fairly secular in nature. French society had social divisions based on class as well as special privileges that came with belonging to different groups; the clergy and nobility enjoyed exemption from most taxes and many positions in the government were reserved for those of noble birth... or those who were wealthy enough to purchase a title.
With the beginning of the revolution, many changes to French society were attempted. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen was discussed and written by the National Assembly. This document was an attempt to write out the hoped for rules for the new government; they included man's natural rights to their liberty, personal property, security, equal treatment under the law, etc... All of these ideas were revolutionary for their time. The privileges of special groups, such as the nobles or the clergy, which had been hereditary and traditional, were attacked and changed under reform. The laws of property ownership were changed and idea of private property was more respected and protected by law from extra fees and eminent property rights. Women, who had been excluded from politics in pre-revolution days, became open participators in political groups and societal change in the beginning of the revolution. Voting rights were given to all citizens by the Declaration. Divorce and marriage became state institutions and were no longer governed fully by the Catholic Church. Numerous constitutions were written to protect people and property from the government by guaranteeing rights, elections, etc... The Declaration also included the right of Freedom of Speech which was supposed to help end censorship and fear in oral and written expression.
However, many of the above mentioned changes were not necessarily constant or unchanging in themselves. While the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen declared man's natural rights to many things, the document was vague enough that its interpretation was actually quite limiting over time. The word 'man' in the document was usually interpreted to not include women and any gender minorities (Africans and Jews). This interpretation was so consistent that it caused on female writer to 'rewrite' the declaration and title it The Declaration of the Rights of Woman. Women were later excluded from much participation in politics by government bans on the ways they participated. Voting rights quickly became exclusive and limited to the small majority of property owners- Robespierre was quoted as saying “Can the law be termed an expression of general will when the greater number of those for whom it is made can have no hand in its making?” The National Convention and The Directory would openly violate the constitutional protections many times over their rule. Robespierre and the beginning of the Terror would put a large damper on all rights to free speech or expression... unless you were willing to die for your words.
So the revolution started with the dissatisfaction of the nobles which caused the King to call the Estates General into session, but then the revolution left the hands of the aristocracy and titled elite and the leading roles in events were handled by the bourgeoisie and the lower classes. With the dissatisfaction of the Third Estate and the King with the Estates General, the general dissatisfaction became a bit of class warfare and distrust. The appearance of the monarchy siding with the noble classes made the break between the groups even more hostile. Add a famine, rising bread costs and riots began to break out. Then the Bastille was rioted and captured by members of the third estate and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen was completed. A constitutional monarchy was set up, abolished and then governmental rule by the National Convention and the 'Committee for Public Safety'- or, in actuality, rule by Maximilian Robespierre. After his 'overthrow', governmental power was held in the hands of five men who were known as the Directory and the National Convention, but in a short period of time we see power moving again to one man in the form of Napoleon Bonaparte. France had gone through many attempts at political and society change, but few were immediately lasting. Most social and political change really took time-such as decades- to really cement themselves into the culture, mindset, and behavior of the people of France. Some of these 'revolutionary' changes appear to have only really been possible to thrive in an environment that was not 'revolutionary'- i.e. an environment that was stable and relatively constant. The only thing constant about the politics and the society of the French Revolution was its inconsistency, reactionary manner, and fear. The National Assembly, National Convention, the several Constitutions... all of these were born in crisis and finding the way out of crisis seemed nearly impossible. Only with the coming of some forms of governmental stability did France have the lasting change that it had wished for early on causing the French Revolution.