The French Revolution: The Bloodied Key to Modern Politics

In 1789 years of societal tension was unleashed in a bloody revolution. The French Revolution, which historians regard as a period spanning until the late 19th century, not only transformed France, but it reshaped the world.

French Revolution Eugene Delacroix 1830 WIDESCREEN

A Romantic depicition of the French Revolution by Eugene Delacroix (1830)

Why was there a French Revolution in 1789?

While the basis of the French revolution partially lies in factors such as an archaic and exclusive system of government, combined with an increasingly unpopular monarchy, it was the economy that spurred the revolution which crafted modern society.

In the late 1780s, France was the most populous and wealthiest nation-state in Western Europe. It’s population of 25-28 million vastly exceeded Britain’s 11 million and just eclipsed Germany’s 24.5. Despite the demands of such a relatively enormous population, the French economy ticked. This was primarily due to the immensely centralised powers of the state, which allowed for a sustainable and effective nationwide agricultural system. At home, the bills were being paid and the people were being fed – but when you cast your gaze abroad, it becomes apparent that the French economy was in fact marred by enormous quantities of debt.

For centuries, Britain and France were staunch adversaries, lunging at any chance to one-up, outshine or simply damage their foe. This can be seen at no better time than the period imminently prior to the French Revolution. Between 1756 and 1763 these two imperialist powers took up arms to fight the Seven Years’ War. Unfortunately for Louis XVI, the British coalition was victorious and, as one can imagine, this did no favours for the French treasury. Financially, it only got worse for France. In 1775 the American War of Independence broke out. As I’m sure you’re aware, the British lost out big in this conflict. In fact, it’s exactly why we have this odd little country called the ‘USA’ today. Needless to say, the French couldn’t have been happier to help the American revolutionaries humiliate the British; from 1777, 36,000 of Louis’ men were dispatched to America to help the ‘Patriots‘ and another 60,000 were stationed abroad to face the forces of King George III. Despite their success, the war was – like any war – costly and pushed the French national debt up to £187 million. When adjusted for 2017 inflation, the French national debt after 1777 clocks in at about £28 billion – which is a lot.

The French national debt created a financial crisis which King Louis’ government completely failed to subside. To complicate matters, the tax system in 18th century France was, for lack of a better word, backwards. Taxation fell heavily on the poor and included copious exemptions for the nobility and clergymen. The ineffectiveness of this system can be clearly seen in the fact that during the 1780s half of the French national revenue was spent on paying off the national debt. In an attempt to restore stability, in May 1789 the king called for an Estates-General to be organised.

The Estates-General was a legislative and consultative assembly of the different classes (or estates) of France: the nobility, the clergy and the commons (the people). Each estate had a separate assembly, which were called and dismissed by the king. It functioned as an advisory body to the king, primarily by presenting petitions from the various estates and consulting on fiscal policy. It did not have any true power in its own right. Prior to 1789, an Estates-General had not been called since 1614.

The Liberal Revolution 1789-1791

The public reaction to the opening of an Estates-General was one of disgust, as one-third represented 100,000 clergymen, another third represented 400,000 nobility and the final third, the commons estate, represented the remaining 95% of the population. The Estates-General only served to antagonise the French people. With this failure, the country continued down its path towards revolution.


Declaration on the Rights of Man and of the Citizen

By June, the functionality of the Estates-General had collapsed. The commons estate, now acknowledging themselves as a National Assembly, demanded that France was given a constitution and they would not separate until they had achieved this goal. This was the famous Oath of the Tennis Court of June 20th, 1789. Over the next week, the commons were joined by the majority of the clergymen, several members of the nobility and, eventually, even the royalists gave in. For fear of a reprisal from the military, who still remained under the command of King Louis, the National Assembly entered permanent session and Parisians commenced riots. Amidst this chaos, on July 14th, was the Storming of the Bastille. This revolutionary triumph marked the symbolic transition of power, as the king’s civil authority crumbled and the National Assembly took the reigns. Exercising it’s new found power, the month of August saw the National Assembly abolish feudalism, begin drafting the French Constitution (which was finally passed in 1791) and, most famously, on the 26th it published the Declaration on the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.

This period of the French revolution can be regarded as coming to a close with the Flight of Varennes in June, 1791. This incident emerged when King Louis XVI, along with his wife and immediate family, attempted to flee from Paris and initiate a counter-revolution so as to restore the monarchy’s power. The escape was unsuccessful after the King was recognised during a stop at Saint-Menehould. They reached the town of Varennes and were arrested. After this point, the public’s resentment for the monarchy was dramatically intensified. Two years later, the King was executed on charges of treason.

The Radical Revolution 1792-1794

The latter, more radical and more brutal, period of this French Revolution is often associated with The Terror. By 1792, the monarchy had finally been stripped of its absolute power and a popular revolution had behoved the French people with a voice – with democracy. Wielding these new freedoms, the revolutionary government – which was at this point dominated by the Girondin faction – deemed the entire peoples of Europe entitled to these rights and, accordingly, set forth on spreading the revolution throughout the continent by conquering countless nations. The subsequent series of transnational conflicts between France and countless other European powers are known collectively as the French Revolutionary Wars (1792-1802). The wars had a distinct political impact across Europe and in France itself, as the successful Battle of Valmy in September 1792 rejuvenated French nationalism and led to the disestablishment of the monarchy. However, the initial victories at home and abroad eventually turned into defeats. The Battle of Neerwinden marked a turning point in the wars as the French’s luck ran dry. The Revolutionary Wars had only served to increase the French National debt which the National Convention had done little to address since coming to power.

Amidst the economic and political turmoil, the Jacobins, led by Maximilien Robespierre, ascended to power. Condemning their opponents as royalist sympathisers and anti-revolutionaries, the Jacobins initiated The Terror in September 1793 with the execution, by guillotine, of 21 Girondins. Two months later, the new constitution was ratified by a referendum which many voters avoided participating in, for fear of The Terror. In the eyes of Robespierre, terror brought virtue, in the sense that violence was the only way to maintain unity, order and to breathe eternity into the revolution. The period of Jacobin dominion over French politics and the interlinked Reign of Terror lasted until September 1794. The brutality witnessed over the last 2 years had polarised politics, urging moderates to illegalise Robespierre’s style of governing by terror. Subsequently, the Jacobins fell, but this was too late for the 16 thousand people who had been guillotined during his tyranny.


Edmond Van Daële’s portrayal of Maximilien Robespierre in Abel Gance’s Napoléon (1927)

The Making of the Modern World

In Penser la Révolution Française (1978), François Furet regarded the French revolution as “the making of the modern world”. No truer statement could be said of the aforementioned events, as their influence can be seen throughout the politics of today and that of the last 200 years. For example, the modern concept of a political spectrum, (left to right) originates from the National Assembly in 1789, where those loyal to the king and the aristocracy sat in seats to the right, with supporters of the revolution sat to the left. This was reinforced by the seating of the Legislative Assembly in 1791 in which moderates sat in the centre, revolutionaries on the left and “conscientious defenders of the constitution” sat on the right.

Modern Law and Legalities

The French Revolution also laid the foundations for modern human rights. We see this in the French Constitution of October 1793 which introduced universal male suffrage and, more so, in the Declaration on the Rights of Man and of the Citizen which introduced equal protection in the eyes of the law and partially inspired the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948).

Modern European legal systems and bureaucracies are also fundamentally influenced by events which transpired subsequent to the French Revolution; in 1804 the Napoleonic Code was introduced in France and its occupied territories (e.g. Italy, Netherlands, Belgium, Bavaria, Spain, Portugal, Prussia and Poland). The Napoleonic Code imposed radical reforms which modernised countless European legal systems, abolished archaic rights and privileges, introduced modern bureaucracy and rewrote many common procedures such as divorce, marriage and inheritance. This act of modernisation was irreversible, as it went on to shape the German Empire – which fully enacted the code almost one hundred years later as the basis for their society – and Romania – where a civil code heavily influenced by that of Napoleon was introduced in 1911 and remained in place until 2011. Incredibly, the legacy of this code can still be seen today across Europe, not to mention the fact that its influence was extended into the Middle East during later Napoleonic campaigns.

First French Empire 1812.png

The First French Empire covered over 2 million square kilometres in 1812

Revolutionary Britain?

Despite the fierce rivalry, Britain too was susceptible to the magic touch of the French Revolution. Initially, the ideas of revolutionary France took off in Britain, particularly amongst working class radicals. Take Thomas Paine, a highly influential academic who discussed the necessity to import the French Revolution and how it could be implemented in Britain (Paine discusses the practicalities of a British revolution in The Rights of Man, Part 2, 1792). Nevertheless, the onset of The Terror from 1793 appalled the British public and aristocracy. This, in turn, solidified the British monarchy’s position, completely turned the middle class against violent activism and led to the entrenchment of the ideas of conservative thinkers like Edmund Burke, from which developed modern conservatism. What’s more, the Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815) between Britain and France had a profound impact on British radicalism during the period. The previously contentious issue of Britain’s own archaic, elitist and oligarchical political system subsided, to be replaced with patriotism and collaboration. In this sense, the influence of the French Revolution in Britain was one of a counter-revolution and a shift towards conservatism.

Vive le Marx

When regarding the impact of the French revolution, we can also look at communism, or Marxism to be specific. Created by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in the mid 19th century, Marxism is one of the most influential ideologies of the 20th century, not least when looking at WW2 and the Cold War. The French revolution had a tremendous influence on the thoughts of Karl Marx; to him, it represented a bourgeoise revolution in which the middle classes threw off the shackles of the nobility. In his eyes, this revolution had been the transition from feudalism to capitalism and evidence of his concept of eternal class struggle. Based on the precedent of the French revolution, Marx came to the conclusion that the class struggle which he witnessed before him, between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, would lead to a global revolution which would replace capitalist society with communism.


Vladimir Lenin, Premier of the Soviet Union until his death in 1924.

The French revolution also shaped our understanding of being a revolutionary. For example, Vladimir Lenin (founder of the Bolsheviks and the first Premier of the Soviet Union) described his influence from the French revolution in What is to be Done? (1902) and committed himself and his faction to a similar cause as the French revolutionaries had over 200 years ago.

Our modern understanding of nationalism also lies in the French Revolution. The complete overhaul of the political system and removal of one of the most prestigious and oldest monarchies in Europe allowed the spirit of France to flourish; national pride and patriotism engulfed the mind of the public. The French Revolutionary Wars went on to spread these ideas of national pride across Europe. States which, until this point, had been a divided and disorganised array of principalities became unified and began to adopt a strong sense of national identity. This principle is exactly the focus of modern nationalism – a strong pride of your nation’s history is integral to a nationalistic view and it was the French revolution where this history began.

Not only did the revolution itself transform history, but the subsequent Reign of Terror had a distinct affect on modern totalarianism. When observing the regimes of Stalin, Hitler, Mao and the likes, one cannot miss one overbearing fact: the fundamental principles of totalitarianism derive from The Terror. The execution of a modern one party state, ruling by terror and persecution can be seen in no better place than in Robespierre’s France.

The Language of Revolution

Even the definition of a revolution was shaped by the events in France during this period. To anyone reading this in the 21st century, a revolution means to forcibly overthrow a government or social order, in favour of a new system. Until the late 18th century, the word revolution had a distinctly different meaning:

revolution definition google

It was the overhaul of the French government, commencing in 1789, which gave the world the understanding of a revolution which we have today.

If you wish to read more on related topics, follow the links below:

The Magna Carta – The Birth of Modern Democracies?

Correlation of crisis: the ascendancy of nationalism and repercussions in a globalised world

The Origins of Human Rights and War Crimes – Phil Shiner Struck Off

Bureaucracy – A Dirty Word?


6 thoughts on “The French Revolution: The Bloodied Key to Modern Politics

  1. Interesting opinion and elements, but where on earth does this “Vive la Marx” come from ? Is it impossible for an Anglophone to properly write more than one word in French ? First before a person’s name we don’t use an article : “Vive Lénine” for instance . Secondly if we did use an article why should it be the feminine article “la” instead of the masculine one “le” before a man’s name ? Seriously …


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