Enlightenment and the French Revolution

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The main ideas of Enlightenment thinking led to the French Revolution in many ways. The Enlightenment was a movement that took place in Europe in the 1800s. There were many different views and concepts that were introduced during the period. France was made of three estates or social classes, which were the Clergy, the nobility, and then the commoners or bourgeoisie. There were constant struggles between members of each class. French people like the bourgeoisie loved the ideas of the Enlightenment, and they decided to fight for liberty, equality, and fraternity in France. The Enlightenment played an important role in the French Revolution. The Enlightenment transformed the monarchy, creating the idea of a republic. The bourgeoisie liked the ideas of John Locke. He said no king should have absolute power and liked the idea of a constitutional monarchy. The French liked that part of being a ruler would mean that he/she would have to follow rules too. Locke also said that any ruler cannot take away a person’s natural rights. The people should also have a right to relieve their ruler of his power if he/she doesn’t do a good job.

An Enlightenment thinker, named Baron de Montesquieu believed in separation of powers into three branches. These were the branches of judicial, legislative, and executive. He also believed everyone should have equality or equal rights. Another Enlightenment writer, named Voltaire thought that everyone should have freedom of speech and freedom of religion. The third estate of France did not have any of these rights or freedoms. The French had poor legal systems and very cruel punishments. In 1789, the bourgeoisie finally ended feudalism. They were done with absolute monarchies and completely changed them into constitutional monarchies. There were many problems with the French society, but they mostly affected the third estate. Louis XVI called a meeting for the general of estates. This was because Louis was out of money and the many problems of taxation and voting. There was a very unfair way of voting in France. The third estate consisted of 98% of the population and the other estates made up the leftover 2% of the population. Each estate’s population was equal to one house in Parliament. Each time it was always a one to two votes because 2% can outvote 98%. Also, the third estate was the only estate that had to pay taxes and did not have any say in government at all.

On June 17, 1789, the bourgeoisie were locked out of the assembly hall and decided to go to a nearby tennis court and have their own assembly. They asked the other estates to come too. The French Revolution began when troops stormed the Bastille to protect their national assembly and get weapons. The national assembly came up with a new document shortly after the storming of the Bastille. This document, called the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen reflected the ideas of Enlightenment such as inalienable rights, creating a new constitutional monarchy. All people were given their civil liberties. The housewives marched on Versailles on October 5, 1789. They were hoping to lower the prices of bread so they could feed their children. The French declared war on Austria and Prussia because they said “they would intervene to protect the monarchy.” The French were starting to change their society because they were for the ideas of Enlightenment.

In 1792, radical leaders gained power and tried to set up republics. In 1793, Marie Antoinette was executed for being a traitor. Then Committee of Public Safety was developed. This committee contained 12 different members who each shared absolute power. The leader’s name was Maximilien Robespierre. He created the Reign of Terror. This concept used terror as a weapon for politics. They executed the clergy, nobles, and the bourgeoisie that were against the revolution. They executed these people with the new French invention called the Guillotine. In 1794, the French finally stopped Robespierre and his dictatorship by executing him. The ideas of Robespierre completely went against the Enlightenment because he liked the ideas of execution. These beliefs went against what the people of France were promised. In conclusion, The Enlightenment played an important role in the French Revolution. In the end, the French failed to overthrow their government by revolution because the revolution was poorly planned and many people were executed during the Reign of Terror. The ideas of feudalism and absolutism were changed. The French ideas of liberty, equality, and fraternity spread and the third estate became a growing force for politics. In 1799, Napoleon gained power, and the government became a military dictatorship.

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