Enlightenment Ideals that most Influenced the French Revolution

It is one of the ironies of history that the Enlightenment writers who called for a   “political order that would be secular, reasonable, humane, pacific, open and free”1 saw their epoch start and end in two armed and violent revolutions.(1) It is another of the ironies of history that the nation most affected by Enlightenment ideal, and the one that represented the best of those ideals, at its creation was also born out of conflict and war. But ultimate America came to political settlement that, in short, embodied “the central aspirations of the Enlightenment.”(2)

There is no doubt that the American Revolution inspired, indeed it can be argued directly caused the French.(3) Also it can be said that the same ideals that inspired the American Revolution also inspired the French Revolution.  At the start of the Revolution the primary Enlightenment ideal that activated both revolutions came from Montesquieu and his 1748 work: The Spirit of Laws.(4)  In this work Montesquieu describes what he see as the three kinds of governments; republics, monarchies and despotisms, and their various features. He also described what he considered their basis of government; the republic depended on virtue, the monarchy on honor and the despotisms on fear.   A great admirer of the British system Montesquieu went on to delineate how and why the three powers of government, legislative, executive and judicial can and should be separated.  He thought that the separation of powers was best for preserving the liberties of the citizens.(5)

In the later Revolutionary period, the more violent one, it was the writings of Jean Jacques Rousseau that took the lead.  Certainly, Robespierre thought of himself as a follower of Rousseau.(6)

Rousseau’s most insidious works; The Discourse on Inequity (1753), in which he decries private property as the root of many evils and The Social Contract (1762) in which he describes his ideas of “the general will” and used the phrase that a individual may be “forced to be free” and this could rightly been seen has having inspired the Reign of Terror.(7)

In conclusion, while the philosophes wanted a “political order that would be secular, reasonable, humane, pacific, open and free,” with the French Revolution what they got was blood, terror and tyranny.


1 Peter Gay, The Enlightenment: The Science of Freedom, (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1969), 397;  Peter Gay, The Enlightenment: An Interpretation, The Rise of Modern Paganism, (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1966), 17.

2 Robert A. Ferguson, The American Enlightenment, 1750-1820 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 150.

3 Esmond Wright, Causes and Consequences of the American Revolution (Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1966) 298

4Sylvia Neely, A Concise History of the French Revolution (Lanham, MA: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2008), 22.

5 Charles de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu, The Spirit of Laws, trans. Thomas Nugent. (1752) Book III, at http://www.constitution.org/cm/sol_11.htm#006 (accessed 18 September 2010); Ibid,. Book XI, section 6. .

6 William Doyle, The Oxford History of the French Revolution. (Oxford: Oxford University Press. New York, 2002), 278.

7 Neely, A Concise History, 23-24; Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract, Trans. by G. D. H. Cole  (1762) Book I, at  http://www.constitution.org/jjr/socon_01.htm (accessed 18 September 2010).


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