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).


Enlightenment Reforms during the French Revolutionary Era

Of course, the English adapted many Enlightenment reforms just after the Glorious Revolution with the Bill of Rights in 1688. Even though the Bill of Rights was merely a political deal between the Parliament representing the landed class in England and William III (William of Orange), parliament got concessions on taxes and secured other rights while William got English support for his wars with Louis XIV.  None the less, the English Enlightenment writers thought that the French were following the English example; at least until the revolutionary government guillotined Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette and unleashed the Terror.

Previous to the French Revolution, republican governments had been established on a small scale in the Swiss Cities and Cantons. In fact, Rousseau had been so impressed with Geneva’s republican government he suggested it as a model of an ideal republic.

When the French Convention declared on November 19, 1792, what essentially could be seen as a European, if not worldwide revolution. They also caused a counter-revolutionary reaction but also declared that France was the leading light of Revolutionary thought and whether a populous wanted it or not they were going to be freed.  In short, no matter how enlightened a despot was, they were not going to let the French army overrun them to free their people.

However, well intentioned the declaration of November 19 was, or how welcoming the Dutch, Northern Italians, Rhinelanders or Swiss were to their so called liberators, it soon became clear that the French liberators were not so much liberators as conquerors.  Take for example the Dutch. They were certainly the gladdest population when the French armies reversed the previous intervention by the Prussians and British to shore up the Stadholder-King William V royalist regime.  However, when the renamed Batavian Republic signed the harsh treaty of the Hague in May 1795 it came clear that despite the high flown rhetoric that the Dutch were just another subject nation.  They were forced to give up territory, pay a huge indemnity and provide support to an occupying army of French soldiers.

Another “sister republic” such as the Swiss, or Helvetic Republic, is a case in point, even though not conquered like the Dutch, the Swiss were soon providing money to France thru a onerous war tax and the national treasury was confiscated to pay for the French Army in Italy and Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt .  Again, it was so much for “liberty, equality and fraternity.”

In the Rhineland, the French did secularize and rationalize the incredible hodgepodge of different ‘governments’ in the Rhineland. They eliminated the Archbishoprics, the Holy Roman Empire Free cities and the foreign ruled areas like Kleve and imposed reorganization into regular districts with an organized administration.  Also they expropriated Church holdings and slowly introduced French taxes and French law onto the new French territories.

Briefly, where French armies marched at least lip service was paid to the Enlightenment ideals and rational and secular administration and organization was imposed, if for no other reason than that served the France better to help drain the “sister Republics” and newly acquired territories of resources to feed the central government and the army.  However outside of the reach of the French military, reaction to the Revolution and many of its ideals were strongly against the French and their excesses.

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

Forrest, Alan, “The Revolution and Europe” in  “A Critical Dictionary of the French Revolution” ed.  Francois Furet and Mona Ozouf, 115-123, (Harvard, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989).

Perry, Marvin, Myrna Chase, James R. Jacob, Margaret C. Jacob, Theodore H. Von Laue, Western Civilization: Ideas, Politics, and Society. (New York: Houghton, Mifflin and Harcourt Publishing Co., 2009).

“The Rhineland under the French” at http://www.wir-rheinlaender.lvr.de/engl_version/ rhineland_french/

Troost, Wout. William III the Stadholder-King: a Political Biography, (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2005).