Last Updated 16 Apr 2020

French Revolution: Ultimately a Failure

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Liberte, Egalite, and Fraternite were the main principles of the French revolution. However, it was a time where these three ideals would be twisted into nothing more than moral and physical violence. The revolution was ultimately a failure which spun out of control and began to murder itself. The French wanted Freedom from its absolutist ruler, but in turn saw themselves being governed by the devil. These citizens wanted a sense of brotherhood amongst their country, but saw their nation being torn apart by violence.

Furthermore, the third estate sought to benefit from a new government that promised equality; however, the result was a further imbalance in an already corrupt society. Ironically, the gruesome reign of terror which was fabricated by the French government, contradicted the ideals of which the very revolution stood for, further illustrating the utter failure of this event. In the beginning, the French saw the revolution as a way to improve their lives, but this path quickly turned into a horrifying ascent into oblivion, which aside from immense suffering, achieved nothing.

During the reign of King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, revolutionary ideas flourished through the age of enlightenment. However, Louis made a crucial mistake by aiding the American Revolution; although it was a military success, it was an economic failure. France was bankrupt and the people were starving; they watched as their monarchs, nobles and aristocracy live a life of luxury and wealth while they suffered through poverty, drastically changing how the citizens perceived their monarch. Soon this resentment transformed into pure hatred and nothing could be done to change their minds.

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Before long the people revolted and Louis’ powers were stripped away, a new man was then put in his place, Robespierre. Maximilien Francois Marie Isidore de Robespierre was a man who had great power and abused it; to some he was “The Incorruptible”, but in reality was a blood thirsty dictator. As a young man, he studied the law and held a reputation for honesty and compassion. He sought to abolish the death penalty and refused to pronounce a required death sentence after becoming a judge : A victor who kills his captive enemies is called a barbarian!

A grown man who kills a child that he could disarm and punish seems to us a monster! An accused man condemned by society is nothing else for it but a defeated and powerless enemy. Before it, he is weaker than a child before a grown man — to erase from the code of the French the blood laws that command judicial murders, and that their morals and their new constitution reject. I want to prove to them: 1- that the death penalty is essentially unjust and, 2- that it isn’t the most repressive of penalties and that it multiplies crimes more than it prevents them.

However, as the revolution progressed so did his ideas; he soon became the head of the Jacobin club, a radical group who advocated exile or death for the French nobility. By this time the once soft and kind-hearted man, was now replaced by one who had developed a great love of power along with a reputation of intolerance, self-righteousness and cruelty . Robespierre quickly came to a conclusion that the end would justify the means, and that in order to defend the revolution against those who would destroy it, the shedding of blood was justified.

Merlin de Thionville who was a member of several French legislative bodies said commented that: “In those days so rotten had France become that a bloody mountebank without talent or courage, whose name was Robespierre, made every citizen tremble under his tyranny”. The French now lived under fear and oppression of a man who no longer cared for the people of the revolution but rather the revolution itself. Using his great oratory skills he successfully demanded the execution of the king and queen without fair trial or judgement, saying that “Louis must die so that the revolution may live”.

In January 1973 Louis XVI was executed, followed by his wife ten months later. By his own words he had become a monster, “A victor who kills his captive enemies is called a barbarian” . A nation cannot be one when the people do not believe in the ideals of the government. The revolution was merely a civil war which pitted citizens against one another. While many people believed in the revolution, they did not accept the extremist ideas of the Jacobins, and for that thousands of ordinary people were targeted and killed.

The September Massacres was a subsequent mass killing of prisoners, after news that the Prussian Army had invaded France. On September 3, 1792, crowds of French citizens stormed into the prisons where they attacked prisoners and refractory clergy, regardless of their status as counter revolutionary. An account of this event by Nicolas-Edme Restif illustrates the torture the citizens inflicted on the prisoners who were their “brothers”: There had been a pause in the murders. Something was going on inside. . . . I told myself that it was over at last.

Finally, I saw a woman appear, as white as a sheet, being helped by a turnkey. They said to her harshly: "Shout 'Vive la nation! '" "No! No! " she said. They made her climb up on a pile of corpses. One of the killers grabbed the turnkey and pushed him away. "Oh! " exclaimed the ill-fated woman, "do not harm him! " They repeated that she must shout "Vive la nation! " With disdain, she refused. Then one of the killers grabbed her, tore away her dress, and ripped open her stomach. She fell, and was finished off by the others. Never could I have imagined such horror. I wanted to run, but my legs gave way.

I fainted. When I came to, I saw the bloody head. Someone told me they were going to wash it, curl its hair, stick it on the end of a pike, and carry it past the windows of the Temple. What pointless cruelty! . . The number of active killers who took part in the massacres was about one hundred and fifty. The rest of Paris looked on with fear or approval, and the rest behind closed shutters, signifying the destruction of unity through the people. With a country whose citizens mercilessly killed one another, how could the French have a sense of Fraternite amongst themselves?

A Nation is not united under fear and death but rather through peace and prosperity, which was clearly the opposite of the French Revolution. Equality was promised to the third estate, but the revolution did not create a balance. What it did was further upset the structure of society. In turn the first and second estate was removed from power, and the bourgeoisie put in their place. The rest of the third estate which included the peasants and the working class (sans-culottes), were left with nothing: They were the working people, the farmers, the shop owners, the trades people, the artisans, and even the factory workers.

They were among the prominent losers of the first, more subtle revolution. While the middle class and wealthy classes benefitted greatly from the revolution, the sans-culottes saw their livelihoods disappearing and inflation driving them to fight for survival. The sans-culottes and peasants were generally poor and had little power, they could not vote, hold office, or own land because they did not have the means to do so. Since they could not own land, peasants were angry that they had traded one master for another; once again they had found themselves at the bottom of the ladder.

The Sans-culottes atoned for this by aligning themselves with the Jacobins. While this alliance gave them a facade of power, they were nothing more than henchmen to a group of radical thinkers who needed people to do their dirty work. However, at the end, many of the Sans-culottes found themselves imprisoned and executed by the very revolutionary tribunals that they had supported. The revolution gave nothing more than an illusion of what the common masses craved; while the first and second estates were gone, a new powerful and cruel organization made up of the bourgeoisie were put in their place.

The Reign of Terror was designed to fight the enemies of the revolution; with that in mind the revolution was no longer about freedom, equality and brotherhood, but rather an extremist form of revolutionary ideals. Anyone who had not aligned themselves with the Jacobin rule or had talent and power were seen as a threat to the new revolution, they were subsequently dubbed as traitors and sentenced to the guillotine. For the first time in history, terror became an official government policy, with the intent to use violence to achieve political goals.

In the course of this reign the new regime managed to execute thousands of people who were considered as having the potential to stand up or overthrow the government. Through this, scores of influential people were falsely accused. In one particular execution, a woman by the name of Mme Roland uttered the words that have been immortalized by history, “O Liberty, what crimes are committed in thy name”. She was right, the revolution had abused and committed crimes against not only the idea of liberte, but also of egalite and fraternite.

Every person who placed their head upon the guillotine, were there because the three ideals which the revolution stood for were corrupted to support the extremist views of the Jacobins. The modern era has unfolded the shadows of the French revolution. Ultimately this time period did not bring any successes, but rather the opposite. The revolution was purely the product of a few conspiratorial individuals who brainwashed the masses into subverting the old order. The promises of egalite, equalite, and fraternite, were soon lost as violence and bloodshed set in.

The French were eager to be free of the constricting class system and absolute monarchy. However, the people found themselves under the rule of a man who oppressed the people into an absolute state of obedience. Furthermore, the French wanted a sense of unity throughout their country, but instead resorted to the brutal murders of their own people. Ultimately, this reformation was caused by an upset in the balance of equality amongst the classes. The third estate was promised equal status by the revolution, but in the end only the bourgeoisie emerged victorious.

Ironically, the reign of terror distorted the three main ideals for which the revolution stood for. Through the guidance of corrupted leaders, these ideas were washed away in bloodshed. The French revolution is an usurpation of power gone wrong, at the end of this ten year period, nothing was gained, yet everything was lost. The people who once saw this transformation as the answer to an oppressive regime soon realized that had simply set themselves up for a meeting with death.

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French Revolution: Ultimately a Failure. (2017, Feb 11). Retrieved from

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