Enlighted: The Solution To Class Inequality. The French Revolution was one of the most important events that occurred in the history of France. The revolution crumpled the Old Regime and completely transformed the social and political system of France. The people of France sought to establish a more egalitarian society through their newly created Republic. When Enlightenment thinkers such as John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Baron de Montesquieu introduced individual liberty, natural rights and equality the ideas of revolution emerged.
As the ideas from the Enlightenment spread across the country, people start to vision a new government that could be the solution to the on going class struggle. The Enlightenment and the American Revolution impelled the inevitable French Revolution. The foundation of the revolution arose from the rigid social structure of the French society. The ongoing struggle for power between the middle class and the nobility was an immediate cause of the revolution. France was divided into three Estates.
The First Estate were clergy, the Second Estate consists of the nobles and the Third Estate consists of the majority of the people, including peasants, merchants, intellects, and lawyers. When middle classmen accumulated enough wealth to buy their nobility, the blood nobles refuse to recognize the new nobles as Second Estate (Lecture, 12/09/09). In other words, there were no real upward social mobility and the majority of the people had no political power. The inequality of the French system was authorized by law, which can only be changed fundamentally through a revolution.
In comparison to the Old Regime’s divine rights and authority, the Enlightenment encouraged freedom and equality. As Immanuel Kant, a German philosophe, pointed out “ all that is required for Enlightenment is freedom (Sources, 407)”. The ideas of intellectuals of the Enlightenment brought new views about government and society, triggering the revolutionary mentality. Rousseau’s rejection of the “principle that one person has a natural authority over others (Sources, 429),” lead the Third Estate to question the purpose of aristocracy and why they need to pay feudal dues.
The idea of a revolution started to grow and mature. The philosophes pointed out to the people their horrific living conditions and introduced a government structure that can be the solution. The Enlightenment changed the way people viewed the government and its social and political policies. Locke’s philosophies from the age of Enlightenment were greatly used by the revolutionists. Locke argued that human beings are born with “natural rights of life, liberty and property (Sources, 408).
He believes that the country is based on the consent of the people and that the purpose of the country is to protect these rights. In Second Treatise On Government (1690) he further argues “whenever the legislators endeavor to take away, and destroy the property of the people, or to reduce them to slavery under arbitrary power, they put themselves into a state of war with the people (Sources, 409). ” In other words, the people can overturn the government because the government violated their natural rights.
This was a new and revolutionary idea in the 17th century that inspired many other intellectuals of the Enlightenment. Another Enlightenment philosophe, Montesquieu believes that there should be a separation of executive, legislative, and judicial power (The West, 593). His ideas of having a government with balanced political power inspired the revolutionist, and lead to the abolishment of the absolute monarchy during the revolution. The ideals from the philosophes first impacted the American Revolution, which then influenced the rise of the French Revolution.
Montesquieu’s theory on separation of power had a “profound influence on the drafting of the Constitution of the United States of America in 1787 (The West, 593)”. Thomas Jefferson, who was a supporter of Locke’s theory on natural rights, stated in the Declaration Of Independence that ” We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness (Sources, 411). Jefferson believed that “it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish [the government]” if it violates the natural rights of men (Sources, 411). The fact that Jefferson based the legitimacy of the American colonies’ independence on Locke’s theory of natural rights proved to the world that the Enlightenment ideals were not just conceptual ideas. The American Revolution inspired the French Revolution in many ways. First, when the French saw the American Revolution was based on the Enlightenment ideals, they start to reevaluate the ideals and apply them to the conditions in France.
The American Revolution shows that the ideals from Enlightenment can actually be applied, and were not just conceptual ideas. Second, when the French army intervened in the American Revolution the cultural and experience exchange between the two armies allow the French soldiers to see a society with no aristocracy and class distinction. In France, soldiers can only be promoted to lieutenants, because the higher ranks were only available for nobilities. However, in America “social distinctions would be based on merit rather than birth (The West, 611). The soldiers brought the ideal of equality back to France after the American Revolution, and the ideal of a new republic government start to spread across the army and to the lower classmen. Peasants who were exposed to this “New World” see a society with no class distinction, and begin to ponder why do they live in a society where aristocracy suppresses them. Instead of being passive and content with the current condition, philosophes encourage people to work actively to improve the society. Francois Marie Arouet, also known as Voltaire was an advocate of liberty and justice.
Voltaire believes that “we must cultivate our own garden (Sources, 439)”. He urges people to be responsible for the society and be the change they want to see in this world. This inspired the French to be proactive about improving the French economy in the late 18th century. The French government had a huge war debt from Britain from previous years. To aggravate the situation, the intervention of France in the American Revolution and the poor harvest in the 1780s, drove the price of bread to an unaffordable price and bankrupted the monarchy.
Revolution seems to be the only way to restructure the government and improve the living condition. The French Revolution was a response to the culmination of a long period of discontent with the political, social and economic conditions. The Enlightenment brought about many changes on how people viewed the government. People understood their rights and took-charge in securing them. The American Revolution played an integral part in stimulating the revolutionary mentality from the Enlightenment that ultimately led to the inevitable French Revolution.