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The French Revolution was a fire that blazed across at the end of the 18th century. Although the spark that set this blaze was an economic one, the kindling had been laid by the philosophies of the Enlightenment, the Age of Reason.
The Enlightenment questioned the social fabric of the world, investigated its government, and sought mathematical explanations for the workings of the Universe. This was said to spawn the French Revolution, along with the ideas put forth by the following great French thinkers:
The leaders of the French Revolution, especially those who led the National Assembly in those heady days of 1789, took as their intellectual foundation the writings of the philosophes.Specifically, the French Revolution adopted the idea of the social contract; the philosophy that maintained government was founded by the citizenry, who were thus in a position to change the government when it failed to work.
The overarching idea to come out the Enlightenment is that of progress. Indeed, the very concept of progress, espoused by Condorcet, that human society is somehow on an upward track from barbarism, arose during this time. The first leaders of the Revolution were convinced that there was no stopping human progress, and even thought there could be a peaceful transition from the Ancien Regime and the New France they envisioned. In the Salons of Paris, the writings of the philosophes and the men themselves were discussed and debated: Montesquieu's Persian Letters, Voltaire's Candide and numerous critical attacks on religion, Diderot's Encyclopedia, Rousseau's Social Contract as well as the ideas of the English thinker John Locke, whose Essay on Human Understanding reflected the idea of the tabula rasa, the blank slate. As the revolutionaries seized the moment to forge a new nation, they took these ideas and attempted to put them into the practical workings of government.
Because the limits of power for most people in pre-Revolutionary French society not only restricted political access but also social and economic viability, it is clear that the Revolution itself was not intended to create mere political change. The poor people who inhabited Paris and other large urban areas lived in squalor while avoiding the indulgences of the aristocracy, while in the country, the vestiges of the feudal system further inhibited the ability of the farming class to gain any economic autonomy. Similarly, women were also excluded from not only possessing political power, but their own cultural and economic mobility was severely compromised. As such, these groups provided the impetus for the revolution, as they sought to gain not only political, but also social and economic, power.
The cultural and economic divide between the French aristocracy and the rest of French society, which led to the political disenfranchisement of the lower classes, becomes clear through much of the observational writing of the period, in the way that certain segments are revealed as largely powerless at the dawn of the revolution. Arthur Young, as an English observer of the conditions in France during this period, reveals the disparity in not only the political but economic conditions, as he describes both the urban and rural environments of the French commoner as rife with poverty. Young clearly points to the urban decay and poverty of those forced by economic situation to live in the city. However, Young seems to find the problem more acute in the country, where the structural rigidity of feudalism was still evident. Young's description of the young mother of seven who appeared to be 60 to him underscores this problem, as her account of the taxation and tribute owed by the poor farmer to French nobility reveals the social inequity, and this in turn leads to economic disparities that Young could not consign with his own sensibility, as he asserts in his observations at Combourg when he wonders of the absentee aristocrat how he "has nerves strung for a residence amidst such filth and poverty?"
Similarly, the political, economic and social rights of women in general were severely restricted within this society, which made women a force in the social and political changes of the Revolution. Olympe de Gouge's Declaration of the Rights of Women serves to underscore the inequality of women in French society, as revealed by her understanding of the limited avenues of access to political and social rights of unmarried women. Thus she offers "a foolproof way to elevate the souls of women; it is to join them to the activities of man". Thus, the social problems that informed the political struggle becomes not just a class conflict, but also a gender battle. These conditions created an environment that left little confidence in the ruling class of France. Sieyes perceived the favored status of the aristocracy in the way that laws were administered, and this undermined the confidence the common man could have in submitting to such political authority. Thus, Edmund Burke's notion that all citizens owe to their king "a legal obedience" cannot hold, as this obedience offered most French men and women no political identity or social or economic power.
References that can be used:
Young, Arthur. Travels in France. 1792. Hanover Historical Texts Project.
De Gouge, Olympe. "Declaration of the Rights of Women". 1791. Internet Modern History Sourcebook.