Importance of the French Revolution

Importance of the French Revolution:

The French Revolution was not a local event. It influenced not only the French public but left an indelible impression on Europe and the entire world. German philosopher, Kante termed it as the ‘victory of wisdom’. Thinkers like Hegel planted trees to commemorate the Revolution. After the fall of the Bastille, students danced with great delight on the roads of St. Petersburg. Thinking about the revolution, the English poet Wordsworth became enthralled and regretted for not being young and a French. The Prominent Whig leader Fox supported the cause of the Revolution and commented on the fall of Bastille as “What a great and good event it was in the world history”.

As a matter of fact, the history of modern France is the flowering of the great Revolution of 1789. That Revolution rejuvenated the political, social, religious, and economic systems of France. The French Revolution was not merely a national event, but its doctrines, liberty, equality, and fraternity rent the entire Europe. Hence it is said that the French Revolution was a movement of international importance. It was the French Revolution that converted French history into the history of Europe and the national hero of France- Napoleon got a golden chance of becoming the hero of Europe. John Hall Stewart has described the immense significance of revolution, as “the consequences of the French Revolution have been so far-reaching that in case of their satisfactory evaluation, they would encompass the entire French history” and that of Europe from 1789 onwards. It was often said that “When France catches a cold, all of Europe sneezes”.

It is not easy to evaluate the influence of the French Revolution on the world. French Revolution played an important role in the success of Greek independence (1830), because the struggle for Greek independence derived strength from the ideals of the French Revolution. Napoleon played a significant role in the unification of Italy. The principle of liberty of the French Revolution infused the spirit of unity among the Italians. Napoleon paved the way for the unification of Germany by making an end of the Holy Roman Empire. The vast effect of the French Revolution did not spare England also. The British opposed the French Revolution because of the immense bloodshed that took place during it. In the words of Ramsay Muir, “It was the immediate and apparent effect of the French Revolution that the movement which burst out in support of political reforms was crushed in England and the last precious and very famous thing of the commonwealth- freedom of speech and expression which had persisted there for generations was curtailed”.

The first republic of France lasted a few years only and anyone may deduce from it that revolution was a fiasco. Although France retrieved monarchy, it sustained the good objectives of the Revolution. Feudal prerogatives could not flourish again and the Church could not revive its bygone glory which it enjoyed during the old governing system. Government was run efficaciously and the condition of farmers improved considerably. Jurisdiction of law increased. Taxation was made more rational. In this way, the French Revolution planted the saplings of the modern age in the graveyard of the medieval system. In this context, the great historian C. D. Hazen maintains, “The French Revolution originated a new concept in the matter of state, propagated new ideology in respect of politics and society and presented a fresh, novel outlook towards life. It kindled imagination and thoughts in the majority of people, cultivated matchless enthusiasm in them, and infused immense hopes in them”.

Undoubtedly, the objectives of the French Revolution were aborted; but as Jawahar Lal Nehru has written in his famous book ‘Glimpses of the World History, “The idea of the republic pervaded the entire Europe and in addition to it those principles were diffused that had been incorporated in the declaration of human rights”.

On the whole, historians do not have the same view concerning the importance of the French Revolution. Webster, the author of “A Study in Democracy” and H. J. Randole the author of “The Creative Centuries” think that the beginning of the Revolution was not good for France and Europe. They maintain that the Revolution proved to be an anti-democratic, unprogressive, and anarchic movement. But the author of “The French Revolution” Kropotkin holds that the Revolution was the fountain of all modern thoughts. The French historians think that the revolution laid the foundation of a liberal democratic and progressive outlook on modern life. Two types of movements- democratic and nationalistic appeared as outlets for people’s ambitions which were stirred by the Revolution. J. Holland Rose holds that “In the field of thoughts, society, and politics- the Revolution was such a victory that it went beyond the old system which reeked of mismanagement, prerogatives, and autocratic rule”. Some other historians believe that the French Revolution played a remarkable role in the making of the modern age in Europe and familiarized the common people with the spirit of liberty, equality, and democracy. In his book “Europe Since Napoleon”- David Thomson has written that “the French Revolution may be recognized as the most important event of modern European life till 1914. In view of the results, it may be contrasted with the Reformation of the 16th century and the Crusades of the 17th century. It destroyed the vestige of the old system in the fields of politics, economy, social life and thoughts, diplomacy and war”.

Undoubtedly, the French Revolution occupies a remarkable place in history- particularly in European history. Napoleon’s achievements as well as the French Revolution opened the eyes of the world. In spite of all this, the French Revolution and Napoleon’s adventures do not deserve much importance as David Thomson says, “Even if the French Revolution had not occurred or Napoleon Bonaparte had not taken birth, it is quite certain that the 19th century would have proved to be the period of wide changes and expansion in Europe”. America had attained independence before the French Revolution began and it was of utmost importance for the future of Europe and the world. Even before 1789, the current of intense reformism and democratic public opinion had swept across both England and America very forcefully and steadily and those factors contributed to great liberal changes. The Industrial Revolution- the most hypnotic and inspiring force- had started then. Science and Culture- the root causes of significant changes that occurred in the 19th century- had made considerable progress even before 1789. The renowned French Scientist- Antoine Laurent Lavoisier (1743-94) had promulgated in 1789, his revolutionary theory which made him “the father of modern chemistry”, and at the same time, Jeremy Bentham the British utilitarian philosopher had published his famous work entitled “Introduction to the Principle of Morals and Legislation”. In 1776, the noted economist Adam Smith had laid the foundation of excellent principles of economics. In the field of literature and art, the Romantic Movement had burst forth even before the beginning of the revolution and it played a decisive role in shaping the future of the Revolution. In the field of art, the period of the Romantic Movement was one of the most splendid and impressive epochs. Contemporary events impinged upon the attainments of the romantic period, but the inherent intellect of that age would have certainly sprouted and blossomed in the absence of the repercussions of the Revolution.

We should consider the fact that any event however impressive and significant may become limited and narrow when it is painted on the canvas of history. This fact is applicable to the French Revolution also. Viewed from the long-lasting historical perspective, the most pathetic political, military, and diplomatic events, which directed the course of human history during the Revolution, seem to be very limited as various factors impinge upon them. There were not only those who performed feats of valor in the Revolution and molded the future of Europe in a novel way, but there were also a few geniuses like- Antoine Lavoisier, Adam Smith, James Watt, and Jeremy Bentham (English philosopher). When the rattlings of war and the emission of smoke from the firing of guns vanish, the operation of eternal forces of human destiny may be perceived as shaping the future of a nation and its people.

Important Links:

Intellectual Enlightenment
Political Causes of the French Revolution
Economic Causes of the French Revolution
Beginning of the French Revolution
Functions of the Constituent Assembly
Unsuccessful Attempt of the Royal Family to Flee the Country
Phases of the French Revolution
Role of Philosophers in the French Revolution
Nature of the French Revolution
Correlation Between the Objectives and Achievements of the French Revolution
Do you agree that the French Revolution achieved far less than what it intended to achieve?