The French Revolution had profound implications for people living in France, other European countries, and the United States. In particular, this political and social upheaval made the concept of nation state more realistic. Moreover, it emphasized the importance of citizen rights and the role of government as a protector of these rights. This paper will discuss the role of the French Revolution in shaping the concept of nation, freedom, and citizenship.
First, it should be noted that before 1789 French society was extremely rigid and hierarchical. It was divided in the so-called three estates: 1) clergy; 2) aristocracy; and 3) those people who were not included in the first two groups, for instance, peasants, craftsmen, or other wage-laborers.
This division was criticized by Abbe Sieyes in his pamphlet called What is the Third Estate? This author argued that people of the Third Estate constituted the bulk of the French nation and that they had to have more political power (Sieyes, unpaged). The Revolution that erupted in 1789 made these people more aware of their ability to influence the life of their country.
French people began to regard nation as it was defined by Abbe Sieyes who said that it was “a body of associates, living under a common law, and represented by the same legislature, etc” (Sieyes, unpaged). Therefore, it is possible to say that the concept of nation became more inclusionary because it was extended toward people of various social classes and ethnic origins.
Additionally, this notion began to be viewed as a group of people who adhered to certain principles such as equality and liberty. Most importantly, these people had the right to affect politics of their country (Neely, 247).
Certainly, one cannot argue that the distinctions between classes were totally erased by the French Revolution; they existed and were even reflected in the Declaration of the Rights of Man. Nevertheless, this experience of showed to people of various social classes that they could act together in the pursuit of their economic or political objectives. This cooperation became the basis of the French nation. This is one of the key changes that were brought by the French Revolution.
Another issue that one has to discuss is the impact of the French Revolution on the concept of civic rights and liberties. During the Age of Absolutism, the very idea of civic rights was familiar only to the representatives of the first and second estates, in other words, aristocracy and clergy. Yet, the power of the monarch remained virtually unchallenged. This person had the authority to control and influence virtually every sphere of public life.
Certainly, the French Revolution did not create a perfect civic society, but it identified the privileges that had to be possessed by every member of the society. In this case, one can speak about such an important document as the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen signed by the National Constituent Assembly. This degree legitimized people’s struggle against oppression, presumption of innocence, freedom of communication, the rights to property, and equality of rights (National Constituent Assembly, unpaged).
This declaration still remains important because it highlights the essential components of people’s citizenship. Certainly, it is by no means ideal, because it primarily focused on the rights of male population. Nothing was said about women, their role in the society and their rights.
Moreover, a person had to meet several requirements in order to qualify as a citizen, in particular, he had to be of a certain age and earn a certain amount of money (Sax, 91). Hence, one cannot argue that this declaration was entirely neutral in its treatment of people who lived in France. These are the limitation that one cannot overlook. Yet, prior to the Revolution, French people could regard themselves only as subjects of the king, but not as citizens who could influence political life of the country.
Admittedly, the French Revolution also brought bloodshed, terror, wars, and intense struggle within the French society. It also produced a counter-revolution that was aimed at reversing the radical changes that took place in the country. Nonetheless, the ideas introduced during this revolution remained prominent in the life of French people.
The counter-revolution did not eliminate people’s aspiration for the equality of civic rights. The changes brought by the French Revolution demonstrated that absolute monarchy could not survive as a form of government. Hence, the importance of this political event can hardly be underestimated.
Overall, the revolution that took place in France demonstrated that French people could act as a collective power that could shape that the internal policies of the state or its international relations.
This experience laid the foundations of French nation as a united group of people who could join their efforts to pursue common goals. Secondly, the French revolution stressed the importance of citizenship and possession of certain political, legal, and economic rights that could not be infringed by the state. These are probably the main legacies of the French Revolution.
National Constituent Assembly. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. Human Constitutional Documents, 2008. Web. 8 Apr. 2012.
Neely, Sylvia. A Concise History Of The French Revolution. New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2008. Print.
Sax, Benjamin. Western Civilization: From the scientific revolution to the present. Greenhaven Press, 2001. Print.
Sieyes, Emmanuel. What is the Third Estate? Fordham University,1997. Web. 8 Apr. 2012. < http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/sieyes.asp>.