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Empowerment of the Individual: The French Revolution of 1789

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Posted: July 24, 2016

By Colleen McGowan

The history of the monarchy in Europe tells the story of oppression of the individual and the inequality between aristocrats and the majority. Absolutism and the ability to control lives never allowed for public participation in politics; it was only until the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century that the French people began to realize change was necessary. With new ways of thinking and increasing literacy, the empowerment of the individual grew to unprecedented levels, leading to a revolution against an oppressive government. The French Revolution of 1789 acts as a prime example of how empowerment of the people could change the formal and informal institutions of French society into democracy and equality.

The monarchists of France reigned from the time the Romans withdrew in the fourth century well into the eighteenth century. Each acted as the figurehead of the country, serving the people through hard times and infrastructural developments. Most kings reigned with the general intent to help their county—such as Henri IV at the turn of the seventeenth century—but many became obsessed with the monarchy’s grandiose status. While sharing some power with the Catholic Church, most monarchs had power over state and military operations. None had so much power as Louis XIV, who began his reign in 1661 and ruled as an “absolute monarch” who controlled all land and power in France after loosening ties with the Church. By herding all powerful aristocrats into his Château de Versailles, Louis le Grand was able to keep watch of all state operations, thereby restricting anyone else from yielding power. His obsession with the power of the absolute monarchy and the physical separation from the Parisian capital furthered the deep class divide between the aristocrats and the rest of France. Louis’ lavish spending on personal affairs and the development of the country’s infrastructure raised high taxes on the French citizens. Coupled with the stagnation of land control under the medieval feudal system and food scarcity, the people of France lived in poverty and quiescence.

Under the monarchy, individual citizens without money or power were unable to participate in politics for many years. Most kings did not need the approval of his subjects to implement policies that suited him; thus, the people remained voiceless and oppressed. Under King Louis XVI, financial minister Jacques Necker convened the Estates General in May 1789 to allow participation among the aristocracy, clergy, and citizens of France in an open forum. Individuals fled the meeting when their pursuits were still ignored and drafted the Tennis Court Oath to express themselves in the current political setting. The people realized they deserve power over their own lives and should not be dictated by an oppressive king. This began the political empowerment campaign among French citizens and showcases the beginning of overcoming of non-participation and the oppression of the citizen’s right to vote.

The Enlightenment in France, Europe, and the United States in the late seventeenth century and early eighteenth century began an intellectual revolution. Beginning among the great thinkers of the time such as Voltaire, Locke, and Rousseau, it spread to common individuals throughout Europe, made readily available by pamphlets. A rise in literacy rates during this time in France attributed to the rise of Enlightenment thoughts, as pamphlets were written in French for the average person to read. Thus, people immersed themselves in new ways of thinking about their countries and themselves as individuals, facilitated by their ability to read and the readiness of propaganda pamphlets.

The inability to read acts as a major barrier to empowerment of the individual, especially those ruled by a despotic monarch. With increased educational attainment, individuals are able to think on their own, develop agency, and the ability to defend the rights of oneself. John Gaventa—community power author—writes in Power and Powerlessness, “as critical perception is embodied in action a climate of hope and confidence develops” (209). At the start of the revolution, the perception of the oppression of citizens spread through Enlightenment pamphlets and the people of France rose in action against the aristocrats, led by Louis XVI. This was furthered by the “self-determination by oppressed people” and necessary “consciousness and confidence” in the power of the French individual, when people began to have confidence in their revolutionary thoughts (Gaventa 208-209).

The spread of enlightenment ideas also helped the French citizens overcome the third dimension of power, held by King Louis XVI. The third dimension of power represents the subjective and occasionally unknown power affecting an individual’s thoughts and beliefs. In eighteenth century France, individuals were unaware of other alternatives to the monarchy, having known it for so long. Thus Louis XVI held total control over his subjects. The king assured his subjects stayed quiescent through censorship and the threat of torture or incarceration. The informal institutions of accepting one’s present situation over the future continued the quiescence of the individual in France. However, with the new availability of Enlightenment beliefs and the exposure of current affairs of the monarchy, citizens gained agency and the will to rise up against the oppressive third dimension of power –King Louis XVI.

On July 14, 1789, the citizens of Paris stormed the Bastille Saint-Antoine in hopes to symbolize their readiness to fight for their individual freedoms. Author Alistair Horne describes this outburst of physical force as “all the impassioned hatreds that had been storing up in Paris…now exploded” (Horne 155). By showing physical force in Paris and ‘diplomatic’ force in Versailles, King Louis XVI finally conceded into converting the absolute monarchy into a constitutional monarchy, in which the kingship is a formality and separation of power would be among the aristocracy and the power elite. Democracy would come in a few years after the events of the Revolution and The Terror. This change in the formal institution of power—the laws and political structure—within France was accompanied by the lessening of privileges of the monarchy and the aristocracy, specifically with the abolition of tax exemptions among the rich. Additionally, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen (August 1789) granted formal rights and powers to the individual man, not to be infringed upon by the government.

Informal institutions and the everyday lives of citizens were also impacted by the political and social events of the Revolution. Most important is the empowerment of the individual through education, public action, and nationalism. The continuation of Enlightenment ideals focused on equality and democracy among the French population, highlighting the intellectual and social aspects of both. With the dissolution of the monarchy, individuals were able to control the land on which they worked and enjoyed more freedom in education and literacy. The circulation of pamphlets during this time and an increase in literacy rates allowed average people to read and develop their own thoughts about themselves, their government, and their pride in their country.

With democracy beginning to take a foothold in the government, French citizens became proud of their country; this increased nationalism and an identity of self and place. In fact, France began a series of wars with various nations in Europe still ruled by monarchs in hopes to defend its new democracy and establish itself as a powerhouse without a single figurehead. Unfortunately, in the years to come, the passion behind these ideals became out of control, as a civil war (“The Terror”) erupted in efforts to purge the county of those who deemed ‘against democracy.’

The French Revolution resulted in the improvement of the lives of French citizens, who received general human rights and an active voice in politics. Unfortunately, it came at a large price: many became carried away with radical ideas about the government and French society and started The Terror, in which thousands of people were killed for refuting democracy. The Revolution acts as a warning to some: prevent the prolonged and severe oppression of citizens. However, it also served as the catalyst for democratic reform in Europe, initiating the core ideals still in effect. It promoted Enlightenment ideals and the importance of the individual in his own society, proving that quiescence sustains oppression and the empowerment of the individual is the most important strategy for agency and change.

References

Gaventa, John. Power and Powerlessness: Quiescence and Rebellion in an Appalachian Valley. Urbana: U of Illinois, 1980. Print.

Horne, Alistair. Seven Ages of Paris. New York: A.A. Knopf :, 2002. Print.