The ideas of the French Revolution


A visual depiction of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity

The French Revolution was motivated and shaped by distinct ideas. Three well known revolutionary ideas were encapsulated in the revolutionary slogan “Liberty! Equality! Fraternity!”. The ideology of the French Revolution was broader and more complex than mere slogans, however. French revolutionary ideas drew heavily on the political philosophy of the Enlightenment and the writings of the philosophes. They also borrowed from other political systems. Many French revolutionaries had studied British government and society. They came to admire its constitutional basis, its separation of powers and its tolerance for individual rights and freedoms. The American Revolution (1775-89) provided French reformers with a working example of revolution and a successfully implemented constitution. The ideas of the French Revolution were also shaped by grievances that were specific to 18th century France. Some of the key ideas of the French Revolution are summarised below.

Liberty. In the context of the 18th century, liberty was freedom from oppression, particularly oppression by the state or government. The most visible instruments of oppression in the Ancien Régime were lettres de cachet, or sealed orders signed by the king. These lettres had several functions but their most common use was to detain and imprison individuals without trial or due process. Several notable figures were imprisoned by lettres de cachet, including Honore Mirabeau (for disgracing his family) and Voltaire (for defamatory writings). Another example of state oppression was the censorship of publications containing criticisms of the king, the aristocracy or the church. The Ancien Régime also used torture to deal with its opponents, though this declined in the late 1700s and was formally abolished in May 1788.

Equality. Equality also underpinned the ideas of the French Revolution. The social structure of the Ancien Régime was uneven and unfair, particularly with regard to taxation. The citizens of the Third Estate wanted equality, though some wanted greater levels of equality than others. The rising bourgeoisie wanted political and social equality with the nobility of the Second Estate. They favoured a meritocracy: a society where rank and status were defined by ability and achievement, rather than birthright and privilege. For this they looked to the newly formed United States, where a revolution had transferred government to men of talent and ability. But the bourgeoisie were more reluctant about sharing political equality with the lower ranks of the Third Estate. They did not support universal voting rights, believing voting to be a privilege of the propertied classes.

“The discussion of liberty equality and fraternity has been a major influence on political thought since the time of the French Revolution… The revolution marked the triumph of ‘the people’. It pronounced, in 1789, the ‘Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen’. In theoretical terms, many of the ideas were ill worked out. For example, the revolutionaries proclaimed the rights of man but women were largely excluded from the process. In practical terms, revolutionary zeal turned to fanaticism and the Revolution turned on itself.”
Paul Spicker, historian

Fraternity. The revolutionary slogan fraternité is best translated as ‘brotherhood’. Fraternity suggested that the nation’s citizens were bound together in solidarity. It combined nationalism with love and concern for one’s fellow citizens. Fraternity was the most abstract, idealistic and unachievable of all revolutionary ideals. It was more prevalent in the early phase of the revolution, when the new government was churning out positive reforms like the August Decrees and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. Many visual sources from 1789-90 show the Three Estates cooperating and working together to improve the nation. As the revolution progressed and political divisions emerged, this focus on unity and brotherhood quickly evaporated.

Popular sovereignty. Until the modern era, most kings and governments claimed their authority came from God, a concept called divine right monarchy. This idea was challenged in the Enlightenment by the emergence of popular sovereignty. Popular sovereignty is the idea that governments derive their authority from the consent and support of the people, not from God. It was based in part on the idea of a ‘social contract’ between individuals and their government, a concept advanced by writers like John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. A corollary of popular sovereignty is that if a government fails or mistreats its people, the people have the right to replace it. This principle was used to justify the American and French revolutions. Popular sovereignty underpinned Emmanuel Sieyès’ What is the Third Estate?. Because the Third Estate formed the vast majority of the nation, Sieyès argued, it was entitled to representation in the national government.

Constitutionalism. When the Third Estate separated from the Estates General in June 1789, they met in a nearby tennis court and pledged to remain in assembly until France had a constitution. This desire for a constitution – a written framework that defines the structures and powers of government – was a feature of the American and French revolutions. Frustrated with the failures and broken promises of kings and ministers, most revolutionaries wanted a government underpinned by a constitutional document. They believed a constitutional government would spell the end of absolutism and arbitrary decision making. It would prevent abuses of power and create a government that worked for the benefit of all. For a working example the French revolutionaries looked to the United States Constitution, which was drafted in 1787 and enacted the following year. The American constitution created a democratically elected republic, with the branches of government and their powers clearly articulated. It also embodied Enlightenment political concepts like popular sovereignty, natural rights and the separation of powers.

Natural rights. Also emerging from the Enlightenment, particularly in the writings of John Locke, was the concept of natural rights. As the name suggests, natural rights are rights and freedoms bestowed on all people, regardless of whatever laws or governments they live under. The American writer Thomas Jefferson described natural rights as “inalienable rights” because they cannot be taken away. According to John Locke there were three natural rights: life, liberty and property. All individuals were entitled to live in safety, to be free from oppression, to acquire property and have it safe from theft or seizure. It is the responsibility and the duty of government, Locke wrote, to uphold and protect the natural rights of individuals. The first phase of the French Revolution was dominated by the liberal bourgeoisie, who were keen on protecting natural rights. The culmination of this was the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, passed by the National Constituent Assembly in August 1789.

Anti-clericalism. The role of the Catholic church in society and government was a divisive issue of the French Revolution. Many philosophes and French revolutionaries were vocal critics of the Catholic clergy. They condemned the wealth and profiteering of the Catholic church, its exemption from taxation, its political influence, its suppression of new ideas and its neglect of the French people. This dissatisfaction could also be found among the lower clergy, men like Emmanuel Sieyès, who were frustrated by corruption, venality and lack of accountability within the church. Most of those who criticised the church and its higher clergy were not atheists, nor were they opposed to religion. They were anti-clericalists who wanted to reform the clergy and limit its social and political power. Anti-clericalism shaped several revolutionary policies including the seizure of church lands, the Civil Constitution of the Clergy (July 1790) and attempts to create a state religion.

first estate

1. The ideas of the French Revolution were drawn from the Enlightenment, influenced by the British political system, inspired by the American Revolution and shaped by local grievances.
2. The best known expression of French revolutionary ideas was the slogan “Liberty! Equality! Fraternity”, though this was simplistic and did not span all ideas of the revolution.
3. The early part of the revolution was motivated by Enlightenment political concepts such as popular sovereignty and constitutionalism, which aimed to create a more effective system of government.
4. Another key revolutionary idea was the codification and legal protection of natural rights: individual rights and freedoms that could not be ignored or removed by law or government.
5. Another important revolutionary idea was anti-clericalism, which sought to reform the Catholic church, particularly the actions of its clergy, reducing political influence, interference and corruption.

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This page was written by Jennifer Llewellyn and Steve Thompson. To reference this page, use the following citation:
J. Llewellyn and S. Thompson, “Revolutionary ideas”, Alpha History, accessed [today’s date],