How Revolutionary Was the French Revolution?


Due to the French Revolution’s long and complicated history that veers from extremes of liberty (toppling the power and privileges of Dmonarchy, nobility, and the Catholic church) and authoritarianism (both by revolutionaries and counter-revolutionaries like Napoleon), it gets mixed reviews in terms of how revolutionary it is considered to be. Those assessments vary depending on how one defines the meaning of “revolutionary,” the standard use to judge what is revolutionary (is it ideals or outcomes?), and time span being evaluated (is it best judged by democratic high point or by the liberties and changes that endured the counter revolution?). For well over 200 years, scholars have debated the fundamental nature of the French Revolution and how best to rate its revolutionary scope and scale.

The following documents provide a representative sampling of the ways that French Revolutionaries defined liberty, rights, and powers at the Revolution’s key stages. While certainly not exhaustive, these documents give a sense of both revolutionary ideals, how those ideals took concrete form in governments and laws, and a sense of how the counter revolution rolled back popular liberties and powers. Use these documents to answer the question: How Revolutionary was the French Revolution?

[Note: Aside from the subject of slavery, these documents primarily reflect liberties and powers of French Citizens living in France. A true accounting of the French Revolution’s reach would include how the Revolutionary Army remade Europe by inspiring (or creating) French-styled revolutions across Europe and inspired slave uprisings in its “New World” colonies like Saint-Domingue (Haiti). For practical reasons, I have limited the scope of documents to France itself. But bear in mind that the French Revolution had a much broader reach than what these documents reveal].

Documents on the French Revolution

Most of the following text and links below are taken directly from the fantastic website, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity: The French Revolution: You can find a much wider range of documents there that cover different aspects of the French Revolution.


Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, 26 August 1789

Once they had agreed on the necessity of drafting a declaration of rights, the deputies of the National Assembly still faced the daunting task of composing one that a majority could accept. The debate raised several questions: should the declaration be short and limited to general principles or should it rather include a long explanation of the significance of each article; should the declaration include a list of duties or only rights; and what precisely were “the natural, inalienable, and sacred rights of man”? After several days of debate and voting, the deputies decided to suspend their deliberations on the declaration, having agreed on seventeen articles. These laid out a new vision of government, in which protection of natural rights replaced the will of the King as the justification for authority. Many of the reforms favored by Enlightenment writers appeared in the declaration: freedom of religion, freedom of the press, no taxation without representation, elimination of excessive punishments, and various safeguards against arbitrary administration.

“Constitution of 1791”

The 1791 Constitution was the first short-lived compromise government formed between the third estate and Louis XVI who was pressured to accept it. This government ended many kinds of privilege and extended rights in a government that was a constitutional monarchy that vested power in substantial property holders whether they were nobles or affluent members of the Third Estate.

Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen from the Constitution of the Year I (1793)

The National Convention drew up this new declaration of rights to attach to the republican constitution of 1793. The constitution was ratified in a referendum, but never put into operation. It was suspended for the duration of the war and then replaced by a new constitution in 1795. Note the contrast with the original Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen; this one places more emphasis on welfare and public assistance (see article 21).

“Constitution of 1793”

The primary task of the Convention, when seated in the fall of 1792, had been to draft a new, republican constitution. Only after the purge of the Girondins, however, did the Convention complete this task, with what became known as the Constitution of 1793 or sometimes the “Montagnard Constitution.” Particularly notable was the commitment to political democracy; universal manhood suffrage with no property requirements for voting or holding office at national or municipal levels was implemented, and the equal application of the law to all citizens was emphasized. This constitution also required the government to ensure a “right to subsistence,” while simultaneously reiterating the inviolability of personal property. To many, especially the Jacobins, the Constitution of 1793 provided a model framework for an egalitarian, democratic republic; however, owing to the ongoing war the Convention suspended constitutional rule in October 1793 in favor of “revolutionary government . . . until the peace.”

Declaration of Rights and Duties of Man and Citizen, Constitution of the Year III (1795)

After the fall of Robespierre and the dismantling of the Terror, the National Convention drafted yet another republican constitution. The new constitution was also approved in a referendum and put into effect 26 October 1795. It remained until Napoleon came to power in November 1799. Note that this declaration links duties with rights. It also drops the references to welfare and public assistance and emphasizes family obligations (Art. 4 among duties) for the first time. This declaration also makes clear that “men” refers to males only.

Constitution of the Year III (1795)

By mid–1795, dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs, particularly the extra–constitutional nature of the government, had become widespread. The Left demanded “bread and the Constitution of 1793” while those who had suffered under the Terror sought to “end the Revolution” by finishing off popular political activity in the sections that had led to continual uprisings, civil unrest in the provinces (notably revenge being taken on those in power during the Terror), and the ongoing wars abroad that continued to make heavy demands on the domestic economy. To this end, the Convention assigned a committee including Sieyès to draft yet another constitution, which was presented on 22 August. The excerpt below demonstrates how this constitution sought to ensure a moderate continuation of the Revolution, which would reconcile a stable social order based on personal liberty (meaning individual property rights) with juridical equality rather than the direct democracy and guarantees of social and economic equality contained in the Constitution of 1793. To achieve this delicate balance, the framers reduced the authority of the legislature, which would now have two houses so it could not pass legislation as rapidly. By creating an explicit executive body, this constitution concentrated power, but also limited how much any one individual or political faction could exert by sharing executive power among five Directors. Finally, the constitution proscribed political gatherings of any sort to prevent the re–formation of the club movement or the organization of national political parties.

Class and Power:

4 August Decrees

In late July 1789, as reports of several thousand separate yet related peasant mobilizations poured into Paris from the countryside, a majority of them against seigneurial property, the deputies of the National Assembly debated reforming not just the fiscal system or the constitution but the very basis of French society. In a dramatic all–night session on 4–5 August, one deputy after another stepped forward to renounce for the good of the “nation” the particular privileges enjoyed by their town or region. By the morning deputies of all orders had proposed, debated, and approved even more systematic reform, voting to “abolish the feudal system entirely.” In effect, they had decided to eliminate noble and clerical privilege, the fundamental principle of French society since the Middle Ages. Nevertheless, the meaning was unclear, for the “feudal system” had ceased to exist in France several hundred years earlier. Thus working out the details of this decree became a primary objective of the National Assembly for the next two years.

Decree of the National Assembly Abolishing the Feudal System, 11 August 1789

The abolition of the feudal system, which took place during the famous night session of 45 August 1789, was precipitated by the reading of a report on the misery and disturbances in the provinces. The voting was carried in a fervor of enthusiasm and excitement that made some later revision necessary. The decree given here was drawn up during the following days and contains some alterations and important amplifications of the original provisions as passed in the early morning of August 5th.

Doctrine of Babeuf

Despite the radical nature of such measures taken by the National Assembly as the abolition of nobility and the civil constitution of the clergy, social conflicts continued to manifest themselves after the National Assembly completed its work in 1791. Peasants continued to believe they were not getting all that was due them from urban merchants who bought their grain, while city dwellers continued to attribute the high cost of bread to large landowners hoarding grain in the countryside. Here Babeuf articulates a desire to overturn inequality by establishing an economic equality far beyond the legal equalities established earlier.

Proclamation of the Department of the Seine–et–Oise (9 March 1792)

Despite the radical measures taken by the National Assembly, such as the abolition of nobility and the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, social conflicts continued to manifest themselves after the National Assembly completed its work in 1791. In the document below, we see evidence of continued friction over the circulation of grain and bread. Peasants continued to believe they were not getting all that was due them from urban merchants who bought their grain, while city dwellers continued to attribute the high cost of bread to the hoarding of grain by large landowners in the countryside. The government, seeking always to serve “the people,” found itself caught between conflicting constituencies.

Decree against Profiteers

In July 1793, faced with a restive populace angered by continuing shortages of food in Paris, the Convention followed the lead of the sections in blaming the high price of bread on “profiteers” in the countryside, who were taking advantage of their fellow citizens by charging abnormally high prices for grain. This decree, the first of a series of such condemnations by the Convention, responded to the notion that manipulation of the marketplace for the purpose of self–enrichment was contrary to morality and to law because it harmed fellow citizens and thus undermined the liberty of all.

Rights for Women:

“Petition of Women of the Third Estate to the King” (1 January 1789)

Little is known about women’s grievances or feelings in the months leading up to the meeting of the Estates–General. They did not have the right to meet as a group, draft grievances, or vote (except in isolated individual instances) in the preparatory elections. Nevertheless, some women did put their thoughts to paper, and though little evidence exists about the circumstances or the identities of those involved, the few documents offering their views bear witness to their concerns in this time of ferment. In this document working women addressed the King in respectful terms and carefully insisted that they did not wish to overturn men’s authority; they simply wanted the education and enlightenment that would make them better workers, better wives, and better mothers. The petitioners expressed their deep apprehensions about prostitution and the fear that they would be confused with them; like prostitutes, working women did not stay at home but necessarily entered the public sphere to make their livings. Most of all, however, the women wanted to be heard; they saw the opening created by the convocation of the Estates–General and hoped to make their own claims for inclusion in the promised reforms.

Olympe de Gouges, The Declaration of the Rights of Woman (September 1791)

Marie Gouze (1748–93) was a self–educated butcher’s daughter from the south of France who, under the name Olympe de Gouges, wrote pamphlets and plays on a variety of issues, including slavery, which she attacked as being founded on greed and blind prejudice. In this pamphlet she provides a declaration of the rights of women to parallel the one for men, thus criticizing the deputies for having forgotten women. She addressed the pamphlet to the Queen, Marie Antoinette, though she also warned the Queen that she must work for the Revolution or risk destroying the monarchy altogether. In her postscript she denounced the customary treatment of women as objects easily abandoned. She appended to the declaration a sample form for a marriage contract that called for communal sharing of property. De Gouges went to the guillotine in 1793, condemned as a counterrevolutionary and denounced as an “unnatural” woman.

Women’s Petition to the National Assembly

This petition was addressed to the National Assembly sometime after the October 1789 march of women on Versailles. The authors were clearly well acquainted with the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, as well as with the many prior publications about the historical accomplishments of celebrated women. They were also conversant with the concept of “genre” (gender), understood as society’s construction of sexual difference.

Discussion of Women’s Political Clubs and Their Suppression, 29–30 October 1793

On 29 October 1793, a group of women appeared in the National Convention to complain that female militants had tried to force them to wear the red cap of liberty as a sign of their adherence to the Revolution, but they also presented a petition demanding the suppression of the women’s club behind these actions. Their appearance provided the occasion for a discussion of women’s political activity more generally. Philippe Fabre d’Eglantine (1755–94) gave a speech denouncing both the agitation about dress and the women’s clubs. Fabre, a well–known poet and playwright, took an active role in the dechristianization movement that was getting under way in the fall of 1793. He went to the guillotine in April 1794, supposedly for financial fraud but really for opposing Robespierre’s policies. (Robespierre distrusted the dechristianization movement) The National Convention immediately passed a decree reaffirming liberty of dress but put off to the next day consideration of the clubs. On 30 October 1793, Jean–Baptiste Amar (1755–1816) spoke for the Committee of Public Security and proposed a decree suppressing all women’s political clubs, which passed with virtually no discussion. He outlined the government’s official policy on women: women’s proper place was in the home, not in politics. Broad agreement about the role of women did not prevent internal dissension among the men. Amar himself denounced Fabre a few months later and then joined the opposition to Robespierre in July 1794, which ended in Robespierre’s own execution. The club at issue in the October debate was the Society of Revolutionary Republican Women, founded in May 1793 to agitate for firmer measures against the country’s enemies. The club supported the establishment of companies of amazons, armed to fight internal enemies, but it did not advance specifically feminist demands such as the demand for the right to vote. Nonetheless, the deputies found any organized women’s political activity threatening and forbade it henceforth.

The French Civil Code (1804)

Napoleon brought to completion a project dear to the hearts of the revolutionaries, the drafting of new law codes. The civil code was the most important of them because it institutionalized equality under the law (at least for adult men), guaranteed the abolition of feudalism, and, not least, gave the nation one single code of law replacing the hundreds in effect in 1789. As the following excerpts show, however, it also codified the subservience of women in marriage and of workers in their places of employment. Divorce was still allowed (it had been established in 1792), but under conditions that were very unfavorable to wives.


Decree of the National Convention of 4 February 1794, Abolishing Slavery in all the Colonies

News traveled slowly from the colonies back to France, and the first word of the emancipations in Saint Domingue aroused suspicion if not outright hostility in the National Convention. Many of the original members of the Society of the Friends of Blacks, such as Lafayette, Brissot, and Condorcet, had either fled the country or gone to their deaths at the guillotine for opposing the faction now dominant in the National Convention, led by Robespierre. Three delegates—a free black, a white, and a mulatto—from Saint Domingue explained the situation to the National Convention on 4 February 1794. Their report provoked spontaneous enthusiasm, and the deputies promptly voted to abolish slavery in all the colonies. Their decree helped win over the rebellious slaves to the side of the French against the British and Spanish.

Religious Liberty:

“Civil Constitution of the Clergy,” 1790

This sweeping law completely reorganized the Catholic Church in France, making it a creature of the state and then secularizing many of its functions. The law was enormously controversial and contributed greatly to the emerging counter revolution and internal civil war within Revolutionary France as many devout Catholics mobilized in defense of religious tradition and their parish priests.

“Admission of Jews to Rights of Citizenship,” 27 September 1791

After several tumultuous discussions about the Jewish communities still excluded from political rights, the National Assembly finally voted to regularize the situation of all the different Jewish communities on 27 September 1791. Adrien–Jean–François Duport (1759–98), a deputy of the nobility of Paris, proposed the motion. The deputies shouted down those who attempted to speak against it, and it quickly passed. A subsequent amendment indicated that swearing the civic oath implied a renunciation of previous Jewish privileges, that is, the right to an autonomous community ruled by its own members according to its own customs. The law required Jews to be individuals just like everyone else in France.

Making Peace with the Catholic Church, 1801–2

One of Napoleon’s first priorities was to reestablish good relations with the papacy, which had fought the revolutionary church settlement tooth and nail. Napoleon gained everything he desired in the Concordat: he appointed the bishops and archbishops of the French church, and all bishops had to swear an oath of fidelity to the French Republic.

The Terror and Civil Liberties:

“Terror Is the Order of the Day”

Responding to pressure from the sections, the Convention voted on 5 September 1793, to declare that “Terror is the Order of the Day,” meaning that the government, through internal “revolutionary armies” that were formed two days later, should and would use force against its own citizens to ensure compliance with its laws, including the law of the Maximum.

The Law of Suspects

This law, passed on 17 September 1793, authorized the creation of revolutionary tribunals to try those suspected of treason against the Republic and to punish those convicted with death. This legislation in effect made the penal justice system into the enforcement arm of the revolutionary government, which would now set as its primary responsibility not only the maintenance of public order but also the much more difficult and controversial task of identifying internal enemies of the Republic—such as “profiteers” who violated the Maximum—and then removing them from the citizenry, where they might subvert the general will.

Robespierre, “On Political Morality”

In this speech to the Convention, delivered on 5 February 1794, Robespierre offered a justification of the Terror. By this date, the Federalist revolt and Vendée uprisings had been by and large pacified and the threat of invasion by the Austrians, British, and Prussians had receded, yet Robespierre emphasized that only a combination of virtue (a commitment to republican ideals) and terror (coercion against those who failed to demonstrate such a commitment) could ensure the long–term salvation of the Republic, since it would always be faced with a crisis of secret enemies subverting it from within, even when its overt enemies had been subdued.

The Père Duchesne Supports the Terror

The radical journalist Jacques–René Hébert here calls on the sans–culottes of Paris to rise against their enemies in the capital, that is, those who block the work of the sections and revolutionary committees. Afterward, they should march against the forces of counterrevolution in the west. In this passage, Hébert calls on patriots to use violence to overcome their foes, suggesting that self–restraint could be deadly to the Revolution.

Debate on the Law of 22 Prairial

Many in the Convention, including some on the Committee of Public Safety, opposed the proposed law, which they feared concentrated too much power in too few hands and would only further destabilize the Republic. This passage from the memoirs of Bertrand Barère, a member of the committee, reveals how opponents of the law had to confront the fear that opposition would expose adversaries to the Terror. The passage of this law marked the beginning of the period known to historians as the “Great Terror,” when violence, no longer necessary to protect the Republic, accelerated and became more focused not only on former nobles and clergy but more broadly on “the wealthy.” From 22 Prairial until 10 Thermidor (10 June–28 July 1794), over 1,300 were executed in Paris and nearly 1,500 in the provinces, some 15 percent of the total number put to death in the entire fifteen–month reign of Terror.

Cultural Change:

The Calendar

A reformed calendar was a goal of the revolutionaries who sought to remake not only the political system and the social order, but also the very experience of life. To rid the calendar of the malign influence of Christianity as a bulwark of tradition, in the fall of 1793 the Convention set up a committee to draft a new secular, rational calendar. Headed by the Dantonist Philippe–François Fabre d’Eglantine, the committee filed the report excerpted below in October 1793.

Culture: Weights and Measures

Among its many lasting contributions to French and western history, the French Revolution initiated the metric system as a more rational and universally applicable way of conveying weights and measures than the various systems in place across France prior to 1789. For the Directory, which opposed broader political participation and increased social benefits as goals, such cultural changes as those in weights and measures (described in the passage below, excerpted from a decree of April 1795) and in the revolutionary calendar came to embody the gains of the Revolution.

Primary Schools

During the period of revolutionary government, the Jacobins had introduced the idea of universal, free, secular education provided by the state. The Jacobins conceived of education not only as a means of improving the citizenry’s skill level for economic purposes but also, and more important, as a means of rooting out tradition (i.e., Christianity) and implanting enlightened, revolutionary values as a strategy of ensuring broad support for the Republic among future generations. The Thermidorean Convention and the Directory preserved and even expanded on this goal, legislating a system of public primary education for all girls and boys, to be taught by instructors chosen for their merit, paid by the state (rather than their students’ families), and committed to imparting knowledge and republican values. The decree creating primary schools, was promulgated by the Convention on 17 November 1794 [27 Brumaire, Year III].