Enlightenment and the French Revolution: What Went Essay

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Enlightenment and the French Revolution: What Went Wrong

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The "Age of Reason" also known as the "Enlightenment," was the 18th century's attempt to break out of the self imposed restrictions of society and create something better. (Rosner 2000, 251-253) Beginning with the writings of John Locke in the mid-1600's, a new idea had begun to take root: that man could, through his reason, create better social structures. In other words, man had the ability to create a more perfect form of government, one more in line with the rights of the people. From this idea came a torrent of revolution and social unrest which rocked Europe to it's foundation. In France, a revolution which had begun with the ideas of the Enlightenment, spiraled out of control into a period which is still to this day called "The Terror." How did the well intentioned ideals of the Enlightenment lead to a time of violence and death? In light of this, was the French Revolution really inspired by the Enlightenment, or was it just another violent peasant uprising? This essay will attempt to answer these questions by examining the Enlightenment, it's influence, if any, on the French Revolution, and how it turned so bad.

To answer the question of whether the French Revolution was inspired by the ideals of the Enlightenment one needs only look at the writings of the French Philosophes Voltaire, Rouseau, or Montesquieu. In 1762, Rouseau wrote The Social Contract, which laid the philosophical groundwork for the Revolution by attempting to formulate a new social structure which would reconcile the freedom of the people with the government's need for order. (Wilson 2004, 559-560) And these ideas were spread across France, and the rest of Europe, with the publication of The Encyclopedia, beginning in 1751. The seeds of the Enlightenment were brought directly to the people and they sprouted rebellion.

The French Revolution actually began in July of 1788 when the King called for the creation of an "Estates General" in order to deal with a growing fiscal crisis. By calling a meeting of all three estates (the Clergy, Nobles, and People) the King gave a platform for the people to demand social and governmental changes more in line with the ideals of the Enlightenment. When the King refused, the people revolted. At first the revolution was in sync with Enlightenment ideals. The new National Assembly, which had taken control of the government, approved the Declaration of the Rights of Man; a document which embodied many Enlightenment ideals. Then, in Sept of 1791, the National Assembly drafted France's first constitution which made Enlightenment ideals the law in France. By mid-1791 the revolution seemed to be making…

Sources Used in Document:


Kennedy, Emmet. 1989. A Cultural History of the French Revolution. New York: Yale University Press.

Rosner, Lisa, and Theibault, John. 2000. A Short History of Europe, 1600-1815. New York: M.E. Sharpe.

Viault, Birdsall. 1990. Modern European History. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Wilson, E.J., and Reill, P.H.. 2004. Encyclopedia of the Enlightenment. New York: Book Builders Inc..

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