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French Revolution

Social Class and Revolution

Some of the most important events in world history have been revolutions. Often times, revolutions can drastically change the social order not just of a country, but of an entire region as it responds to the revolution occurring in its neighbor. Two of the most influential revolutions, occurring in the modern day United States and France, have set the standard for other revolutions. These two uprisings occurred within a decade of each other; the American Revolution lasted from 1774 to 1783 and the French Revolution took place from 1789 to 1799 (or 1815 depending on one’s definition of Napoleon’s reign). Furthermore, the French were strongly influenced by the Americans. However, there was a critical difference between France and the former British colonies that turned the French Revolution into something radically different than its American counterpart: class relations. In the American Revolution, Patriots were spread evenly among the different areas of society. In France, this was a different matter entirely: the French Revolution developed, responded to, and held the most support with the lower class. This difference in class makeup of the revolutionaries ultimately led to some extreme differences, some of which have appeared in later revolutions or uprisings. The difference in the social make-up of the revolutionaries in the American and French Revolutions resulted in differences in the objectives of the revolutionaries, the social changes that took place because of the revolution, and the overall political stability of the post-revolutionary government.

In order to determine the overall goals and beliefs of these revolutions, one must first understand the events that led to and inspired revolution. As the American Revolution occurred before the French Revolution and partially inspired it, it logically follows that the American Revolution should be examined first. While armed conflict between American colonists and British soldiers began in 1775, discontent had been simmering between colonists and their mother country ever since the French and Indian War, or as it is known in Europe, the Seven Years War, which ended in 1763. Following British acquisition of French territory west of the Appalachian Mountains, new settlers in these parts were frequently attacked by Native Americans. In order to prevent further conflict between the settlers and the natives, the British Parliament issued the Proclamation of 1763, which restricted settlement only to lands east of the Appalachians. This was the beginning of the end of British control over the future United States.

Throughout the remainder of the 1760’s and the beginning of the 1770’s, the British government became much more involved in American affairs. For example, Britain enforced new taxes on its American colonies, such as the Sugar Act, the Tea Act, and especially the Stamp Act (Tindall and Shi 179). To explain, many Americans viewed themselves as British citizens and as such they believed that they were entitled to the same civil rights native Britons received. In addition to the increased tax burden placed on the colonies, Britain also placed more restrictions on colonial trade. For example, colonists were prohibited from trading with non-British merchants (although many did so illegally). These financial measures represented the large war debts incurred by Britain and the economic system of mercantilism, which was being employed by the British Empire at the time. However much the empire needed revenue, the colonists strongly resisted these measures through means such as smuggling, boycotts, and riots, some of which turned violent. These incidents became more heated and more frequent, culminating in the battles of Lexington and Concord in April of 1775 (Tindall and Shi 196).

As one can clearly see by observing the protests occurring in the American colonies and what they were directed at, one can easily come to the conclusion that many of the primary objectives of the American Revolution were economic in nature. In fact, George Brown Tindall and David Emory Shi write “the emerging colonial desire for greater political independence involved concrete economic objectives” (194). Indeed, many Americans wanted to do away with the taxes and trade restrictions placed upon them by the mother country and trade with anyone they wished. This desire for greater economic development appealed strongly to the Americans. At the time, the American colonists were actually some of the wealthiest people in the world, so much so that the poor “starving masses” so prevalent in Europe were not present in the American social structure of a predominantly middle class (Adler and Pouwels 421).

The less stratified nature of American society greatly contributed to the extremely unified nature of the protests, and later, the revolution. While only about one third of American society was considered Patriots, these Patriots represented every area of society. A consequence of this unified nature was the predominantly economic objectives of the uprisings, as many of these (for the most part) satisfied middle class colonists were not angry at the social structure, but rather the hampering of their economic development by the British. Even the politically revolutionary nature of this revolution did not attempt to change much (to be fair, the eventual government created under the Constitution was revolutionary in nature, but it did not change the structure of American society). In fact, according to Levi Preston, a veteran of the American Revolution, the real overriding political impulse behind the revolution was the colonists “had always governed [themselves], and [they] always meant to” (Tindall and Shi 206).

Following the conclusion of the American Revolution in 1783, the French Revolution began in 1789, although its roots lie in the American Revolution. Following the Battle of Saratoga in 1778, France decided to lend aid and support to the American rebels to damage Britain’s position in the world (Adler and Pouwels 429). Unfortunately, this assistance plunged France deeper and deeper in debt, although it did allow the Patriots to succeed and win American independence. As the financial crises worsened in the aftermath of the American Revolution, the king of France, Louis XVI, convened the Estates General, or France’s version of parliament that had been disbanded by Louis XIV as he turned France in to an absolute monarchy (Adler and Pouwels 429). The Estates General consisted of three estates representing the different groups and classes or French society: the First Estate represented the clergy, the Second Estate represented the nobility, and the Third Estate represented the “commoners”, or anyone who was not in the first two estates. Each estate voted as a bloc, preventing the commoners from gaining any sort of advantage, as the two privileged estates could always out-vote the other to prevent change (Adler and Pouwels 429).

However, this time, the Third Estate convinced the king to give each individual a vote, which gave the Third Estate an advantage. This resulted in the creation of the National Constituent Assembly, which spent the next two years creating a constitution, although they were strongly influenced by the lower classes, who began rioting all over the country (beginning with the storming of the Bastille). This was a crucial event in world history, as it “was the first time in modern history that the urban underclass asserted such a direct influence” (Adler and Pouwels 430). Following the adoption of the constitution, the legislature became dominated by radicals known as the Jacobins, who quickly dissolved the Legislative Assembly and created a Committee of Public Safety to govern. The Committee then began a period known as the “Reign of Terror” in which tens of thousands were executed for being suspected of not supporting the revolution, including the king and queen (Adler and Pouwels 431).

Following the Jacobin seizure of power, the concerns of the lower classes were considered and they had a strong influence on the objectives of the revolutionary government. Three key tenets were adopted by the Jacobins and were used to build support for the revolution. They included equality, liberty, and fraternity (Adler and Pouwels 431). Compared to the pre-revolution, these beliefs were radically different. Pre-revolution French society was extremely stratified with special privileges for the nobility. In addition, the common person had next to no say in French government, as the French king controlled everything. Starting with the creation of the National Assembly, and later with Jacobin rule, the lower classes had their voices heard, resulting in the creation of the tenets of equality, liberty, and fraternity. As enacted by the Jacobins, the French government, and indeed French society was completely restructured. The Jacobins believed in ending privileges for the nobility and universal male suffrage (Adler and Pouwels 430-431). The French Revolution began by adhering to the principles of the Enlightenment, although these principles were quickly taken much farther than the philosophes of the Enlightenment by including government control over the church and the redistribution of property (Adler and Pouwels 431). These policies, especially the ending of aristocratic privilege and the seizure of aristocratic property can be attributed to the increased influence of the lower class. Furthermore, the widespread violence during the Reign of Terror can also be attributed to lower class influence, as it may have begun as an outrush of years of animosity against the nobility. To summarize the influence of class on the objectives of the American and French Revolutions, the American Revolution was a widespread social movement that represented all sectors of society and focused primarily on economic issues, while the French Revolution received the most support from the lower class and therefore completely altered and changed the social order.

Many revolutions are fought not just to enact political change, but social change as well. However, the American Revolution remains a rather poignant exception to this trend. In fact, Philip J. Adler and Randall L. Pouwels argue that “the existing political, economic, and social circumstances of the citizenry, whether white or black, were scarcely changed by independence” (423). To be fair, a few changes did take place and a few possible social changes were considered, but many of these were not implemented and the few changes that did occur did not change society very much. The changes that did take place in the United States after independence had been won consisted mainly of increasing voting rights by lowering the property qualifications as well as an increased interest in government and politics by average Americans. Furthermore, American society, which already had extremely limited stratification, became even less stratified, as, in general, free white men considered themselves to be equals (Tindall and Shi 239-240). This was where the changes stopped. There was little to no shifting of economic or political power (indeed, many of the Founding Fathers had some degree of political power before the war, either in a state assembly or in the Continental Congress). While there was some debate over what to do about slavery as well as the position of women in society, no changes took place with either of these issues. Even during the war, many local committees of safety followed the familiar channels power in carrying out their duties, demonstrating a “deep, unquestioned commitment to the rule of law” (Breen 208).

The overall lack of social changes taking place in the American Revolution clearly illustrates that this revolution was unlike any other revolution. While most revolutions are fought to ignite change, one could argue that the Americans were fighting to prevent change. This shows the effect the social makeup of the revolutionaries had on the outcomes of the revolution; as it maintained widespread support across the social spectrum, and as many Americans were thriving in the New World, there was no desire for social change, as many of the revolutionaries already had relative social equality. A mainly middle class society with some degree of social equality, one can clearly see the desire by many of the Patriots to “maintain the status quo”, as it suited them just fine. In other words, the American Revolution’s unique lack of social change can be contributed to the relative equality amongst the various classes in American society.

In contrast to the lack of social changes in the American Revolution, there were an abundance of social changes in the French Revolution, many of them contradictory and reactionary. The French Revolution was governed by a series of bodies, beginning with the National Assembly, continuing with Jacobin control, followed by the Directory (a conservative government that was set up in the aftermath of the Reign of Terror), and ending with the rule of Napoleon (Adler and Pouwels 430-432). The National Assembly began the process of social change by creating a constitution. The new constitution enacted major reforms, specifically by ending aristocratic privileges. For example, the feudal system was disbanded. In addition, the National Assembly attempted to make French society more secular by making major religious reforms, such as requiring “the clergy [to] swear an oath of loyalty to the nation”, it “made the church a state department”, and “ordered that bishops be elected by laymen” (Levack et at.). These reforms continued under the Jacobin government, which not only declared that all men are equal, effectively ending any hope the aristocracy had of regaining their privileged position in society, but the Jacobins also brought Enlightenment ideals to France. These ideals included a belief in the equality of men and the belief in natural and inalienable rights.

The Jacobins also enacted major reforms to further equalize French society and increase the position of the poor. Specifically, church and noble properties were seized by the government and redistributed to the peasants (Adler and Pouwels 431). The Jacobins also greatly upset the social order by abolishing the monarchy and transforming France in to a republic (although these reforms were later undone when the revolution ended and Louis XVIII ascended to the throne) (Levack et al.). At the time of the revolution’s beginning, the transition from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy under the National Assembly and later the transition from a constitutional monarchy to a republic under the Jacobins were changes that greatly changed France forever. These changes reflect the predominantly lower class nature of the French Revolution, as they were primarily directed at enriching the lower classes at the expense of the upper class. Furthermore, many of the gains in social equality experienced by many in France can be attributed to the lower class revolution that was taking place, as it greatly increased the position of the lower classes in society. This stands in contrast to the American Revolution’s relative lack of major social change because of the more middle class nature of the revolution.

A further mean of determining not only the success of a revolution but also the social makeup of its participants would be the stability of the post-revolutionary regimes. In the case of the United States, with its relatively un-stratified colonial society, the post-revolutionary government has been incredibly stable. However, post-revolutionary America was not always so stable. Originally after independence had been won, the new American nation created a new government under the Articles of Confederation, which became effective in March of 1781 (Tindall and Shi 238). The Articles of Confederation reflected the colonists strong distaste for strong governments as the central government under the Articles, in this case the Continental Congress (only the Continental Congress) had very little power. It could not do anything without approval from at least a majority of the states, and as a result nothing was ever enacted by the central government that the states disagreed with, specifically an inability to raise taxes to provide revenue the new country desperately needed to pay off its war debts. As the country’s financial situation worsened throughout the 1780’s, several of the states began to tax their own citizens. This brought about extreme discontent amongst many poor farmers in Massachusetts, who had fallen on especially hard times. Eventually, in 1787, Daniel Shays led a group of farmers to the state’s arsenal at Springfield, although Shay’s Rebellion was pushed back by the state militia (Tindall and Shi 261). It is worth noting here that the little instability that existed in post-revolutionary America began with and reflected the interests of the lower classes, specifically a desire for the legislature to provide farmers with paper money to relieve some of their economic ailments.

In response to the financial situation, as well as Shay’s Rebellion, the federal government authorized a Constitutional Convention as a way to strengthen the federal government. By 1790, every single state had ratified the new Constitution, which not only strengthened the powers of the federal government substantially (for example, the Supremacy Clause, which asserts the power of the federal government over the states), but also separated them from one another by dividing the government in to three branches: a legislative, an executive, and a judicial branch (Tindall and Shi 274). Although there was disagreement on the interpretation of some parts of the Constitution, which continues to this day, Americans respected their new Constitution, and with that respect came stability. One can not deny that a government that has lasted for over 200 years with peaceful transitions of power from one group to the next provides a remarkable example of stability. The nature of the Constitution reflects the less stratified American social structure, as it does establish the equal rights of men, allow much more access to the political process for average citizens than anywhere else in the world at the time, and in general allows people to live their lives as they wish without government intrusion without greatly changing the lives of most Americans, conforming to the desires of the revolutionaries and contributing to the climate of political and social stability. As stated previously, a revolution with support across the social spectrum is less likely to change things greatly, as most of the revolutionaries would be content with their current position, and as a result of little social change, there would be little reason for instability to occur because there would be much less resistance to the revolutionary changes. This provides an excellent picture of post-revolutionary America.

Once again, post-revolutionary France differs greatly from post-revolutionary American. In fact, it is difficult to determine what constitutes post-revolutionary France, as multiple changes in government occurred during the French Revolution, each a revolution in its own right. Beginning with the formation of the National Assembly and the drafting of the constitution, France entered in to a period known as “the Great Fear”, in which peasants revolted against the nobility (Levack et al.). Following the implementation of the constitution, French society stabilized slightly, although after the Jacobin seizure of power, France was plunged in to even more social chaos as it entered “the Reign of Terror”, in which “between 25,000 and 40,000 victims were guillotined, and many tens of thousands more were imprisoned or exiled” (Adler and Pouwels 431). This lasted from 1793 to 1794, and ended with the execution of the Jacobin leader, Maximilien Robespierre. After Robepierre’s execution, the conservatives founded the Directory to govern France in a period known as the Thermidorean Reaction. But the rule of the Directory only lasted until 1799 when Napoleon Bonaparte, a Corsican native who was a general in the French army, seized control in a military coup, and in 1804, he crowned himself emperor. Napoleon was later defeated and exiled in 1814 by a coalition of the other European powers, including Great Britain, Russia, Prussia, and Austria, although he would escape from exile and return in 1815 to rule France again, although only briefly. In the 1815 Battle of Waterloo, Napoleon was again defeated and again exiled by the other European leaders (Adler and Pouwels 431-436).

Although France remained very stable under Napoleon, as he was a very popular leader with all but dictatorial powers over France, the 1790’s remained a very turbulent time for the nation. The Great Fear and the Reign of Terror in particular provide especially good examples of the chaos of the French Revolution, which “had started in 1789 as a high-principled campaign for justice, liberty, and progress” but by the Jacobin takeover “had degenerated in to a bloodbath” (Adler and Pouwels 431). This rampant instability can be directly attributed to the division along class lines between support for the revolution or opposition to the revolution. To explain, one can explain the rapid transfers of governments as the switching of power to the other side. For example, the National Assembly’s constitution was mainly supported by the middle class, which simply wanted to end aristocratic privilege. However, the lower classes did not believe the constitution went far enough and wanted more; this resulted in the Jacobin take-over, as the Jacobins were far more responsive to the desires of the lower class, such as redistribution of wealth and property. Over time, the middle and upper classes gained more power and support, and thus were able to establish the Directory. This led to more conflict with the lower class, and it was only after the dictatorship of Napoleon was established that the class conflicts ceased, as people became far more concerned with the external wars against other nations than internal struggles.

Revolutions are often major events in world history, and the American and French Revolutions clearly are. The American Revolution showed the world that a country’s citizens can govern themselves, while the French Revolution showed the possible dangers of democracy, but it also led to more social equality and individual freedoms across Europe. These two revolutions are radically divergent from one another because of their social make up. The American Revolution was more unified across society, and as a result sought primarily economic objectives in its war for independence, enacted few social changes, and enjoyed a good deal of political stability. The French Revolution was supported by primarily the lower class, and attempted to bring about true social equality and an end to aristocratic privilege, enacted many social changes, and suffered from a good deal of political instability for a decade. Clearly, one can not underestimate the impact that social class can have not just on revolutions, but also on history in general.

Works Cited

Adler, Philip J., Randall L. Pouwels. World Civilizations. Boston: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2012. Print.

Breen, T.H. American Insurgents American Patriots. New York: Hill and Wang, 2010. Print.

Levack, Brian, Edward Muir, Michael Maas, Meredith Veldman. The West: Encounters and Transformations. Pearson, 2007. Web.

Tindall, George Brown, David Emory Shi. American a Narrative History. New York: Norton, 2007. Print.