French Revolution: Giving and Taking Freedom Term Paper

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¶ … French Revolution: Giving and Taking Freedom

The French Revolution occurred during a time when Europe was experiencing a number of social, economic, political and philosophical changes (Troyansky, Cismaru, Andrews, Jr., 1991) Historians David G. Troyansky, Alfred Cismaru, Norwood Andrews Jr.; write that there was an old and new mindset at work, and that the new ideas of the Enlightenment, which also carried remnants of Renaissance thinking (Troyansky, Cismaru, Andrews, Jr., 1991). The authors clarifying, stating that, "As Condorcet argues in his Esquisse, generations tend to retain the prejudices of youth and, as the language of eighteenth-century biology puts it, harden as they age (p. 21)." This means that the youth, the product of the Enlightenment, were coming of age in conflict with the remnants of the Renaissance; and in so doing, the products of the Enlightenment were leaning more towards science, and towards the political ideals that facilitated science; that would be a democracy. At the same time, the progressive thinking of the revolutionaries was limited by the prejudices they held towards the ruling elite, and those prejudices might have caused them to be less democratic or progressive in their own revolution. This means that the outcome of the French Revolution was one where there were gains and concessions with respect to individual rights. That exchange of what was lost and what was gained is the focus of this study.


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The months and days leading up to the Revolution are an important time when examining what was gained, and what was lost during the French Revolution. With the remnants of the Renaissance, is the "old guard," so to speak (Troyansky, Cismaru, Andrews, Jr., 1991). It means that the players must be considered, because what was gained and lost would be a reflection of who was behind the move to bring new and nontraditional freedoms to the population, and who was opposed to the existing traditional freedoms, and worked to prevent replacing or updating those traditions.

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Condorcet saw France in its pre-Revolution Renaissance past, and saw the need to release the French from that past (Troyansky, Cismaru, Andrews, Jr., 1991). "He sees the modern history of science, politics, and society as depending upon release from the past. That past is dominated by selfish, avaricious, and despotic elders.

He had evidence from history and his own career (Troyansky, Cismaru, Andrews, Jr., 1991, p. 24)."

Mirabeaupere, even though he was a citizen of the "old guard," saw the future of France in terms of youth and economics (Troyansky, Cismaru, Andrews, Jr., 1991). "He called for rejuvenating or renovating the national spirit. We are struck by the obvious contradiction between this public stance and his despotic behavior in private, using the lettre de cachet to imprison his own son. That contradiction was hardly missed at the time. After all, Mirabeau junior wrote treatises on prisons and despotism in which he demonstrated the connection between public and private power (Troyansky, Cismaru, Andrews, Jr., 1991, p. 24)." However, it was this public and private stance of the revolutionaries that facilitated the give and take nature of the French Revolution.

What emerged were different groups - not quite factions - within the group of pre-revolution activists; but it did give way to ongoing debate and argument (Troyansky, Cismaru, Andrews, Jr., 1991).

Historians Troyansky, Cismaru, and Andrews, relying upon the ideas and conclusions of other respected historians, write:

In the contentious atmosphere of the prerevolution, different groups seized upon the language of renovation and rejuvenation. Francois Furet and Denis Richet recognized this when they called the last decades of the Ancien Regime an age of reform. Government ministers, from Jacques Necker to CharlesAlexandre de Calonne, spoke this language, as did parlementaires and rural communities demanding the recognition of traditional rights. Whatever the final consensus on the question of seigneurial reaction, the demands of the old nobility can also be subsumed beneath the idea of rejuvenation or renovation. In effect, any group or corporation could adopt such terms. During the forthcoming Revolution, though, the sides were more sharply drawn (p. 24)."

It is easier now to see the different schools of thought that were emerging, and to understand where those schools of thought were originating from. The concept of regeneration was a shared one. Historians Linda S. Frey and Marsha L. Frey (2004) write about the impressions that are conveyed by people of the time. "The nineteenth-century historian Tocqueville talked of the revolutionaries' "fanatical faith" in "transforming the social system, root and branch and regenerating the whole human race." In so doing they were prepared to act with "unprecedented ruthlessness (p. 37)." It is what the authors call "possibilism" or "the sense of boundless possibility (p. 37)."

At the forefront of regeneration was the economic disparity that existed between the elite and the working poor, who had been taxed in support of King Louis XVI's military campaigns and his extensive court holdings. The French Revolution brought about the liberation of the peasantry, enabling the peasant to take ownership of the lands that they had worked to sustain the monarchy (Soboul, 988). In other words, the Revolution abolished elitist privilege to be sustained by the working poor. Most of the rights that the revolutionaries fought for arose out of the right to own land; because land was actually the only source of wealth (Soboul, 1988).

Post Revolution

If the pre-revolution time was one of contention, then it is easily imaginable what the post revolution mood was amongst the different schools of thought. Frey and Frey cite the historian Robert Darnton, saying,.".. The ancien regime's "system of power was embedded in the language, the social codes, and the behavior patterns of everyday life" and that "political systems are held together, are made to stick, by the force of culture (p. 37)." The revolutionaries sought to politicize everything, as if that would somehow eliminate the ideas at odd with one another (p. 37).

This politicization of all aspects of function and life created ambiguities in administering new laws, as was the case in Dijon, France, when Frederic-Henri Richard de Ruffey was executed on a technicality, and, as it turned out, the rights fought for in the Revolution did not apply to holding off sending de Ruffey to the gallows until the discrepancy could be resolved (Baker, 2005).

During the summer of 1792, Richard retired and decided to move to a family home in Beaune, the ancient capital of the dukes of Burgundy. Unfortunately, his neighborhood in Dijon reported him absent when the law required it to make an inventory of its inhabitants, and Richard ended up, after the prescribed two-month waiting period, listed as an emigre, or emigrant. He eventually heard about what had happened, and to clear up the problem went to his new neighborhood in Beaune to get a certificate of residence to prove that he had not emigrated but had simply moved. For reasons that are now unclear, the neighborhood denied his request, and on 5 December 1793 Richard was arrested and brought before the Revolutionary Tribunal in Dijon as a returned emigre and therefore an "enemy of the people." The Tribunal had recently been purged of its moderate prosecutor and judges by Andre Bernard, the representative on mission from Paris, but nonetheless expressed amazement at Beaune's action. (p. 694)."

While the revolutionaries fought for equality, there was, nonetheless, no such thing as "equality" between the classes. There was just a shift of wealth and the power elites, and in many cases, as was the case of de Ruffey, it did not necessarily work in the favor of those elite, past or present, regardless of their support for the Revolution. The rights of the poor to trial and justice, add been denied de Ruffey.

On August 4, 1789, in what has become known as the August Decrees, the revolutionaries attempted to promulgate laws that level the playing field to create an equality between wealthy elites, and working poor (Soboul, 1988). The revolutionaries abolished taxes, and issued declarations and confiscated Church property, which created a schism between French Catholics and Rome (Soboul, 1988). Soboul discusses the shift of power, writing.".. we can assert that the nobility disappeared as a social order; all distinction between nobles and commoners was suppressed; the personal seigniorial rights, from which flowed the dependence of the peasants, were abolished on the night of August 4. Above all, with the feudal relations of production destroyed, the aristocracy was hit in its economic base. A number of noble families drew a significant part of their revenue from the seigniorial rights which weighed heavy on the land: these rights, first declared purchasable, were irremediably abolished by the Convention on June 17, 1793. Moreover, the Revolution brought an end to the landed property of the nobility: the ancient lords had to restore the communal rights that they had monopolized; the wealth of the emigres, impounded from March of 1792, was put up for sale in June of 1793 (p. 37)."

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