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The Age of Enlightenment was a period of intellectual development from the 17th to 18th century that sprouted many ideas about humanity and government, most of them surrounding reasoning, science, and equality. The French Revolution, which took place from 1789-1799, centered around many of these ideals, and the intense desire among the public to put them to use in government to undo the damage that the monarchy had done over the last few decades. Some facets of the revolution, like the terror, however, did not represent Enlightenment ideals well at all.
The connection between the Age of Enlightenment and the French Revolution is best understood in the context of what the French people wanted from the revolution, and not what they achieved. The French had a deep desire for democracy and “political morality” in their government, and they also strove for civil rights- such as “liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression – and to be free from the oppressive monarch King Louis XVI. Although King Louis was quoted as saying “The Monarch and the Nation… have the same interests.” He was known for imposing high taxes and spending lavishly on useless royal court affairs, despite France’s massive debt. He also aided the Americans in an expensive, foreign war that there was no guarantee of winning- increasing the debt. In fact, Louis XVI’s reign was characterized by expensive necessities, turmoil and violence, fiscal irresponsibility in Government, and a general distaste towards 98% of the population- the Third Estate. This was most easily visible by the Estates General locking the Third Estate representatives out of a congress, causing the formation of the National Assembly- an organization that would help kickstart the Revolution. For these reasons and more, the king was eventually executed by his own people for his poor leadership.
Executions were common during the Revolution- in fact, they were common. The Age of Enlightenment encouraged rational thinking, cooperation between people and the government, and equality- and while the Revolutionaries began working towards those goals, as the revolution continued, things became increasingly radical. Towards the end of the almost decade-long revolution, terror became the standard. Not only was the revolution’s de-facto leader Maximillian Robespierre killed by the very people who looked to him for counsel years before, but over the two year ‘Reign of Terror’ an estimated 35,000 people were slaughtered in the streets. Not only was terror the standard, but inequality was rampant despite the new constitution and the new government. As pointed out by Olympe de Gouges in her Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen pamphlet, women had no suffrage, no education, and no representation in government. Edmund Burke, a British conservative, accurately summed up the Revolution and it’s violation of it’s very founding ideals as surmounting to “Industry withough vigor; commerce expiring; the revenue unpaid, yet the people impoverished; a church pillaged, and a state not relieved” Despite the country’s apparent desire for democracy, Napoleon Bonaparte took hold of France with an iron fist after the Revolution and quickly named himself the dictator.
Comparisons can be drawn between the French Revolution and the Russian Revolution of 1917- they both had similar goals, and both missed the mark in extremely similar ways. Much like the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution started with an intense need for equality and less oppressive and inexperienced rule, and an uprising of citizens and fighters overtaking an oppressive ruler- in the Russian’s case, Tsar Nicholas II. The Revolution was bloody though, and the government in place after the revolution was Marxist. Equality was taken to it’s farthest extreme, and not only did the revolution mark the beginning of the Russian Civil War, but it ushered in another long age of difficulty and oppression to Russian citizens under Vladimir Lenin and then Josef Stalin. Similarly to France and it’s revolutions of 1830 and 1848, the Russians endured smaller, less successful revolution attempts once the communists took hold and began building the Soviet Union.
The French Revolution is, in some ways, a picture perfect example of Enlightenment ideals in play on the world’s stage- in other ways though it’s practically a handbook on what not to do when attempting to reform a country based on enlightened ideals. Although they overthrew the oppressive king and made strides towards democracy and equality, the revolution had a high civilian body count and ended almost exactly where they started with little improvement. The French Revolution and it’s failure to usher in an enlightened and peaceful era after poor ruling can be compared to the Russian Revolution easily.
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