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The French Revolution, Locke and Rousseau

William writes on a wide variety of topics, such as ceramics, history, economics and arcane technology through the ages.

This painting from the French Revolution era shows the class between the court and the military that had swung to the side of the people and bourgeoisie.

This painting from the French Revolution era shows the class between the court and the military that had swung to the side of the people and bourgeoisie.

France Has a Long History of Political Turmoil

It began with the discontent of the rising bourgeoisie, the workers, the poor and the peasants; expanding to include poor clergy, Protestants and nobles; and ending in a new order with the end of the Monarchy and the grip of the Catholic Church. The revolution in France began in Versailles in 1789 and completed in Paris by 1791. Thereafter the reign of terror took hold until 1799.

Impact of Locke and Rousseau on the Revolution

The French Revolution was inspired by the philosophies of Locke and Rousseau. From Locke, an English philosopher who lived until 1704, came the ideas of empiricism, epistemology and the Social Contract. Jean Jacques Rousseau was the inspiration behind conservative, liberal and socialist theory. Rousseau inspired such thinkers as Hegel and Freud. He was also a best-selling novelist and it is his novels that inspired a lot of new thinking among the peoples of France in the years leading up to the revolution.

Locke's Philosophy

Locke's philosophy tells us the people are born without innate ideas, an idea that got resurgence lately in the book “The Blank Slate” by Stephen Pinker. Locke defined the self as a continuity of consciousness and he was the originator of the "Blank Slate" concept. The Lockean self is a self aware and self reflective consciousness that is fixed in a body. People learned what ideas they later held by influences upon them in life by others from a multitude of directions such as, church, parents, work, schooling, peers, research, etc.

Locke's philosophy had a direct influence on Rousseau. Locke was the original Libertarian political philosopher. In Epistemology, he redefined the subjective self. Our 20th century actress-philosopher, Ayn Rand, borrows heavily from this in works such as Objective Epistemology. Locke uses the word property in both the broad and the narrow sense. In the broad sense, it covers a wide range of human interests and aspirations. In the more narrow sense, it refers to material goods. He argues that property is a natural right and it is derived from labor.

The second part of this idea in his philosophy would later influence Karl Marx in his conception of Capital and Communism. Locke’s general theory of value and price is a supply and demand theory. This formed one of the planks in Marx's Capital and in Keynes’s economics. Locke believed in the gold and silver standard as opposed to paper currency.

Rousseau's Philosophy

Jean Jacques Rousseau was a novelist and romantic. He was also a musician and influenced musical theory in his day. He saw a fundamental divide between human nature and society. Rousseau believed that man was inherently good when in the state of nature like all of the animals, and that the condition humankind was in before the creation of civilization and society.

Mankind, he thought, is corrupted by society and civilization. He viewed society as artificial and held that the development of society, especially the growth of social interdependence and specialization, has been harmful to the well being of humanity. The goodness of the humanity is the goodness of an animal and not the virtue as we can read it very clearly in The Social Contract (1). These ideas later influenced the transcendentalists like Thoreau.

In late life, Rousseau was a contemporary to the French Revolution though a recluse by his own choice. Rousseau's philosophy is best summed up in his own words, to whit;

The first man who, having fenced in a piece of land, said "This is mine," and found people naïve enough to believe him, that man was the true founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars, and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows: Beware of listening to this imposter; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody. (2)

The novels of Rousseau were the most widely read by the people and this is how his ideas spread and influenced the French Revolution. Locke's philosophy, which influenced Rousseau, was also thus spread. They could see the truth in his ideas and those of Locke and these ideas lent support to their own, backed up by their own experience under the tyranny of the aristocracy. There are other philosophers as well who had an influence on France and later on Russia.

Factors Influencing the Revolution

The French revolution embodied radical change to forms that were based on enlightenment, principles of nationalism, citizenship, and inalienable rights. Some influences spilled over from the American Revolution that had success in 1776. It reverberated with the public execution of the aristocracy via the guillotine and ended up dragging every European power and Russia into war due to Napoleon's conquests. Shortly after the main revolution was completed, the reign of terror began as various personalities vied for power.

Economic Factors

Under the reign of Louis XVI and his consort Marie Antoinette, France was undergoing considerable economic duress and the factors at the time included the following conditions.

1. Famine: There was a widespread famine at the time and the resulting malnutrition increased disease and death among the lower classes. There was also an engineered famine in progress at the time with the intentional starvation directed toward the most destitute segments of the population in the months immediately leading up to the revolution. This engineered famine was born out of the general famine and executed as a solution by dispensing with the most expendable elements in society.

The famine extended to other parts of Europe, and was not helped by the poor transportation infrastructure for bulk foods. The colder climate of the little ice age that extended to the 1700's combined with France's failure to adopt the potato as a viable cool weather crop in response to these conditions unlike other countries that did. In France, this resulted in the disaster that was dealt with by the foregoing solution.

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2. War Debt: Louis XV fought many wars both in Europe and in the New World, bringing France to the verge of bankruptcy. Louis XVI, who was his successor, supported the colonists abroad during the American Revolution, severely worsening the precarious financial condition of the French government. The French national debt amounted to about 2 billion livres as a result. The social burdens caused by war included the huge war debt that was made worse by the monarchy's military failures and ineptitude.

There was a complete lack of social services for war veterans who were left to fend for themselves. The abandonment of the veterans was a fatal mistake as they had the military know how to carry out an armed insurrection. In the New World, France once held territory extending from Eastern Canada, down the Mississippi corridor to the Gulf Coast. Mush of that was lost to the British after the French virtually pulled out.

3. An Antiquated Financial System: In economics, what existed was an inefficient and antiquated financial system based on feudalism that was completely unable to manage the national debt that accrued due to warfare and the conspicuous consumption of the royal court. The problems of this system of financing was caused and exacerbated by the burden of a grossly inequitable system of taxation. The poor had to pay the most; royalty and church were tax free and existed in luxury from taxes collected.

4. Lavish Spending by the Nobles: There was the continued conspicuous consumption of the noble class, especially the court of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette at Versailles. They were perceived as raiding the public purse for palace improvements and an ostentatious diamond necklace for Marie Antoinette. This was done despite the financial burden on the populace and warnings by some against such a display. When Marie Antoinette was told of the hungry people demanding bread due to a lack thereof; she replied callously "Let them eat cake", as if they had it available. This is how much they were out of touch with the people.

5. Market Collapse: High unemployment and high bread prices at this time, due in part to the climate caused famine and in part to poor distribution resulted in more money being spent on food and less money in other areas of the economy. There is a parallel in the world today with high oil prices causing rising food prices and the collapsing market costing jobs and creating inflation. The manifestation of such a condition can cause the economy to spiral uncontrollably into a depression. That is what happened in pre-revolutionary France.

6. The Tithe-Dîme: The Roman Catholic Church, which was the largest landowner and landlord in the country, levied a tax on crops known as the tithe or the dime (where our word dime for 1/10th of a dollar comes from). While the tithe-dîme lessened the severity of the monarchy's tax increases, in combination, it worsened the plight of the poorest that faced a daily struggle with malnutrition. In combination with crop failures, the situation was worsened as the tithe-dime was still expected from good Christians.

7. No Internal Trade: Internal trade was at a virtual standstill as, among other problems, such as bad roads, there were too many customs barriers which existed to exact a toll as a tax. This discouraged trade, worsened the economy and drove prices up on almost everything.

Social and Political Factors

There were also social and political factors involved, many of which caused resentments and aspirations, which were given a strong focus by the rise of the ideals of Enlightenment that came from Locke and Rousseau. The approach to solving the problem was many faceted and it eventually brought down the aristocracy and the church's power. There was a combined and unequal development of forces that would eventually overturn the Ancien Régime.

1. Resentment From the Lower Classes: The populace, especially the bourgeoisie, had resentment of royal absolutism, which they saw as limiting their chances of success in their lives. The Aristocracy ruled by virtual fiat and the lower classes had little actual influence. Their lives were determined by others who had power in all aspects of their lives. The poor resented the taxes and lack of food. The women who were raining the children felt this the most keenly and would play a pivotal role later in the revolution.

2. Resentment From the Professional/Mercantile Classes: There was resentment by the ambitious professional and mercantile classes (the fledgling bourgeoisie, which comprised the bankers, financiers, lawyers, doctors, engineers, military elite, scientists and other professionals) towards noble privileges and dominance in public life. Many of the bourgeoisie were familiar with the lives of their peers in the commercial cities of The Netherlands and Great Britain where they fared much better than in France. They therefore wanted improvements to be equal to their peers in these countries. The bankers and financiers had increasing clout in the time when Royal clout was shrinking financially.

3. The American Revolution: Knowledge circulated among certain members of the same group of professionals and the mercantile classes, which included information on the successful American Revolution of 1776. They were aware that the colonies in the New World had thrown off the shackles of the British Monarchy for a newly formed republic run by the people through elected representation. They were also aware that there was far more religious tolerance, which was enshrined in the Declaration of Independence. This knowledge emboldened them with ideas of their own including a "Declaration of Human Rights" of their own.

4. Secret Societies: Certain members of society that were into mysticism and science formed secret societies to work behind the scenes to bring down the established order of the aristocracy and church that were viewed as repressive and holding back progress under threat of torture and death. The church especially had a long history of suppression of new ideas and discoveries, thus driving many intellectuals into hiding and underground to avoid torture and death. Societies like the Freemasons, Illuminati and Rosicrucian Society played an influential part in organizing revolution and bringing down the Ancien Régime. Some members were connected to the court and church, leading a double life.

5. Resentment From the Peasants: Resentment existed among the peasants, the laborers and wage earners, and the bourgeoisie toward the traditional privileges possessed by nobles, royalty and courtiers. The bourgeoisie were able to tap into and channel this resentment later on in heir bid for the state.

6. Resentment Against the Church: Resentment towards clerical privilege and aspirations for the freedom of religion developed alongside the others. Part of the influence of the American Revolution was the granting of the freedom of religion, which was absent under Catholic influence in France. There was a special resentment of aristocratic bishops by the poorer rural clergy. Protestant minorities hated the Catholic control and influence on institutions of all kinds. They wanted to have some say in the matter. The church in this instance was divided against itself and this proved to be a fatal flaw in the end, at least until restored under Napoleon.

7. Shared Aspirations: Among the revolutionaries, there were aspirations for liberty, republicanism and power. Though disagreements existed among them, they all agreed that the existing order had to end. This hope was also inspired by the newly successful American Revolution. France was ultimately to donate the Statue of Liberty to the new United States of America after their own revolution.

8. The Firing of Financial Advisors: Anger flared toward King Louis XVI for firing Jacques Necker and A.R.J. Turgot and other financial advisors, who were popularly seen as representatives of the people. They had advised the King to better manage his finances to the King's chagrin. The king thought he was above such advice and subsequently got rid of them as he had his own solutions to his indebtedness.

Finally and above all, was the almost total failure of Louis XVI and his advisers to deal effectively with any of these problems. Most People saw that it was time for a change; and change came with vengeance!

How the Revolution Began

In 1787, The King attempted to solve the cash shortfall due to the wars and conspicuous consumption by instituting a new tax on land, nobles and the clergy. This was done by bypassing the special courts that served to register royal edicts. There was growing concern that the royals would stack the parliaments and the Estates in order to enforce their desires.

The Estates

According to forms decided on in 1614, the Estates (States General) consisted of three groups:

  • The nobles (First Estate)
  • The clergy (Second Estate)
  • The rest of the population (Third Estate)

The King attempted to stack the Estates by expanding/gerrymandering the noble and upper clergy membership therein to favor the passing of the new tax. The tax was enforced as fait du complait by the summer of 1789.

On June 19th, 1789 Abbé Sieyès from the poorer clergy moved that the Third Estate, now meeting as the Communes, proceed with verification of its own powers and invite the other two estates to take part, but not to wait for them. The Third Estate proceeded to do so two days later, completing the process on June 17th.

Then they successfully voted on a measure far more radical, declaring themselves as the National Assembly, an assembly not of the Estates but of "The People." They invited the other orders to join them, but made it clear they intended to conduct the nation's affairs with or without them. The King hearing of this attempted to prevent the Assembly from convening and offered an alternate meeting at the nearby indoor Tennis Courts, using construction and weather conditions against an outdoor meeting as excuses.

By now, Jacques Necker had earned the enmity of many members of the French court. This was due to his support and guidance to the Third Estate/National Assembly. Marie Antoinette, the King's younger brother, the Comte d'Artois, and other conservative members of the King's Privy Council urged Abbé Sieyès to dismiss Jacques Necker. On July 11th, after Necker suggested that the royal family live within a suggested budget to conserve funds. The outraged King fired him, and completely reconstructed the finance ministry at the same time from scratch in order to continue in the life style he was used to without regard to the consequences.

A Royal Coup?

Many Parisians considered King Louis XVI's actions to be the start of a Royal coup by the conservatives. They began an open rebellion when they heard the news the next day. The rebellion began with the women taking action in the streets that were fed up with hunger and what was perceived as the all talk and lack of action by all the others. The Parisians generally were also afraid that arriving soldiers, mostly foreigners under French command rather than native French troops had been summoned to shut down the National Constituent Assembly.

The Assembly, which was in meeting at Versailles, went into nonstop session similar to a contemporary filibuster, to prevent eviction from their meeting place once again. Paris soon erupted into, and was consumed with riots, chaos, and looting. The mobs soon won the support of the French Guard, including armed and trained soldiers. The veterans who were abandoned to their fates lent their knowledgeable support to the insurrection. The royal leadership essentially abandoned the city, fleeing for their lives. They would eventually be rounded up and executed.

On July 14th, the insurgents set their eyes on the large weapons and ammunition cache stored inside the Bastille fortress, which also served as the symbol of tyranny by the monarchy. The Bastille had also been known as a notorious prison and torture facility used by the King to enforce his tyranny. After several hours of combat, the prison fell that afternoon. Despite ordering a cease fire, which prevented a mutual massacre, Governor Marquis Bernard de Launay was beaten, stabbed and decapitated and his head paraded and displayed.

Although the Parisians released only seven prisoners, the Bastille served as a potent symbol of everything hated under the Ancien Régime. Returning to the Hôtel de Ville (city hall), the mob accused the prévôt des marchands, Jacques de Flesselles of treachery. His assassination took place en route to an ostensible trial at the Palais Royal.

The Revolution Spreads

After this, the revolution spread from city to city and across the country. Fleeing royals, nobles and upper clergy were hunted down, captured, put on show trials in some cases and all executed in a public square by guillotine. The King himself attempted, unsuccessfully, to flee Paris for Varennes in June of 1791. Though he was disguised as a monk, he was recognized, captured and met the fate of the guillotine along with Marie Antoinette on January 21st, 1793.

By September 1792, the Republic was declared as the government under pressure of war from other European countries, notably Austria, Holland, Prussia and Sardinia. From here the new Government declared war on Britain, a war that was in effect under King Louis XVI and his predecessors and going badly. The war that had let much of French holdings in the New Word slip away was resumed in the hopes to regain them. Britain was the main rival there. But for the new world holdings not directly under the control of the US, it was already too late and these regions were to eventually become part of the New World republic of the US. Both Britain and France lost out in the end.

The Reign of Terror

The Committee of Public Safety and the Revolutionary Tribunal were instituted immediately after the execution of King Louis XVI. The Reign of Terror, during which the ruling faction ruthlessly exterminated all potential enemies, regardless of any consideration, or condition, began in September of 1793 and lasted until the fall of Robespierre on July 27th, 1794. During the last six weeks alone of the Reign of Terror in the period known as the "Red Terror", the revolutionaries executed nearly fourteen hundred people by guillotine in Paris alone. Many more were executed all over France.

The Convention was replaced in October of 1795 with the Directory, which was in turn replaced in 1799 by the Consulate. Napoleon Bonaparte became Emperor in May of 1804. France was already at war on many fronts and Napoleon filled the bill as one of France's most successful military campaigners. France was to continue to have turmoil including the Paris Commune of 1871, which Karl Marx attended. France's historical road was rocky from 1789 all the way into the current period.


1. The Social Contract, trans. Maurice Cranston. Penguin: Penguin Classics Various Editions, 1968-2007.

2. Discours sur l'origine et les fondements de l'inégalité parmi les hommes (Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men), 1754

3. Dent, N.J.H. (1988). Rousseau : An Introduction to his Psychological, Social, and Political Theory. Oxford: Blackwell.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

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