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Why Is the French Revolution Regarded as Such an Important Event in Modern International History?

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Modern society owes much of its origin to a great upheaval in the 18th century, the French Revolution. It was one aspect of a broader pattern of change that, since the Renaissance and Reformation, has set the West on a different path of development from that of the rest of the world. This pattern included the individualism and, in the end, the secularism, that was the Protestant legacy. It also included the rise of science, as a method and as a practice. This culminated in explosive events toward the end of the 18th century. The French Revolution ‘was a phenomenon as awful and irreversible as the first nuclear explosion, and all history has been permanently changed by it.’

The French Revolution is largely regarded as an important event in modern international history because of the way it has had international impact and continued to have international repercussions and influences on society and thought today. This essay will look at different aspects of the French Revolution and discuss how the different components of the revolution have affected the world and the impact of these at the time of the event. For the purposes of this essay the French Revolution will be defined as the insurrection in France that began in 1789 and ended in 1815 with the defeat of Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo. The actual dates of the revolution are widely contested but for the purposes of this essay, these dates will be used as a framework. Modern international will be assumed to mean the period of history from the Napoleonic Wars.

No single cause can be singled out for the French Revolution; although historians agree that it was a culmination of international and domestic events that sparked the revolution. The following reasons are commonly adduced; France had the largest population in Europe and could not feed it adequately, the rich and expanding bourgeoisie was excluded from political power more systematically than in any other country - ‘political power was concentrated in very few hands…’ The peasants were acutely aware of their situation and were less and less inclined to support the archaic and oppressive feudal system as well as the problem of ‘average money wages rose only about a third as fast as prices, and the cost of living rose most steeply for those who were living closest to subsistence level.’ The Philosophes, the rationalists and liberals such as Voltaire and Diderot, who emphasized the development of the individual through state education who advocated social and political reform, had been read more widely in France than elsewhere. Perhaps the most obvious cause of the Revolution was France’s support of the American war of independence was an international cause that had immediate affects in France. The war cost France both ideologically inasmuch as they were supporting a war of independence and financially, completing the ruin of the state’s finances and forcing Louis XVII to call the Estates General together to try and resolve the problem of the state’s escalating financial difficulties.

Perhaps the most immediate international effect of the French Revolution was the redrawing and transformation of the European map. As a result of the Napoleonic Wars, European borders were transformed.

With its attempted conquest of Europe in order to abolish feudalism and unite it, France introduced the then revolutionary concept of international law, namely that a people had the right of self-determination. Before the French revolution, international wars were fought largely for religious proselytising and for obvious reasons of territorial expansion and establishment of trade. In the latter part of the Revolution, France tried to conquer Europe in an attempt to unite it and establish its new system of civil equality with the abolition of feudalism and suppression of ‘old orders’. The French Revolution marked an important turning point inasmuch as the wars fought were wars of principles based on secular ideology. This was can be largely attributed to the influence of the Enlightenment which celebrated science and reason over faith and religion.

The Napoleonic Wars drew opponents of the Revolution, chiefly Austria, Prussia and Great Britain together to form the Congress of Vienna in 1815, which strove for a conservative settlement of the various European political questions, based on the idea of a balance of power. ‘This settlement was the most thoroughgoing attempt made, until then, to construct new organizations for keeping the peace among the great powers of modern Europe.’ Although not the first time that countries had united together to preserve their sovereignty and identity, the concept of the balance of power was novel and one that since the French Revolution has continued to influence the world system right up to the present day although the role that the Congress undertook is now largely undertaken by the United Nations.

Some have suggested that the end of the Middle Ages in Europe can be contributed to the French Revolution due to the fact that it effectively ended feudalism in Europe. Some of this was revolutionary, but much of it such as in Germany was due to the fact that aristocracy realised that if they themselves did not accelerate change, the peasants would bring about their own change in a revolution that would leave them worse off. Consequently, they pre-empted any inimical change in preference to bringing about their own revolution, top down.

Arguably, one of the greatest influences of the French Revolution was its impact on nationalistic thought. France’s overt maintenance of the formation of a republic during the American Revolution with troops and financial support was hypocritically ironic; France was supporting of a form of modern society based on the principle of self-determination. The Revolution later set a precedent that only those states were legitimate in which a people of common culture ruled for themselves a common territory. Foreign rule, or rule by an alien elite, as in the Ottoman and Habsburg empires, was unnatural. Only nation-states were natural political entities; only they were legitimate. "National self-determination" became one of the most powerful catchphrases of the liberal and radical ideologies that largely shaped the modern states of the 19th and 20th centuries. The French Revolution generated the concept of allegiance to a nation and the right to self-determination. Sovereignty was no longer to rest with the monarch as a Divine Right, an appointment from God but rather with the people. Popular sovereignty now rested with the people and the idea of a Nation State was conceived.

The Russian Bolshevik revolution can attribute many of its core ideals to the French Revolution inasmuch as it was based on the revolution of 1789. Prince Petr Kropotkin, a Russian naturalist, and soldier wrote in 1909 on the eve of the Bolshevik Revolution "What we learn from the study of the Great [French] Revolution is that it was the source of all the present communist, anarchist and socialist conceptions."
The French Revolution sparked a series of revolutions which rallied behind liberalism and nationalism. Many historians assert the major socialist revolutions of the twentieth century in Russia, China and Cuba were inspired the French example.

One of the most influential political groups of the French Revolution was the Jacobin Club so called because its sessions were held in a former convent of the Dominicans, who were known in Paris as Jacobins. They became identified with extreme equalitarianism and violence and their ideals soon spread rapidly across the world. Jacobin thinking also had an important influence for international history due its influence on the rise of Socialism. The first founders of a popular socialist movement in France came from the Jacobin thought and Marx and Engels abandoned bourgeois democracy for the socialism, their thinking profoundly shaped by Jacobin influence. Jacobinism was first given democratic form in the French revolution and was subsequently extended and reshaped by Marx and the various socialist movements of the nineteenth century. ‘It is derived from the organic theory of the polity and represents an effort to democratise monarchic and, most particularly, aristocratic polities by conquering and transforming the centre of power. In its revolutionary form, Jacobinism tends to lead to a conception of politics as all encompassing, a vehicle for secular salvation.’
One lasting change that the revolution brought was the introduction of the metric system. With influences of the Enlightenment, the French Revolution had transformed their calendar, money, and time. Although much of the system has since been discarded, it still has influences today. The French Revolution provided the opportunity to pursue the frequently discussed idea of replacing the confusing muddle of traditional but illogical units of measure with a rational system based on multiples of 10. In 1791 the French National Assembly directed the French Academy of Sciences to address the chaotic state of French weights and measures. It was decided that the new system would be based on a natural physical unit to ensure immutability. In 1799 the Metre and Kilogram of the Archives, platinum embodiments of the new units, were declared the legal standards for all measurements in France, but the motto of the metric system expressed the hope that the new units would be "for all people, for all time." In the 20th century the metric system generated derived systems needed in science and technology to express physical properties more complicated than simple length, weight, and volume.
The Declaration of the Rights of man and of Citizens in 1789 is what many regard as one of the most influential written precursors to many of today’s human rights documents especially the United Nation’s Declaration of Human Rights of 1948. The French Revolution spawned the ideal that everyone should be entitled to some principal rights. Oppressed people throughout the world have drawn on the principles this document expresses to support revolutions that assert the right to self-determination.

The French Revolution was undeniably one of the most significant events in modern international history, its influence still felt today. With its roots in Enlightenment thought, the Revolution introduced the metric system, now used around the world. The concept of Human Rights, now a principal accepted across the globe was hugely influenced by the Declaration of the Rights of man and of Citizens. In its latter stages the Revolution was responsible for redrawing the map of Europe, abolishing feudalism and effectively ending the Middle Ages. Even in countries that the Revolution did not conquer it accelerated and forced change top down so that the proletariat did not revolt. Socialism and Jacobin ideology, with its revolutionary influence, the Revolution has been hugely influential in countries around the world where communism now prevails. The nationalistic ideals and principle of self-determination from the French Revolution inspired amongst others, the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. The pulse of the Revolution still beats, somewhat fainter but the change and influence it brought about has had an irrevocable effect on modern international history.

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