The Coming of the French Revolution

From the conclusion to Georges Lefebvre’s The Coming of the French Revolution (Princeton University Press: 2005; translated by R.R. Palmer).

The Revolution of 1789 … was also the advent of equality before the law, without which liberty would be but another privilege of the powerful. For the French of 1789 liberty and equality were inseparable, almost two words for the same thing; but had they been obliged to choose, it is equality that they would have chosen …

Moreover, the men of 1789 never entertained the idea that the rights of man and citizen were reserved for the French only. Christianity drew no distinction among men; it called on them all to meet as brothers in the divine city …

Though the Revolution of 1789 was only the first act in the French Revolution, those that followed it in protracted series down to 1830 were in essence a long conflict over this basic charter. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen stands as the incarnation of the Revolution as a whole …

In reality, America and France, like England before them, were alike tributaries to a great stream of ideas, which, while expressing the ascendancy of the bourgeoisie, constituted a common ideal that summarized the evolution of western civilization.

Through the course of centuries our Western world, formed by Christianity yet inheriting ancient thought, has directed its effort through a thousand vicissitudes toward the liberation of the human person …

The West, inspired by the same masters, continued also to acknowledge the unity of mankind. The Church promised salvation to all without distinction of race, language or nation. To this universalism the new thinkers remained faithful …

Rousseau had already observed, long before 1789, that democracy is not compatible with an excessive inequality of wealth. It is for the community to examine whether the changes since 1789 in the economic and social structure of society do not justify intervention by the law, so that the excess of means in the hands of some may not reduce the rights of others to an empty show …

We come here to the deeper meaning of the Declaration. It is a direction of intention; it therefore requires of the citizens an integrity of purpose, which is to say a critical spirit, patriotism in the proper sense of the word, respect for the rights of others, reasoned devotion to the national community, “virtue” in the language of Montesquieu, Rousseau and Robespierre. “The soul of the Republic,” wrote Robespierre in 1792, “is virtue, love of country, the generous devotion that fuses all interests into the general interest.” The Declaration in proclaiming the rights of man appeals at the same time to discipline freely consented to, to sacrifice if need be, to cultivation of character and to the mind. Liberty is by no means an invitation to indifference or to irresponsible power; nor is it the promise of unlimited well-being without a counterpart of toil and effort. It supposes application, perpetual effort, strict government of self, sacrifice in contingencies, civic and private virtues. It is therefore more difficult to live as a free man than to live as a slave, and that is why men so often renounce their freedom; for freedom is in its way an invitation to life of courage, and sometimes heroism, as the freedom of the Christian is an invitation to a life of sainthood.

op. cit., pages 207-18.

Déclaration des droits de l’Homme et du citoyen de 17 articles votés par l’Assemblée Constituante en totalité le 26 août 1789.
Musée de la Révolution française.
Source: Wikipedia.org.