The French Revolution describes a period of six years of of rapid and chaotic political change across the nation of France near the end of the eighteenth century. While certain ‘big’ events during this time, like the fall of the Bastille, the abolition of feudal and religious privileges, the execution of Louis XVI, and the Declaration of the Rights of Man are often seen as decisive in altering the course of modern history by providing the model for overthrowing tyranny,  nothing could be further from the truth. Much of what really happened during this time did little over the long-term to unite the nation in a revolutionary cause. The Church came back with increased authority; Napoleon ruthlessly seized power; the monarchy returned in 1815; other revolutions in 1848 and 1870;  a powerfully new bourgeoisie elite emerged based on increased electoral influence being granted to wealthy taxpayers and landowners,; and France was humiliated in the Franco-Prussian War in 1871.

It would take decades of repeated political turmoil and social unrest, resulting from being unable to realize effective national rule, before France was truly transformed into a modern state. The launching of the Revolution in 1789 may have signaled the end of a despotic monarchy based on feudal privileges,  but it certainly did not then become a glorious republic of virtue that Robespierre and his fellow revolutionaries imagined, abounding in liberty, equality and fraternity. When the Third Republic finally took hold decades later, it became a liberal-style government committed to achieving a more tolerable balance between Left and Right over land ownership, taxes, living conditions, and the right to hold office.

This paper will look at a number of ways by which the French Revolution, in a minimalist way, started the process of political and social change that would eventually lead to a French state that was highly authoritative, very regulatory and above all  nationalistic in its rule. It follows the thesis Furet seems to favor in his book, “Interpreting the French Revolution” that much of what happened during this cataclysmic period essentially served to help France begin the long process of nation-building by underlining the need secure itself against future unrest and tyranny (Furet, 135). According to McPhee, in “The Social History of France 1780-1880”, the price that subsequent generations of French citizenry paid for the initial unleashing of often controversial change would result in greater centralized control over their lives, something not initially anticipated in those early days of the Revolution(McPhee,84).

The first indicator of change can be seen in the continual pattern of revolutionary unrest in 19th century France. Each succeeding  is the inability of succeeding political regimes  struggled to restore a semblance of order to the country and failed because of a lack of broad appeal..  Repeated efforts to centralize government and expand the powers of the bourgeoisie only reminded the emerging working class that little had effectively changed since 1789 in respect to making France a democratic nation. Finding a national constitution that guaranteed the rights and freedoms of all while maintaining stable government would be the ongoing challenge arising from the Revolution. Those parties – royalists, Bonapartists, socialists, anarchists,  agrarians, clergy, bourgeoisie, repatriated slaves – all played a major role in eventually settling  this national quandary,  tragically at great loss of life, property, and economic growth.

Another sought after change came in the ongoing search for a better style of government that would ultimately promote national interests while guaranteeing peace within its borders. To that end, the uniform application of law as started in Year 1 of the Revolution and followed the formation of the Napoleonic Code and centralized government became crucial starting points moving towards greater centralized rule a century later where the legal apparatus, such as court and bureaucratic appointments, would be run from Versailles and  Paris. Along the way, however, would come  coups, more revolutions, and reactions.

To make sure that the French Revolution succeeded, its architects, back in 1792, did everything in their power to  protect the rule of law while empowering national institutions like the military and police to defend national borders, stamp out sedition at home, and go to war if necessary in defense of the country’s honor well into the 19th century. This sense of urgency likely originate in September 1792 when the National Assembly voted to declare a preemptive war on France’s neighbors, which led to a string of victories going well beyond the Napoleonic Wars as France attempted to expand its borders.. However, very few of these military endeavors ever achieved anything more than stoking of nationalistic passions and jingoistic interests.

And, finally, came the deepening of a national culture of patriotism on which revolutionary achievements of the past, such as those grand moments of revolutionary zeal  preserved in music, flag, artwork, and iconic monuments for the benefit of posterity.The tricolor, Marseillaise, Legion of Honor, the Pantheon,  Arc de Triomphe all came to symbolize national greatness all stem from the moment the First Republic finally replaced the Old Regime with the abolition of the monarchy. Unfortunately, such selective mythology tends to ignore the times when the monarchy made a comeback or demagoguery flourished in the 19th the expense of the ‘common’ man.

Out of this whole extended period of political unrest, economic stagnation, and counter-revolution, starting in 1789, came the realization that revolutionary ideology, born out of contending and often violent views – in the case of France, a Left versus Right conflict – needed to be toned down for the greater good of all  The French Revolution, in the form of a republic, had the impetus for meaningful change but was unable to achieve a national consensus to make it happen, thus the need to resort to terror. Too often peasant, city dweller, clergy, bourgeoisie, and aristocrat were seriously at loggerheads over how to make it happen. All this were launched during the period of 1789-1794 when France went through a series of political and cultural convulsions in a protracted struggle to find a system that answered to a wide-range of public grievances and interests such as divorce, taxation, food prices, education, religion, and security. Unfortunately when short-term legislative initiatives did not immediately work, revolutionary fervor turned to political rancor and an inevitable reaction from conservative forces. Any true appreciation of what the Revolution accomplished in these six years only when we get beyond the ‘fireworks’ of Thermidor 9, the efforts of the Convention to restore order, and the self-serving, militaristic attempts of Napoleon to take it to the rest of Europe while largely ignoring the concerns of Frenchmen at home.