How progressive was the French Revolution?

The events of 1789–94 shouldn’t solely be defined by Terror, writes Marisa Linton. Here are 10 ways in which the revolution advanced the causes of liberty, fraternity and equality

Jean-Jacques-François Le Barbier’s painting portrays the Declaration of the Rights of Man

What was the impact of the French Revolution? Read on for 10 ways in which it advanced the causes of liberty, fraternity and equality…

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1

It gave us the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen

It gave us the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (August 1789). This set of principles (on which the revolutionaries would base the new constitution) included: liberty of the individual, equality of rights and opportunity, national sovereignty, freedom of religious belief, freedom of speech, and freedom of political opinion.

2

Led to introduction of religious freedoms

The French Revolution triggered the introduction of religious freedoms. In December 1789, Protestants received civil rights; in September 1791, Jews were given full civil rights.

3

It ended the system of privileges

On 4 August 1789 the system of privileges, whereby one person had special rights or exemptions to which another was not entitled, was brought to an end. This included tax exemptions for the nobility.

4

It brought the right to vote

It gave active citizens (ones who met tax criteria) the right to vote. Then, with the overthrow of the monarchy, the distinction between active and passive citizens was abolished, giving suffrage to all male citizens.

5

Equal rights to justice and protection under the law

All citizens (active and passive) were given equal rights to justice and protection under the law.

6

An end to noble status

In June 1790, in line with the ending of hereditary privilege, noble status was abolished.

7

More rights for women

Women were given many social and legal rights based on principles of equality. New inheritance laws stated that all children of a marriage, irrespective of gender, should inherit equally after the death of the parents. Women and men were given equal access to divorce on simple grounds of incompatibility, making divorce a civil matter, easy and accessible. Women actively participated in some political clubs and made their voices heard.

8

An end to slavery

The revolutionaries decreed an immediate end to slavery on 4 February 1794. Napoleon Bonaparte later forcibly reinstated slavery in those territories France still held – though not in Saint-Domingue, which preserved a liberty that former slaves fought for and kept. The revolutionaries decreed an immediate end to slavery on 4 February 1794. Napoleon Bonaparte later forcibly reinstated slavery in those territories France still held – though not in Saint-Domingue, which preserved a liberty that former slaves fought for and kept.

9

Torture was made illegal

Though the death penalty was retained, the guillotine was introduced to make the death penalty less inhumane than protracted executions under the Old Regime.

10

Increased individual liberty

The constitution of 1791 decriminalised homosexual acts – in line with principles of individual liberty.

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This article first appeared in the August 2021 issue of BBC History Magazine