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Ideologies Influence on French Revolution

The 19th century ideologies were very important and swayed France dramatically. Voltaire has been historically known as “a defender of religious freedom, free trade, civil liberties, [and] social reform.” (1) His time spent in England opened his eyes to a new world and new thoughts that he took back to France with him. Through his associations with men such as Isaac Newton and John Locke, Voltaire found a voice for France. Voltaire was one to promote “that humans control their own destiny”. (2) This meant that the power the Church had on society was false as was the divine appointment of the monarchy. He saw the government of Britain with a constitutional monarchy as a step in the right direction for France. (3) This can be seen in “The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen” where it states in Article 1 that “men are born and remain free and equal in rights. Social distinctions my only be based on common usefulness.” (4) Man was to decide his own destiny instead of having society or the government impose it. He could move up and down through society on his own with no one else directing his course. This was in the face of France and most of Europe during the time before the revolution.

Baron de Montesquieu was “one of the great political philosophers of the Enlightenment” who promoted separation of powers within the government to keep it from becoming corrupt and hurting the people. (5) This liberal thinking saw that a corrupt monarch was one who ruled “arbitrarily…severs this connection [between government and people] and corrupts his government.” (6) In saying that, Montesquieu was not one to say that society could do whatever it wanted even under a corrupt government. Society had its responsibilities and had to work with the government. It was a partnership. Article 3 of the Declaration states that “no body or individual may exercise authority that does not expressly emanate from” the sovereignty that “resides essentially in the nation.” (7)

Jean-Jacques Rousseau has been called the Father of the French Revolution for his “work inspired the leaders of the French Revolution and the romantic generation.” (8) His writings grabbed French society by storm. He wrote that when a country was “based on a genuine social contract” it could give society “real freedom in exchange for their obedience to a self-imposed law.” (9) Article 6 of the Declaration states that the law is not formulated the monarchy; it has to come from everyone within the nation. Every person would “have the right to work solemnly towards its formulation.” (10) These are just a few of the sections of the Declaration that reflect the ideologies of the time that swept through the nation and inspired both the French and the American Revolution.


(1) “Voltaire – Biography,” The European Graduate School, http://www.egs.edu/library/voltaire/biography/.
(2) Caspar Hewett, “The Life of Voltaire,” The Great Debate, August 2006, http://www.thegreatdebate.org.uk/Voltaire.html.
(3) Ibid.
(4) Philip Dwyer and Peter McPhee, eds., “The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, August 1789,” French Revolution and Napoleon: A Sourcebook, (Florence, KY: Routledge, 2002), 50.
(5) “Baron de Montesquieu, Charles-Louis de Secondat,” Stanford University, January 20, 2010, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/montesquieu/.
(6) Ibid.
(7) Dwyer and McPhee.
(8) “Jean-Jackques Rousseau (1712-1778), BBC History, http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/rousseau_jean_jacques.shtml.
(9) Ibid.
(10) Dwyer and McPhee.

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