Economic Theory

Assessing the economic legacy of the French Revolution (Part 1)


The ‘success’ of the French Revolution has typically divided historians. Yet when invited to comment on the bicentenary of the French Revolution, Margaret Thatcher had no such qualms: “Human rights didn’t begin in 1789”, she remarked, recalling that these had already been part of the English Constitution for a century when the French Revolution broke out.

The French patriot’s view is equally assured – in the opposite direction. For them, the fall of the Bastille and the fall of the French monarchy marked the end of autocracy and medieval oppression, and the establishment of a society based on the principles of liberty, equality and fraternity.

Yet even devotees must admit that the Revolution came at a huge cost. No less than 2 million French citizens died due to the revolution and Napoleonic wars, mostly young men. This was as much as the losses of France in the two World Wars but in the former case, out of a total population of 27 million – almost half what it became in the twentieth century. Most of these deaths were not a result of the arbitrary guillotinings of the Reign of Terror, but the wars that followed. At the height of the Terror, up to 400,000 died in the horrifying civil war of the Vendee – a struggle which has been described an early example of ‘ethnic cleansing’. Thousands of prisoners, at the government’s bidding, were locked below decks in barges which were deliberately sunk.

All these deaths had a weakening effect on the French population and though the wars did not have much net impact on home territory, they spelled huge losses overseas. The French were forced to surrender San Domingo in the Caribbean, while Napoleon’s cheap sale of the colony of St Louis to the United States restricted the later growth of the French empire.

The early days of the Revolution saw a growth of the misguided notion that anyone could practice any trade. This went nicely with the restrictive notion that no professional body would be legal, nor would a labour union. Those in authority eventually realised, however, that being a doctor was a special activity, not for anyone who fancied it. It took over a decade for doctors to regain their necessary privileges.

The core idea of the Revolution was that all citizens were equal – and yet the resulting law of equal inheritance had lamentable results. As de Tocqueville argued, it was a machine for chopping up the soil: for thwarting return. It also proved a means for curbing the birth-rate. Though Napoleon’s Code was a notable achievement, its bias towards licensing and centralisation led to the over-bureaucratisation of France which persists to this day.

The Revolution halted the march of science – including, most memorably, when Lavoisier, the chemist who first isolated oxygen in the lab, was condemned to death and pleas for his preservation were brushed aside with the comment: “The Revolution has no need of scientists”. Napoleon was broadly open to new ideas – provided they were useful in war – but even he dismissed the American Fulton’s invention of the submarine and the torpedo and Charles Dallery’s invention of the propeller. One little-noted movement of those times was the emigration of French nationals abroad, some very talented, like Marc Brunel to London, where he built the first tunnel under the Thames.

The Terror released a frenzy of iconoclasm of everything reminiscent of the Ancién Regime: chateaux, churches and works of art. Nothing was spared which had any trace of elegance or refinement. Authorities only saved the great cathedral of Chartres for fear that the resulting debris would obstruct the town streets. As English visitors reported, much of France was still in ruins even ten years after the Terror.

When the fury of the Terror was spent, further damage was done in pursuit of metals required for the army’s weapons – lead from the roofs of abandoned buildings, metal fences surrounding them, bronzes from the churches and monasteries, brass bells from every bell tower. The Napoleonic period saw many fine buildings inspired by ancient Greek and Roman styles, but it did not make up for the loss to France’s artistic and cultural inheritance during the quarter century of the revolutionary era.

Read Part 2 here…


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