How the political and cultural revolution worked together in France

Before the French Revolution, there was a separation of power in France based on the way the country segmented their society. The society was split into three groups: the clergy, the nobility and the third estate. The leaders of the French Revolution sought to alter the power and create their own culture to overthrow the monarchy run under Louis XVI and establish an entirely new society.

In Emmanuel Joseph Sieyes’ What is the Third Estate? he argues that the Third Estate of France was entitled to more respect and power than they were currently given, being that the Third Estate makes up the majority, “nineteen-twentieths”, of France (Blaisdell 72). Sieyes motivates his people in the text by challenging them to rise up against the limitations placed on the third estate, as it “contains everything that pertains to the nation” (Blaisdell 74). Sieyes pushes this revolution on the grounds that a monarchy isn’t necessary for the people of France to operate and that they would live in a better society if they were to overthrow the monarchy.

In order to unite the people of France, culturally speaking, Maximilian Robespierre wrote The Cult of Supreme Being, advocating for the revolution under religious grounds. He advocated against the catholic church because many of the followers perceived the church as a way of repression and subjugation by the monarchy. Robespierre incorporates many atheistic views, under the concept of reason in his new religious system. Under this system there are many religious views of deism, where there was belief in a god, but a god that didn’t intercede with the plans of the people of the Third Estate. He also argues that humanity was designed to exist in harmony but the tyrants in power have polluted the system of power in France by oppressing its people. Without the writings and leadership of Robespierre, the French Revolution may not have been possible.

The French Revolution’s success can be attributed to the combination of the political and cultural revolution that occurred before it. Without revolutionary writers and leaders like Robespierre and Sieyes, motivating the majority of the Third Estate wouldn’t have been possible and the shift towards a more enlightened society would never have became a reality.

Questions to consider:

Do you think the French Revolution would’ve been possible without the combination of the  political and cultural revolution?

Are there any power shifts (clergy, nobility, third estate) throughout world history similar to the one caused by the French Revolution?


The Emancipation Manifesto, 1861

The Emancipation Manifesto of March 3, 1861 released serfs from their serfdom. However, this improvement of the peasant condition was emphasized as gradual, leading to the establishment of many temporary measures and statuses to ensure the process of serfdom abolishment went smoothly. For example, the peasants were still required to fulfill obligations to the nobles, so much so that they were “temporarily bound” to their nobles, which hardly seems different from their situation previously. Language regarding the nobility was extremely courteous, praising the nobility for their generous hearts in voluntarily renouncing serfdom, implying that the renouncement may not have been as “voluntary” as it was portrayed to be. Furthermore, the nobles were given the task of much of the reorganization of land, meaning it unlikely that these land allotments would be decided in the benefit of the peasants.  The repetition of words such as “sacrifice”, “greater good”, and “obligation” seek to remind the nobles that their first priority is to the Russian state, and, accordingly, to the abolishment of serfdom as being in the best interests of the Russian state.

How effective was this document in promoting change? Were the peasant’s lives improved within two years or made worse?

Catherine The Great’s Enlightened Policies

From the minute Catherine the Great seized the thrown in 1762, enlightened policies were enacted. That very year, She published The Manifesto Freeing the Nobility From Compulsory Service. In this script she grants the release of all nobility from the Table of Ranks, and preserves this right for future generations to come. Within this document Catherine stresses the new right to travel, showing her desire for a more cultured and global perspective for the nobility. Although the Manifesto repeals Peter the Great’s Table of Ranks, it also praises his work for progressing the military as well as civil and educational affairs. These are certainly traits of Peter’s reformist campaign that Catherine wished to continue in later documents such as The State on Provincial Administration along with other enlightened values. In this document Catherine develops multiple administration positions within the Gubernii, after the Pugachev Revolution in the South revealed the lack of control the state had in these regions. She also creates programs that resemble a form of public welfare and programs that had never been offered to the lower class before. These structural adjustments include requiring a health care clinic to be in every region with at least one doctor and apprentice so the trait could be passed down. Education was now public and encouraged for all classes, and also in the control of the state by using administrative boards in each region. Article Sixty-Four includes the process of elections and terms in order to have new ideas always being in a position of authority. In 1785 the Charter to the Nobility provided many privileges to this group of people but also held them accountable for crimes committed as everyone in Russia was now under the law. Catherine’s vision of Russia was a perpetual state of progress where the Monarch continued to act as a patriarch for all of it’s citizens.

1.) Which one of Catherine’s reforms were most well perceived in Russia? How should the Nobility view Catherine after these laws were enacted?

2.) Is Catherine the Great the most effective Tsar in Russia’s History of reformist rulers?

The Emancipation of Russian Serfs

Alexander II issued a document of emancipation for the Russian serfs in 1861.  In it, he stipulates that the nobility agreed, for the benefit of their country, to release the serfs from their status at the end of a two year reconstruction period.  After serfdom is abolished, the nobles are required to give their former serfs land so that they may continue to earn a living.

This document echoed the Enlightenment principles of the former reformist monarchs. Firstly, the nobles are given a social duty to the lower classes as well as mandating that the now-free peasants give back to society.  Secondly, there is much discussion of the inherent rights of the free man like the ability to gather property and the benefits of freedom.  Also, the document decrees that the government will lend assistance to the freed serfs.  These stipulations are very reminiscent of Catherine’s charters to the nobility and the towns.

The way this document was written seems like a very clever manipulation on the part of Alexander II.  Although the monarchy is responsible for continuing the tradition of serfdom, he transfers the blame to the nobles for the failure of the institution, citing their lack of “paternal attitude” that was required.  Then it is repeated several times that the nobles made the decision to free the serfs voluntarily, although this is probably not the case since it was to their economic misfortune to free the serfs.  He also requires the nobles to establish their own terms when freeing their serfs, not developing a standardized practice throughout the country.  In using this language, Alexander is taking a preventative step against the failure of such an action, so that if freeing the serfs fails, the Tsar will not be the one to blame.  The nobles, which already harbor resentment from the serfs will have to defend themselves in the face of a new free body of peasants.  It is almost a means of further centralizing power to the monarch and making the nobles weaker.

On a related note, the best quote of this reading is as follows, “However beneficial a law may be, it cannot make people happy if they do not themselves organize their happiness under protection of the law.”  To me, this completely sums up what I know about Russian government, and it is highly ironic since laws put the serfs into poverty in which they were unable to organize their happiness.

The Decembrist Revolt

Protests in early Russia seem to follow a similar trend of poor organization and consequently utter failure.The revolt against Nicholas I in December of 1825 follows this same doctrine despite it being organized by army officers and soldiers. The Monarchy handled the rebellion quite quickly and it quickly lost support. Despite this, I believe that the message behind the revolt did carry some weight.

Although the autocracy continued to rule for some time to come, Nicholas undoubtedly was forced to realize the issues within the empire. Mikhail Speransky, a close advisor of Alexander and after for Nicholas, started to devise a new code of Russian laws. The uprising exemplified a shift of ideas towards a more progressive state. A big reason that this is such a unique rebellion is the fact that there were many nobles involved. It was a breach between the government and a reformist noble class. Solely because of the social class involved, I believe the ideas had great influence. After the revolt, a committee was set up to modernize socio-economic systems in Russia. This eventually led to reforms in serfdom and efforts to improve the life of the peasant class.

The power struggle exemplified by the Decembrist Revolution brought the need for change in Russia’s government. The need for reform from the conservative ruler Nicholas became apparent and I believe he took note of this.