Part III: Citizenship in a Revolutionary State, 18th Century Revolutionary France

This is the third essay in a series devoted to examining citizenship and the American citizen, the rights, duties, and norms of which have become ever more contentious beginning in the divisive Sixties. They have become especially relevant in recent years with the actions of Edward Snowden and Colin Kaepernick, and with the election of Donald Trump and his proposed policies on immigration reform.

As a human body is only as healthy as its individual cells, so a civilization or modern state is only as healthy as its individual citizens. As a healthy human body is sustained by new, healthy cells, so a modern state needs continuous rejuvenation with new, healthy, good citizens to sustain itself, especially in times of stress.

In Revolutionary France of the late 18th century, our modern concept of political nationalism or patriotism arose, a citizen’s devotion to a political unit—in this case, a state—not a clan, tribe, people, city-state, region or empire, but rather a state with a government and “constitution”—written or unwritten—which controlled a sizeable territory. Citizens’ rights became codified; citizens’ duties came to embrace a genuine military dimension, something new in the modern history of Western civilization. Similar to ancient Athens and Republican Rome, French citizens were called to nurture their “public virtue,” to think and act with devotion to this new republican France. Finally, the leaders of the Revolution during its later radical phase sought to establish a “new republican order” powered by “new republican citizens.”

For the first time in modern history, the French Revolution galvanized the idea of “patriotism” or “political nationalism,” the devotion or loyalty of a citizen to the state. France was not a village, city-state like ancient Athens, region, or far-flung, loosely controlled empire like Rome. William Rogers Brubacker argues that the French Revolution “invented not only the nation-state but the modern institution and ideology of national citizenship.” “Citizenship was central to the theory and practice of the French Revolution” whether the Revolution is viewed as a bourgeois, democratic, national, or bureaucratic, state-strengthening revolution.

By the late 1780s in France, powerful forces of change were swirling around the ossified royal court of King Louis XVI: discontent among many segments of the middle and lower classes who were laden with crushing obligations to the privileged upper classes, the lack of any truly representative institutions through which grievances could be channeled, resistance by the privileged segments to any genuine reform, and a monarch who drew his sovereignty, not from the French people, but rather from God. Louis lacked appreciation for the power and potential of these forces. Additionally, the example of the American Revolution in which French military forces had participated, informed and inspired the disgruntled segments.

Added to these underlying factors came the final elements which precipitated a crisis: bad weather, bringing bad harvests, and a ballooning royal debt.
The debt grew to be so unmanageable that, for the first time since 1614, the king was forced to call the assembly of the Estates General, the nominally representative institution of all segments of French society, dating from the 14th century. The assembly barely launched when stalemate arose over the method of voting. On June 17, 1789, the representatives of the Third Estate, representing the common people, were denied entry into their place of assembly. They took their first truly “revolutionary” acts by meeting at a tennis court, taking a common oath, constituting themselves as the “National Assembly,” and declaring their intention to write a constitution.

Discontent and unrest spread through Paris as well as the countryside. On July 14, 1789, the common people attacked and seized control of the Bastille, a royal armory and prison in Paris. This dramatic act, now celebrated yearly in modern France, came to be seen as the triumph of liberty over the despotism of the crown.

Drawing from the same Enlightenment thinking as the crafters of the US Constitution and Bill of Rights, who were busy simultaneously enacting these ideas into law in America, the National Assembly in August 1789, adopted the “Declaration of Rights of Man and the Citizen.” It began: “The representatives of the French people, organized as a national assembly … have resolved to display in a solemn declaration the natural, inalienable, and sacred rights of man, so that this declaration will continually remind them of their rights and their duties….” (While speaking to both rights and duties, the document truly enumerates only citizens’ rights. Citizens’ “duties” are only implied.)

In his magisterial work on the French Revolution, Citizens, Simon Schama describes the model of the new French citizens. They were to be “passionate in patriotism,” their devotion to the country taking precedent over all previous allegiances, such as guild, province, or social order. They were to be tender-hearted and devoted to Nature. They were to scorn ostentation and be enraged by the abuses of despotism. “Above all, they were apostles of public virtue who saw a France on the verge of being reborn as a republic of friends.” Eventually those who did not subscribe to the new civic moral code were identified by the treasonable label of “aristocrat.” Now the common title of honor came to be “citizen” (citoyen).

In 1791 the National Assembly formulated a new constitution which established a limited constitutional monarchy. The king, now called the “King of the French,” was still legitimate and valued; however, he was limited in his authority and could no longer rule arbitrarily. The new Legislative Assembly now had sovereign power, drawn from the body of French citizens.

For the first time a distinction was drawn between “active” and “passive” citizens. While all had the same civil rights, only active citizens—men over 25 who paid taxes equivalent to three days unskilled labor—could vote.

French citizenship, like that in ancient Athens and republican Rome, also had a marked and major military dimension, obligating all to share in the defense of the state. In the face of increasing threats from the conservative monarchs in Austria and Prussia, the Assembly declared war on Austria in April 1792.

While the French Army fought the foreign threat, national guard forces from the provinces were summoned to protect Paris. The group from the city of Marseilles came singing their stirring patriotic song, “The Marseillaise,” which was eventually adopted as the national anthem. It contains a call to each citizen.

Arise, children of the motherland
The day of glory has arrived.

To arms, citizens! Form your battalions!
We march, we march!

To face the persistent coalitions of foreign enemies which sought to quell and reverse the Revolution, the Committee took the extraordinary step on August 23, 1793, of calling a universal mobilization, expanding the concept of the French “citizen” to include a genuine military dimension. While in the prior centuries of European history, war was mainly the province of kings and relatively small, professional armies, now the country, faced with dire circumstances, called on all members of the French nation to play roles in protecting the patrie (country).

The decree stated:
Young men will fight; young men are called to conquer. Married men will forge arms, transport military baggage and guns and prepare food supplies. Women … will forget their futile tasks: their delicate hands will work at making clothes for soldiers; they will make tents and they will extend their tender care to shelters where the defenders of the [nation] will receive the help that their wounds require. Children will make lint of old cloth. It is for them that we are fighting: children, those beings destined to gather all the fruits of the revolution, will raise their pure hands toward the skies. And old men … will be guided to the public squares of the cities where they will kindle the courage of young warriors and preach the doctrines of hate for kings and the unity of the Republic.

In less than a year, the army grew to 650,000, and by September, 1794, totaled 1,169,000, the largest in European history. France had now become truly a “nation in arms,” led by a “people’s” government and waging “people’s” war.

The Revolution did not stop there in transforming former mere subjects under an absolute monarch into “new republican citizens.” It launched into a program of dechristianization. Streets were no longer named after saints, churches were ransacked, clerical celibacy was discouraged. Notre Dame Cathedral was renamed the Temple of Reason. The Revolution even transformed the weekly and monthly calendars. Beginning in September, 1792, when the Republic was established, a month now consisted of three 10-day weeks. The months were given new names such as Frimaire (frost), Nivôse (snow), Germinal (seeding), and Thermidor (heat).

All these measures were designed to underline a decisive and transcendent break with the past. The Revolution was to mark the beginning of a new era. The old regime was now replaced with a “Republic of Virtue,” oppressed subjects were now replaced with active and attentive, republican citizens, with recognized and codified rights; old ways of thinking and allegiances were to be replaced with new ways of thinking and a new, passionate loyalty and devotion to the state—patriotism or political nationalism. But also something else, for the first time in modern history these new citizens were to feel a strong bond to each other as members of the French nation , no matter what their bloodline, class level, or provincial dialect. Thus was resurrected the ancient Roman concept of civilitas or what we might call cultural nationalism: sharing such things as a common history, language, religion and custom, we are all citizens together.

(Please see Part IV: Citizenship in a Totalitarian State: Nazi Germany.)


Brubacker, William Rogers . “The French Revolution and the Invention of Citizenship.” French Politics and Society 7 (Summer 1989), pp. 30-49.

Heater, Derek. A Brief History of Citizenship. NY: New York University Press, 2004.

Schama, Simon. Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution. NY: Vintage, 1990.

Spielvogel, Jackson J. Western Civilization. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson, 2003.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Part III: Citizenship in a Revolutionary State, 18th Century Revolutionary France

  1. Pingback: Part II: Citizenship in Ancient Rome | Zilian Commentary

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s