If ever we needed a real-world example of the mythological Pandora’s box, the French Revolution would suffice. What began in the late eighteenth century in a united spirit of brotherhood and rooted in the principles of the Enlightenment quickly descended into utter chaos, taking thousands of lives with it and forever changing the course of Europe and the rest of the Western world.
As the 1789 revolution was only the first of several in France, it is difficult to evaluate it in isolation. There can be no doubt, however, that many of the events that followed it were not in line with the principles that had inspired it. From a complete breakdown of social order to the eventual restoration of the ancient royal line, here are 10 unintended consequences of the first French Revolution.
10 From Starvation to War
The years leading up to the revolution were not easy. Decades of fiscal mismanagement had caused an economic crisis. Recurrent bad harvests coupled with an increasing population also led to widespread hunger and discontentment among the lower classes. Many facets of French society were outright medieval, including some agricultural methods and the continuing existence of serfdom in practical terms.
Those were the issues that prompted the revolution, but it soon snowballed into one of the most cataclysmic dramas in European history. No sooner had the initial incursions been made than extremist factions took the reins and set the country literally on the warpath. By 1792, France had declared war on Austria, the birthplace of the French king’s wife, Marie Antoinette. For the lowliest of French citizens, who’d gone from no bread to no peace, this could hardly have been an improvement.
9 Widespread Looting and General Disorder
Far from stabilizing the underlying tensions of the years leading up to it, the revolution quickly led to episodic breakdowns in law and order. As soon as one small step toward meaningful reform was taken, dissatisfaction quickly set in. France’s problems were far too complex to be swept away as easily as converting the absolute monarchy into a constitutional one, and patience was in short supply. Rioting, looting, and a general threat to the public order became commonplace.
In truth, the beginning stages of the revolution were dominated by moderate reforms compared to what came later. The men at the center of these changes were largely on the side of orderly progress and respect for the law. Unfortunately, steps like abolishing noble titles didn’t magically put bread on people’s tables. With the king no longer in control, the masses, who’d been promised change but had little to show for it, turned on authority in general.
2 New Aristocracy of the Rich
As influenced as they were by Enlightenment principles, the revolutionary powers that be were willing to take their agenda only so far. Universal suffrage was out of the question. Basically, to have any say at all, you had to be a property-holding man who paid taxes. This was a voting bloc of some few million male citizens, compared to an overall population approaching 30 million.
This pool of male property-holders elected fellow tax-paying representatives to act on their behalf. It was these higher-taxed representatives who themselves elected the men who actually ended up in office. This created a system whereby men with money chose men with more money to put other men they trusted into government. The old aristocracy, of birth and privilege, was replaced with a new aristocracy of wealth and concentrated voting power. Dissatisfaction with this new system eventually provoked more radical action.
7 Enduring Inequality of Women
Considering the pivotal role women played in the early days of the revolution, you’d think the movement’s leaders would have been more amenable to feminist causes. That certainly would’ve lined up philosophically with their dismantling of the feudal system and other structures of arbitrary privilege. Unfortunately, as far as women were concerned, pre- and post-revolutionary France were two heads of the same beast.
As their American counterparts had done, the French revolutionaries drew up a new constitution that provided equality for all men. In both cases, women were not even mentioned. Rightly incensed at having been left behind, in 1791, political activist Olympe de Gouges authored a woman-centered companion text to the famous “Declaration of the Rights of Man.” Not long after, Gouges became yet another casualty of the revolution.
6 Disestablishment of the Church
Some of the revolutionaries’ early religious reforms were supported even by members of the Roman Catholic clergy in France, but these were soon overtaken by increasingly zealous changes. Within the space of a few months, the Church’s income was abolished and its lands forsaken, making it dependent on the state. In 1790, a glimpse of the radicalism that would soon consume France came in the form of the clerical oath. This was a requirement for all clergymen to swear allegiance to the new constitution.
Half refused, including most senior clergymen, on the grounds that their allegiance was to their faith. The Pope himself denounced the actions of the revolutionaries, who also intended to open up clerical appointments to popular elections, thereby restructuring the internal governance of the Church. Priests who refused to publicly endorse the new constitution had no option but to flee into exile. These changes politicized religion and turned the Vatican into an enemy of the revolution. Disestablishment followed not long after.
5 Reign of Terror
The most notorious aspects of the revolution were not seen in its initial stages but after the king and queen had been deposed, and a new republic declared. Already imprisoned and completely powerless, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were subsequently executed by the republican authorities in 1793. After that, the new French Republic and the governing Committee of Public Safety turned its attentions to other perceived enemies, both foreign and domestic.
Indeed, the revolutionary fervor had only begun. Within 18 months of the king’s execution, over 20,000 people had been sentenced to death or died imprisoned without trial. The powers of Europe united against France, sparking conscription, which itself led to internal rebellion. Priests and the Christian religion were massacred and denigrated. Finally, in a macabre and ironic twist, one of the Terror’s most famous figures, Robespierre, was himself guillotined and made a scapegoat for the Committee’s excesses.
4 A King for an Emperor
King Louis XVI was deposed in 1792 and summarily executed. His wife, Marie Antoinette, followed shortly after that, as well as other members of the royal family, other members of the nobility, and anyone else the revolutionary courts deemed a threat to the new order. By 1795, the king’s only surviving son, Louis Charles, by most accounts, had died of neglect at the hands of the revolutionaries. However, the exact circumstances of his death have never been uncovered.
For everything it took to rid themselves of the ancient monarchical system, you’d think the French would have been outright opposed to any return to similar customs. But in 1804, Napoleon Bonaparte, who’d started life as the son of a minor nobleman, crowned himself emperor after a few years’ rule as a dictator. The last of his reigning descendants was Napoleon III, who fittingly was also the country’s final monarch.
3 Ten-Hour Days and a New Calendar
In 1792, perhaps the most peculiar and unnecessarily confusing exercise of the revolution, the first republican government instituted a new calendar stripped of the perceived Christian and royalist characteristics of the Gregorian calendar. Year I of the new republic was established to have started in September, and the calendar eventually came to be used not just in France but in other territories that fell under French control during the revolutionary wars.
There were still 12 months, but fewer weeks since they were now 10 days long (the leftover days were treated as bonuses, with no parent months). For some reason, the revolutionaries were particularly enthusiastic about decimalization, so each day was made 10 hours long. If this weren’t baffling enough, imagine trying to wrap your head around it in an environment of riots, political chaos, and war. Thankfully for Europe’s sanity, this bizarre experiment was eventually abandoned, with Napoleon abolishing the calendar shortly after becoming emperor.
2 Bourbon Restoration
Considering the point of the revolution was to get rid of the Ancien Régime, it’s safe to say its least intended outcome was the restoration of the old dynasty, but that’s precisely what happened. Just over two decades after the fall of the Bourbon monarchy and the executions of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, Louis’s brother assumed the throne as Louis XVIII in 1814, albeit with certain concessions.
Louis XVIII’s reign was short but more effective than that of his reactionary brother, Charles, who became almost immediately unpopular upon ascending. A traditionalist, Charles attempted to revive some of the characteristics of the Old Regime, which led to disaster. In 1830, revolution again visited France, but mercifully in a more peaceful fashion, with Charles agreeing to abdicate in favor of his cousin, Louis Philippe. Louis Philippe’s own reign would meet its end with a further revolution in 1848.
1 Long-Lasting Partisanship and Deadlock
It’s human nature to look for resolution in the world around us. For those living through it, the revolution probably seemed climactic, the final chapter in the Ancien Régime story that, once lived through, would condemn its difficulties to history. But the months and years that followed brought their own sets of problems, not least of which were extreme partisanship and disenchantment with the democratic process.
Politically speaking, the terms “left” and “right” are inheritances from the revolution that we still use today, originally referring to the position of the liberal and conservative factions in the National Assembly. We already know the results of the breakdown in cooperation between the various deputies, some of which are named in this list. Today, partisanship and governmental gridlock continue to be serious problems for nations around the world.