Burke's tract also provoked one of the first sustained feminist arguments in world history in Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792). (Document 3) Wollstonecraft's pronouncement that women should be educated like men in order to become virtuous citizens created instant controversy. One critic declared that her works would be read "with disgust by every female who has any pretensions to delicacy; with detestation by every one attached to the interests of religion and morality" (Miriam Brody, ed., Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Women, [London: Penguin Books, 1992], 2, citing the Historical Magazine, [1799], 1:34). If her arguments for women's rights seem relatively tame to present-day readers, then that is probably a good measure of the impact on the modern world of French Revolutionary feminists.

North Americans followed the French Revolution with special interest. Americans believed that the events of 1789 drew heavily on their own experience. The French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen seemed to borrow strikingly from the states' bill of rights. Even more direct influence took place when Thomas Jefferson, resident in France at this time, passed along specific ideas to the legislators through the Marquis de Lafayette. Although the French Revolution took a far different path than the North American variety, this interaction was close, so it is not surprising that the initial U.S. reaction to the Revolution was positive. Virtually the only dissenting voice among the leading American politicians was that of John Adams who, like Burke, expressed his reservations early. Indeed, throughout the revolutionary decade, the Republican Party, led by Jefferson, remained generally favorable, although the Terror did inspire some wavering. Others, however, became opposed, especially the Federalists. Despite its declining influence in American politics, this party carried the day with regard to U.S. policy toward France. Conflict over land and borders between these two ostensibly friendly nations would sour many Americans on France and its revolution by the late years of the revolutionary decade.

Philosophers, poets, and novelists felt compelled to comment on the French Revolution as much as politicians. The German philosopher Immanuel Kant followed events with interest, sometimes enthusiasm, but also with worry. As his treatises show, he appreciated the deep power of the notion of right. The French aristocrat François-René Chateaubriand took a more negative view. In his Historical, Political and Moral Essay on Revolutions, Ancient and Modern, he denounced the Jacobins as "infuriated men" who had erected "a thousand sanguinary guillotines" in all the villages and towns of France. The German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel used the course of the French Revolution to develop his notions about the essential, inner meaning of history. Such use of the Revolution as a springboard for philosophical and political inquiry marked the degree to which contemporaries viewed this event as both a turning point and as a break with older ways of doing things.

Part II: Revolutionary Legacies in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries

Since the beginning of the nineteenth century the legacy of the French Revolution has been hotly debated by politicians, revolutionaries, and political theorists. The Revolution of 1789 gave birth to what soon came to be called "ideologies," a word that was first used during the French Revolution. An ideology is a defined doctrine about the best form of social and political organization. Before 1789, most people (the Americans of the new United States were the great exception) lived with the general form of government their ancestors had known for centuries, and by and large this meant hereditary monarchy. After 1789, no form of government could be accepted as legitimate without justification. The revolutionaries had established a republic, so from the foundation of the republic in 1792 onward, at the very least, republicans would challenge monarchists. Among republicans, some preferred a government directed by the elite, whereas others, known as democratic republicans, advocated a more democratic structure. Many other self-conscious ideological alternatives arose during this era—nationalism, liberalism, socialism, and eventually communism—all as a result of, or in reaction to, the French Revolution. Only conservatism stood opposed, arguing that all of these doctrines of social or political change were dangerous innovations.

 
   

LAFAYETTE

 
     
   

WORTHY GOALS
POOR EXECUTION

 
     
   

A POSITIVE INTERPRETATION

 
     
 

AN EXCESS OF ZEAL

     
 

A NEW MORALITY?

     

SPARTA REBORN!

     

HEGEL PHILOSOPHIZES

     
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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