"There must be neither rich nor poor": The Role of Economic Inequality in the French Revolution




Tate, Dax

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The outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789 was accompanied by widespread demands for equality. While much has been written on the social privileges and political inequalities denounced by revolutionary leaders, relatively little has been said on the economic inequality that plagued eighteenth-century France and was a central issue for the urban and rural poor. This paper seeks to fill that gap by examining the role of economic inequality in the French Revolution, both as it shaped and was shaped by the events of the revolutionary decade. Preliminary cahiers, popular petitions, legislative records, and political pamphlets make it possible to illustrate both the attitudes and demands of the lower classes and the reactions of the middle-class revolutionary leadership, and reveal that economic inequality had significant material and ideological impacts. Although little progress was made toward actually reducing inequality, popular demands and legislative responses created a framework for the modern welfare state which would be realized in the post-revolutionary world. Ideologically, lower-class efforts to achieve economic equality were distilled in their most radical form by Gracchus Babeuf, whose Conspiracy of Equals would become an important forbearer for the socialist and communist movements of the nineteenth century. These institutions and ideologies remain prevalent in our own society, and studying the role of economic inequality in the French Revolution illuminates their origins and subsequent development.



French Revolution, Economic Inequality, Economic History, Social History, Equality, Poverty, Revolution