The French Revolution
The French Revolution was a fire that blazed across at the end of the 18th century. Although the spark that set this blaze was an economic one, the kindling had been laid by the philosophies of the Enlightenment, the Age of Reason. Led by the great French thinkers Montesquieu, Diderot, Rousseau and Voltaire, the Enlightenment questioned the social fabric of the world; investigates its government, and sought mathematical explanations for the workings of the Universe. The leaders of the French Revolution, especially those who led the National Assembly in those heady days of 1789, took as their intellectual foundation the writings of the philosophes. Specifically, the French Revolution adopted the idea of the social contract; the philosophy that maintained government was founded by the citizenry, who were thus in a position to change the government when it failed to work.
The overarching idea to come out the Enlightenment is that of progress. Indeed, the very concept of progress, espoused by Condorcet, that human society is somehow on an upward track from barbarism, arose during this time. The first leaders of the Revolution were convinced that there was no stopping human progress, and even thought there could be a peaceful transition from the Ancien Régime and the New France they envisioned. In the Salons of Paris, the writings of the philosophes and the men themselves were discussed and debated: Montesquieu’s Persian Letters, Voltaire’s Candide and numerous critical attacks on religion, Diderot’s Encyclopedia, Rousseau’s Social Contract as well as the ideas of the English thinker John Locke, whose Essay on Human Understanding reflected the idea of the tabula rasa, the blank slate. As the revolutionaries seized the moment to forge a new nation, they took these ideas and attempted to put them into the practical workings of government.