Subject to Citizen, Kingdom to Nation: Changing Notions of Identity in the Age of the French Revolution

Storming of the Tuileries on 10. Aug. 1792 during the French Revolution, by Jean Duplessis-Bertaux (1793) / Palace of Versailles, Wikimedia Commons

What did it mean to become a citizen of the new nation?

Originally published by Newberry Digital Collections for the Classroom, 09.11.2017, Newberry Library, republished with permission for educational, non-commercial purposes.


In 1789 the people of France began a revolution that would bring profound changes to their country’s political and social order. These changes came especially fast during the first six years: The Revolution started with the establishment of the National Assembly and plans to write a constitution that would limit, but not overthrow, the monarchy. A few years later, the king and queen, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, would not only be deposed, they would be executed as traitors to the republic. Their fate was shared by hundreds of other leaders and activists, across the political spectrum, who were sent to the guillotine during the Reign of Terror in 1793 and 1794.

These tumultuous political events both reflected and contributed to fundamental shifts in notions of identity and authority in late-eighteenth-century France. Before the Revolution, the authority of the king derived from a centuries-old belief in “divine right.” As historian Lynn Hunt explains, most Europeans believed that “monarchs ruled because God had chosen them for their positions… Kings occupied the highest positions among humans on the great chain that stretched from God down through humans to all the lowliest creatures on earth.” Being closest to God, kings held the top rank in a hierarchical social order. Beneath them were aristocrats (people of noble birth), then merchants, then servants, and so on. Women held the rank of their fathers before marriage and their husbands afterward.

In eighteenth-century France, Enlightenment thinkers such as Denis Diderot and Jean Jacques Rousseau introduced an entirely different way of thinking about rights and authority. Their ideas were not based on a sense of divinely ordained hierarchy. Instead, they drew on the concept of natural law: rights that people held simply because they were people. As Diderot wrote, “I am a man, and I have no other true, inalienable natural rights than those of humanity.” Enlightenment philosophers did not always specify what those rights were, but many seem to have shared a belief in the rights to life, liberty, and property. Most importantly, the idea of natural law depended on a sense of fundamental human equality. According to natural law, no one, including the king, was born innately superior to anyone else. Before the Revolution, such ideas were considered threatening to the monarch and could lead to censorship, imprisonment, exile, or execution. During the Revolution, political leaders attempted to implement these ideas by establishing political structures which followed natural law and by persuading the French people that they were no longer subjects of the king, but citizens who had the right to participate actively in their own government.

The following collection of sources speaks to some of the ways that French people brought about—or resisted—the transition from monarchy to republic and from subject to citizen. The press played an enormous role during the Revolution, despite ongoing censorship. From the beginning, writers of all political persuasions expressed themselves in pamphlets that shaped public opinion and subsequent political events. The Revolution also had implications for how people understood social customs that we don’t notmally associate with politics: fashion, music, and even baby names. The documents below convey some of these less predictable areas of experimentation and change alongside the explicitly political debates.

Representing the Monarchy and Aristocracy

General Collection of Different Tastes in Hairstyles: Title page. This history of aristocratic hairstyles and fashions devotes particular attention to trends at the court of then-reigning Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, 1778

French monarchs and aristocrats were the subject of both reverence and derision in the years before and during the French Revolution. These documents offer vivid contrasts in how they were portrayed. The first illustration (above) was published in 1778 in Recueil Général De Coeffures De Différents Gouts (“General Collection of Different Tastes in Hairstyles”), a work that devoted special attention to fashions at the court of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.

Revolutions of France and Brabant: The title of this lively republican newspaper pays tribute to revolts against monarchical rule in France and in Brabant, a Belgian province of the Austrian Netherlands. / Camille Desmoulins and Louis Marie Prudhomme. 1789

The second document (above) is taken from a lively republican newspaper, entitled “Revolutions in France and Brabant,” published during the first years of the Revolution. Brabant refers to a Belgian province that was part of the Austrian Netherlands and revolted against Habsburg rule at the same time as the French Revolution. The author, Camille Desmoulins, was one of the Revolution’s leading pamphleteers, and was later guillotined during the Reign of Terror. The caption under the illustration reads: “Portraits of the Impartial, the Moderates, and the Moderators, also known as the Aristocrats.”

The Death of Louis XVI: Tragedy: Frontispiece and title page. This anonymously written play portrays the trial and execution of Louis XVI. / M. Aignan and Jules-Julien-Gabriel Berthevin. 1797

The final document (above) is an anonymously written play, “The Death of Louis XVI: Tragedy,” that portrays the trial and execution of the king. This edition includes the text of Louis XVI’s will as well as an account of the 1795 trial and acquittal of two booksellers who had been charged with trying to harm the National Assembly by selling works such as this.

Women and Citizenship

In the summer of 1789, the deputies of the Third Estate (that is, everyone who was not a noble or a cleric) declared themselves the true representatives of the nation. They established, for the first time in French history, a National Assembly. The first task of the National Assembly was to write a constitution that would form the basis of a new government. However, many believed that even before the constitution could be drafted, the assembly needed to lay out the fundamental principles of government. After six days of debate, the assembly produced “a solemn declaration [of] the natural, unalienable, and sacred rights of man.” It would be four more years (and many political lifetimes) before the National Assembly published the constitution and founded the First French Republic in 1793. But the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen was enormously influential—and widely debated—from the time of its creation.

The Rights of Woman: To the Queen: Olympe de Gouges was a playwright who criticized slavery and, in this work, argued that the “rights of man” included women. Two years after publishing The Rights of Woman, Gouges was executed as an opponent of the government. / Olympe de Gouges. 1791

The Declaration’s first article reads, “Men are born and remain free and equal in rights.” As historian Lynn Hunt notes, this first statement frames the Declaration’s principles as universal and, as a result, immediately raised the question, “Who was included in the definition of a ‘man and citizen’?” Over the next five years, French writers and politicians engaged in passionate debates over the status of people who had, historically, been excluded from the rights of citizens: slaves and free blacks in the French colonies; religious minorities, such as Jews and Protestants; members of disreputable professions, such as executioners and actors; and women. Marie Gouze (known by the pen name Olympe de Gouges) offered a succinct response to this question on behalf of the last group. In 1791 she published The Rights of Woman (above). While Gouges was not the only one to argue for including women in the “rights of man,” most political leaders and writers strongly disagreed. Two years after publishing The Rights of Woman, Gouges was executed as an opponent of the government during the Reign of Terror.

Law Declaring that Individuals of Both Sexes Are Included in the Laws against Rebels: The government of the French Republic issued this broadside in 1795 to make sure that people throughout France understood that women, as well as men, could be prosecuted as rebels. / France. Convention nationale. 1795

The first document below includes excerpts from the The Rights of Woman, which Gouges dedicated to the queen and prefaced with questions such as, “Man, are you capable of being just?… What has given you the right to oppress my sex?” The second document (above) is a broadside, issued by the French Republic in 1795. It proclaims a “Law Declaring that Individuals of Both Sexes are Included in the Laws against Rebels.” As Gouges’ experience shows only too well, women’s exclusion from political rights did not save them from prosecution for political crimes.

Pamphlet Wars

On Behalf of the King: Police Ordinance about Hawkers and Distributors of Printed Materials: The French police issued this broadside on behalf of the king to forbid the distribution of publications that “trouble the order and tranquility of the State.” The ordinance was posted just three days before the storming of the Bastille. 1789

This group of documents offers a glimpse of the vigorous use of the press by all political groups during the French Revolution. Through the broadside (above), “On Behalf of the King…Police Ordinance about Hawkers and Distributors of Printed Materials,” the French police attempted to stanch the flow of unregulated publications, which, they believed, “trouble[d] the order and tranquility of the State.” Published on July 11, 1789, this ordinance was posted just three days before the storming of the Bastille prison, a critical turning point in the early French Revolution.

I Wait for the Head of the Assassin, Louis XVI: This anonymously written pamphlet was published around the time of Louis XVI’s trial for treason. The trial resulted in the king’s conviction and execution, 1793
Incompetence of Any Tribunal to Judge Louis XVI: This anonymously written pamphlet was published during Louis XVI’s trial for treason. It promises to demonstrate his innocence, 1793

The two pamphlets that follow offer contrasting assessments of Louis XVI’s trial and execution. The National Assembly abolished the monarchy at the end of 1792. The following year, the deputies tried the king for treason and sentenced him to death. The first (above), J’attends la tête de l’assassin Louis XVI, translates as “I Wait for the Head of the Assassin, Louis XVI.” The second pamphlet (above) asserts the “Incompetence of Any Tribunal to Judge Louis XVI” and offers to demonstrate his innocence.

Revolutionary Style

Many supporters of the Revolution believed that the fulfillment of republican political ideals required a transformation of social practices not normally associated with politics. Some of the most radical republicans urged a de-Christianization of French life. In 1793 the National Assembly voted to discard the Gregorian calendar and establish a new dating system, based on the founding of the republic rather than the birth of Jesus Christ. In a similar spirit, Jean-Alexandre Carney of Montpellier offered a system of naming to replace the French custom of naming a baby for the saint whose name was associated with the day of the year on which the baby is born. Carney argued that his system would allow for greater creativity and individuality in naming.

System of Names to Replace Baptismal Names: Title page. During the French Revolution, Jean-Alexandre Carney proposed a system of naming to replace the French custom of naming a baby for the saint whose name was associated with the day of the year on which the baby was born. / Jean Alexandre Carney. 1794

Names in this system are based on the day and the hour when the baby was born as well as on the child’s gender. The pamphlet includes tables which set up model naming schema for certain days of the year, such as 14 fructidor, otherwise known as the day of the nut. The names designated for each hour all contain the suffix “noix” for nut, and the table shows the appropriate name for each hour when the baby is born. For example, a boy born between 3 and 4 in the morning should be named Gonoix while a girl born between 4 and 5 in the afternoon should be named Munoix. It’s not clear whether anyone embraced Carney’s naming system. The Republican calendar was discarded by Napoleon in 1806.

Costumes of Representatives of the People, Members of the Two Councils, the Executive Directory, the Ministers and Others: Title page. These illustrations show costumes to be worn by members of the French Republican government. / Jacques Grasset de Saint-Sauveur. 1796

The illustration by Saint-Saveur (above) in “Costumes of Representatives of the People, Members of the Two Councils, the Executive Director…” suggest how, even after the Revolution, the notion that dress marked the ruler persisted. Neoclassical robes were considered ideal for the officers of the republic.

The Guillotine: This French sheet music pays tribute to the Revolutionary government’s most notorious method of asserting its authority. The words on the lower right describe dance steps. / Chenu. Circa 1794

Finally, “The Guillotine” (above) is an example of French sheet music from the 1790s. The text on the lower right side describes dance steps.

Selected Sources

  • Bell, David A. “National Language and the Revolutionary Crucible.” In The Cult of the Nation in France: Inventing Nationalism, 1680-1800. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001.
  • Gehl, Paul F., curator. Newberry Digital Exhibitions: The Many Faces of Marie Antoinette.
  • Grzegorski, Jessica and Jennifer Thom, curators. Newberry Spotlight Exhibit: Politics, Piety, and Poison: French Pamphlets, 1600–1800.
  • Hunt, Lynn. “Introduction: The Revolutionary Origins of Human Rights.” In The French Revolution and Human Rights: A Brief Documentary History, edited and translated by Lynn Hunt. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1996. 1–32.

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