The French Revolution and its impacts in the modern Philippine society

Guillotine: a popular form of death penalty during the Reign of Terror
Guillotine: a popular form of death penalty during the Reign of Terror. Photo from

The French Revolution of 1789 is a period of socio-political upheavals in France and this is when the ideas of philosophers like those of Edmund Burke, John Locke and Jean Jacques Rousseau contributed to the mainstream exchange of political ideas that mattered even to the poorest French men. The Revolution officially began in 1789; and some historians say that it ended after the events that had put down the Reign of Terror, while the others believe that it continued until the establishment of another French Republic after Napoleon’s fall. Hence, it is difficult to decide which is which, and most contemporary historians left it like that: the French Revolution is continuity — even until now.

The Revolution is marked by the emergence of socio-political abstract principles, which are  rooted from the views of different interest groups, and these principles seek to establish an ideal society (Brinton, 1934) and the ideas of French Revolution were not exclusively for practice only in France, and both the Christian democrats and the revolutionaries during that period emphasized that liberty and equality are basic human rights, moreover, these men wished of attaining worldly peace by following their example (Lefebvre, 1947). These ideas first entered the Philippine archipelago when the Suez Canal in Egypt had been opened to shorten the route of the trade between Europe and Asia, so the Filipino ilustrados or the educated ones were able to study these ideas (Agoncillo & Guerrero, 1973), and later on, they themselves became the leaders of the Reform Movement.

During the French Revolution, the concepts of theology were never disregarded but most of the people then paid more attention to ideas brought about by science (Brinton, 1934). The church remained firm in its doctrines in morality but it accepted the freedom of religion. The philosophers, however, wanted everything to be anthropocentric. But in the end both sides aimed for the protection of the said right through mutual respect and preservation (Lefebvre, 1947).

The ceremony of the first Estates-General opening at Versailles on May 5, 1789 and the religious ceremonies the day before were held in grandeur (Brinton, 1934). The scenario of the ceremonies was almost similar to that of a Filipino fiesta. The extravagance, the luxury and the corruption of the French monarchy is also the same as that of the Spanish government officials and the friars and these enraged the common people in both France and the Philippines.

On June 17, the House of Commons adopted the title “National Assembly,” and then oathed three days after in the Tennis Court that they will not be abolished until they had formulated a constitution for the state, and on June 27, the king’s initiative to combine the houses eventually formed the National Assembly (Brinton, 1934). This move had proved that the concept of equality in political power is important and that the common people should have a say to how the country should be governed through the formulation of public policies. In the Philippines, the ilustrados created a movement for reforms in order to ensure the restoration of Philippine representation to the Spanish Cortes so that they could make public policies for the benefit of the colony. Some these ilustrados include Jose Rizal, Graciano Lopez Jaena, Juan Luna, Antonio Luna, Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo, Marcelo H. Del Pilar, Jose Maria Panganiban, Eduardo de Lete, and some gave either moral or financial support. The Propaganda or Movement, however, soon failed due to the death of reform leaders like Jose Rizal and Graciano Lopez Jaena. Nowadays, we only have the Legislative Branch of the government which was set to create laws; the common people can object to the decisions made by the senators and the lower house representatives through the evaluation of public policies and the common man himself can initiate the formulation of public policies.

Moreover, the great works of the National Assembly include France’s Civil Constitution and the Declaration of Rights of the Man and Citizen, which are then adopted by other countries like the Philippines. France’s Civil Constitution is the main reason why the Philippines have several constitutions. The main objective of the Declaration of Rights of the Man and Citizen, on the other hand, is to give the overview of the basic human rights, which is then followed by certain guidelines established by the law (Lefebvre, 1947).

The Declaration of Rights of the Man and Citizen gives man the freedom of the speech and the press; and man should not be considered a criminal unless he or she has been proven guilty of such crime (Lefebvre, 1947) and the press freedom initiated by France subsequently became the inspiration for the creation of journalism, which is then adopted by the Philippines through Philippine regular and campus journalism in the 20th century. The Declaration gives also the basis for the creation of Bill of Rights and the writ of habeas corpus which was dismissed during the Martial Law to enable the quick arrest and jailing of alleged criminals and activists by removing their right of defending themselves before the court. Also, the Declaration gives man the freedom of worship and religion, and this right was even more emphasized when Gregorio Aglipay wanted to establish the Iglesia Filipina Independiente, a Catholic Church in which the leadership is not Papal and independent from the ruling of the Vatican. When the Spaniards left and when the Americans entered the Philippine archipelago, these rights were then introduced to the Filipinos. What is even more important is that through the Declaration, France initiated the abolition of slavery both in their motherland and in their colonies. The slavery of the Spaniards to the Filipinos is wanted to be ended by the reformists by their mission of considering the Philippines as a province of Spain, not as a colony.

The peasants at the countryside were triumphant in launching a movement for land reform in the form of “The Great Fear,” which the revolutionaries promised to end if their goal of fully abolishing feudalism was finally actualized (Brinton, 1994). The Great Fear also drew out much attention among French men and the peasants exerted their rights and that they are the ones responsible for the food production yet their income is too low. In the Philippines, what happened was that the HUKBALAHAP (Hukbong Bayan Laban samgaHapon), which was originally a guerilla force established to fight the Japanese, became an underground peasant movement against the government and they had a similar goal to that of the peasants who initiated the Great Fear. However, the Huk’s journey abruptly ended when their leader, Luis Taruc, surrendered to the government. Moreover, the peasants’ fight against the feudal system did not stop there, and militant groups like the Peasant Movement of the Philippines organized mass actions because of the government’s failure to establish a genuine agrarian  reform, and such was evident when the land of Hacienda Luisita in Tarlac was not distributed to the farmers.

During the pre-revolutionary France, women had no political rights. However, the role of women is important during the Revolution (Sutherland, 2003) and this was evident when there was an occurrence of feminist militant activism, such as the March to Versailles. The Declaration of Rights of the Man and Citizen was so vague that the feminists thought that the rights are exclusively for men, so they subsequently published the female version of the Declaration, which is the Declaration of Rights of the Woman and Female Citizen. The Revolution also promoted the advancement of women’s suffrage rights and liberation that it already became one of the topics in both world and local speeches (Roberts, 1978). The women of the French Revolution inspired the Filipino women so much that they also began to take part to the Philippine Revolution and later on, to lead against the regime’s oppressive rule.

In the Philippines, for example, the Philippine Revolution against the Spaniards may not have happened without the presence of women. The Women’s Chapter of the Katipunan was responsible for admitting new members, either male or female, and they served as a front whenever the male members hold meetings at the backroom. Also, during first the EDSA People Power Revolution, many women gathered on the streets with an aim of bringing back the real democracy in the country. Some of these women include nuns, teachers, peasant women, politicians and even the late President Corazon Cojuangco Aquino. These women were inspired of what happened during the French Revolution: that even women can take a part for making a genuine change.

One of the highlights of the French Revolution is the occurrence of the Reign of Terror which was organized by the Committee of Public Safety and during this period many French men were imprisoned and executed without undergoing trial (Paxton, 1988). However, academic historians focused more on separating the French Revolution into two: the revolution of 1789-91 or the beginning, and the ‘bad’ revolution marked by the Reign of Terror that occurred in 1792-4 (Sutherland, 2003). The Reign of Terror is comparable to Marcos’s Martial Law where both committed enormous violence to attain peace and order and the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus. There are also human rights violations and extrajudicial killings, and worst, some were sentenced to death (in France, they used guillotine while in the Philippines, they used electric chairs). In both cases, it could be observed that they are very good examples of totalitarianism.

The French Revolution, through the introduction of equality and fraternity, opened doors for the rise of socialist and communist ideas (Stone, 2004). Some of the revolutionists who survived after the fall of Napoleon’s Empire were then adopted by Marxists.

The definition of Marxism is indeed as significant as it should be distinguished from its related ideas, socialism and communism. In Marxism, the aim of the people is to have a classless society, while in socialism, the goal is to have a common ownership. On the other hand, communism is the end itself and encompasses all the characteristics of both socialism and Marxism. All these ideologies gradually started during the French Revolution because of some thinkers and philosophers who are against the Revolution and therefore called themselves counter-revolutionists. Moreover, the liberal France was also being influenced by the ideas coming from outside its territorial borders like that of Britain’s concept of liberalism. Karl Marx objected this capitalist idea; hence, he published his books about socialism, Marxism and communism; counter-revolutionists agreed with Marx. The establishment of the Communist Party of the Philippines is a good example of how Marxist ideas influenced the Filipino people. Moreover, when Marxism emphasized the role of the peasants in production, some Filipino peasants wished to have equality with the upper class.

The French Revolution also focused on how democracy should be practiced. France may have been the first country in the world during the 18th century that allowed the common men to vote and be elected. This scenario is prevalent in the “National Assembly,” where the third house was reserved for the commons. In our country, this was first practiced during the enactment of the Revolutionary Government headed by General Emilio Aguinaldo but the right is for men only. During the American Occupation to the Philippines, this right was reserved for both men and women. Until now, Filipinos, either men or women, enjoy the right of electing and/or being elected.

During the French Revolution, the bourgeois or the middle class first emerged. The monarch’s fault was that when he used solely the morality of religion in judging (Brinton, 1934) and due to the monarch’s lack of public influence, the bourgeoisies took part to the creation of public policies and they themselves published news and organized mass actions (Lefebvre, 1947). With the emergence of the bourgeoisies, the medieval system consisting of the nobility, the clergy and the commons had to be abolished. This is the main reason why in our country some were called burgis or maykaya. The burgis or maykayastatus served as a link between the rich and the poor in terms of socio-economic status.

The French Revolution also gave importance to arts. During the Revolution, most parts of Louvre were converted to become a national museum and art gallery with the private collections of the monarchs served as its main attraction (Paxton, 1988). How the revolutionists gave importance to arts to express their ideologies served as a guideline for other countries like the Philippines to appreciate and preserve their national artistry, and with this, the National Museum and the Cultural Center of the Philippines were built to address the need for art-appreciation buildings.

Perhaps, the most important of all the impacts of the French Revolution to the Philippines is the full understanding of the concept of nationalism and that it provided an intellectual basis of Filipino nationalism. The situation in France in 1789 paralleled the conditions in the Philippines in 1896: the government officials were not effective and only the upper classes held the government positions; the rich people also ignored the growing influence of the middle class; and the Church became so abusive that it owned vast tracts of lands, dominated education and commerce and imposed heavy taxes to the masses. The reformists or propagandists exposed these abuses and then the Filipino revolutionists, inspired by the French Revolution, struggled to fight for the country’s freedom and independence.

The Revolution gave birth to nationalism, a political idea associated to national unity and independence and the people who share common history, language, literature, culture and even religion (Agoncillo& Guerrero, 1973) are feeling this. Before the Cavite Mutiny happened, the Filipinos lack nationalism because of the differences in geographical location and the absence of a common language. However, the death of Philippine secular priests GOMBURZA upheld the nationalism of the Filipinos (Gagelonia, 1977). Even the national hero, Jose Rizal, wrote a novel entitled El Filibusterismo in honor of the three martyr priests. The novel then became one of the inspirations of the Filipinos to start the Philippine Revolution.

Why did a French Revolution mattered to the Philippines, and generally, abroad? The events in France, like the French Revolution, undeniably influenced other countries because it was a superpower (Roberts, 1978). Most Philippine textbooks nowadays do not give even an insight of how France positively influenced the Philippine archipelago. From the advancement of women’s rights to the rise of nationalism, truly one can ascertain that the French Revolution of 1789 molded other histories, which include that of the Philippines.


Agoncillo, T. & Guerrero, M. (1973). History of the Filiipino People. Quezon City: RP Garcia       Publishing Co.

Brinton, C. (1934). A Decade of Revolution. New York: Harper and Row.

Gagelonia, P. (1977). Filipino Nation: History and Government. Manila: National Bookstore,        Inc.

Lefebvre, G. (1947). The Coming of the French Revolution. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton      University Press.

Paxton, J. (1988). Companion to the French Revolution. New York, NY: Facts on File.

Roberts, J. (1978). The French Revolution. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Stone, B. (2004). Reinterpreting the French Revolution. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University   Press.

Sutherland, B. (2003). The French Revolution and Empire. Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishers,     Ltd.

This was my research paper in Communication Skills 2, under Atty. Regatta Marie Antonio. Copyright © 2014 Josue Mapagdalita


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