Although it finds its origins in the French Revolution, it was then only one motto among others and was not institutionalized until the Third Republic at the end of the 19th century. Debates concerning the compatibility and order of the three terms began at the same time as the Revolution.
Credit for the motto has traditionally been given to Antoine-François Momoro (1756–1794), a Parisian printer and Hébertist organizer. In 1839, the philosopher Pierre Leroux claimed it had been an anonymous and popular creation. The historian Mona Ozouf underlines that, although Liberté and Égalité were associated as a motto during the 18th century, Fraternité wasn't always included in it, and other terms, such as Amitié (Friendship), Charité (Charity) or Union were often added in its place.
The emphasis on Fraternité during the French Revolution led Olympe de Gouges, a female journalist, to write the Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen as a response. The tripartite motto was neither a creative collection, nor really institutionalized by the French Revolution. As soon as 1789, other terms were used, such as "la Nation, la Loi, le Roi" (The Nation, The Law, The King), or "Union, Force, Vertu" (Union, Strength, Virtue), a slogan used beforehand by masonic lodges, or "Force, Égalité, Justice" (Strength, Equality, Justice), "Liberté, Sûreté, Propriété" (Liberty, Security, Property), etc.
In other words, Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité was only one slogan among many others. During the Jacobin revolutionary period itself, various mottos were used, such as Liberté, Unité, Égalité; Liberté, Égalité, Justice; Liberté, Raison, Égalité (Liberty, Reason, Equality), etc. The only solid association was that of Liberté and Égalité, Fraternité being ignored by the Cahiers de doléances as well as by the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. It was only alluded to in the 1791 Constitution, as well as in Robespierre's draft Declaration of 1793, placed under the invocation of (in that order) Égalité, Liberté, Sûreté and Propriété (Equality, Liberty, Safety, Property), as the possibility of a universal extension of the Declaration of Rights: "Men of all countries are brothers, he who oppresses one nation declares himself the enemy of all." Finally, it did not figure in the August 1793 Declaration.
The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 1789 defined Liberty in Article 4 as follows:
"Liberty consists of being able to do anything that does not harm others: thus, the exercise of the natural rights of every man or woman has no bounds other than those that guarantee other members of society the enjoyment of these same rights."
Equality, on the other hand, was defined by the 1789 Declaration in terms of judicial equality and merit-based entry to government (art. 6):
The law "must be the same for all, whether it protects or punishes. All citizens, being equal in its eyes, shall be equally eligible to all high offices, public positions and employments, according to their ability, and without other distinction than that of their virtues and talents."
Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité actually finds its origins in a May 1791 proposition by the Club des Cordeliers, following a speech on the Army by the marquis de Guichardin. A British marine held prisoner on the French ship Le Marat in 1794 wrote home in letters published in 1796
The republican spirit is inculcated not in songs only, for in every part of the ship I find emblems purposely displayed to awaken it. All the orders relating to the discipline of the crew are hung up, and prefaced by the words Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité, ou la Mort, written in capital letters.
The compatibility of Liberté and Égalité was not doubted in the first days of the Revolution, and the problem of the antecedence of one term on the other not lifted. Thus, the Abbé Sieyès considered that only liberty insured equality, unless the latter was to be the equality of all dominated by a despot; while liberty followed equality insured by rule of law. The abstract generality of law (theorized by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the The Social Contract) thus insured the identification of liberty to equality, liberty being negatively defined as an independence from arbitrary rule, and equality considered abstractly in its judicial form.
This identification of liberty and equality became problematic during the Jacobin period, when equality was redefined (for instance by François-Noël Babeuf) as equality of results, and not only judicial equality of rights. Thus, Marc Antoine Baudott considered that French temperament inclined rather to equality than liberty, a theme which would be re-used by Pierre Louis Roederer and Alexis de Tocqueville, while Jacques Necker considered that an equal society could only be found on coercion.
The third term, Fraternité, was the most problematic to insert in the triad, as it belonged to another sphere, that of moral obligations rather than rights, links rather than statutes, harmony rather than contract, and community rather than individuality. Various interpretations of Fraternité existed. The first one, according to Mona Ozouf, was one of "fraternité de rébellion" (Fraternity of Rebellion), that is the union of the deputies in the Jeu de Paume Oath of June 1789, refusing the dissolution ordered by the King Louis XVI: "We swear never to separate ourselves from the National Assembly, and to reassemble wherever circumstances require, until the constitution of the realm is drawn up and fixed upon solid foundations." Fraternity was thus issued from Liberty and oriented by a common cause.
Another form of Fraternité was that of the patriotic Church, which identified social link with religious link and based fraternity on Christian brotherhood. In this second sense, Fraternité preceded both Liberté and Égalité, instead of following them as in the first sense. Thus, two senses of Fraternity: "one, that followed liberty and equality, was the object of a free pact; the other preceded liberty and equality as the mark on its work of the divine craftsman." (Ozouf)
Another hesitation concerning the compatibility of the three terms arose from the opposition between liberty and equality as individualistic values, and fraternity as the realization of a happy community, devoided of any conflicts and opposed to any form of egoism. This fusional interpretation of Fraternity opposed it to the project of individual autonomy and manifested the precedence of Fraternity on individual will.
In this sense, it was sometimes associated with Death, as in Fraternité, ou la Mort! (Fraternity or Death!), excluding Liberty and even Equality, by establishing a strong dichotomy between those who were brothers and those who were not (in the sense of "you are with me or against me", brother or foe). Louis de Saint-Just thus stigmatized Anarchasis Cloots' cosmopolitanism, declaring "Cloots liked the universe, except France."
With Thermidor and the execution of Robespierre, Fraternité disappeared from the slogan, reduced to the two terms of Liberty and Equality, re-defined again as simple judicial equality and not as real equality upheld by the sentiment of fraternity. The First Consul (Napoleon Bonaparte) then established the motto Liberté, Ordre public (Liberty, Public Order).
Following Napoleon's rule, the triptych dissolved itself, as none believed possible to conciliate individual liberty and equality of rights with equality of results and fraternity. The idea of individual sovereignty and of natural rights possessed by man before being united in the collectivity contradicted the possibility of establishing a transparent and fraternal community. Liberals accepted liberty and equality, defining the latter as equality of rights and ignoring fraternity.
Early Socialists rejected an independent conception of liberty, opposed to the social, and also despised equality, as they considered, as Fourier, that one had only to orchestrate individual discordances, to harmonize them, or they believed, as Saint-Simon, that equality contradicted equity by a brutal levelling of individualities. Utopian Socialism thus only cared about Fraternity, which was, in Cabet's Icarie the sole commandment.
This opposition between liberals and socialists was mirrored in rival historical interpretations of the Revolution, liberals admiring 1789, and Socialists 1793. The July Revolution of 1830, establishing a constitutional monarchy headed by Louis-Philippe, substituted Ordre et Liberté (Order and Liberty) to the Napoleonic motto Liberté, Ordre public. Despite this apparent disappearance of the triptych, the latter was still being thought in some underground circles, in Republican secret societies, masonic lodges such as the "Indivisible Trinity," far-left booklets or during the Canuts Revolt in Lyon. In 1834, the lawyer of the Société des droits de l'homme (Society of Human Rights), Dupont, a liberal sitting in the far-left during the July Monarchy, associated the three terms together in the Revue Républicaine which he edited:
Two interpretations had attempted to conciliate the three terms, beyond the antagonism between liberals and socialists. One was upheld by Catholic traditionalists, such as Chateaubriand or Ballanche, the other by socialist and republicans such as Pierre Leroux. Chateaubriand thus gave a Christian interpretation of the revolutionary motto, stating in the 1841 conclusion to his Mémoires d'outre-tombe:
Neither Chateaubriand nor Ballanche considered the three terms to be antagonist. Rather, they took them for being the achievement of Christianity. On the other hand, Pierre Leroux did not disguise the difficulties of associating the three terms, but superated it by considering liberty as the aim, equality as the principle and fraternity as the means. Leroux thus ordered the motto as Liberty, Fraternity, Equality, an order also supported by Christian socialists, such as Buchez.
Against this new order of the triptych, Michelet supported the traditional order, maintaining the primordial importance of an original individualistic right. Michelet attempted to conciliate a rational communication with a fraternal communication, "right beyond right", and thus the rival traditions of Socialism and Liberalism. The Republican tradition would strongly inspire itself from Michelet's synchretism.
With the 1848 February Revolution, the motto was officially adopted, mainly under the pressure of the people who had attempted to impose the red flag over the tricolor flag (the 1791 red flag was, however, the symbol of martial law and of order, not of insurrection). Lamartine opposed popular aspirations, and in exchange of the maintaining of the tricolor flag, conceded the Republican motto of Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité, written on the flag, on which a red rosette was also to be added.
Fraternity was then considered to resume and to contain both Liberty and Equality, being a form of civil religion (which, far from opposing itself to Christianism, was associated with it in 1848) establishing social link (as called for by Rousseau in the conclusion of the Social Contract).
However, Fraternity was not devoid of its previous sense of opposition between brothers and foes, images of blood haunting revolutionary Christian publications, taking in Lamennais' themes. Thus, the newspaper Le Christ républicain (The Republican Christ) developed the idea of the Christ bringing forth peace to the poor and war to the rich.
As soon as 6 January 1852, the future Napoleon III, first President of the Republic, ordered all prefect to erase the triptych from all official documents and buildings, conflated with insurrection and disorder. Auguste Comte applauded Napoleon, claiming Equality to be the "symbol of metaphysical anarchism", and preferring to it his dyptich "Ordre et Progrès" (Order and Progress, which would then become the motto of Brazil, Ordem e Progresso). On the other hand, Proudhon criticized Fraternity as an empty word, which he associated with idealistic dreams of Romantism. He preferred to it the sole term of Liberty.
Pache, mayor of the Paris Commune, painted the formula “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité, ou la mort” on the walls of the commune. It was only under the Third Republic that the motto was made official. It was then not dissociated with insurrection and revolutionary ardours, Opportunist Republicans such as Jules Ferry or Gambetta adapting it to the new political conditions. Larousse's Dictionnaire universel deprived Fraternity of its "evangelistic halo" (Mona Ozouf), conflating it with solidarity and the welfare role of the state.
Some still opposed the Republican motto, such as the nationalist Charles Maurras in his Dictionnaire politique et critique, who claimed Liberty to be an empty dream, Equality an insanity, and only kept Fraternity. Charles Péguy, renewing with Lamennais' thought, kept Fraternity and Liberty, excluding Equality, seen as an abstract repartition between individuals reduced to homogeneity, opposing "fraternity" as a sentiment put in motion by "misery", while equality only interested itself, according to him, to the mathematical solution of the problem of "poverty."
Péguy identified Christian charity and Socialist solidarity in this conception of Fraternity. On the other hand, Georges Vacher de Lapouge, the most important French author of pseudo-scientific racism and supporter of eugenism, completely rejected the Republican triptych, adopting another motto, "Déterminisme, Inégalité, Sélection" (Determinism, Inequality, Selection). But, according to Ozouf, the sole use of a triptych was the sign of the influence of the Republican motto, despite it being corrupted in its opposite.
During the German occupation of France in World War II, this motto was replaced by the reactionary phrase "Travail, famille, patrie" (Work, family, fatherland) by Marshal Pétain, who became the leader of the new Vichy French government through a constitutional coup in 1940. Pétain had taken this motto from the colonel de la Rocque's Parti social français (PSF), although the latter considered it more appropriate for a movement than for a regime.
Following the Liberation, the Provisional Government of the French Republic (GPRF) re-established the Republican motto Liberté, égalité, fraternité, which is incorporated into both the 1946 and the 1958 French constitutions.
Many other nations have adopted the French slogan of "Liberty, Equality and Fraternity" as an ideal. These words appear in the preamble to the Constitution of India, enforced in 1950. In the United Kingdom the political party the Liberal Democrats refer to "the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community" in the preamble of the party's Federal Constitution, and this is printed on party membership cards. Related ideals are contained in the German motto "Einigkeit und Recht und Freiheit" (unity and justice and freedom), taken from the German national anthem.
French coins have carried this motto since the beginning of the Twentieth century. Even with the introduction of the euro as the unified currency of the European Union, this motto continues to represent France on her currency.
At one point the motto was used to mark churches which were controlled by the state, rather than the Catholic Church.
The motto used to appear on packs of Gauloises cigarettes.
In astrology, this slogan is used to describe the three zodiac signs of the element of Air: Aquarius (freedom), Libra (equality), and Gemini (brotherhood). The terms are also referred to in the film trilogy Three Colors by Krzysztof Kieślowski.
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