A number of observers, including Karl Marx, argued that the Revolution was the expression of conflict between social classes, with an emerging class of bourgeois capitalists defeating the feudal nobility in the process establishing a new legal order.
The Marxist concept of social class tends to fall apart under rigorous analysis, which is why recent historians have substantially qualified or flatly rejected the Marxist interpretation of the Revolution.
Providing a more satisfactory general theory to explain how and why it all happened has proven to be a continuing challenge.
By 1789, practices and beliefs that had been acceptable in 1614 were considered unjust and irrational.
One idea that had spread into large parts of the population was the idea of sovereignty, or the right to rule, which was derived from the consent of the people rather than from God's will.
The Old Regime's intricate network of special rights and corporate privileges was losing much of its popularity.
The American Revolution had evoked a lot of discussion in France and Europe because of its focus and model of rationality.
The British colonies in North America fought against British tyranny.
The ideals of the Enlightenment were expressed in the Declaration of Independence.
The Americans adopted a constitution that put those ideals into action.
The revolutionaries in America seemed to have shown that a constitutional republic based on popular sovereignty and the protection of individual rights was feasible, in stark opposition to the prevailing belief in Europe that the republican form of government was possible only in a citystate or very small country.
The legitimacy of the violent opposition to tyranny gained increasing support, though that notion had roots in Christian political philosophy, itself looking back to the thought of the Greeks and Romans.
The extent to which the American precedent was relevant for France remained open to question.
The British colonies in North America had a small population of about 2 million by the last years of the 18th century and were culturally and linguistically diverse.
Civil equality, or the equality of the individual citizen under a single legal system, was the meaning that seemed most widely agreed upon in 1789, but Feudalism violated not only individual liberty but also the second element of the revolutionary trinity: equality.
That notion was fundamentally different from the Old Regime's recognition, and sanctification, of legal or civil inequality, according to membership in a hierarchy of corporate entities, involving often great differences in material wealth, social prestige, and political power.
The Old Regime, which was supported by Christian universalism, did recognize equality in one major regard - that is, equality before God, or the equal worth of the human soul in God's eyes - even if such equality found only the faintest expression in the legal rights of the lowest.
The universalism of the Enlightenment was most famously expressed in Thomas Jefferson's "all men are created equal" but it was not meant to imply a belief in the desirability of creation.
"equality" did not mean physical or intellectual equality for Jefferson since he harbored doubts about the equality of those members of the human family coming from Africa.
Civil equality introduced by the French Revolution had definite and revealing limits.
The qualification of "active" and "passive" citizenship was introduced by the constitution of 1791, with wealth determining who was eligible for active citizenship.
Only a small percentage of males voted.
Only a small percentage of people enjoy the right to hold public office.
The electoral procedures of the Old Regime engaged a wider part of the population than the first revolutionary constitution did.
When the Revolution moved in a more egalitarian direction, few revolutionaries contemplated measures designed to encourage economic or social equality.
When Francois Babeuf plotted to seize power and introduce a regime that would actively pursue economic equality by distributing private wealth, price controls were introduced as a way to protect the poor.
During the years of the Revolution, there were very few defenders of the idea of giving equal rights to women.
The ideal of equality, even more than that of liberty, remained uncertain in meaning and application, an unfulfilled legacy for the following years, one that radical leftists believed "the Revolution" would clarify in the direction of greater social and economic equality.
The Revolution's benevolent and optimistic universalism stood out because it wasn't just the rights of French citizens that were proclaimed.
Revolutionaries generally opposed the enslavement of black Africans, and non Europeans born in France could become citizens in principle.
The issue of the status of the Jews, a non-European group, attracted a lot of attention.
The debate over whether Jews should be granted civil equality was the source of an extended and rancorous debate.
The Jews of the day were ruled by separate laws and customs.
Unlike the Protestant population in France, the Jews were not considered European and were not part of Christendom.
Jews in France were thought to be physically and psychically different in many ways, consistent with their foreign origin, different religious beliefs, distinct culture, and separate language.
Civil equality was granted to Jews after a year of deliberations.
The majority in favor of this inclusion was slim, and the nature of the lengthy debates made it clear that even those who supported granting Jews civil equality did so out of an ideological attachment to the concept of human equality and adaptability, not out of respect for the Jews in their present state.
Civil equality of Jews would come up again for serious consideration under Napoleon, after angry dissent in regard to the suitability of Jews as citizens was repeatedly expressed.
Fraternity is the last element of the revolutionary trinity.
This is the most difficult of the trinity to evaluate because of its practical expression in the 1790s and long-term legacy.
Jews and non-Jews in France in the late 18th century did not think of one another as brothers.
The lack of feelings of kinship within large parts of the population living in France was underscored by the Revolution.
The 1790s were characterized by a sense of camaraderie in some parts of the population.
This sense was part of the dynamics of revolution, as revolutionaries joined ranks in the struggle to retain power.
The ideal of Fraternity was an enduring legacy of the Revolution and had implications far beyond French nationalism.
Since a society of social and economic equals can be non-socialist, based on competitive individualism and private property, Fraternity may be even more essential to socialism than equality.
The ideal of Fraternity was part of the Christian heritage.
It looked to the past to see how premodern society emphasized mutual responsibilities and emotional ties.