The pivotal event of European history in the eighteenth century was the French Revolution. From its outbreak in 1789, the Revolution touched and transformed social values and political systems in France, in Europe, and eventually throughout the world. France's revolutionary regime conquered much of Western Europe with its arms and with its ideology. Though the Revolution was a bloody tragedy, many Europeans and non-Europeans came to see the Revolution as much more than just that. These people were more impressed by what the Revolution accomplished than by what it failed to do. They recalled the Revolution's abolition of serfdom, slavery, inherited privilege, and judicial torture; its experiments with democracy; and its opening of opportunities to those who, for reasons of social status or religion, had been traditionally excluded.

Most substantially, the French Revolution provided the world with its first meaningful experience with political ideology. The immediate effects of the French Revolution was the formulation of the Declaration of the Rights of Man. This was one of the most constructive achievements of the French Revolution. The Rights of Man said that there would be equality of all persons before the law; equitable taxation; protection against loss of property through arbitrary action by the state; freedom of religion, speech, and the press; and protection against arbitrary arrest and punishment.

This document served as a catalyst for the more lasting effects of the Revolution; the ideological legacy it furnished. The revolutionaries advocated individual liberty, rejecting all forms of arbitrary constraint: monopolies on commerce, feudal charges laid upon the land, remnants of servitude such as serfdom, and even (in 1794) black slavery overseas. They held that political legitimacy required constitutional government, elections, and legislative supremacy. They demanded civil equality for all, denying the claims of privileged groups, localities, or religions to special treatment and requiring the equality of all citizens before the law. A final revolutionary goal was expressed by the concept of fraternity, which meant that all citizens regardless of social class, region, or religion shared a common fate in society, and that the well-being of the nation sometimes superseded the interests of individuals. The resounding slogan of Liberty, Equality, Fraternity expressed social ideals to which most contemporary citizens of the Western world would encounter.

One of the most important contributions of the French Revolution was to make revolution part of the world's political tradition. The French Revolution continued to provide instruction for revolutionaries in the 19 th and 20 th centuries, as peoples in Europe and around the world sought to realize their different versions of freedom. Along with offering lessons about liberty and democracy, the Revolution also promoted nationalism. Napoleon's occupation provoked nationalist groups to organize in Italy and Germany. Also influential was the revolutionaries' belief that a nation was not a group of royal subjects but a society of equal citizens.

The fact that most European countries are or are becoming parliamentary democracies, along the lines set out by the French Revolution, suggests its enduring influence. The greatest legacy of the French Revolution, however, was the realization that people could change anything that they wanted with political ideas, words and laws.