The Transformation of European Politics, 1763-1848

By Paul W. Schroeder | Go to book overview

2 War and Revolution, 1787-1792

THOUGH the wars of the French Revolutionary era predated the Revolution and were not caused by it, there is a certain parallel between the Revolution and the wars in terms of origins and results. The French Revolution arose from the failure of a patriotic reform movement--that is, various efforts by enlightened rulers and ministers, aristocrats, and liberal reformers to make the old regime work better.1 Once started, however, the Revolution in France quickly became a movement for something different and bigger than reform: a powerful, confused, and incoherent effort to replace the old aristocratic-monarchic political order with a new democratic one. In the traditional society of orders, law and governing authority came from the top down, based on tradition, prescription, and religious sanctions, and liberties and rights were corporate privileges based on one's particular status in society. In the new democratic society, the state and the political and social order was to spring from below, from the whole people conceived as a body of free and equal citizens endowed with natural rights; political authority and governmental decisions would rest on the people's will. The concept, though not new, was genuinely revolutionary, particularly for old-regime France and Europe, and, as recent historians have emphasized, the attempt to create new institutions, a new language, and a new political culture embodying the democratic ideal would, more than anything else, make 1789 a memorable turning-point for posterity.2

The quest for democracy, however, quickly became a disastrous failure, producing not liberty, equality, and fraternity, a stable polity, viable institutions, and a durable new political culture, but divisions, disillusionment, chaos, civil war, and rule by force and

____________________
1
It is the failure of patriotism, rather than the search for democracy, that is the key to the revolutions of the late eighteenth century' ( Jarrett, 1973: 93). For further arguments in this general direction, see Doyle ( 1976: esp. 204-13); Gruder ( 1984); Lucas ( 1976); Eisenstein ( 1965-6).
2
For major recent discussions along these lines, see Furet ( 1978); Hunt ( 1984); Baker ( 1987a; 1990); Doyle ( 1980). An interesting comparison between the American Revolution as the natural culmination of American colonial history and the French Revolution as a fiery break with France's is in L. S. Kaplan ( 1979: 422-5).

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