The Eighteenth-Century Revolution: French or Western?

The Eighteenth-Century Revolution: French or Western?

The Eighteenth-Century Revolution: French or Western?

The Eighteenth-Century Revolution: French or Western?

Excerpt

The late eighteenth century used to be called the "Age of the French Revolution." Many historians continue to believe that the great dramatic events in France of the 1790's dominate the history of this period. During the last twenty years, however, a broader interpretation of the late eighteenth century has gained ground among certain American and French historians, of whom R. R. Palmer is the most articulate. Drawing on the insights gained from the twentieth-century world, in which international revolutions and supra-national blocs have become a commonplace, they have sought to reappraise the currents of the eighteenth century from the point of view a common Western or Atlantic civilization. They are testing a working hypothesis drawn from contemporary experience by applying it to the revolutionary experience of two hundred years ago. Their reassessment of the eighteenth century in terms of a "Democratic Revolution of the West--the thesis which this volume explores--was evidently suggested by the turmoil of yet another revolutionary age, our own.

This shift in emphasis from an "Age of the French Revolution" to an "Age of the Democratic Revolution of the West" raises at least three major problems of historical interpretation. First, was there indeed a truly supra-national revolutionary movement best studied from a Western rather than a national vantage point? Secondly, international or not, are these revolutions best described as "democratic"? Thirdly, even admitting the significance of several revolutions, is revolution the dominant and most meaningful feature of the late eighteenth century?

The factual evidence cited in support of the thesis of an international eighteenth- century revolution is not in dispute. It is undeniable that from the 1760's to the turn of the century, Europe and its transatlantic annex witnessed an astonishing number of political conflicts which may be called revolutionary. The tiny city-state of Geneva was in intermittent turmoil in the 1760's, the 1780's, and again after 1792. The Revolutionary War of the Thirteen Colonies which broke out in the mid- seventies hardly needs a commentary. In 1780, Ireland, and even England, appeared on the verge of major disturbances, if not of revolution. A few years later the Netherlands underwent revolutionary conflict which was ultimately crushed by Prussian intervention. The aristocratic phase of the French Revolution began, according to most historians, in 1787. Two years later, not only did the French Revolution broaden into a mass movement, but there were revolutionary outbreaks at the two extremities of the Hapsburg Monarchy: Hungary and the Austrian Netherlands. From the time of the First Partition in 1772, Poland experienced intermittent reform movements of revolutionary proportions that reached their tragic climax between 1791 and 1794. Holland entered yet another revolutionary phase in 1795. From 1797 on, Italy, Switzerland, and parts of western Germany all had revolutions, supported, but not necessarily instigated, by the victorious armies of the French Republic.

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