The Age of the Democratic Revolution: A Political History of Europe and America, 1760-1800: The Challenge

By R. R. Palmer | Go to book overview

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TWO PARLIAMENTS ESCAPE REFORM

AS WE now, after long considering the American Revolution and its influence, return to pick up the trail of events in a dozen European countries, it is well to look back upon some of the main points staked out since the beginning of this volume. The makings of a great conflict were accumulating in Europe, a conflict that was to reach its height during the last years of the century and that may be called the Great Democratic Revolution, in that it was primarily a revolt against aristocracy in its numerous manifestations. Aristocracy was entrenched in a multitude of constituted bodies -- estates, diets, councils, and parliaments, and in the established churches in view of the social origins of the higher ecclesiastical personnel. The simultaneous growth of both aristocratic and middle-class ideals and ambitions produced stresses of many kinds. By 1774, or the eve of the American Revolution, the constituted bodies were yielding before contrary pressures. On the one hand, enlightened monarchy, in its own way, worked toward a greater equality as among the subjects of government: the Maupeou administration overcame the parlements in France, Gustav III ended the noble hegemony in Sweden, Maria Theresa sought to circumvent the various diets and councils of her composite realms. On the other hand, at Geneva, a kind of democratic or burgher party had asserted itself against the patricians with some success. In England the parliamentary patriciate saw its independence endangered both by King George III, who was determined to subdue the Whig magnates, and by the beginnings of a democratic agitation which held that the House of Commons should be really elected by, and reflect the wishes of, the people whom it was deemed to represent. The American Revolution broke with both Parliament and King. It put into effect many of the ideas of the Enlightenment, and offered the example, through its written constitutions and its constitutional conventions, of the people acting as a constituent power.

In the years between 1774 and 1789, or between the beginnings of

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