Spread of Revolutionary Principles

Spread of Revolutionary Principles:

The Napoleonic Empire was comparatively short-lived. But it had tremendous importance in spreading throughout Europe, directly or indirectly, certain novel principles which it inherited from the French Revolution. Three are particularly significant.

(1) Individualism, the principle that the unit of society and the basis of government is the individual person and not a corporation. Prior to the French Revolution, and from time immemorial, the pillars of society and government had always been such corporate groups as the family, the class (or “estate”), the gild, the university, the church, etc.; and liberties (or privileges) belonged to corporate groups, rather than to individuals as such. The French Revolution struck a body blow at the historic corporations, and Napoleon did not resuscitate them. “Liberty” and “equality” were for individuals.

(2) Secularism, the principle that religion is a private matter for each individual, and only incidentally a concern of the state. Previously there had always been in every European country some sort of enforced union between church and state; and the church (whether Catholic or Protestant) had usually shared with the state important functions of government, such as the conduct of schools, administration of justice, powers of taxation, etc. Both the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Empire served to deprive the church of historic rights and privileges, and while, forwarding religious toleration, to subordinate the interests of religion to those of secular society.

(3) “Jacobin” nationalism, the principle that the national state is the highest form of political and social organization and rightfully commands the supreme loyalty of all its individual citizens. Some kind of national sentiment had long existed in Europe and was especially evident during the religious upheaval of the 16th century. But until the French Revolution, it had been most often identified, at least on the Continent, with monarchial institutions; kings and princes had been the makers of national states and the central objects of popular loyalty. Now, the Jacobin revolutionaries of France invoked a democratic nationalism. With them, sovereignty becomes popular and national. National interests transcend dynastic and all other interests. Citizens are put in national armies and national schools. National flag and anthem supplant royal ensign and hymn. And if Napoleon lacked Jacobin’s conviction, he did not fail to utilize Jacobin nationalism for his personal ends.

The three foregoing principles were communicated from France to the rest of Europe, during the Napoleonic era, in several ways. In the first place, by means of French territorial expansion, the Netherlands, the Rhineland, and most of the Italian peninsula were subjected to the direct sway of Paris and the immediate jurisdiction of the Code Napoleon. In these areas, Dutchmen and Belgians; Germans and Italians became accustomed to a centralized state and an individualistic society.

Secondly, the construction of a string of dependent states involved revolutionary changes in southern and central Germany in Naples, and in Spain. In these countries, feudalism and serfdom were abolished, religious toleration was guaranteed, and ideas of democratic government and social equality were implanted. Though the dependence of such countries on Napoleonic France was brief, it was long enough to communicate to their populations a taste for the new order.

Thirdly, the meteoric flash of Napoleon’s success awed even his most consistent enemies; and the more thoughtful among them, such as the Baron vom Stein in Prussia, paid him the high tribute of imitation. The social and political “regeneration” of Prussia (and, to a lesser extent, that of Austria) represented a conscious attempt of the absolute monarchies of central Europe to win the enthusiastic support of their peoples by according to them some of the reforms that inspired the French.

Of all the lessons that Europe learned from France during the Napoleonic era, the most common and impressive was nationalism. Frenchmen who paved the way for Napoleon’s amazing career and Frenchmen who militantly bore his banners at Lodi and Marengo, at Austerlitz and Jena, at Madrid and Lisbon, at Friedland and Moscow, were effective messengers of the novel principle of Jacobin nationalism. And they evoked a fairly quick response. In part, this was the result of independent agitation of intellectuals in various countries, who, like the French revolutionaries themselves, had been given a nationalist turn of mind by their reading of 18th-century philosophy and literature. In part, it was the result of sympathy with the French and imitation of them. In greatest part, no doubt, it was the result of growing antipathy to French aggression and Napoleonic dictatorship.

Certainly, Napoleon’s forceful interventions in Germany and Spain were prime factors in arousing a lively popular nationalism in those countries. Likewise, both Italy and Poland drew nationalist inspiration from revolutionary France. Napoleon’s “kingdom of Italy” brought together, for the first time in history, most of the separate city-states in the northern and central portions of the peninsula and stimulated in many of their inhabitants a desire for a united Italy. Simultaneously, the southern (Neapolitan) portion of the peninsula, under the intruded rule of Napoleon’s brother-in-law, Joachim Murat, witnesses the rise of the revolutionary secret society of the Carbonari (“Charcoal-burners”), which aimed at freeing Italy from foreign control and obtaining constitutional government.

In the case of Poland, Napoleon recognized that its recent partition by Russia, Prussia, and Austria had accentuated national sentiment among its people and this fact he took into account when he erected the Polish Grand Duchy of Warsaw (1807). The Grand Duchy supplied him with money and men, including a notable patriot and general, Prince Joseph Poniatowski, who had fought side-by-side with Kosciuszko in the latter’s brave stand against the country’s partition in the 1790s, and who in 1812 commanded the Polish forces in Napoleon’s tragic invasion of Russia. Another noteworthy patriot was Prince Adam Czartoryski, who had also fought beside Kosciuszko for Polish independence, but who later looked for national deliverance to the emotional Tsar Alexander of Russia, rather than to the dictatorial Napoleon.

The Tsar Alexander prided himself upon his “enlightened” benevolence; and with all his ambitious imperialism, he was peculiarly responsive to the nationalist stirrings of the time. He welcomed such patriots as the German Stein and the Polish Czartoryski to his court. In 1809, when he conquered and annexed the Grand Duchy of Finland, he assured its people that he would respect their national language and traditions, their customary laws, and local parliament; autocrat of Russia as he was, he would be constitutional Grand Duke of Finland. Similar pledges he made for the eventual reestablishment of a national kingdom of Poland, with himself as its constitutional King. He encouraged the national awakening in Germany, headed the national Russian resistance to Napoleon in 1812, and assumed the leading role in the subsequent liberation of Europe.

Meanwhile, the newer popular nationalism was developing in the Scandinavian countries. In Denmark, it was fostered by French example and by continuing alliance with Napoleon. In Sweden, it represented a reaction first against Russian aggression and later against Napoleonic dictation. In Norway, which had long been joined with Denmark, a group of patriots, influenced by revolutionary principles, demanded and obtained from the Danish King a national administration in 1807 and a national university in 1811. Then, early in 1814, when Norway was taken away from Denmark and promised to Sweden as compensation for the latter’s loss of Finland, the patriots convened a national assembly (the Storting) which proclaimed the country’s independence, adopted a liberal constitution, and chose a separate King. At this point, Marshal Bernadotte, the acting King of Sweden, intervened and persuaded the assembly to accept his kingship with the understanding that Norway remains “free, independent, and indivisible”.

Even the backward lands of the eastern Mediterranean, within the Ottoman Empire, felt the impact of nationalism. Egypt was particularly affected by Napoleon’s expedition of 1798 and the ensuing presence of British forces; Greece, by the British occupation of the Ionian Islands; Serbia and adjacent Adriatic coastlands by Napoleon’s incorporation of the so-called Illyrian provinces into his Empire. And the war which the Tsar Alexander of Russia waged with the Ottoman Empire from 1807 to 1812 added fuel to nationalist sparks throughout the Balkans.

Prior to the French Revolution, Great Britain was the European country where national patriotism was most highly developed and most broadly disseminated. It was this intense patriotism which kept the British nation superbly united during the protracted and difficult struggle which its Tory government was waged with the French Revolutionaries and Napoleon almost continuously from 1793 to 1815. The outcome was an enhancing of popular British nationalism. The British people as a whole could henceforth boast of the wisdom of Burke and the statesmanship of Pitt, the heroic exploits of Nelson and Wellington, the enlargement of overseas dominion, and the assurance of the freedom of nations on the Continent against French imperialism.

British antagonism to revolutionary France was not shared by a group of “United Irishmen”, who, under the guidance of two Protestant lawyers, Wolfe Tone, and Thomas Emmet, rose in armed insurrection in 1798. The rebellion was suppressed by English troops the leaders were executed or exiled and in 1800, by an enforced Act of Union, Ireland lost all trace of self-government, its separate parliament was abolished, and the country was merged in the “United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland”. Subsequently, in 1803, Robert Emmet, a younger brother of Thomas Emmet, raised anew the standard of revolt, but he was quickly overpowered and put to death. Yet the very failure of the revolt only increased popular nationalist unrest in Ireland.

The new nationalism was the one revolutionary principle that became firmly implanted in Europe during the stormy era from 1789 to 1815. It tended to unite and consolidate each of the several people, at least of Western and Central Europe, and to popularize the idea that each should have a strong national state based on popular sovereignty.

The other revolutionary principles- those of individualism and secularism- were divisive, rather than unifying, forces in several countries. If all Frenchmen were now nationlaistic, there remained a considerable number who were convinced that the leveling process of the Revolution, with its abolition of corporate rights and privileges, its subjugation of the Church, and its abrupt break with past tradition, was quite wrong. Henceforth, in these basic matters of government and society, France was split. There were two Frances, one anti-Revolution, and the other pro-Revolution. And likewise in every country where the revolutionary doctrines permeated, there emerged both opponents and advocates of the new individualism, and the new secularism, of revolutionary “liberty” and “equality”.

The rival groupings may conveniently be labeled “Conservative” and “Liberal”, or “Right” and “Left”. It must be borne in mind, however, that these are very loose designations, and that there were different varieties of Conservative and also of Liberal. The former embraced not only extreme “reactionaries” who wanted to put everything back as it was before 1789, but also persons, especially numerous in Great Britain and fairly so in France, who merely sought to “conserve”, against Jacobin and other revolutionary “excesses”, a constitutional system in harmony with national tradition, such as the oligarchical parliamentary regime in England or the limited monarchy contemplated in the early days of the French Revolution. On the other hand, the Liberals included not only Jacobin extremists but many persons who believed that the revolutionary principles had been subverted by Jacobin and Napoleonic dictatorship and that they should be applied gradually by an elite of brains and wealth.

Broadly speaking, the general European division between liberalism and conservatism, between “left” and “right”, as it appeared in 1815, was social and geographical. The Kings and princes whose sovereignty was questioned; the nobles whose lands and privileges were confiscated or threatened with confiscation; the ecclesiastics whose conscience might be violated or activities abridged: these pillars of the pre-revolutionary era were naturally conservative. On the other hand, most of the bourgeoisie- the professional classes, bankers, traders, manufacturers, and shopkeepers- whose jealousy of the upper classes was sharpened by an ambition to obtain control of national policies and finance; the generality of the Continental universities- professors and students- together with other “enlightened” intellectual drawn from many walks of life; the workman of the town and many a day-laborer in the fields, who felt that any change might add to the contents of his dinner-pail: these groups, restless under the old order, were naturally liberal.

The peasantry, who comprised the large majority of the continent’s population, were swayed between the contending parties: still respectful of authority in state and church, sincerely religious, and innately skeptical of the fine phrases which were on liberal lips, they could at times and in places be reckoned conservative. But there was one important respect in which many peasants doggedly opposed reaction, and that was their attachment to the social achievements of the Revolution- they would be done with feudalism and serfdom, and they would own their own lands. Geographically, it should be noted that on the Continent the farther west one went and the near to revolutionary France one came, the larger proportion of liberals one found, and that, conversely, the farther east one went and the more remote from France, the larger proportion of conservatives one encountered.

For several years after the overthrow of Napoleon the conservatives enjoyed throughout Europe a preponderant influence. There was a renewed loyalty on the part of patriots to the monarchs who had headed the great national uprisings against Napoleon. There was a marked revival of Christianity, and particularly of the Catholic Church. Above all, there was universal horror at the bloodshed and wretchedness that the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars had entailed. Thousands upon thousands of human beings, drawn from every nation and from every social class, had been butchered. Famine, pestilence, crime, and indescribable disease- the attendant miseries of war had walked abroad in every land. Small wonder that the prince, priest, and people united in extolling the blessings of peace! With some justice, the conservative Austrian statesman, Metternich, could avow that “what the European peoples want is not liberty but peace”. To prevent the recurrence of such insurrections as the Revolution had witnessed and of such wars as the career of Napoleon had involved- in a word, to preserve domestic and foreign peace- was a well-nigh universal logging in 1815.

Important Links:

Intellectual Enlightenment
Political Causes of the French Revolution
Economic Causes of the French Revolution
Beginning of the French Revolution
Functions of the Constituent Assembly
Unsuccessful Attempt of the Royal Family to Flee the Country
Phases of the French Revolution
Role of Philosophers in the French Revolution
Nature of the French Revolution
Correlation Between the Objectives and Achievements of the French Revolution
Do you agree that the French Revolution achieved far less than what it intended to achieve?
Triumph of Jacobinism
Transformation of the Republic into a Military Dictatorship
Importance of the French Revolution
The Course of the French Revolution
French Revolution of 1848
The Foreign Policy of Louis Philippe
Causes of the Revolution of February 1848
Short Note on the French Revolution of 1848
Bonaparte Napoleon
Napoleon Ascendency
Consulate Rule and Constitution of 1799
Reforms of Napoleon
Napoleon Concord With Pope
Napoleonic Code
Continental System
Causes of the Failure of the Continental System
Napoleonic Imperialism
Napoleonic War
Short Note on Napoleon Bonaparte
Decline of the Napoleonic Empire
Popular Movement
Metternich and the Vienna Peace Settlement
The United States and the French Revolution, 1789–1799