The French Revolution (1789–99) had the profound political and social effects which marked a turning point in French and European history. It was the first of a series of European political upheavals, in which various groups in French society found common cause in opposing the feudal structure of the state, with its privileged Establishment and discredited monarchy. It began with the meeting of the legislative assembly (the States General) in May 1789, when the French government was already in crisis; the Bastille was stormed in July of the same year. Barnes 1926, 154-155) The Revolution became steadily more radical and ruthless with power increasingly in the hands of the Jacobins and Robespierre. Louis XVI’s execution in January 1793 was followed by Robespierre’s Reign of Terror (September 1793–July 1794). The Revolution failed to produce a stable form of republican government and after several different forms of administration the last, the Directory, was overthrown by Napoleon in 1799. (Barnes 1926, 161) Napoleon, which can be regarded as immediate product of the French Revolution is at the same time its grave digger.
However, despite its defeat this revolution became a powerful source for new ideas and concepts for the development of society. The French revolution created new ideologies to explain its course when nothing suitable could be adopted from the past. It produced the modern doctrine of nationalism, and spread it directly throughout Western Europe, something that has had enormous indirect consequences up to the present. The European wars of 1792–1815, sparked off by the French Revolution; spread both revolutionary ideas and nationalism.
The revolutionary cry of ‘Liberty, Equality, Fraternity,’ had become, to certain extent, the starting point for the nationalism; moreover, the bourgeoisie had started at the revolution beginning. It was this cry of the masses which sent terror to the hearts of nobles and kings. Threatened by the exiled French aristocracy and their foreign sympathizers, the Revolutionists, held together by the new watchword of fraternite, arose as a “nation in arms” to defend their freshly won liberty against the champions of the old regime. Barnes 1926, 174) A vast change took place in the nature of national sentiment as a result of this popularizing force of fraternity. At the close of the seventeenth century Louis XIV held that the state and the monarch were one and the same; at the close of the eighteenth bourgeois officials were declaring that the nation had a glorious existence quite independent of the king. This new Revolutionary watchword of “Fraternity” is really important in the process of popularizing the sentiment of nationalism.
Taking definite form in the days of the French Revolution, under the fair name of fraternity, it appeared as a revolt of a self-conscious people in behalf of their individual liberty and equality against the tyranny or inefficiency of contemporaneous divine-right institutions. By the French idea of fraternity every European country was soon affected, so that formerly latent sympathies were galvanized into most lively sentiments, which could mean that people speaking the same language and sharing the same general customs should be politically united as nations.
As a result of the twenty-three years of general European war following 1792, the national sentiment of well-nigh every European country was transformed from the autocratic and dynastic type to a popular form, which by the terms like state and nation meant the whole population rather than solely the upper classes. This came about either directly, where Napoleon conquered and carried the French reforms, or indirectly, as a defence reaction against the great military genius of the time by the other states which found it necessary to arouse a similar patriotism in their citizens in order to cope with Napoleon.
The French Revolutionary patriotism was carried directly from France into the Rhine provinces, Italy and Poland and appeared as a defence reaction in the Germanies, particularly Prussia, in Spain and its colonies and, to a lesser degree, even in England and Russia. (Barnes 1926, 183) No state in Europe wholly escaped the wave of patriotic enthusiasm that swept over Europe from 1792 to 1815. So long as states were composed of subjects rather than of citizens, the emotions of nationality could scarcely develop.
The French Revolution began in a period of philosophic cosmopolitanism (Voltaire, Diderot, Rousseau), since that was the tradition of the philosophers, – and the French armies undertook to liberate other peoples from their tyrants in the name of the rights of man, not of nations. Nationality is a concomitant of another entity, democracy. And French Revolution represented by Napoleon, in a somewhat perverted fashion, did much to promote the progress of both democratic institutions and of nationality in Western Europe. Europe owes to Napoleon that the plebiscites became a usual practice.
Although, his plebiscites were empty things in practice, they loudly acknowledged the rights of peoples to decide on vital matters. He was a friend of constitutions – so long as he himself made them. Then his attempt to seat brother Joseph on the Spanish throne produced a really national revolt, and led to the Spanish constitution of 1812 and all its later revivals and imitations. (Barnes 1926, 179) In Italy Napoleon stirred a desire for national unity and the expulsion of the foreigner which had been dormant since the days of Machiavelli’s hopeless appeal.
He is the founder of modern Germany. He succeeded in a task which had baffled German emperors from the days of Otto the Great; for in 1803 he so far consolidated Germany’s disrupted territories that the remaining states, enlarged and strengthened, could in time form a strong union and become a great international power. His restrictions on the size of the Prussian army after his victory at Jena suggested to Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and Boyne a subterfuge which made Prussia the military school-master of Europe, and cost the millions of lives since offered up in the cause of nationality. Barnes 1926, 180-181) To these European effects of the influence of the Napoleonic period upon the growth of nationalism should be added the contagion of this process which extended to America. The rise of national independence in Latin America was immediately related to the influence of Napoleon upon Spain. The naval and commercial aspects of the struggle between England and France greatly stimulated that development of national unity in the United States which was involved in the preparation to meet the insults to this country and the ravages on its trade.
So great was the momentum which the popularized sentiment of nationality gained that not even Metternich, the most astute statesman of the first half of the nineteenth century, could check it. (Barnes 1926, 406) In spite of his temporarily successful efforts to leave Italy and Germany mere “geographical expressions” in 1815, the arrangement he produced was cast to the winds by those great nationalistic statesmen Cavour and Bismarck in the unification of Italy and Germany, while the national sentiment surged violently, if with less success in gaining full political expression, in Greece, the Balkans, Bohemia, Poland and Hungary.
But the French Revolution only gave the initial impulse to this new or democratic phase in the development of nationality. A much more profound revolution was already in process of development in the factories and mines of England, and the greatest transformation in the history of the race was there being prepared, which could not fail to have a far-reaching reaction upon the growth of national sentiment and the activities and attitudes of the national states.
Finally it should be mentioned that the French Revolution also had also a profound influence upon domestic policy of European countries. Thus, Britain of that time experienced numerous reform movements, which aimed at right-on revolutionary transformations. The participants of those movements were distinguished by flexibility, pragmatism, and vitality. There were also continuities and collaboration between moderate reform society members, Whig politicians, and those who wished to bring about a revolution in Britain. Barnes 1926, 304) Besides, great degree of collaboration between Irish, British, and French Revolutionaries to coordinate an Irish rebellion, a French invasion, and an insurrection in London was present, and it gave palpability to the revolutionary threat. However the reactions of the united landowners and manufacturers to events in France and their fear against reformers and possible revolution in Britain caused the campaign of repression. Moreover, growing disenchantment with the direction the Revolution in France was taking drove the educated, middle-class members from the reform societies.
All these events together helped strangle the revolutionary impulse in its infancy. However, a democratic tradition had been established and continued to flourish underground. Besides that, Britain was preserved from revolution by the loyalist associations that had been formed to counteract the spread of Jacobinism. Those who joined these organizations, motivated theirs doing by love of country, by a desire to be part of national life, and by patriotism, and in this respect, loyalists represented the nature of Englishmen during these years. Thus one can speak of the French Revolution as the catalyst of nationalism in Britain.
Loyalists successfully disputed with radicalists, asserting that the radical platform is based on a naive perception of the French Revolution and the speculative notion of natural rights. Their arguments appeared for society convincing enough. Moreover, British radicalism lacked the intellectual rationalization capable of attracting leaders from the ranks of the elite, which would have been essential for mobilizing the masses into revolt. In conclusion, this short account leaves no doubts that the French Revolution played a pivotal role in new transformations of social and political life throughout Europe and ran far beyond.