The Uses of History, 7 – From France 1812 to Russia, 1917, 4

(Image credit: Web Gallery of Art)

Following the failure of the Decembrist Revolt in 1825 and the accession of Tsar Nicholas I, the vast Russian Empire was locked into extreme reactionarianism. The reformist elements were suppressed and no license was permitted in expressing contrary views to Divine Right for the Tsar under God’s anointing, aristocratic privilege as its corollary, as well as the complete lock on religious life of the Russian Orthodox Church. Dissidents were dealt with harshly, and many went into voluntary exile in Central and Western Europe, where the favourite refuge was, naturally, France, with scattered enclaves in parts of Germany (preferably not Prussia) and Switzerland. For those who did not leave of their own accord, penal settlements in Siberia provided limitless space in which to accommodate them. Let them fulminate among themselves there and contaminate no one else. Isolation in a harsh environment for years might well pacify them, or kill them as they struggled to survive with only pitiful resources and no bully-pulpit to spew forth their poison.

In France, by contrast, as long as the Russian émigrés stayed out of French politics, they were free to meet, discuss, and come and go as they pleased. Charles X, the reactionary King of France (1824-30), concerned himself little with them. They could even publish their own Russian-language news sheet and print books, as long as they did not begin to disseminate unwelcome radical notions among the French citizenry. France had its own radical set to do that. Thus began the long-standing presence of a sizable Russian émigré community in France. Such exists to this very day.

France was no longer a hospitable environment for old-style Absolutism, despite the relapse into something similar under Napoleon. But, as we have previously indicated in this series, there were real differences. Napoleon did not renounce aristocracy per se. He transformed the idea to an aristocracy of merit based on talent and service to the nation (which, as long as he held power, meant himself as the embodiment of France’s greatness). But the principle was not one of hereditary status based on unearned right to rule (Divine Right in the old formulation), but allegiance to the nation, and therefore to the people under the holy Trinity of liberté, égalité, fraternité.

The more reflective and aware of France’s intellectuals and the socially, politically, and economically active citizens understood this and could not support or accept Charles’ foolish and increasingly repressive attempt to turn back the clock. Charles began to face increasingly serious opposition even among the more savvy aristocracy who understood that, unless Charles relented and ceased whittling away the even limited liberal policies of his dead brother, Louis XVIII, another revolution was brewing. And if it erupted, uncontrolled, Royal rule in France might be over for good.

Meanwhile, Charles had attempted to create a distraction by sending an expeditionary force to Algeria in 1828. Isn’t a nice little war always a good distraction for a dissatisfied people? Wouldn’t it be like a pressure relief valve on one of those new-fangled steam-engines that were invading the industrial world?

The Algerian tribes proved a tougher nut to crack than anticipated. The expeditionary force had to be repeatedly reinforced, and losses mounted. The justification was the elimination of pirates from the western Mediterranean, but the real objective was to lend some military glory to an increasingly unpopular regime, and, nominally, to bring Christianity (Roman Catholicism) to the Islamic infidels by showing that the Christian God was superior. Doesn’t lending a bit of crusading élan to naked aggression palliate otherwise base oppression? We don’t have to look to the past to see this in action in many places even in the 21st Century, and not only among the nominally once-Christian nations of the West or Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

In the spring of 1830, with things bogged down both at home and abroad, the economy stagnating, and new repressive measures at hand to ban all criticism of the government and reduce even further the voting franchise, the reformists decided it was time to get rid of this hated monarchy. On July 27, with the King’s agents seeking to snuff out the opposition and purify Paris of the increasingly restive populace’s growing protests, the shades of Jacobinism resurfaced. Mobs took to the streets and barricades went up. (For readers of Les Misérables, this is the background of the famous odyssey of Jean Valjean carrying Mario on his back through the sewers of Paris.)

But what, or who, should replace the hated Bourbons? Another republic? God forbid! For the haute bourgeoisie of Paris and France, who were now the real power-élite, a return to Jacobinism (the term for the most radical socialist and egalitarian ideology of the Revolution) with its anarchy and chaos was unthinkable! Jacobin elements were not hard to find in the shadows of Paris’ salons and clubs, disguised under many names. To preserve France they had to be nipped in the bud.

Should they return to Bonapartism? Bonapartists could be found around every corner in France. The dead Emperor haunted the national soul. But to have an avowed Bonapartist in power would mean almost instant war with the old foes of Austria and Prussia, and very likely Russia. England would probably take a wait-and-see approach, but the continental Great Powers would not have great difficulty in subduing an unprepared France in 1830.

The voting Middle Class and many others aspiring to access the franchise found a compromise that might just convince France’s wary old enemies to accept a major change of regime. His name was Louis-Philippe, and he was the scion of the Orléaniste branch of the Bourbons. He had been a vocal critic of his cousin, King Charles X. He had many moderate contacts and solid credentials. He was an avowed advocate of moderate reforms and an expanded franchise, freedom of the press and religion, and the new government of meritocracy rather than hereditary privilege.

In late July 1830 things came to a head. The King ordered the disbandment of the Paris National Guard, which was largely made up of the male citizens of Paris’ Middle Class, who were calling for Charles to abdicate. He also ordered the closing of or severe restrictions on almost all the newspapers, who were also calling for an end to Charles’ mounting tyranny. Riots and demonstrations followed almost every day for weeks.

Maréchal Marmont, the commander of the Army in Paris and one of Napoleon’s Marshals who had turned against his former Emperor in March 1814, now tacitly turned against the King. A liberal, without actually sending troops to aid the revolutionaries, he simply refused to call in the necessary reinforcements to quell the cascading revolt. He did not want the streets of Paris running with blood. Blood nevertheless flowed as troops at first mostly followed orders. But gradually the enlisted men and field officers began to desert in droves rather than massacre the populace. When the King’s last loyal troops, ironically another Swiss Guard (King Louis XVI’s last loyal troops in 1792 had been a previous Swiss Guard incarnation and had died to the last man), deserted rather than repeat the fate of their national forebears, Charles was forced to abdicate in favour of his cousin, Louis-Philippe.

While this upheaval has been labelled the “bourgeois revolution”, for the French Middle Class were the big winners, the lessons were not lost on the underclasses still waiting for their fair share of liberté, égalité, fraternité.

Louis-Philippe was granted a throne with more limited powers under a reinforced constitutional monarchy, leaving much more power for the new ruling class to enjoy. His reign was recognized as based on popular sovereignty, the will of the people, rather than any sort of inherited or pre-ordained right.

Louis-Philippe was titled “King of France”, but he sat a shaky throne. He escaped several assassination attempts – both from ultra-Royalists and radical Republicans who were unhappy, declaring that the 1830 Revolution was hardly worthy of the name. Much unfinished business remained. Revolts against his rule failed in 1831,1840, and 1841. The bourgeois National Guard helped crush all of them.

A period of prosperity and rapid economic growth followed, but by late 1847 the embers of Revolution were once more glowing bright. The growing Russian émigré community in exile was watching closely and learning.

On the continent of Europe, France was the key to everything that had happened since 1789, and would be once more in 1848, an unforgettable year by any measure.

NEXT TIME: 1848, a Workshop in Revolution.

Published by VJM

Vincent is a retired High School teacher and an ordained Christian minister in Ontario, Canada. He is an enthusiastic student of History, life, and human nature. He has loved writing since he was a kid. He has been happily married for over 45 years and has 4 grown children and nine grandchildren. He and his wife ran a nationally successful Canadian Educational Supply business for home educators and private schools for fifteen years. Vincent has published Study Guides for Canadian Social Studies, a biography of a Canadian Father of Confederation, and short semi-fictional accounts of episodes in Canadian History. He is currently working on a number of writing projects in both non-fiction and fiction. Vincent is a gifted teacher and communicator.

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