The Uses of History, 8 – From France, 1812 to Russia, 1917, 5 – 1848

Man is born free but is everywhere in chains. –

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on the Origins of Inequality, 1754.

An epic heroism has shone forth in the personal struggles of Socrates, of Paul and Augustine, of Luther and Galileo, and in that larger cultural struggle, borne by these and by many less visible protagonists, which has moved the West on its extraordinary course. There is high tragedy here. And there is something beyond tragedy.

Richard Tarnas, Preface to The Passion of the Western Mind, 1991

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free; stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be bound again by a yoke of slavery.

– Paul the Apostle, Letter to the Galatians, 5:1 (New International Translation), ca 50 CE

(Photo credit – Wikipedia – a Paris street barricade on June 25, 1848 before the Army assault)

The situation of the world in the closing weeks of 2021 would require none of the thinkers quoted above to change a word of what they wrote.

The earliest of them, the Apostle Paul, St. Paul to many Christians, was writing to a group of recent converts to Christianity (a term with which they would not yet be familiar) in the Roman province of Galatia, which was in what is now central Turkey. The freedom he was urging them to preserve was not political in any immediate sense, but spiritual and social. The slavery he referred to was slavery to old habits of sin and dependence on moral-religious legalism defined by many constraining practices that had little to do with living in relationship with their Risen Lord.

1700 years later, Rousseau lamented that so little had changed, despite the passage of many centuries since Christianity had become the dominant cultural and religious paradigm of the West. The bright hope and promise of what Paul had so earnestly striven to both demonstrate and inculcate among the first generation of Jesus-followers had long given way to the stultification of another regime of laws and rules and penalties to control people’s religious, political, social, economic, and cultural behaviour.

Rousseau had himself grown up in ultra-Calvinist Geneva, been mentored by a priest in Italy, then corrupted by an older rich Italian patroness. He had fled to France to find his way among the smart set of the rising philosophe­s who were challenging all the old dogmas and social restrictions justified by the “Divine Order” of Church and State whose nabobs jointly ruled the most powerful nation in Europe.

This is perhaps part of what Tarnas’ 1991 diagnosis of the whole saga of the West’s intellectual and cultural heritage as “beyond tragedy” may refer to. A deep spiritual, social, and cultural PTSD underpins the West’s long and winding road to its present soul-crisis, which we now also see manifesting as acute socio-economic-political turmoil. As Tarnas says, it is indeed “high tragedy” and even “beyond tragedy”. As an ancient proverb says, “Hope deferred sickens the heart.”

Many would say that the root of it all is the bitterness of the continual failure of the West’s quest for the Holy Grail of “freedom”. As we survey the long tale of the emergence, ascent to hegemony, and now precipitate decline of the “high civilization” of the West, once called “Christendom”, there is certainly no lack of tragedy – high hopes, bright promise, tragic loss and bitter disappointment. The brief moment of what appeared to be the sublime triumph of Western-style liberal democracy in the 1990s did not last for more than a decade before ominous dark clouds appeared again. Today, those clouds are bringing forth truly alarming major thunder.

An apocalyptic ending is not necessarily inevitable, at least not yet. But, as Yeshua-Jesus once said, we need to be alert and awake and reading the signs. “When the Son of Man” (a title he often used in reference to himself) “returns, will he find faith in the earth?” In his riddle, faith refers to trust, trust in a living relationship with the central figure that stands at the heart of the West’s long story. Many now resent the fact that the central figure of the West’s story remains, to this day, Yeshua/Jesus of Nazareth. They would rather say that it is anyone or anything other than the “Son of Man” who still haunts our dreams through a tremendous legacy of now dashed high hopes.

For Jesus said “If the Son [of Man] sets you free, you shall be free indeed.” The deepest desire of every living human, bred in the bone, is to “be free indeed” and no longer held “by a yoke of slavery.” Just because we have left the ultimate source of these sublime hopes and ideals behind doesn’t mean we have abandoned the ideal. But left to ourselves it seems we cannot get there.

That is what Rousseau passionately understood. He had left behind allegiance to the religion that professed Jesus as Saviour, but was wise and passionate enough to mourn for his own and the whole of humanity’s loss. His own ultimate failure to find another center to fill the void made him a bitter and lonely man for the rest of his life. His brilliant mind and passionate heart could not create another core by its own strength of will. Rousseau is indeed the archetype of so much of the modern and post-modern West’s tortured psyche and tumultuous story.

Contemporaneously with Rousseau, “Freedom” is what the American Revolutionaries of 1775-83 knew they wanted. At least they thought so within the limits of a carefully crafted and limited rational version of it. Many of them based this core-passion of their lives on Rationalism, Reason, and Science, the new substitutes for the old Holy Trinity. They held that these great gifts could be enjoyed without relationship to the Giver, having satisfactorily and “reasonably” shunted the Creator to a minor role in this world.

Freedom (Liberté) is what the Girondins, Jacobins, Hébertistes and other ideologues of the French Revolution declared as their great goal. They set out to build it into their new Republic in 1792, even as they overthrew the French Monarchy and executed its King in January 1793. To ensure Liberty, they then launched the Terror to expunge the relics of the Royal regime. Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité quickly became another rationalization of vengeance and purification by blood-letting à outrance. To highlight their new truth they even created a quasi-religious pageant dedicated to the Goddess Reason, dressing a Paris prostitute in classic robes and derisively crowning her in Notre Dame Cathedral.

The problem with successful revolutions (as with battles and wars) is what the victors decide to do with their victory. All the high passion and strident rhetoric about freedom all too often disappear in an orgy of violent retribution upon the former oppressors. Between 1793-4, the Terror in France is said to have beheaded 30 000 “traitors” before it was ended by its chief perpetrator, Robespierre, taking his turn at the guillotine. The “Terror Phase” of revolution is usually followed by new sets of restrictions and limitations to control embittered losers and other dissidents, and firmly entrench the new definers of freedom in control with their hands on the machinery of State and jurisprudence. The Church is either cowed into official acquiescence or driven underground by persecution.[i]

Thus, as we turn our attention to France once more following the successful July Revolution of 1830, the beneficiaries of the new regime were not principally the workers and artisans or even the regular Middle Class, but the rich and powerful untitled class who controlled the national finances and business establishment. While concessions such as freedom of the press, religion, and some forms of association were permitted, most of the hopes for moderate reform were disappointed. The vote remained limited to a miniscule one-percent minority of the wealthiest.

In 1847, after seventeen years of this oligarchy headed by King Louis-Philippe, it began to unravel. The thirst for freedom could not be squelched forever. Political assemblies had been banned as the economy went sour and the always brooding and frustrated reformers had become more and more vocal in calling for an end to a blatantly anti-democratic regime. When meetings were banned, they began holding banquets where all the speakers advocated for political and social liberalization such as had been advancing in England since the Reform Act of 1830. England’s relative gradual success in shedding the worst aspects of reactionary repression following the Napoleonic era spared it from what exploded on the Continent in the late winter of 1848.

Once more, France led the way. On February 24, 1848, after three days of street fighting, marching, and violent protests, coupled with the refusal of the Middle-Class National Guard to obey orders to suppress the rebels and the steady desertion of the regular troops who were ordered to suppress the mobs, Louis Philippe’s government fell and he abdicated in favour of his son. But the provisional government which seized control was dominated by Republican reformers. Before long, the Provisional government declared its new regime to be the Second French Republic.

The tocsin sounded all across Europe as liberal reformers and a rising socialist wave took to the streets in all the major capitals and many minor ones from Berlin to Rome and Vienna.

By summer much of the fever-mist of the “Spring of Hope”, as 1848 was dubbed, was giving way to less sanguine outcomes from the revolutionary perspective. (Similar to what happened in the recent “Arab Spring” of 2011-12.) The liberal middle-class in most of the venues where uprisings occurred against reactionary absolutism did not have “the killer instinct” to push their advantage home. In Austria, a new Emperor named Franz-Josef took power. He proved to have much more steel in his spine than his predecessor. The military was ordered to end the rebellion, and, apart from a year-long desultory civil war with the Hungarians who sought equality with or independence from Austria, the rebellion swiftly faded out from Lombardy to Croatia to Vienna to Prague.

By contrast, King Frederick-William of Prussia did not want to spill blood. Instead, he simply waited for the liberals to demonstrate their inability to organize the new unified Germany they were calling for, then dismissed their convention. He did however grant significant concessions and reforms within his own territory. He was warned by resurgent Austria not to accept the offer of the Crown of a united Germany or face war with them.

The last word once more went to France. By late April, the dissatisfied Socialist radicals saw the new republic being suborned by the business and middle classes once more, although with a much wider franchise and more freedoms. What was on offer by June under the proposed new constitution proved a bitter disappointment to the labouring classes and those with socialist ideals. By this point Karl Marx’s The Communist Manifesto was circulating with great effect, and the old Jacobin ideas had been renewed with greater clarity. They wanted a “Social Republic”. In June, the National Workshops which provided a bare minimum to unemployed workers were closed by the Constituent Assembly. The failure to produce meaningful recognition of workers’ rights and needs resulted in a mass revolt in Paris where a Commune was proclaimed and barricades went up all over the city.

This time, the newly-minted “legitimate” administration did not hesitate and the National Guard obeyed orders to contain the spread of anarchy while the regular troops under the ruthless General Cavaignac moved into the city en masse with artillery batteries. The “June Days” (June 23-26) saw Paris turned into a battlefield and the streets of whole arrondissements literally flowing with blood. An estimated 3000 insurgents and 1500 soldiers died before the revolt was ruthlessly crushed. Refugees and fugitives that could fled to Germany, and many made their way to England. 4000 were deported to Algeria, which was becoming France’s penal colony, as Australia was for the United Kingdom. Queen Victoria’s stable realm was by this point seen as the richest, safest, freest, and sanest nation in Europe.

Unlike what happened in Austria, the slaughter in France was not the work of an oligarchy or a Royal tyranny. This was full-on class war in what was then considered the greatest city in Europe and perhaps the world. A republican regime had done this to fellow citizens in the name of liberté, égalité, fraternité! Karl Marx looked like a true prophet, but, no longer welcome in France, he eventually made his way to England to write articles and, eventually, his masterpiece, Das Kapital.

Nevertheless, 1848 had deep, far-reaching consequences, despite what looked largely like another victory for the reactionaries. Some real steps toward that elusive ideal of freedom seemed to have been made.


[i] The same pattern can be observed over and over in the corporate world – without the bloodshed of course, unless it be in a “Family” firm such as the Mafia. The pattern is a universal phenomenon of human behaviour. Even religious zealots indulge in it in the name of “love” or “truth”.

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.

The Uses of History, 6 – From France 1812 to Russia, 1917, 3

“The English are the only people upon earth who have been able to prescribe limits to the power of Kings by resisting them, and who, by a series of struggles, have at last established … that wise government where the prince is all powerful to do good, and at the same time is restrained from committing evil … and where the people share in the government without confusion.”

Voltaire in Letters Concerning the English Nation.

(Rousseau – Image credit – Wikipedia)

The use of the term “revolution” to describe a great turn-about in some area of culture and society has been devalued and banalized by hyperbole in commercial and technological advertising. Even normal political “evolution” has been denigrated in this way of describing almost any notable change of policy as “revolutionary”.

However, the true “Age of Revolutions” began with the English Civil Wars of 1642-49. Without rehearsing the long lead-up to that seminal event, we cannot neglect its significance as a deep root of all the political revolutions that have followed in European and World History since then. Yet this event is now almost invisible in our overview of the most important events of Western and World History.

The events in England in those years settled a very basic question in one of the world’s major monarchies. The foremost reason the British Monarchy has endured to this day is because it was settled then, once and for all, that Parliament, the elected representatives of the English people (although it was then selected by a small minority of English adult male voters), could and did prescribe specific limits to the authority and reach of the Monarch and his agents. Once the principle was established and enshrined constitutionally, the rights of the people must increase and gain ascendancy over time, and increasingly so over generations.

This was confirmed by “the Glorious Revolution of 1688” when the last of the Stuart Kings attempted to restore absolutism and was driven out of Britain for good for his arrogant presumption. His successors, King William and Queen Mary, swore to respect and uphold the authority and rights of Parliament henceforth and forever.

Thus it was that several of France’s key philosophes (the intellectual ancestors of the French Revolution, such as Voltaire, Rousseau, and Montesquieu) extolled the example of England as a balanced approach to limiting (de-absolutizing) absolute monarchy and deconstructing feudalism while elevating the educated populace to a position of near, if not then complete, equality under law and in social, political, and economic status.

However, it is a fallacy to think of the Enlightenment Progressives as “democrats” in the way we use that term today. The preferred Enlightenment model of government, at least on the European continent, was “Enlightened Despotism”. Even Voltaire, who had lived in England and come to admire it, and was himself a multi-millionaire if his income were calculated in current equivalents, strove to promote Enlightened Despotism by corresponding and even visiting monarchs such as Frederick II of Prussia, whom he saw as a hopeful exemplar. Apparently, to his thinking, the English example was a peculiar aberration that could not be emulated elsewhere. Inevitably he was disillusioned by Frederick, for a “Despot” is an absolute monarch by definition. For a pragmatist such as Frederick II, restraint is a matter of the exigencies of present political, social, and economic need. When Voltaire’s “great hope” launched calculated aggressive war on his neighbours to gain territories and other advantages, his disillusionment was great indeed.

Montesquieu admired Great Britain’s balance of power in the political, social, and economic spheres. We may justly call him the “Father of Political Science”, and his laser-like insights were collected in The Spirit of Laws” in which he outlined the fine division of powers among the three “branches of government” in England – Parliament, the Legislative, or law-making, Branch, the Monarchy, or Executive Branch, and the Courts, or Judiciary Branch. Montesquieu posited that such a division was essential to avoid the abuses of Absolutism and the onset of Despotism, no matter how “enlightened” a specific sovereign might prove to be. Divine Right, if it existed at all, was with the people, not an individual claiming a sort of demi-god status anointed by the Deity.

Neither Voltaire nor Montesquieu named France’s monarchy and bloated aristocratic elite as the chief object of their eloquent criticism of Absolutism in all its forms, but their writings were perilously close to seditious in the climate of the times before the revolution broke out.

In the long run, the most influential of all the “Big Three” thinkers of the French Enlightenment was Rousseau. Rousseau stands apart. As a brilliant thinker and writer in his own right, he shocked even the trendy, progressive “salon set” with his radicalism between 1754 and his death in 1778. He further scandalized the elite social set by deliberately affronting the ethical and moral standards of the day. He was an iconoclast par excellence. Having made the fashionable rounds and enjoyed extensive patronage to gain fame and even notoriety, he refused to conform to expectations to settle down as a well-mannered participant in the theoretical discussions about how things ought to change in the proper proportion and desired direction. He wrote extensively and his books were best-sellers. His caustic style spared no one, but whatever he wrote gained a wide audience. He even dared critique the Enlightenment`s new ultimate idol, Reason, as the only source of wisdom and knowledge and the only way to understand any great issue.

Rousseau has been labeled many things – the Great-Grandfather of Communism, the Great-Grandfather of Fascism, the Grandfather of Romanticism. Such contradictory epithets almost beggar comprehension – unless you read him closely and extensively!

He was a divergent thinker and actor, not easy to categorize; he was a proto-revolutionary!

The primary radical movers of the French Revolution (especially the Jacobins) saw Rousseau, not Voltaire or any of the others, as their real inspiration. Rousseau despised the aristocrats. He saw the King as their dupe. He considered most of the mainstream philosophes as compromised – ready to do business with the old noblesse, to enjoy the privileges of special status in the intellectual salon-clubs while telling everyone else how to fix the nation. He roundly criticized the smart-set as enemies of true equality, mainly concerned with widening the circle of privilege and expanding the sharing of social and economic advantage with the most worthy, up-and-coming nouveaux-riches and practitioners of Reason (themselves) who could guide the future of the State and society. Even though he had lived in exile, Voltaire fell into this pit in Rousseau’s mind, although a little less. The famous Voltaire quip, “I may not agree with what your say but I will defend your right to say it to the death,” may well have been aimed at Rousseau.

When we seek to understand why, above all the other nations and peoples of Europe, France became the pilot-house, the cock-pit of Revolution, we must see it as the birthplace of most of the radical strains of ideology that later emerged as modern Socialism, Communism, and the laboratory where such things were tested in proto-type. As we have pointed out previously, the incredible tidal wave of fervent political and social activism that swept out of France from 1789 forward and surged into every nook and cranny of Europe would penetrate deep into Russia.

But the most toxic fruit of those seed would not emerge until 1917. The growth of that tree and its shoots is still with us in 2022.


The Uses of History, 5 – From France to Russia, 1812-1917, 2

(Image credit – Wikipedia)

Napoleon died in exile in 1821 on the small British-held island of St. Helena in the middle of the South Atlantic Ocean.

The Emperor was dead, but his legend was not, nor were the enormous repercussions of his revolutionary legacy. Napoleon had self-servingly but not entirely wrongly advertised himself as the stabilizer of Europe and its liberator all at the same time. To a considerable degree, he was what he claimed to be while he held power. The “liberation” was heavily tempered by militarism and the constant danger of secret-police arrest for sedition against the Emperor, but European culture and society were in rapid reformation and were, by and large, experiencing a significant advance in the recognition of personal liberties, constitutional rights, uniform and more equitable laws and social conditions, and economic opportunities. The ideals these pointed to were spread all over Europe as the French shakos marched everywhere from Portugal to Poland, and French bureaucrats and judicial officials followed in their wake, rewriting constitutions and legal systems.

Like any great conqueror and dictator, the Emperor sought to institutionalize and legitimize his rule and actions. His self-justifying memoirs were a best-seller in France and Europe when posthumously published, despite the desire of the reactionary Bourbon Kings Louis 18 and Charles 10 to repress them. Louis enjoyed a relatively peaceful, if rather short reign (1815-24). He had the good sense to allow a small minority of well-to-do middle-class and prosperous businessmen to elect a Legislative Assembly, even if it had very limited powers. He allowed a modicum of freedom of the press and assembly. Louis did not abolish all Napoleon’s reforms, for he understood that it was impossible to turn back the clock to pre-revolutionary days and hand back all the old aristocratic estates, prerogatives, and privileges, or to restore all the immense property and influence which the Roman Catholic Church had enjoyed until 1791.

Besides, Louis had intelligent advisers reminding him that the Napoleonic system had really unified France and given the central government, which was now the Royal Government, an efficient professional bureaucracy, effective control of education and finance, a universally applicable legal system not bounded by long-outmoded old feudal boundaries and traditions, and a truly effective centralized police establishment. The national constabulary was still run by Napoleon’s architect, Fouché, who, like Napoleon’s Machiavellian Foreign Minister, Talleyrand, knew which side his bread was buttered on and smoothly switched allegiances at the right time by demonstrating his own indispensability.

Louis even allowed some of the Napoleon-created Imperial nobility to retain their titles, although not respecting all the land-grants the Emperor had made to his aristocracy of merit (or nepotism). He told many of the old nobility seeking redress and revenge that to undo the last thirty years was simply impossible, and, while he would not revoke their old titles if they chose to identify themselves by them, he would not award them compensation either – although he usually gave them a lump-sum or perhaps a stipend to tide them over while they found their way in the new social and economic reality of post-1815 France. Most of the revolutionary and Napoleonic reforms stood.

But his successor and younger brother Charles X (1824-30) was a reactionary fool who had disagreed vehemently with his brother’s policies even while he lived, and declared that he meant to undo most of the Revolution’s and the “Monster’s” [Napoleon] work of modernization, despite the clear historical proof that it had made France a European super-power. He also intended to restore all the glory of the old noblesse and the Roman Catholic Church.

What was the connection to Russia in all this? In December 1825, a group of young, idealistic Russian army officers decided it was time to force the lumbering, backward apparatus of Tsarism into the modern age. While the Great Patriotic War against the Emperor of the French had galvanized the Russian Empire led by the heroic Tsar Alexander 1 in a herculean effort that led to Napoleon’s ultimate downfall, the virus of Revolution had already spread to Russia in four successive waves (shades of COVID!).

The first wave was in the first Russian intervention in the wars of Central and Western Europe at the turn of the 19th Century. Russian troops were sent to help bring down the revolution and restore “legitimate” sovereignty. The new Tsar, Alexander 1, sought to prove himself a worthy successor of Peter the Great and Catherine the Great and a serious role-player in greater European (and world) affairs, not a mere regional power in Eastern Europe and northern Asia.

In alliance with Austria, in 1800 a Russian Army had penetrated all the way to Switzerland and was poised to invade France. It was at this critical juncture that “Bonaparte” returned to France from Egypt and saved the Republic and all the gains and reforms won for the French nation and people (especially the politically dominant middle class) since 1789. It was the first time Napoleon’s armies defeated Russian troops, driving them deep back into Austrian territory, although the French Army in Switzerland was commanded by another of France’s best generals. When Napoleon forced Austria into a humiliating peace after his great victory at Marengo, Alexander called his troops home.

This was the first major exposure of young Russian intelligentsia and officers (mostly recruited from Russia’s minor aristocracy and the boyar-class who were similar to the English gentleman-class) to the wide gap in culture and progress between Russia’s enshrined and immovable aristocratic stranglehold on any advance and reform and that of the rest of Europe. The Tsar, seen as a quasi-demigod in his own right, was sacred and untouchable, but he was surrounded by a wall of intransigent, immovable relics bearing high titles, immense wealth, and holding the mass of the Russian population in the almost slavish conditions of serfdom with little to no hope of change.

When Alexander had acceded to power in 1801, the idealists had placed high hopes that he, a young man himself, could be shown and persuaded that things had to change for the sake of the Russian people and the Empire itself. By 1825, the lower-grade officers (ranks below general – Generals and Marshals could only be upper-level nobles) had lost hope in Alexander or any of the established authorities of ever being willing or able to allow even the most modest reforms.

This second Russian intervention in Central Europe came in 1805. Subsidized by British money, a large Russian forced once more joined with Austria (also financed by Britain) to move rapidly into Germany to threaten Napoleon’s rear as he prepared to invade England. (This threat ended with British Admiral Horatio Nelson’s famous utter smashing of the combined French and Spanish fleets at Trafalgar in October 1805.)

While the young Russian officers did their duty and the rank-and-file stolidly did what they were told, in a combined campaign with the Austrians they were completely out-manoeuvred and suffered one of the most crushing defeats in military history at Austerlitz in December 1805. Once more, Austria was defeated and occupied by triumphant French forces. Napoleon wintered his “Grand Armée” in Vienna and the core territory of Austria to drive home his power. Austria was forced into the French orb for the next eight years, while the remnant of the Russian army withdrew to the newly annexed Russian part of Poland with Alexander still refusing to make peace with “the Monster” and “the Usurper”.

However, the moderate Francophile elements in Russia’s middle-class and minor nobility could not avoid being powerfully impressed by the evidence of change and progress they had met and kept meeting in foreign lands to the West of Mother Russia. They could not help thinking that Russia must accept such new ways too if it were not to be left behind. It was evident that the power of these changes and new perspectives had turned France into Europe’s super-power with the whole nation behind its supremacy in the political, social, and cultural realms. Alexander eventually made peace with Napoleon in 1807 after another defeat, and in the wake of Napoleon’s complete crushing and humiliation of Prussia in 1806. Prussia had been the only other major land-power still standing until then. Like Austria, it was completely humiliated and forced to ally with Napoleon, giving up huge tracts of territory and submitting to severe limitations on its army and political independence.

The third “wave” of exposure to the revolutionary virus for the Russian minor nobility and gentry was during the “Great Patriotic War” of 1812-14 when Napoleon sought to invade and coerce Russia to adhere to his “Continental System”, but failed. We have already discussed this, but during that war the virus penetrated to the very heart of Mother Russia. It did not retire with Napoleon’s beaten army as 1812 drew to a close.

The fourth wave was during the Russian occupation of Paris and parts of France following Napoleon’s abdication in 1815. The Russian army and swarms of Russian civilians followed the army into the heart of “revolutiondom”. Despite the Bourbon dynasty’s return to France, all the ferment and undertow of the revolutionary-Napoleonic tsunami were still pulsating and swirling. The example of so much exposure to new ideas and perspectives journeyed home with the last withdrawing Russian contingents in 1818.

In 1818, the Tsar joined with the Emperor of Austria and the King of Prussia to assume the role of arbiters of legitimacy in all of Europe east of France. All revolts and insurrections aiming for greater rights and liberties for the common people were ruthlessly crushed henceforward, and Poland and Italy in particular felt the wrath of “the League of Three Emperors” and “their Most Christian Majesties”, although King Frederick-William of Prussia was technically not an emperor. This was the clincher for the fading hopes of the Russian reformists. It confirmed the hopelessness of Russia’s fossilization symbolized by Alexander’s now ossified “delusion”, in their minds, of being God’s anointed instrument in crushing the godless French Emperor.

In December 1825 the Tsar died unexpectedly of typhus. The desperate wannabe Russian proto-revolutionaries decided to act before the still more reactionary successor, Nicholas I, could consolidate his rule, revolted, and briefly threatened the whole Tsarist system with chaos and overthrow. They failed. The seeds of all this had been long-before sown in and from and through France.

The wind had been sown; the whirlwind would follow.


The Uses of History, 4 – From France to Russia, 1812-1917, 1

(Image credit Wikipedia)

On June 22, 1812, Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor of the French, sent his massed armies into the immense expanse of the Russian Empire. Never before in history had anything like it been seen: 650 000 French and French allied troops representing most of the peoples of Europe invaded the last European land-power still daring to oppose “the Emperor”, as Bonaparte had now become known.

Those Napoleonic armies stood for much more than the overreach of the most successful military commander in European History up to that time. They stood for the essence of the new kind of modern state arising, willy-nilly, out of the crumbling debris of the old feudal order which had held European society in its grip since the last previous great pan-European Emperor, Charlemagne (768-814 CE), 1000 years before.

Napoleon was well aware of the parallels. He loved to exploit the symbolism of the new order supplanting the old. His aristocracy was merit-based, not inherited regardless of merit. The French Republic he had overthrown had given him the basic tools, but he had honed them into the well-oiled, administratively efficient modern state aiming to bring Europe into being the next great age in its evolution – a United States of Europe under the incarnation of the Enlightened Despot ideal of the philosophes. Needless to say, he was that incarnation.

Napoleon’s Grand Armée had a mission everywhere it went – to plant not only the French flag but the French Enlightenment ­à la [mode de] Napoléon. All this can be read from Napoleon’s memoirs, written from his final exile on St. Helena in the mid-South Atlantic Ocean between 1815 and 1821.

Now, over 210 years later, we live in the all-but-invisible shadow of everything that ensued from the whirlwind epoch of France’s nearly complete conquest of Europe.

If we are conscious of any of this as we historically sleepwalk towards our own version of Armageddon in the 21st Century CE, it is usually with only the vaguest notions. “Napoleon? O yeah, wasn’t he some guy from France who tried to conquer Europe? When was that again? Couldn’t have been that big a deal, could it? After all, those people were still using single-shot smooth-bore muskets and wonky cannons that couldn’t shoot farther than a couple of kilometers.”

With two horrendous World Wars under our belts since then, and some very nasty revolutions that killed more tens of millions, the events of those far-off days pale in comparison – don’t they? The ten million dead of the European wars fought from 1792-1815 wouldn’t think so.

In all overall sense, if we just want a crude body-count, it would seem that that far-off first “total war” in world-history was not so impressive. But its human cost was half of that of World War One inflicted on a much smaller population. Furthermore, major battles of that time lasted a single day or perhaps two, or at most three, not weeks. Yet they left proportionately far higher body counts than most combats in either World War – even using the “crude” weapons of that day. Borodino, fought on September 7, 1812 over about 14 hours, about 100 km west of Moscow, at the height of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, inflicted almost 100 000 casualties out of approximately 270 000 combatants. Waterloo, the last battle of the Napoleonic wars on June 18, 1815, inflicted 58 000 casualties on approximately 155 000 combatants in the space of seven hours of relentless slaughter – more than the casualties for the three-day Battle of Gettysburg (July 1-2, 1863).

Following Borodino, Napoleon captured Moscow, something Hitler’s armies failed to do following the German invasion of Russia which began on June 22, 1941. Yes, Hitler launched his attack on the same day Napoleon had! At length, after almost four years, Hitler’s war on Russia had the same result – a disastrous defeat resulting in the collapse of the French/German hegemony in Europe, with a consequent enormous expansion of Russian power.

It is unknowable how long the influence of the French Revolution would have endured outside of France without Napoleon as its self-appointed Apostle. When he seized power in 1799, Napoleon literally saved a corrupt and crumbling state from sliding into collapse and an orgy of retribution at the hands of its numerous enemies. France’s foes were then closing in on the pre-revolutionary borders of 1789, having stripped away almost all the territory the Republic’s sometimes rag-tag armies had wrested from the various monarchies opposing her.

Napoleon had been away leading an army in Egypt and Palestine, trying, and failing, to establish a base to move on India, the jewel of the British Empire. When he returned, eluding the British blockade of Egypt, he found enough collaborators to claim power and launch a ruthless campaign to eject the corrupt administration then in place and reform the army. He then personally led it to a series of rapid victories that cemented his role as the indispensable saviour of the Revolution. He owned the battlefields of Europe for the next twelve years.

Our previous episode outlined some of the long-term legacy left by the Revolutionary and Napoleonic era, and thus of the Emperor himself, in Europe and the world at large. Our object is now to draw out the direct line from France in 1812 to Russia in 1917, when another revolutionary tsunami shattered much of the residual imperialistic monarchical world-order that had been carried forward from Napoleon’s incomplete vision.

One may well wonder what kind of causality flows from Imperial France in 1812 to Imperial Russia in 1917. Were not both monarchies and imperially bloated mega-states which collapsed via war?

Indeed they were. But that is a mere superficial connection. The roots run much deeper.

Although Napoleon took control of the French state, and despite his severe censorship and his efficient secret police, he did not succeed in muting those who clung to the most radical elements of the French revolutionary intelligentsia. His moderate reforms were designed to calm the masses, not stir up disorder about failed hopes and expectations. These included universal male suffrage, although only exercised in periodic referenda to ratify his authority, or to elect the rubber-stamp National Assembly and Senate and various local authorities. These were radical by the standard of what existed elsewhere in Europe, or the world for that matter. Slavery had been abolished in the French Empire. Education had been generalized and centralized under state control. The Roman Catholic Church no longer directed education or could collect tithes and force the populace to adhere to its dogmas. Public office was open to all to apply and win by merit of ability, as were all rankings in the armed forces. The Legion of Honour was created to award contributors to the well-being of the nation from every class. Sadly, women were not yet included in most advances.

The ideologies of the original Revolutionaries had run the gamut from extreme socialism (embryonic communism), anarchism, to progressive capitalism and middle-class conservatism. What won out was a very modest bourgeois democracy, with a large dollop of agrarian equality thrown in.

The whole vocabulary of the political spectrum as we know it in our “Left vs Right” with all its intermediary factions formulation stems directly from the original French National and Constituent Assemblies seating arrangements, with the more radical elements, such as the Jacobins and Girondins sitting to the left of the Speaker/Chair and the moderates and monarchist seated to the right of the Chair.

These were the seeds that were paid forward into the next hundred plus years (and right to our time) along with the hope awakened among ordinary folks and citizens for better days and more equal distribution of resources and opportunities. The shoots which sprouted would feed forward both openly where they could, and under the surface in states which maintained repressive, anti-democratic governments. These were the streams that would run forward to Karl Marx, Bukharin, and a host of others to engender the Socialist International, the trade unions movement, the powerful thrust by the bourgeoisie (middle class) to win its way to power and open the doors for all to be free and to fairly try their chance.

The regimes which repressed and oppressed and practiced brutal suppression would all crumble away over time. This was prophesied, and the prophets proved true over the next decades. For Russia, progress was delayed and stone-walled until 1917 when the economic, social, spiritual, and political bankruptcy of the Tsarist regime collapsed in the wake of catastrophic defeat in World War One and national bankruptcy, opening the door for Bolshevism, which coopted the term Communism to its exclusive use.

There were a number of intermediary stops along the road from 1812 to 1917, but we cannot name or deal with them all here. France eventually went full circle, from “Progressive” Empire to a short-lived rebirth of the old aristocratic regime between 1815 and 1830, then went through three more revolutions, the last of which, in 1871, gave birth to the Third Republic, which fell to Hitler in 1940. Russia’s autocrats, blinded by privilege and class to the growing ferment beneath, and living in its bubble of ultra-rich oligarchism sanctioned by the Russian Orthodox Church as their Divine Right, were deaf to everything and so vanished in the ashes of their burning regime and World War.

All this sounds eerily familiar, except today we have a post-modern narcissistic and nihilistic Dictator à la Dostoyevsky, or perhaps Nietzsche, in charge of the biggest nuclear arsenal in the world instead of a foolish Tsar living under a spell cast by a mad self-proclaimed monk.


The Uses of History, 3 – The French Revolution, 1789-99, 2

 Between 1789-99, France experienced more turmoil than at any other time in its history, save perhaps the stunning catastrophe of the German conquest of 1940.

The Revolution which erupted in 1789 began fairly benignly as an honest attempt by Louis XVI to find a way out of France’s economic crisis of governmental bankruptcy. It rapidly became apparent that the original arrangements closed the door to any meaningful reform with the representatives of the Three Estates meeting separately and each Estate holding a single vote in determining which, if any measures, would be passed.

The collusion between the clergy of the First Estate, dominated by scions of the aristocracy, and the almost completely self-serving Second Estate, composed of the aristocracy in its own right, frustrated every attempt by the Third Estate, the commoners, dominated by the Bourgeoisie, or Middle Class, to put forward meaningful measures to more fairly distribute the tax burden and hold the Royal administration to real account for its expenditures.

Having been threatened with dismissal by the King and locked out of its own meeting hall, in June the Third Estate locked itself in the Royal Tennis Court of Versailles and refused to disburse or go home. Instead, they took an oath (the “Tennis Court Oath”) to continue sitting until they gave France a constitution limiting the King’s powers and holding the other Estates liable for all the ensuing consequences. They then declared themselves “the National Assembly” and the only body entitled to claim to represent the people of France.

We will not rehearse all the peregrinations of France’s tumultuous evolution into the First Republic in 1793, with the execution of its King, and the Queen months later. By that point France was at war with Prussia (the most powerful German state before the unification of Germany in 1871) and Austria (an Empire then encompassing large territory now found on the map of Europe as numerous smaller nations such as Austria, Hungary, the Czech and Slovak republics, Croatia, Slovenia, and part of Romania) the two European monarchies most directly affected by its overthrow. Great Britain joined France’s enemies later in 1793 and would remain at war with France for almost the entirety of the following 22 years.

In 1799, the wars and semi-chaos of the French Revolution in European affairs gave way to the advent of a military tyrant and phenomenon named Napoleon Bonaparte. Napoleon insisted he was a true son of the Revolution, and in some ways he was. He could never have gained power without the Revolution opening the door for him to rise to greatness as a military commander. Once in power as a stabilizing force he ended France’s internal turmoil, then, following each of his successive military triumphs, he set about exporting many of the major characteristics of the new French model of the state.

Several very important consequences of France’ transformation and European hegemony for the better part of two decades took deep root and eventually overthrew the ancien régime all across Europe. From Europe these effects have gone into the wide world:

  1. The emergence of nationalism as a potent defining force in geopolitics;
  2. The creation of a centralized bureaucratic form of government to administer the affairs of the much-expanded role and reach of government in society and the economy;
  3. The beginning of the merit system as the best method of directing most political and social functions;
  4. The direct intervention of the state in education, in determining its form, its role in society, and much of its content;
  5. The displacement of religion as the primary ruler of basic personal loyalties and allegiance;
  6. The politicization of almost all aspects of public life.

This list could be much longer, but we will leave it there.

It is not that such things had never been seen or suggested before, but nowhere else before had they been purposely and systematically instituted on a nationwide basis. The new French bureaucracy was ruthless, often arbitrary, and efficient – far more than any other nation or empire’s had been before. It also gave the Emperor (Napoleon assumed the title of Emperor of the French in 1804) the resources to overrun Europe and maintain his hegemony for almost fifteen years.

The links from the United States and France were close and multiple, including inspiration at the beginning and ongoing sympathy, as the USA hoped to see a sister republic emerge as a great power in Europe, and thus challenge the British so that Britain would not consider attempting to restore its old empire. The War of 1812-14 between the United States and Britain was a direct offshoot of the long struggle between Britain and France in Europe.

Perhaps far more momentous were the consequences of France’s explosive exportation of its newfound ideology of liberté, fraternité, égalité across Europe in the wake of its victorious armies. The establishment of French puppet regimes inculcated many of the new values in the subjected territories – not least, if nevertheless unintended, was the sleeping giant of nationalism.

If the French people could arise and sweep away the remnants of feudalism and the old order of duties and God-ordained “place”, it became clearer as time went on and the French example awakened other peoples, that the ancien regime of any state could be as justly challenged as that which had been torn down in France, Europe’s primary trend-setter and military power.

It would take decades for the full force of such things to take root and produce fruit. But by the 1830s and 1840s, Europe was experiencing the definite tremors of an oncoming earthquake.

Farther down that road lay the complete shattering of the old order which would merge into World War One and the Russian Revolution.

The Uses of History, 2 – The French Revolution, 1789-99, 1

History is a guide to navigation in perilous times. History is who we are and why we are who we are.

David McCullough

(Image credit:

I might modify our opening citation by David McCullough to say, “History ought to be a guide in perilous times”. Why we do what we do brings us to the old debate about nature versus nurture, heredity versus environment. But it is a false dichotomy, for we are who we are as a result of both.

Yet there is a third element – our actual choices. Choices may actually run quite counter to both heredity and nurture. For some people, their most fervent desire is to escape the chains of heredity and nurture. That is one of the strong motivations for emigration.

The escape can never be total. Chromosome-splicing aside, I cannot escape the genes I was given at conception, and those genes set certain limits on what I can become both physically and in the realm of personality. By hard work I may overcome or at least diminish innate weaknesses, as well as adverse circumstances. Indeed, the “American Dream” is founded on that very notion and it still exercises a powerful attraction to millions of immigrants. Nevertheless, I can train my body and work to keep it healthy, but who can naturally add one inch to his height? Who can change the innate disposition of their personality? Character can be developed, but personality must be worked with, not against.

These basic facts of existence apply to whole peoples and nations as much as to individuals. France is a salient historical model of this. The French Revolution of 1789-99 was a socio-political earthquake in Europe, and eventually changed the world through its “trickle-down effects”. The old debate among historians about whether the Revolution was inevitable or avoidable is rather beside the point. It happened. While its long-term and immediate causes can still be debated, its consequences reverberate more than ever even in the 21st Century.

Just as both nature and nurture play into our own lives and choices, so they did in France in 1789. In France during the decade leading up to 1789, the snowball of the people’s misery had been growing steadily for the 90% of the populace living in or close to the edge of poverty. In fact the load of debt and deprivation had been accumulating for more than a hundred years as the Royal government fossilized in its extravagance and the ruling classes ignored the pleas of the growing middle class and peasantry to divest themselves of the medieval trappings that stifled the nation’s prospects of becoming all it could be. Self-interest and the belief in a divine order [or at least an ordained hereditary order] made the “ultras” of the aristocracy and the religious establishment deaf to all attempts to open society and rationalize the nation’s immense economic potential.

Hindsight allows us to look with disdain at the old aristocracy of France’s ancien régime. The divide between the ultra rich and everyone else had grown into a chasm, and the privileges accorded to the aristocrats included virtually no taxation. Many of the great nobles held an almost feudal control over the lives of the tenants and peasants who lived on and around their enormous estates. Numbering 130 000 (0.5% of the population), they held title to between 25-30% of all the land. he Roman Catholic Church also enjoyed total exemption from taxation even as it held title to as much as 10% of all the lands in France. The great clerics were all of the nobility and lived as richly in the Church as any Count or Duke.

The laborers and peasants bore most of the tax burden, and the business class groaned under the limitations and politically motivated preferences and monopolies of the financial and economic infrastructure within France’s borders. All commoners were subject to pay tithes to the Church and fees and duties to the nobles for the use of their lands. Peasants often still paid a significant proportion of the produce of their farms even in bad years.

Hope sprang up during the early reign of the well-meaning King Louis XVI, but his Queen [Marie-Antoinette] and the powerful aristocratic coterie around her thwarted all his attempts to bring in modest fiscal and administrative reforms by engineering the dismissal of the ministers such as Necker who were appointed to implement them. Louis did not have the iron character of his great-grandfather, Louis XIV, to carry out his program and reign in the nobility’s avarice and arrogance. When Louis did finally overrule the willfully blind anti-reformers and call the long-dormant Estates-General to meet in May 1789, there was so much pent-up bitterness and frustration that there was no way he or any minister would be able to control what would ensue.

By that point, France had a living model of successful revolution to look to from across the Atlantic Ocean in the newly founded United States of America (see previous post). Furthermore, France had substantially helped this new nation come into being. With the American rebels struggling to find the resources and wherewithal to push the British out of the thirteen southern-most American colonies (they had several more to the north in what is now Canada), France’s declaration of war on Britain in 1778 (along with Spain and, later, the Netherlands) proved a great drain on British resources, especially the Royal Navy. Elite French army units came across the Atlantic and provided crucial assistance in several important engagements. They played a key role in the American victory on the final campaign of 1781.

The French government’s motivation for this intervention was not simple altruism. It was revenge for France’s devastating defeat in the Seven Years War of 1756-63. It was pay-back, meant to weaken the British by tearing away the jewel of their empire. The gamble succeeded. In 1783 the British recognized American independence, but in the meantime had wreaked further havoc upon the empires of America’s European allies. In North America, Canada remained British, despite an American attempt to conquer it during the Revolutionary war.

The French who had gone to help the Americans could not but be influenced by what they had seen. Some of the new American idealism for liberty and democracy and equality (among the white population at least) inevitably rubbed off, both among the ordinary soldiers and sailors and the officers, many of whom were middle class and even of noble extraction, such as the Marquis de Lafayette. A little leaven leavens the whole lump. The first American ambassador to France was Benjamin Franklin, one of the key founding fathers of the USA.

Six years later, as the Estates-General gathered at Versailles in May 1789, none of this could be lost on the representatives of the Three Estates to consider how to change France’s obviously broken social, political, and economic machinery. For the First Estate, the Church, there was some sympathy for the Third Estate, the Commons, but the main leaders of Church had much more in common with the Second Estate, the Aristocracy. The First and Second Estates, who made up 2% of the population, stood to lose greatly in the wake of any change to the established order, in which they enjoyed enormous privileges and little responsibility to contribute to the nation’s general welfare.

The Third Estate saw the American example as their inspiration and model. As a symbol of this, Thomas Paine, the celebrated author of Common Sense, which, in 1776 had become the de facto manifesto of the American revolution, crossed the Atlantic to come to Paris and become the darling of the political and salon set. His message to the French citizenry was to seize the moment and make change happen, tearing away the apparatus of social and economic oppression like the American colonists had done.


The Uses of History, 1 – From Hannibal to the US Constitution

History is a gallery of pictures in which there are few originals and many copies.

Alexis de Tocqueville

(Photo credit – Wikipedia)

Early in the 1830s, following one of France’s many revolutions (the most recent one at the time had taken place in 1830), a wealthy French legislator and student of history, politics, and society crossed the Atlantic to study the new phenomenon in the world which the United States still was in those days. De Tocqueville recorded some of the most brilliant observations of a living society ever made. In 1835 he published Democracy in America, which is now considered an historical, political science, and sociological classic.

For anyone wishing to study and observe how a nation establishes an identity and develop its distinctive traditions and culture, Tocqueville’s two volumes of Democracy in America are a masterpiece. As a liberal aristocrat (he was a Count), and as the title implies, he was fascinated by the bourgeoning phenomenon of democracy, and especially its American permutation. What had emerged in the United States was democracy in a completely new form, not confined to a city-state such as Athens in ancient times, or to a very limited sort of enfranchisement such as existed in Great Britain or France in the 1830’s, but a democracy on a truly popular and national scale. Even though the franchise in America in 1830 applied only to white adult males, this was still revolutionary in its own right at that time.

The Roman Republic (510-27 BCE) had come closest to this in the ancient world. But the Roman republican system had left much of the power in the hands of the wealthy elite who sat in the unelected Senate. The writers of the American Constitution of 1787 had minutely studied the Roman example, and debates between the more radical reformers such as James Madison and the Conservatives, personified by Alexander Hamilton in The Federalist Papers demonstrated the underlying fear of the commercial, financial, and Southern planters of giving control to the “uneducated mob”. The solution to preserving control for the “better” and “more enlightened” elements of the population was to have a second assembly called the Senate, like the Romans. But unlike the Romans, the popular franchise (which was extended to include almost all adult white males by progressively lowering the property qualification over time) was direct and individual, except in the election of the President. The election of the President was diverted from a direct popular vote to a “College” of electors from each State who were mandated to apply their votes to the candidate who had won the majority of votes in their respective states. This is the system still in place today for the Presidential election, despite many calls to abolish it as undemocratic over the last century. Otherwise, American voters directly choose their local representatives to the House of Representatives and the Senate.

The point of this is not to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the American Constitution, but to observe that History (capitalized to indicate the discipline of studying the human past) has actually proven useful in determining important courses of action. The now famous and oft-repeated dictum that ignoring history condemns us to repeat its errors is still true, but the other side of it is that paying attention to it and drawing useful lessons from it can provide guidance and help avoid pitfalls.

Nevertheless, there is always a wild-card in play – the unpredictability of human behaviour and natural events. As Robbie Burns put it, “The best-laid plans of mice and men go oft agley.” But we also find that well-made plans based on astute observation and preparation, including past experiences, often succeed. Some plan is almost always better than none. “Failure to plan is planning to fail.”

An example from military history can be found in the great Carthaginian General Hannibal’s Cannae strategy (216 BCE) of double-envelopment. Many subsequent commanders over the centuries have attempted it, for Hannibal’s success was perhaps the greatest ever example of a battle of annihilation. The first exemplar of an emulator was actually Hannibal’s Roman nemesis, Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus. In 202 BCE at Zama, Scipio used Hannibal’s own strategy of double-envelopment to crush Carthage’s last defense and win the Second Punic War. The commanding Carthaginian general was Hannibal himself. his opponent’s turning the tables on him must have been a very bitter irony to swallow. What’s worse is that Hannibal intuitively knew what was about to happen and could not prevent it. While the two were deadly enemies, Scipio recognized that his opponent was the greatest battlefield master since Alexander the Great. Imitation, etc. Thus, he was not too proud to learn the lesson Hannibal had taught the Romans fourteen years before in administering the most crushing defeat of a Roman army ever seen.

Santayana’s famous adage about ignoring and repeating the lessons of history has been quoted so often that we now even ignore the current truth that we have forgotten history itself and are therefore, by default, doomed to keep on returning to the vomit of the worst mistakes of our past over and over. Our leaders seem to live by the classic definition of insanity as we keep on doing the same things over and over while expecting a different result.

The genius of the American experiment in the late 18th and early 19th centuries was to recognize that simply rebelling against the tyranny of the British King and Parliament (which was, after all, very soft as tyrannies go) to set up another monarchical system, as Hamilton advocated in a velvet glove form, however adumbrated by provisos and limitations on executive power, would only, in the long run, lead back to the point of departure. The first experiment, under the Articles of Confederation, proved so loose that within ten years it was on the verge of complete disintegration. In fact, the British were licking their chops at the prospect. Poised to the north in Canada, and with a naval stranglehold on the oceans of the world, they would reap the greatest benefits without having to engage in a massive campaign of reconquest.

The Federalist solution of creating national unity among the thirteen autonomous states jealously guarding their rights and identities was a masterful performance in jurisprudence and political compromise which has, by and large, stood the test of time. Its incipient weaknesses are now well-known, and many of them were noted early by astute observers, such as Abigail Adams and Tocqueville. Its greatest flaws were in its failure to live up to its own lofty proclamations that “all men are created equal” and that “men” includes women, as well as African- and Indigenous-Americans.

Imitation is said to be the highest form of flattery. The US Constitution and the American implementation of democratic government and personal responsibility has been admired and emulated with both good and poor success by many others. The American Founders believed they had found a universal model for national and even international social and political progress and security.

The American sense of being somehow Providentially chosen to lead the world by example has produced some unfortunate results as it morphed into a belief in their “mission” to take their form of democratic gospel into the world at large. There is a resulting sort of blindness to the identities, traditions, histories, and cultures of other peoples which, over the last two hundred years, has created as many problems as it has attempted to alleviate. The idea that many other peoples hold to and believe in their own traditions and national identity as firmly as they do to theirs has often baffled Americans at the failure of “foreigners” to grasp the superiority of the “American way”.

The United States and the American people are not alone in their sense of historical “chosenness” and Providential selection for a great mission. The American faith in their “Manifest Destiny” to rule over the Americas (hence their hubris in designating themselves as the “true” Americans, or just the “the Americans” over and above all the other inhabitants of the two American continents) is derived from their faith in Christianity, the religion of the colonists, as having supplanted Judaism as the only true way to worship God and follow His will.

Many other peoples have held to similar views since antiquity. The Romans firmly believed that they were the chosen of the gods to rule in perpetuity – “Eternal Rome”. To them, history proved it by their march not only to “world” dominion, but in the endurance of their rule for longer than any other “world-state” before or since. Russia has suffered from a Messiah complex since it emerged from the steppes forest fastnesses of Eastern Europe. China still holds to its own concept of being the land of the King of Heaven, although now it is the land that Mao made.

Imitation is the highest form of flattery. Since Rome, many others have seen themselves as ordained to step into the gigantic shoes of Rome. None has been able to do so for more than a comparative moment in history – cf. Napoleon and Adolf Hitler. In the last fifteen hundred years, the closest approximation to a “world-state” thusfar has been the British Empire which arose after the American Revolution. Its great dominion lasted about two centuries.

Next installment: The French Revolution, 1789-99