Let us first consider what state of things is described by the word ‘civilization’. Its true test lies in the fact that people living in it make bodily welfare the object of life … The people of Europe today live in better-built houses than they did a hundred years ago … Formerly, they wore skins, and used spears as their weapons. Now, they wear long trousers, and … instead of spears, they carry with them revolvers … Formerly, in Europe, people ploughed their lands mainly by manual labour. Now, one man can plough a vast tract by means of steam engines and can thus amass great wealth … Formerly, men travelled in wagons. Now, they fly through the air in trains at the rate of four hundred and more miles per day … Formerly, when people wanted to fight with one another, they measured between them their bodily strength; now it is possible to take away thousands of lives by one man working behind a gun from a hill … There are now diseases of which people never dreamt before, and an army of doctors is engaged in finding out their cures, and so hospitals have increased. This is a test of civilization … What more need I say? …

This civilization is such that one has only to be patient and it will be self-destroyed. According to the teaching of Muhammad this would be considered a Satanic Civilization. Hinduism calls it the Black Age … It must be shunned.

Mahatma Gandhi

It is a people which by its sons (Robespierre, Descartes, etc.) has done much for humanity. I do not have the right to wish it evil.

Senegalese student


From the middle of the nineteenth century until the middle of the twentieth, the West ruled over the Rest. This was the age not just of empires but of imperialism, a theory of overseas expansion that justified the formal and informal domination of non-Western peoples on both self-interested and altruistic grounds. Empire meant ‘living space’ for surplus population. It meant secure export markets that a rival power could not enclose behind tariffs. It meant higher returns on investment than were available at home.1 Empire could also have a political function, sublimating the social conflicts of the industrial age in a gung-ho mood of patriotic pride, or generating placatory pay-offs for powerful interest groups. But it also meant the spread of civilization, a term used with increasing frequency to describe the whole complex of distinctly Western institutions we have already encountered in the preceding chapters: the market economy, the Scientific Revolution, the nexus of private property rights and representative government. It also meant the spread of Christianity, for in the process of empire-building missionaries were nearly as important as merchants and military men (see Chapter 6).

Of all the Western empires, by far the biggest was Britain’s. From Grant Land, the northernmost extremity of Canada, to the sweltering shores of Georgetown, Guiana, and on to Graham Land in the Antarctic; down the Nile to Nyanza, across the Zambezi to the Cape; from the Persian Gulf across all of India to the Bay of Bengal, and on to Burma and Borneo; from Singapore to Sydney – immense swathes of the map of the world, including countless tiny islands, turned the bright-pink hue that a Scotsman’s skin acquires under the tropical sun. By the eve of the First World War, the British Empire covered roughly a quarter of the world’s land surface and embraced around the same proportion of humanity. It also exerted an unrivalled control over the world’s sea-lanes and international telegraph network. Yet Britain was far from being the sole imperialist power. Despite the horrendous cost in human life of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, the French resumed imperial expansion within fifteen years of their defeat at Waterloo. Combining old sugar-producing islands like Réunion, Guadeloupe and Martinique and trading posts like Saint-Louis and Gorée with new possessions in North, West and Central Africa, the Indian Ocean, Indo-China and Polynesia, the French Empire by 1913 covered just under 9 per cent of the world’s surface. The Belgians, the Germans and the Italians also acquired overseas colonies, while the Portuguese and Spaniards retained substantial chunks of their earlier empires. Meanwhile, over land rather than sea, the Russians extended their empire into the Caucasus, Siberia and Central Asia. The Austrians, too, acquired new territory; after being driven out of Germany by Prussia in 1866, the Habsburgs turned southwards into the Balkans. Even former colonies became colonizers, as the United States seized Puerto Rico and the Philippines, as well as Hawaii and a handful of smaller Pacific islands.


By 1913 Western empires dominated the world. Eleven motherlands covering just 10 per cent of the world’s land surface governed more than half the world. An estimated 57 per cent of the world’s population lived in these empires, which accounted for close to four-fifths of global economic output. Even at the time, their conduct aroused bitter criticism. Indeed, the word ‘imperialism’ is a term of abuse that caught on with nationalists, liberals and socialists alike. These critics rained coruscating ridicule on the claim that the empires were exporting civilization. Asked what he thought of Western civilization, the Indian nationalist leader Mahatma Gandhi is said to have replied wittily that he thought it would be a good idea. In Hind Swaraj (‘Indian Home Rule’), published in 1908, Gandhi went so far as to call Western civilization ‘a disease’ and ‘a bane’.2 Mark Twain, America’s leading anti-imperialist, preferred irony. ‘To such as believe’, he wrote in 1897, ‘that the quaint product called French civilization would be an improvement upon the civilization of New Guinea and the like, the snatching of Madagascar and the laying on of French civilization there will be fully justified.’3 The Bolshevik leader Vladimir Ilyich Lenin was also being ironic when he called imperialism ‘the highest stage of capitalism’, the result of monopolistic banks struggling ‘for the sources of raw materials, for the export of capital, for spheres of influence, i.e., for spheres for profitable deals, concessions, monopoly profits and so on’. In fact he regarded imperialism as ‘parasitic’, ‘decaying’ and ‘moribund capitalism’.4 These are views of the age of empire still shared by many people today. Moreover, it is a truth almost universally acknowledged in the schools and colleges of the Western world that imperialism is the root cause of nearly every modern problem, from conflict in the Middle East to poverty in sub-Saharan Africa – a convenient alibi for rapacious dictators like Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe.

Yet it is becoming less and less easy to blame the contemporary plight of the ‘bottom billion’ – the people living in the world’s poorest countries – on the colonialism of the past.5 There were and remain serious environmental and geographical obstacles to Africa’s economic development. Independent rulers, with few exceptions, did not perform better than colonial rulers before or after independence; most did much worse. And today, an altogether different Western civilizing mission – the mission of the governmental and non-governmental aid agencies – has clearly achieved much less than was once hoped, despite the transfer of immense sums in the form of aid.6 For all the best efforts of Ivy League economists and Irish rock stars, Africa remains the poor relation of the continents, reliant either on Western alms or on the extraction of its raw materials. There are, it is true, glimmers of improvement, not least the effects of cheap mobile telephony, which (for example) is providing Africans for the first time with efficient and low-cost banking services. There is also a real possibility that clean water could be made far more widely available than it currently is.*Nevertheless the barriers to growth remain daunting, not least the abysmal governance that plagues so many African states, symbolized by the grotesque statue that now towers over Dakar, representing a gigantic Senegalese couple in the worst socialist-realist style. (It was built by a North Korean state enterprise.) The advent of China as a major investor in Africa is doing little to address that problem. On the contrary, the Chinese are happy to trade infrastructure investment for access to Africa’s mineral wealth, regardless of whether they are doing business with military dictators, corrupt kleptocrats or senile autocrats (or all three). Just when Western government and non-government agencies are at least beginning to demand improvements in African governance as conditions for aid, they find themselves undercut by a nascent Chinese empire.

This coincidence of foreign altruism and foreign exploitation is nothing new in African history. In the nineteenth century, as we have seen, Europeans came to Africa with a mixed bag of motives. Some were in it for the money, others for the glory. Some came to invest, others to rob. Some came to uplift souls, others to put down roots. Nearly all, however, were certain – as certain as today’s aid agencies – that the benefits of Western civilization could and should be conferred on the ‘Dark Continent’.* Before we rush to condemn the Western empires as evil and exploitative – capable only of behaviour that was the very reverse of civilized – we need to understand that there was more than a little substance to their claim that they were on a civilizing mission.

Take the case of the West’s most remarkable killer application – the one that, far from being a killer, had the power to double human life expectancy: modern medicine. The ascetic holy man Gandhi was scornful of Western civilization’s ‘army of doctors’. In an interview in London in 1931 he cited the ‘conquest of disease’ as one of the purely ‘material’ yardsticks by which Western civilization measured progress.7 To the countless millions of people whose lives have been lengthened by Western medicine, however, the choice between spiritual purity and staying alive was not difficult to make. Average global life expectancy at birth in around 1800 was just 28.5 years. Two centuries later, in 2001, it had more than doubled to 66.6 years. The improvement was not confined to the imperial metropoles. Those historians who habitually confuse famines or civil wars with genocides and gulags, in a wilful attempt to represent colonial officials as morally equivalent to Nazis or Stalinists, would do well to ponder the measurable impact of Western medicine on life expectancy in the colonial and post-colonial world.

Life Expectancy at Birth: England, the United States, India and China, 1725–1990


The timing of the ‘health transition’ – the beginning of sustained improvements in life expectancy – is quite clear. In Western Europe it came between the 1770s and the 1890s, beginning first in Denmark, with Spain bringing up the rear. By the eve of the First World War typhoid and cholera had effectively been eliminated in Europe as a result of improvements in public health and sanitation, while diphtheria and tetanus were controlled by vaccine. In the twenty-three modern Asian countries for which data are available, with one exception, the health transition came between the 1890s and the 1950s. In Africa it came between the 1920s and the 1950s, with just two exceptions out of forty-three countries. In nearly all Asian and African countries, then, life expectancy began to improve before the end of European colonial rule. Indeed, the rate of improvement in Africa has declined since independence, especially but not exclusively because of the HIV-AIDS epidemic. It is also noteworthy that Latin American countries did not fare any better, despite enjoying political independence from the early 1800s.8 The timing of the improvement in life expectancy is especially striking as much of it predated the introduction of antibiotics (not least streptomycin as a cure for tuberculosis), the insecticide DDT and vaccines other than the simple ones for smallpox and yellow fever invented in the imperial era (see below). The evidence points to sustained improvements in public health along a broad front, reducing mortality due to faecal disease, malaria and even tuberculosis. That was certainly the experience of one British colony, Jamaica, and the story was probably similar in others like Ceylon, Egypt, Kenya, Rhodesia, Trinidad and Uganda, which experienced more or less simultaneous improvements.9 As we shall see, the same holds true for France’s colonies. It turns out that Africa’s uniquely life-threatening repertoire of tropical diseases elicited a sustained effort on the part of the West’s scientists and health officials that would not have been forthcoming in the absence of imperialism. Here the Irish playwright and wit George Bernard Shaw provides the perfect answer to Gandhi:

For a century past civilization has been cleaning away the conditions which favour bacterial fevers. Typhus, once rife, has vanished: plague and cholera have been stopped at our frontiers by a sanitary blockade … The dangers of infection and the way to avoid it are better understood than they used to be … Nowadays the troubles of consumptive patients are greatly increased by the growing disposition to treat them as lepers … But the scare of infection, though it sets even doctors talking as if the only really scientific thing to do with a fever patient is to throw him into the nearest ditch and pump carbolic acid on him from a safe distance until he is ready to be cremated on the spot, has led to much greater care and cleanliness. And the net result has been a series of victories over disease.10

These victories were not confined to the imperialists but also benefited their colonial subjects.

The twist in the tale is that even the medical science of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries had its dark side. The fight against pathogens coincided with a pseudo-scientific fight again the illusory threat of racial degeneration. Finally, in 1914, a war between the rival Western empires, billed as ‘the great war for civilization’, would reveal that Africa was not, after all, the world’s darkest continent.

Most empires proclaim their own irenic intention to bring civilization to backward countries. But few in history were fonder of the phrase ‘civilizing mission’ than the French. To understand why, it is necessary first to appreciate the profound difference between the French and American revolutions. The first man to understand this difference was the Whig parliamentarian Edmund Burke, the greatest political thinker to emerge from the Pale of Protestant Settlement in Southern Ireland. Burke had supported the American Revolution, sympathizing strongly with the colonists’ argument that they were being taxed without representation, and correctly discerning that Lord North’s ministry was bungling the original crisis over taxation in Massachusetts. Burke’s reaction to the outbreak of revolution in France was diametrically opposite. ‘Am [I] seriously to felicitate a madman’, he wrote in his Reflections on the Revolution in France, ‘who has escaped from the protecting restraint and wholesome darkness of his cell, on his restoration to the enjoyment of light and liberty? Am I to congratulate a highwayman and murderer who has broke prison upon the recovery of his natural rights?’11 Burke divined the French Revolution’s violent character at an amazingly early stage. Those words were published 0n 1 November 1790.

The political chain reaction that began in 1789 was the result of a chronic fiscal crisis that had been rendered acute by French intervention in the American Revolution. Since the traumatic financial crisis of 1719–20 – the Mississippi Bubble – the French fiscal system had lagged woefully behind the English. There was no central note-issuing bank. There was no liquid bond market where government debt could be bought and sold. The tax system had in large measure been privatized. Instead of selling bonds, the French Crown sold offices, creating a bloated public payroll of parasites. A succession of able ministers – Charles de Calonne, Loménie de Brienne and Jacques Necker – tried and failed to reform the system. The easy way out of the mess would have been for Louis XVI to default on the monarchy’s debts, which took a bewildering variety of different forms and cost almost twice what the British government was paying on its standardized bonds.12 Instead, the King sought consensus. An Assembly of Notables went nowhere. The lawyers of the parlements only made trouble. Finally, in August 1788, Louis was persuaded to summon the Estates General, a body that had not met since 1614. He should have foreseen that a seventeenth-century institution would give him a seventeenth-century crisis.

At first the French Revolution was the British Civil War, with only the Puritanism lost in translation. The summoning of the Estates General gave malcontents within the aristocracy an opportunity to vent their spleen, with the comte de Mirabeau and marquis de Lafayette in the vanguard. As in England, the lower house developed a will of its own. On 17 June 1789 the Third Estate (Commons) proclaimed itself a ‘National Assembly’. Three days later, in the famous Tennis Court Oath, its members swore not to be dissolved until France had a new constitution. Thus far it was the Long Parliament in French. But when it came to devising the new ground rules of French political life, the revolutionaries adopted some recognizably American language. At first glance, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 27 August 1789 would have raised few eyebrows in Philadelphia:

  2. The natural and imprescriptible rights of man … are liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression …

10. No one shall be disquieted on account of his opinions, including his religious views …

17. Since property is an inviolable and sacred right, no one shall be deprived thereof … 13

So why, beginning with a searing speech on 1 February 1790, did Edmund Burke react so violently against this revolution? Here he is in full flow:

The French [have] rebel[ed] against a mild and lawful monarch with more fury, outrage, and insult than ever any people has been known to rise against the most illegal usurper or the most sanguinary tyrant. Their resistance was made to concession … their blow was aimed at a hand holding out graces, favours, and immunities … They have found their punishment in their success: laws overturned; tribunals subverted; industry without vigour; commerce expiring; the revenue unpaid, yet the people impoverished; a church pillaged, and a state not relieved; civil and military anarchy made the constitution of the kingdom; everything human and divine sacrificed to the idol of public credit, and national bankruptcy the consequence; and, to crown all, the paper securities of new, precarious, tottering power … held out as a currency for the support of an empire.14

If Burke had written those words in 1793, there would be no great mystery. But to have foreseen the true character of the French Revolution within a year of its outbreak was extraordinary. What had he spotted? The answer is Rousseau.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s book The Social Contract (1762) was among the most dangerous books Western civilization ever produced. Man, Rousseau argued, is a ‘noble savage’ who is reluctant to submit to authority. The only legitimate authority to which he can submit is the sovereignty of ‘the People’ and the ‘General Will’. According to Rousseau, that General Will must be supreme. Magistrates and legislators must bow down before it. There can be no ‘sectional associations’. There can be no Christianity, which after all implies a separation of powers (the spiritual from the temporal). Freedom is a good thing, no doubt. But for Rousseau virtue is more important. The General Will should be virtue in action.15 Turning back to the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, the modern reader can begin to see what appalled Burke:

  6. Law is the expression of the general will …

10. No one shall be disquieted on account of his opinions, including his religious views, provided their manifestation does not disturb the public order established by law

17. Since property is an inviolable and sacred right, no one shall be deprived thereof except where public necessity, legally determined, shall clearly demand it … [emphasis added]

It was these caveats that Burke mistrusted. The primacy Rousseau gave to ‘the public order’ and ‘public necessity’ struck him as deeply sinister. The General Will was, to Burke’s mind, a less reliable selector of a ruler than the hereditary principle, since rulers chosen that way were more likely to respect ‘ancient liberties’, which Burke preferred to the new, singular and abstract ‘freedom’. The Third Estate, he argued, would inevitably be corrupted by power (and by the ‘monied interest’), unlike an aristocracy, which enjoyed the independence that private wealth confers. Burke also grasped the significance of the expropriation of Church lands in November 1789 – one of the first truly revolutionary acts – and the dangers of printing paper money (the assignats) with nothing more than confiscated Church land as backing. The real social contract, he argued, was not Rousseau’s pact between the noble savage and the General Will, but a ‘partnership’ between the present generation and future generations. With astonishing prescience, Burke warned against the utopianism of ‘the professors’: ‘At the end of every vista’, he wrote in the greatest prophecy of the era, ‘you see nothing but the gallows.’* The assault on traditional institutions, he warned, would end in a ‘mischievous and ignoble oligarchy’ and, ultimately, military dictatorship.16 In all of this, Burke was to be proved right.

The constitution of September 1791 upheld the inviolability of property rights, the inviolability of ‘the King of the French’, the inviolability of the right of association and the inviolability of the freedom of worship. Within two years all four had been violated, beginning with the Church’s property rights. The right of free association followed with the abolition of the monastic orders, guilds and trade unions (though not of political factions, which flourished). And in August 1792 the King’s privileged status was violated when he was arrested following the storming of the Tuileries. To be sure, Louis XVI brought it upon himself with the royal family’s fatally botched flight to Varennes, a vain attempt to escape from Paris (disguised as the entourage of a Russian baroness) to the royalist citadel of Montmédy near the north-eastern border. With the election of a new and democratic National Convention in September 1792, the likelihood of a regicide increased still further. But the execution of Louis XVI on 21 January 1793 had very different consequences from the execution of Charles I. In the English Revolution, killing the King had been the finale of a civil war. In the French Revolution it was merely the overture, as power passed via the Jacobin Society of Friends of the Constitution to the Insurrectionary Commune and on to the National Convention’s Committees of Surveillance and of Public Safety. Not for the last time in Western history, the revolutionaries armed themselves with a new religion to steel themselves for greater outrages. On 10 November 1793 the worship of God was prohibited and the cult of Reason instituted, the first political religion of the modern age, complete with icons, rites – and martyrs.

The French Revolution had in fact been violent from the outset.17 The storming of the hated Bastille prison on 14 July 1789 was celebrated with the decapitations of the marquis de Launay (the governor of the Bastille) and Jacques de Flesselles (provost of the merchants of Paris). Just over a week later, the King’s Secretary of State Joseph-François Foullon de Doué and his son-in-law Berthier de Sauvigny were also murdered. When the revolutionary mob attacked the royal family at Versailles the following October, around a hundred people were killed. Seventeen-ninety-one saw the Day of the Daggers and the massacre on the Champs de Mars. In September 1792 around 1,400 royalist prisoners were executed following counter-revolutionary demonstrations in Brittany, Vendée and Dauphiné. Yet something more was needed to produce the carnage of the Terror, the first demonstration in the modern age of the grim truth that revolutions devour their own children.

A generation of historians in thrall to the ideas of Karl Marx (see Chapter 5) sought the answer in class conflict, attributing the Revolution to bad harvests, the rising price of bread and the grievances of the sans-culottes, the nearest thing the ancien régime had to a proletariat. But Marxist interpretations foundered on the abundant evidence that the bourgeoisie did not wage class war on the aristocracy. Rather, it was an elite of ‘notables’, some bourgeois, some aristocrats, who together made the Revolution. A far subtler interpretation had already been offered by an aristocratic intellectual named Alexis de Tocqueville whose two major works, Democracy in America (1835) and The Old Regime and the Revolution (1856), offer an unrivalled answer to the question: why was France not America? There were, Tocqueville argues, five fundamental differences between the two societies, and therefore between the two revolutions they produced. First, France was increasingly centralized, whereas America was a naturally federal state, with a lively provincial associational life and civil society. Second, the French tended to elevate the general will above the letter of the law, a tendency resisted by America’s powerful legal profession. Third, the French revolutionaries attacked religion and the Church that upheld it, whereas American sectarianism provided a bulwark against the pretensions of secular authorities. (Tocqueville was a religious sceptic but he grasped sooner than most the social value of religion.) Fourth, the French ceded too much power to irresponsible intellectuals, whereas in America practical men reigned supreme. Finally, and most important to Tocqueville, the French put equality above liberty. In sum, they chose Rousseau over Locke.

In chapter XIII of Democracy in America, Tocqueville hit the nail squarely on the head:

The citizen of the United States is taught from his earliest infancy to rely upon his own exertions in order to resist the evils and the difficulties of life; he looks upon social authority with an eye of mistrust and anxiety, and he only claims its assistance when he is quite unable to shift without it … In America the liberty of association for political purposes is unbounded … There are no countries in which associations are more needed, to prevent the despotism of faction or the arbitrary power of a prince, than those which are democratically constituted.18

The comparative weakness of French civil society was therefore a large part of the reason why French republics tended to violate individual liberties and to degenerate into autocracies. But Tocqueville added a sixth point, almost as an afterthought:

In France the passion for war is so intense that there is no undertaking so mad, or so injurious to the welfare of the State, that a man does not consider himself honoured in defending it, at the risk of his life.19

Here, surely, was the biggest difference between the two revolutions. Both had to wage war to survive. But the war the French revolutionaries had to fight was both larger and longer. This made all the difference.

From the moment in July 1791 when the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold II called on his fellow monarchs to come to Louis XVI’s aid – a call answered first by Frederick the Great’s heir, Frederick William II – the French Revolution was obliged to fight for its life. The declarations of war on Austria (April 1792) and Britain, Holland and Spain (February 1793) unleashed a conflagration that was far larger and longer than the American War of Independence. According to the US Department of Defense, 4,435 Patriots lost their lives in defence of the United States up to and including the Battle of Yorktown; 6,188 were wounded. The figures for the War of 1812 were respectively 2,260 and 4,505.20 British casualties were somewhat less. Even if a large proportion of the wounded perished and a significant number of soldiers and civilians succumbed to disease or hardship caused by war, this was still a small conflict. Some of the most celebrated battles – Brandywine or Yorktown itself – were mere skirmishes by European standards; total US combat deaths at the latter were just eighty-eight. The death toll for the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars was vastly larger – by one estimate, total battlefield mortality on all sides between 1792 and 1815 was 3.5 million. A conservative calculation is that twenty times as many Frenchmen as Americans lost their lives in defending their revolution. And this does not include the victims of internal repression. An estimated 17,000 French men and women were executed after due process, between 12,000 and 40,000 went to the guillotine or gallows without a trial, and somewhere between 80,000 and 300,000 perished in the suppression of the royalist rebellion in the Vendée.21 The French Revolution was also far more economically disruptive than the American. The Americans had inflation followed by stabilization; the French had hyperinflation, culminating in the complete collapse of the assignat paper currency. The entire male population was mobilized for war. Prices and wages were controlled. The market economy broke down.

It is against this background that the radicalization of the French Revolution – the fulfilment of Burke’s prophecy – needs to be understood. From April 1793, when power became concentrated in the Committee of Public Safety, Paris was a madhouse. First the faction of the Jacobin Club known as the Girondists (their more extreme rivals were the Montagnards) were arrested and, on 31 October, executed. Then the followers of Georges-Jacques Danton followed them to the scaffold (6 April 1794). Finally, it was the turn of the dominant figure on the Committee of Public Safety, the high priest of Rousseau’s cult of republican virtue, Maximilien Robespierre, who fittingly was made to face the falling blade. Throughout this danse macabre, the musical accompaniment of which was the still startlingly bloodthirsty Marseillaise,* the most deadly accusation to be levelled at an ‘enemy of the people’ was that of treason. Military setbacks propelled the paranoid turn. As Burke had foreseen, for he knew his classical political theory, such a democracy must inevitably be supplanted by an oligarchy and finally by the tyranny of a general. In the space of a decade, the Convention was replaced by the Directory (October 1795), the Directory by the First Consul (November 1799) and the title of first consul by that of emperor (December 1804). What had begun with Rousseau ended as a remake of the fall of the Roman Republic.

At the Battle of Austerlitz, on 2 December 1805, some 73,200 French troops defeated 85,700 Russians and Austrians. These figures should be compared with the forces at Yorktown in 1781, where Washington’s 17,600 men defeated Cornwallis’s 8,300 Redcoats. The casualties inflicted by the later battle exceeded all the participants in the earlier battle by more than 12,000. At Austerlitz more than a third of the Russian army was killed, wounded or captured. Yet the weaponry used there was not significantly different from that used by Frederick the Great’s army at Leuthen nearly half a century before. Mobile artillery inflicted most of the casualties. What was new was the scale of Napoleonic warfare, not the technology. By 1812 the French army numbered 700,000. In all, 1.3 million Frenchmen were conscripted between 1800 and that fateful year. Around 2 million men lost their lives in all the wars waged by Bonaparte; close to half of them were French – approximately one in five of all those born between 1790 and 1795. In more ways than one did this revolution devour its own children.

Was there something distinctive about American civil society that gave democracy a better chance than in France, as Tocqueville argued? Was the already centralized French state more likely to produce a Napoleon than the decentralized United States? We cannot be sure. But it is not unreasonable to ask how long the US constitution would have lasted if the United States had suffered the same military and economic strains that swept away the French constitution of 1791.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!