PITT’S decision to send a squadron to the Mediterranean in the spring of 1798 was a bold gamble. It involved depleting the Channel fleet by eight capital ships, leaving it with far from overwhelming superiority to the known strength of the French navy in the western ports. And when the order was sent out, on 29 April, the British cabinet had known for six weeks that an uprising was imminent in Ireland, and that its leaders expected French help. The French had proved in December 1796 that they could mount a major expedition against Ireland and elude the British fleet. Only bad luck had prevented them from landing. Three months later they actually did land a small force of released convicts and desperadoes on the coast of Pembrokeshire in the hope that they might launch a Britishchouannerie. They were soon rounded up—but the fragility of British command of the seas stood exposed.
All this immeasurably encouraged Irish revolutionaries. Since 1795 the United Irishmen had worked to establish a country-wide organization by integrating themselves with the network of agrarian secret societies, the Defenders, which had grown up over the preceding decade. The Defenders were not much interested in politics. Originating in sectarian rivalry for land in Ulster, they had become general redressers of rural grievances, with overwhelmingly local concerns. But they inherited age-old traditions of French help; and as soaring population, poor harvests, and economic disruption resulting from the war brought increasing hardship to the Irish countryside, they seemed ripe for integration into the insurrectionary plans of Ireland’s urban radicals, who were now dreaming of national independence. Though the failure of Hoche’s expedition disappointed them, it fired their hopes for the future. Numbers taking the United Irish oath soared in 1797, and as the British fleet mutinied they impatiently awaited a new French landing. In fact there was little hope of that, especially after Hoche died in September. Remembering how Ireland had failed to stir even when the 1796 expedition had appeared in Bantry Bay, French strategists wanted tangible evidence of a rebellion, rather than promises, before even thinking of a further attempt. And while such mutual misunderstandings bedevilled hopes for an Irish revolution, the Dublin government took vigorous measures to pre-empt any uprising by disarming the most suspect areas. Starting with Ulster in the spring of 1797, it allowed an undisciplined soldiery to terrorize the countryside with floggings, burnings, and torture. The yield of hidden arms was so encouraging that these methods began to be applied further south. The United leaders began to fear that their organization would be broken before it could act. On the vaguest of rumours that the French were planning to come again in 1798, they resolved to rise. But informers had leaked their plans to the government, and on 12 March their Dublin leaders were arrested. When second-rank members precipitated a rising in Leinster in May it was squashed within days. So was another outbreak a few weeks later in Ulster. But by then sectarian panic had spread south to Wexford, a hitherto tranquil area, where no activity had been expected. There Catholic bands, whose numbers soon reached 20,000, massacred Protestants and repelled inadequate military units sent against them. A ragged rebel army marched north, but, instead of breaking out of the locality, encamped on Vinegar Hill. There, just three weeks after the Wexford outbreak began, they were pounded to pieces by heavy artillery. By the end of June the rebellion was over—or almost. News of its early success, however, had by now reached Paris, and desperate attempts were made to cobble together new task forces to help the rebels. Eventually just over a thousand men landed at Killala, in remote Mayo, on 22 August. Hundreds flocked to join them, although the Godless French were bemused to find themselves identified as soldiers of the Blessed Virgin. Some skirmishes were even won as the force marched inland to where United Irishmen (thin on the ground in Connacht) were reputedly massing. But by September there were 30,000 government troops in Ireland, and a third of them confronted General Humbert on 8 September at Ballinamuck. After token resistance, he surrendered. Other, smaller expeditions sent from France in the meantime fared no better. One of them contained Wolfe Tone, who was brought in chains to Dublin, and only evaded execution by cutting his own throat.
The Irish uprising of 1798 never had any real chance of success. Much of Ireland was untouched by it, and many of those involved had only the vaguest notion of what their French allies stood for. The latter had neither the resources nor the commitment, by 1798, to support it as it would have required for Ireland to be detached from the British Crown or merely become, as so many of them dreamed, a British Vendée. But (unless the Polish struggle of 1794 against the partitioning powers is counted) it was the largest pro-French uprising of the revolutionary decade. It terrified both the Protestant Ascendancy who ruled Ireland and their backers in London, who had little to cheer them until news of Nelson’s victory arrived at the beginning of October. And, although not comparable in concentrated savagery with the carnage in Warsaw on 4 November 1794, it produced 30,000 victims in 3% months—a similar number to the Terror in France, but over a shorter period, and from a population barely one-sixth the size. And if, at this or some lesser cost, it had succeeded, the objectives of the peasant rebels, their educated urban leaders, and their French allies were far from clear or mutually compatible. The United Irish conspirators liked to imagine that, having helped them to freedom, their French liberators would leave them alone to seek their own destiny. ‘Undoubtedly,’ Wolfe Tone told a French general in July 1796,1 ‘the French must have a very great influence on the measures of our Government, in case we succeed, but … if they were wise, they would not expect any direct interference.’ Optimistic to the last, Tone discounted the general’s ominous response: ‘It might be necessary, as it was actually in Holland, where, if it were not for the continual superintendence of the French, they would suffer their throats to be cut again by the Stadtholder.’
The Dutch Republic was the only region reached by the French armies where sympathizers with the revolutionary cause were at all common. Patriots driven underground since 1787, and ordinary people outraged at the undisciplined behaviour of British and Prussian soldiers brought in to prop up William V, welcomed the French armies initially as liberators. The punitive peace treaty of 1795 came as a shock, but one whose impact those who now took power in Holland hoped would pass. Adopting the sloganLiberty, Equality, Fraternity at a time when it was being washed off buildings all over France, the first sister republic set about endowing itself with a more rational and democratic constitution than the age-old Union of Utrecht. But it took almost a year to decide how this should be done, and when eventually it was agreed (under mounting French pressure) that the means should be a national Convention rather than the traditional Estates-General, the body elected in March 1796 was soon immobilized by quarrels between advocates of a unitary state and Federalists. More radical elements favoured unity, and when the objections of more traditionally minded deputies brought discussion to an impasse, patriot clubs tried to bring pressure on the Convention in the well-tried Parisian manner. One of the most spectacular of these episodes was the mutiny of certain Amsterdam National Guard units against the conservative city authorities early in May. It was thwarted without loss of life, but coinciding as it did with the exposure of Babeuf’s conspiracy in France, it alerted the occupying army to the dangers of Dutch radicalism. Closer French control of the Batavian Republic, as Wolfe Tone was told a few weeks later, was evidently necessary. From then on the French applied steady pressure in favour of a unitary solution, and their troops were increasingly conspicuous on the streets of the major cities. Yet the eventual draft constitution, finalized in May 1797, fudged the federal issue. Submitted to a plebiscite the following August, it pleased nobody, and public endorsement by the French ambassador sealed its fate. It was rejected by 108,761 votes to 27,955. A new Convention was therefore elected, to begin the task afresh; but once more it was soon stalemated. But by now the Fructidor coup in France had removed the men of caution from the Directory and the Councils, and the Great Nation was more inclined than ever to assert its authority over its clients. The destruction of the Dutch fleet at Camperdown only confirmed the contempt felt in Paris for the ineffectiveness of the Batavians. Fructidor itself offered a model for how to get out of a political impasse, and it was eventually followed. On 22 January 1798, 22 Federalists were expelled from a Convention surrounded by troops under French orchestration. Others resigned in protest. A provisional Directory was proclaimed to handle the Republic’s affairs until a constitution took effect. A draft of such a constitution had in fact already been prepared, and over the next few weeks only a few minor amendments were made. In April it was put to another referendum, and this time it was accepted by 153,913 to 11,587.
Two years after the French conquest, therefore, the Dutch ancien régime was at last swept away. The Estates-General, and the provinces they represented, went the same way as the Stadtholderate. So did the once-powerful guilds, the oligarchical, self-perpetuating city councils, and the established Church. The Batavian Republic was now to be one and indivisible, organized into eight roughly equal departments. A bicameral legislature, elected by all male citizens earning a living, would make the laws. In turn, the legislature would select an executive of five Directors. It was a far more democratic constitution than any adopted in France during the 1790s—but then the Dutch had practised representative government (of a sort) for centuries before 1789, and the constitution’s drafters felt confident in leapfrogging the relative novices who had given them the chance to build on their traditions. What they did not feel confident of was the continuing support of their fellow citizens. Those purged in January were kept in prison, and their supporters throughout the country were now systematically ejected from all posts of influence. And in May, with French support, they decided to guarantee their constitution by the same means the Convention in Paris had used to launch the constitution of the Year III: by perpetuating themselves. They decreed that the first elections would only choose one-third of the new legislature. The other deputies would be made up of themselves, to be deemed already elected. The result was uproar. The press, enjoying a freedom also long established in Dutch tradition, denounced the cynicism of the new Directory. From Paris it began to look as if once more the Dutch had failed to establish revolutionary stability. Having dealt with resurgent Jacobinism at home in the coup of Floréal, the French government was now keen to curb radical excesses elsewhere. Abandoning Delacroix, the ambassador who had orchestrated a year of French intrigue at The Hague, they raised no objection when Daendels, an ambitious Dutch general, launched a coup against the Batavian Directory. Having quarrelled publicly with his political masters on 16 May, Daendels ostentatiously travelled to Paris to lobby higher authority. He returned on 10 June a popular hero, cheered by all the regime’s now multifarious opponents. And, while a new French commander, Joubert, stood obligingly aside, on 12 June Daendels and his men cashiered the Directory and arrested the most vocal members of the legislature. Amazingly, Daendels did not seize power for himself. He handed it over at once to those imprisoned since January. They disclaimed all desire to perpetuate themselves, too. Instead, they called elections, and by the end of July a new legislature was in session. The constitutional life of the Batavian Republic began at last to function normally: and it did so, with regular elections, until yet another new regime in Paris decided it was unsatisfactory in the spring of 1800.
MAP 5. The expansion of revolutionary France
Whether it would have gone on unmolested for even that long without the difficulties France was now experiencing elsewhere, with the renewal of war, seems doubtful. Dutch political life remained volatile, and the Republic persistently failed to live up to the standards of support and subservience expected by the Great Nation of its little sisters. For their part, fewer and fewer Dutchmen felt much benefit from the association. ‘What fruits, until now’, asked a moderately patriotic newspaper founded in the summer of 1798,2 ‘have the people plucked from the liberty tree, planted in the Winter of 1795? To tell the truth, not much.’ The intervening years had brought heavier taxation, and added defeat on the sea to that already sustained on land. In August 1799 an Anglo-Russian force landed in the north after the mutinous remnants of the Dutch navy surrendered to a British squadron with William V’s son on board. Only 10,000 French troops were by then stationed in the Republic, although it was still paying under the 1795 treaty for 25,000. A joint force eventually defeated the invaders, and compelled their withdrawal—but only after two months of fighting in which the British confirmed their reputation as pitiless marauders. And war against the island state had meanwhile brought ruin to Dutch trade. Overseas colonies were ruthlessly picked off, and the Republic’s ports were blockaded. Colonial goods so basic to many of the industries built up in the Republic over two centuries were either cut off or only got through at exorbitant cost. Shipbuilding and all the trades connected with it languished. Such was the price of alliance with a power bent on war to the finish with Great Britain. Nor did France offer any compensatory advantages. The army of occupation, frequently undisciplined and always demanding, paid for its requisitions until 1797 in worthless assignats. And for commercial purposes the sister republic was treated anything but fraternally. High tariff barriers excluded Dutch manufactures from what was now Europe’s largest area of free exchange, and they cut off Dutch territories lost in 1795 from economic partners of immemorial standing. The unemployment resulting from these disruptions placed intolerable strains in turn on a system of poor relief that had once been the envy of Europe. A disestablished Church now demanded funds for its upkeep that had hitherto gone, partly at least, to charity, and the role of pastors in co-ordinating relief was no longer unquestioned. In the greater cities, between a quarter and a half of the population found itself demanding relief, and municipalities went deeply into debt to provide it. Even then it was never enough. In a once-flourishing fishing port, an English traveller observed nothing but ‘impoverishment and decay. The harbour was crowded with fishing vessels no longer employed … the quay was covered in long grass and a melancholy assemblage of beggars importuned us for relief wherever we walked.’3
By the turn of the century these tribulations had brought widespread disillusionment with the friendship and protection of France, yet no serious movement to break the link ever took shape. Even if it had been possible to renounce treaty obligations to so overwhelming a partner, there was no practical alternative. Neutrality was unsustainable without armed forces of unimaginable size and loyalty. Recalling the prince of Orange, for so long the natural response when republicanism failed, meant subservience to Great Britain, from where William V was issuing manifestos even more intransigent than those of Louis XVIII. British commanders during the invasion of 1799 reported that there was no natural groundswell of support for a prince likely to be even more of a foreign puppet than the Directors in The Hague. Perhaps this was because, despite repeated interference at every turn of the political roundabout in Paris, for much of the time the Dutch were left to run their internal affairs in their own way. This could hardly be said of other territories overrun by the French.
The first conquests of the revolutionary armies had been in Belgium, and during the first occupation in 1792-3 the armies of Dumouriez looked on it as enemy territory to be used and exploited to the full. The decrees annexing it to France in the spring of 1793 came too close to the Austrian reconquest to bring about any change in treatment. When the French returned, in June 1794, Belgium was once more dealt with as occupied enemy territory rather than a reconquered part of the Republic. Debate was certainly reopened in Paris on the drawbacks and advantages of rean-nexation, but while it went on Belgium was exploited for all it was worth. War taxes were levied, requisitions imposed to feed and supply the occupying armies, and as usual any compensation, if paid at all, came in assignats. In Belgium, declared Carnot on 11 July,4 the French must ‘take all we can … strip it … because it is a country devoted to the Emperor, with plenty of restitution to make to France’. Everything useful to the French war effort was to be removed, and targets totalling 109 millions in cash were set, though far from achieved, for military levies. A tellingly named ‘Agency for Trade and Extraction’ was established to co-ordinate the pillage, and its rapacity soon embarrassed even the representatives on mission. The chorus of complaint—in a language, too, that the French could understand—was deafening, and as 1794 drew to a close policymakers in Paris began to realize that the long-term repercussions of such a policy might seriously outweigh its short-term advantages. In February 1795 the commercial agency was dissolved, and in August nine territorial departments were established as the channels for all governmental action. The palimpsest of territories and jurisdictions which had survived a decade of attempts, whether Austrian or ‘patriot’, to reform it was thus finally rationalized. Complaints were numerous as the proposed new boundaries and jurisdictions were revealed, but anything seemed better than the anarchy and extortion of the preceding twelve months, and the common sense of the organization was soon widely acknowledged. But nobody could doubt, after the introduction of a French pattern of administration, what the next step would be. France had by now gained a slice of Dutch territory south of the Rhine mouths, and forced the Batavian Republic to recognize the reopening of the Scheldt. It was unthinkable to leave a no man’s land behind these gains, for all the warnings of respected figures like Carnot that the natural frontiers proclaimed in 1793 were a formula for interminable war. And so, on 1 October 1795, in one of its last acts, the Convention decreed the incorporation of Belgium into the French Republic.
Requisitions and extraordinary taxation now stopped. The Belgians had become citizens of the land of liberty, and were to enjoy all its benefits. Patriots soon overcame their disappointment at not being allowed to re-establish their independence, and threw themselves into making the new order work. But, as the more controversial laws of the Republic were progressively introduced, they found themselves increasingly isolated as the tools of a state bent on more than administrative reorganization. Above all, administrators in Belgium were charged with introducing French religious policy. The French had not been heedless of the notorious devotion of the Belgian population during the conquest, and although blasphemous outrages inevitably occurred and churches, particularly monastic ones, were sometimes stripped of their more lavish ornaments, official policy was one of restraint. The Belgians felt reassured when the Republic officially turned its back on both dechristianization and factitious deistic cults to declare itself religiously neutral. Yet with a paper money nominally backed by ecclesiastical properties spiralling downwards out of control, the rulers of France looked with growing greed at the still intact church lands of Belgium. In September 1796, therefore, most monasteries were dissolved and their lands put on the market. Ten thousand of their inmates were turned out. At the same time parish priests lost the function of registering births, marriages, and deaths. But buyers for confiscated church lands were not easily found, and in the first French elections in which the new departments participated, those of 1797, Belgian hostility to these policies was reflected in the return of right-wing candidates. After the Fructidor coup neutralized these results, the Belgian clergy were further traumatized by the oath of hatred for royalty, which met with a massive refusal, particularly in Flemish-speaking areas. The post-Fructidorian Directory had no patience with such resistance, and a special effort was made to purge the presumed leaders of this movement. Almost 600 Belgian nonjurors were condemned to deportation and thereby, of course, lost their benefices. The mistakes of the Vendée were being repeated in a territory where the prestige and authority of parish priests was just as strong. The Jourdan Law on conscription of September 1798 completed the familiar picture. The first attempts to apply it, drafting able-bodied young Flemish peasants into the French army, provoked riots early in October, and by the end of the month they had blossomed into a full-scale revolt.
With a tame sister republic to the north, the Belgian departments were lightly garrisoned by troops not expecting to be used to keep domestic order. So no sooner had the initial outbreak been contained at the end of October than there were new disturbances further west, perilously close to the coast off which the British were cruising. Further inland, a peasant army had assembled, 10,000 strong at its height, marching under white flags bearing red crosses. They were very poorly armed—although the British hurriedly attempted to smuggle supplies in to them—and attracted few leaders from the upper ranks of society. Nor did many townsmen join them, and when they took towns they scarcely had time to burn archives, cut down trees of liberty, and sack the homes of public officials before hurriedly withdrawing again at the first approach of troops. Modelling themselves quite consciously on the Vendéans, they also shared their lack of long-term objectives. Though some shouted Long live the Emperor, most adopted the slogan For land and religion, merely wanting to be left alone with their familiar priests and their sons not being butchered on distant battlefields for the benefit of a Republic once more exulting in its own Godlessness. But they had none of the Vendean savagery, and caused little bloodshed. The same was true of a contemporaneous uprising which took place further south in Luxembourg. The response of the French, however, was not so gentle. Flying columns harried rebel territory throughout late November, and on 5 December the remnants of the peasant army were surrounded at Hasselt. Lacking cavalry themselves, over 700 were hacked to death by French horsemen. Others scattered and went to ground, imitating the chouans. But by July 1799 the last of them had been caught, and open resistance was over. Harsh repression followed. Rebels found with arms in their hands were shot. Altogether the casualties of the rebellion numbered around 5,600, and the mass deportation of the entire Belgian clergy—7,500 priests in all—was decreed. In the event not more than 500 were rounded up, but the drive against them did nothing to conciliate those who had rebelled. And passive resistance to conscription continued. Of the 22,000 recruits expected from the Belgian departments, only just over 5,000 had materialized by the end of 1799, and these came overwhelmingly from the towns.
Rural Belgium, therefore, remained unreconciled to French rule. The urban response was more pragmatic. Despite a 50 per cent rise in taxes since the time of Austrian rule, and considerable economic disruption, free access to the French national market promised opportunities for recovery in calmer times. Within a few years they materialized, and Belgian industry, undisturbed by the ravages of armies again until 1814, was able to take profitable advantage of them. Nor were the Belgian bourgeoisie as reluctant as the peasantry to buy nationalized church lands. In Flemish areas they even embraced the French language as never before. Yet they showed little interest in public affairs, and were content to be administered by French officials as they previously had been, until the reforms of Joseph II, by imperial ones. They no more felt French than they had previously felt Austrian. It might have been different if the calm times of rule from Paris after 1799 had not been preceded by six years of rapine and exploitation from the same quarter.
* * *
When the annexation of Belgium was decreed on 1 October 1795 the mover of the proposal, Merlin de Douai, also recommended the annexation of the entire left bank of the Rhine. After all, it too lay within the natural frontiers, and French armies were in occupation of it. Much of it had been annexed once before, in 1793, just like Belgium. But those who were unhappy about even Belgian annexation on the grounds that it would prolong the war indefinitely saw greater disadvantages still in incorporating the Rhineland. The Austrians had already written Belgium off, so only Great Britain would now oppose its annexation to France, and with no footholds left on the Continent she could be ignored. But innumerable states had territorial interests and claims in the Rhineland, and to brush them aside would create countless perpetual enmities. Far better to use the occupied territory as a bargaining counter to secure a lasting peace. Besides, French agents on the spot were uncertain about the likely benefits of annexation. ‘All these people’, wrote a civil commissioner with the occupying army of the Sambre-et-Meuse,5 ‘detest us most cordially, they love only their priests, their princes and their emperor. Let us deal with them as we deal with a vanquished enemy … Besides, what purpose would be served by joining the country to France?’ Such arguments prevailed in 1795, and the Rhineland remained outside the Republic’s frontiers. In the spring of 1797, it was even briefly suggested that a ‘Cis-Rhenan’ sister republic be created. The idea came from Hoche, now commanding on the Rhine and looking for any opportunity to offset the ever-growing personal empire of Bonaparte in Italy by creating a puppet state of his own to rival the Cisalpine Republic. The idea died with Hoche in September 1797, the same month that saw the removal of Carnot, the main opponent of the natural frontiers, from the Directory. Among those remaining was Reubell, himself from Alsace and a longstanding advocate of Rhineland annexation. But even he could not secure immediate satisfaction. While at the peace of Campo Formio the next month the Austrians recognized that the left bank should be French, the consent of the Holy Roman Empire (including Prussia, which also had left-bank territories) was left to be worked out at the Congress of Rastadt. It was only obtained, and then under threat, in December 1798. It remained provisional until France had overcome the second coalition in 1801. But long before then practical assimilation had begun: in January 1798 the occupied territory was divided into four departments, and thenceforward the region was governed to all intents and purposes as part of France.
The Rhineland, however, was very different from Belgium. It had no history of resistance to established authorities before the French arrived, and there were hardly any local Jacobins or self-styled patriots sympathetic to the Revolution on whose collaboration they could rely. None of the inhabitants spoke French as a native tongue, and few understood it. Above all, the Rhineland was front-line territory for as long as hostilities lasted, and expected to sustain huge French armies long after the garrison of Belgium had been reduced to a few thousands. Consequently the military exploitation which in Belgium lasted for scarcely three years in all went on in Germany for at least twice that length of time. It reduced an area that had been prosperous and flourishing before the 1790s to an enfeebled shadow, systematically stripped and re-stripped of its wealth and assets in order to sustain armies that the home government could not pay and positively urged to live off the country.
We had no kind of financial resources whatsoever [reminisced one veteran of Rhineland campaigns] ... we had no kind of administrative organisation to deal with requisitions; we had to live as best we could, and off the resources of the region in which we found ourselves—resources which were soon exhausted, especially as the armies had crossed and recrossed this territory several times … one can imagine the distress of the army; it could exist only by plundering.6
Everything useful to an army on the move was taken—horses, fodder, carts, grain, livestock. Troops were billeted on households and pillaged and abused their hosts without compunction. Able-bodied men and boys were requisitioned for forced labour to dig fortifications and establish camps. The arrival of more ordered conditions simply meant that exploitation became more systematic. Forced loans and military taxes were now imposed, and requisitions were now paid for—in assignats. Attempts to pay the new levies in assignats, however, were understandably not welcomed. And moves towards incorporating the Rhineland into the Republic, the salvation of Belgium, only compounded the problems of France’s German subjects. In July 1798 French customs posts were established along the Rhine. They transformed it at a blow from an artery of commerce holding together an economic region comprising both banks, into a frontier—as in the southern Netherlands. Nothing, noted observers of the Rhineland scene, had done more to alienate the Rhinelanders from French rule, and only smugglers made any gains. But a large portion of the riverbank population now fell into this category, and constant clashes with customs officers almost institutionalized their hostility to the new order.
Much of the economic life of the pre-revolutionary Rhineland had revolved around servicing the lavish courts of ecclesiastical princes; such as the archbishops of Trier and Cologne, and the ‘residential towns’ where they were located. The French invasion shattered this pattern for ever. The prince-bishops, their courtiers, and their chapters fled beyond the Rhine, and their goods and lands were confiscated by the invaders. Overnight thousands were deprived of employment in the luxury and service trades that were the lifeblood of these little capitals. Even those who might have hoped to benefit from the secularization of so much church property were disappointed. The French maintained the feudal dues payable to former lords until the spring of 1798—a source of revenue too valuable to be sacrificed to universal principles. The same applied to the tithe, levied no longer for the upkeep of priests, but for that of the French armies. As in France, when it was abolished in March 1798 an equivalent sum was added to rents. Thus there were no compensations for the sacrilege visited on the Church, its buildings, and its customs by the invading armies—always the last bastions of a dechristianization long burnt out in France. Even when local laws were brought into harmony with those of France, from 1797 onwards, it was at a time when directorial policy was fiercely anti-clerical and parades of devotion, so characteristic of Rhenish Catholicism, were prohibited. Priests naturally bore the brunt of these policies, and French suspicions that they were the main ringleaders of resistance were entirely justified. Throughout the occupation, therefore, German priests were expelled, exiled, and arrested—not, certainly, on the scale attempted in Belgium, but quite enough to keep the resentment of their pious congregations bubbling.
Yet the Rhineland experienced no mass uprising of the sort seen in Belgium and Luxembourg. Rumours of these outbreaks spread into Germany rapidly enough in the autumn of 1798, and led to an upsurge in lawlessness and defiance of French authority. Liberty trees were cut down, officials intimidated, and inflammatory leaflets were circulated urging all good Germans to rise up against the oppressors. The authorities were genuinely alarmed. But no general movement emerged. There were too many French soldiers in occupation, and the last straw in the Belgian case—conscription—was not introduced in a territory not yet fully part of France. Passive resistance was the German way, but even that was effective enough to make French officials compare parts of the Rhineland to the Vendée. ‘I have not yet found one district’, reported a French general on his arrival in 1792,7 ‘which really wants to be free.’ Five years later nothing had changed. ‘Never expect any affection’, warned a civil official, ‘from people who yearn for slavery.’ Clearly the Revolution had even cast a blight on language; if the German experience of French rule was freedom, words were losing their accepted meaning.
For the Great Nation, however, staggering though she was from one coup against representative institutions to another, liberty could only be French. Particular problems arose when she confronted peoples with their own traditions and rhetoric of freedom. The Dutch were one such case. The Swiss were another. The Swiss Confederation was a loose association of sovereign territories unequal in every way. Its complexity almost beggared description, and it had no central authority to lend it coherence. Any such authority would have set unacceptable limits to the vaunted freedoms of each constituent part. Nor had external threats led the Swiss to think within living memory that such an authority was desirable for other reasons. No great power coveted this mountainous heart of Europe, and it had no great strategic significance—until 1796. It was French conquests in northern Italy that transformed the situation. Switzerland now bestrode the Alpine passes which linked France most conveniently with her client states and major sources of foreign booty in the plains of the Po. More perceptive Swiss saw at once that this would mean increased French interference in their affairs. In order not to be overwhelmed, thought Peter Ochs, a leading member of the Basle patriciate, the Confederation must transform itself into a unitary state. Inevitably that would mean adopting many French-style institutions and principles, and abandoning many hallowed traditions and liberties; but if Switzerland did not to some degree imitate France, she would remain the helpless prey not only of France itself but equally probably of her Austrian rival. No sooner had the peace of Campo Formio been signed, in fact, than the Directory turned its attention to Switzerland. La Harpe, an exile in Paris for long-standing advocacy of French intervention to emancipate the francophone Vaud district from the tutelage of German-speaking Berne, urged Reubell to invite Ochs to Paris to discuss the reform of what the Directory already regarded as a ‘crazy formless assemblage of governments without any connection, some oligarchic, others democratic, all despotic and all enemies of the French Republic’.8 When Ochs arrived in December 1797 he found that Bonaparte was also party to the discussions. He was asked to draft a constitution for a ‘one and indivisible’ Swiss republic which would come into being when the Swiss themselves, on a signal from France, rose up to overthrow the old order. That signal would be the annexation by France of outlying northern and western parts of the confederation, the cities of Mulhouse and Geneva.
On 28 January 1798 Mulhouse was duly annexed: Geneva followed on 26 March. Rural revolts against urban domination broke out in the hinterlands of Basle and Zurich, while in the Vaud patriots proclaimed the independence of Berne. But none of these outbreaks, except in the Basle district, had as much to do with establishing a unitary republic as with pursuing far older antagonisms. The Vaud rebels proclaimed their own tiny ‘Leman Republic’, oblivious of wider loyalties. And, again with the exception of Basle, the urban patriciates showed unexpected vigour in moving to repress the rebels. The French had to intervene directly, and in February General Brune was ordered to occupy Berne. Confusion followed. Brune was at first ordered to establish no less than three separate sister republics, conforming roughly to linguistic divisions. In Catholic mountain districts, peasants led by their priests now rose against the invading French and were cut down in their hundreds. The appalled Swiss patriots in Paris protested that only a single, centralized sister republic could hope to contain such outbreaks in the long term, and the Directory yielded to their calls. On 22 March Brune proclaimed the Helvetic Republic and declared its constitution to be that drafted by Ochs and French collaborators. No convention was called to ratify it—the Dutch example had demonstrated the perils of that. With its 23 equal cantons, bicameral legislature, and executive of five Directors, it was simply imposed. When the legislature first met a month later, with Ochs as president of the Senate, only ten cantons were represented, the others refusing to condone a system on which they had not been consulted. Once more French troops had to intervene to coerce them. And the first international act of the new state, the treaty with France of 2 August which granted her perpetual access to the Alpine passes, guaranteed the presence of such troops for the foreseeable future.
The Helvetic Republic was not even a conquered enemy, like the Dutch, but that did not save it from the depredations which a French army of occupation always brought. Under pressure from Ochs and La Harpe, the Directory promised not to impose requisitions; but the well-stocked treasuries of the main Swiss cities were impounded to pay the army of Italy and to equip the Egyptian expedition being fitted out at Toulon. War taxes were imposed, and pillaging, as everywhere, only sporadically controlled. As early as June 1798 two of the new Swiss Directory were replaced on French insistence because they had not proved co-operative enough towards their protectors. But as 1798 drew to a close, the French proved unable even to guarantee protection. In November, Austrian troops occupied the eastern cantons, making Switzerland for the first time in centuries a theatre of war. Soon the Russians in their turn would be campaigning there. The French now demanded that the Helvetic Republic conscript 18,000 men into a militia to act as auxiliaries to the French armies, but despite the support of Ochs and other leading architects of the new Republic, the legislature refused the demand. All it would authorize was a volunteer army, whose members never reached a quarter of those required. The Swiss still remembered the grisly fate of the last Swiss regiments in French service, butchered at the Tuileries in August 1792. In other respects, however, the new authorities showed themselves eager to follow the French lead. A massive programme of rationalization was announced for the Republic, including abolition of internal tolls and customs barriers, guilds and corporations, the tithe, and feudal dues. Church lands were taken into national possession, and monasteries forbidden to recruit new novices. In Protestant areas, such measures were applauded but had little impact. In Catholic ones, which included some of the remotest valleys whose traditions of self-government were among the most democratic in Europe, they caused deep resentment. The new constitution, declared one mountain priest,9 ‘seeks to rob us of our holy religion, our freedom enjoyed undisturbed for hundreds of years, and our democratic constitution inherited from our blessed ancestors’. And while French troops made short work of the small rebel army assembled by the peasants of the Valais in May 1798, guerrilla resistance continued, and was not so easy to deal with especially when war engulfed the country and gave the French more pressing priorities. When that happened, too, the initial ban on requisitioning soon broke down, making the Republic’s French defenders barely distinguishable from the Austrian and Russian enemies who throughout 1799 poured across its borders from the Tyrol in the east, and up the Alpine passes from Italy.
It was Bonaparte’s conquests in Italy that had sealed Switzerland’s fate. From Italy, too, came the model for her reorganization. Yet although the first sister republic, the Batavian, was already in existence when the French crossed the Alps in the spring of 1796 nobody, not even Bonaparte, seems to have yet thought of establishing parallel client states in other conquered territories. When in his initial march across the Alps, Bonaparte swept aside the army of Victor Amadeus III of Piedmont, a small group of the latter’s subjects sympathetic to French ideas proclaimed a republic at Alba. They were ignored, Anxious only to remove the Piedmontese army from the military balance, Bonaparte signed an armistice with the defeated king and left him a free hand to deal with the rebels against his authority. It was true that over the winter of 1795-6 various Italian political exiles in France, coordinated by Buonarroti, extolled the prospects for ‘liberating’ Italy and tried to convince the Directory that they could organize an uprising in Piedmont to facilitate the advance of the Republic’s armies. But Buonarroti’s involvement in the Babeuf plot uncovered in May 1796 discredited him and his friends in directorial eyes. His radical social and political ideas would be just as dangerous in occupied territories as they were in France. Suspicions, far from groundless, that the true sympathies of Italian Francophiles lay with Jacobinism and the ideals of the Year II rather than directorial moderation would hamper their prospects throughout the three years of the first French occupation. Equally well founded was the French belief that Italian Jacobins enjoyed scant popular support. ‘There can be no question of republicanising Italy’, reported one consul on the eve of Bonaparte’s triumphs.10 ‘The people are not at all inclined to accept liberty, neither are they worthy of this boon. In view of their degradation, all we can hope for is the silence born of cowardice and the respect born of fear; they execrate our principles as contrary to their passions and their prejudices.’ In any case, the Directory’s strategy in invading Italy was merely to occupy and exploit it, exchanging it for the Rhineland at the final peace.
Yet the French were welcomed by more people in Lombardy than in any other territory they invaded except the Dutch Republic. Especially in the cities, middle-class intellectuals welcomed outside intervention as a means of breaking the recently reinforced clerical and aristocratic stranglehold on Italian life. During an unprecedented half-century of peace and relative prosperity since 1748, intellectual life had flourished in northern Italy, and the activities of reforming monarchs like Leopold of Tuscany and his elder brother the Emperor Joseph II (ruling the duchy of Milan) had convinced many thinking Italians that Enlightenment would soon triumph throughout the peninsula. But in the early 1790s these hopes were shattered. Joseph died and Leopold went back to Vienna to succeed him, dying himself soon afterwards. And, as horror stories rolled in from France, reforms were abandoned and governments clamped fierce controls on independent intellectual life. The Bourbon monarchies of Parma and Naples were swept by hysteria, and the Pope anathematized reform as a threat to faith itself. More ominously still from the viewpoint of bourgeois radicals, this tide of reaction enjoyed some obvious popular support: when Leopold II left Tuscany, exultant rioters, to cries of Viva Maria!, drove the Jansenistic priests he had installed from their churches and put back the images, relics, and pious trappings that the reformers had tried to banish.
But in 1796, as the French poured into the Lombard plains and smashed every Austrian army sent against them, hitherto frustrated Italian intellectuals were overcome with excitement. They could not believe the invaders would not favour them, and while refugees from Piedmontese persecution of the Alba republicans trailed after Bonaparte on his triumphal march, Jacobins in his path unceremoniously deposed their local rulers and proclaimed the rule of Liberty and Equality. On arrival in Milan Bonaparte found a club of 800 members, mostly lawyers and merchants, waiting to greet him; and within a week this ‘Society of the Friends of Liberty and Equality’ was producing its own journal. A few more weeks and it was advocating an ideal most people had thought Utopian until then—Italian unity. Bonaparte in turn recognized how these sentiments, and those expressing them, could be used. In a proclamation issued on 19 May he denounced kings, the rich, and the privileged, and spoke vaguely of achieving ‘the independence of Lombardy, which should bring its happiness’.11 But, he added, the French army could not achieve these lofty ends without supplies, supplies which France could not provide. So the former Austrian provinces would be required to make ‘a very small contribution’ to their expenses, and the new men now in power in Milan would be entrusted with the task of raising it.
So began the inevitable exploitation of Italy, and of France’s Italian friends. A general who had promised his ragged army unlimited booty when they descended into the richest plains in the world was now about to keep his word—to them, at least. A war tax of 20 millions was the ‘very small contribution’ announced in the proclamation. Meanwhile requisitioning of foodstuffs proceeded ruthlessly in the army’s wake. Stockpiles were established for plundered grain and wine, and plans were made to corral 4,000 cattle. Municipal treasuries were everywhere impounded, as were the contents of the public pawnshops so characteristic of Italian cities. Tuscan neutrality was cheerfully violated on the excuse that massive British supplies were stockpiled at Leghorn. When the forewarned islanders evacuated most of them in a remarkable amphibious scratch operation, the city was stripped of all its other resources. Works of art were systematically removed from churches and palaces, and shipped to France by the cartload. Bullion too: in 1796 alone Bonaparte remitted something like 45 millions to Paris. Thanks to the Milanese authorities compounding for irregular exactions to the tune of a million per month, he was also able to pay his soldiers mostly in cash at a time when it was completely unavailable in France, and when requisitions, if paid for at all, were settled up in the ill-fated territorial mandates at face value. Needless to say the commander-in-chief and his main lieutenants made personal fortunes. But scarcely had these depredations begun before they ran into resistance. At Pavia on 25 May, a Jacobin administration, set up by the French army as it passed through like a swarm of locusts, was overthrown as soon as the front had moved on by riotous peasants outraged by anti-religious excesses. Bonaparte himself had to turn aside to deal with the rising, doing so by delivering the city to twenty-four hours of unrestrained sack. Other resistance was less spectacular, but harder to deal with since most of it was rural. Whereas most towns had their kernels of Jacobins ready to greet and—initially at least—co-operate with the invaders in organizing the exploitation of their fellow citizens, in the countryside the French were seen simply as Godless foreign marauders, to be resisted, ambushed, and harassed whenever opportunities occurred. Thus there were peasant uprisings throughout the Lombard plains over the summer of 1796, some of them resulting in massacres of isolated French units. Essentially local, however, they never came together, and the ebb and flow of the war zone made soldiers of all sides the peasants’ enemy.
Even in towns the Jacobin honeymoon did not always last long. In papal Bologna and Ferrara, occupied in June, crackdowns on subversives over the previous two years had left an atmosphere of anti-clerical resentment: the last execution in Bologna had taken place only two months before the French arrived. Bolognese Jacobins, therefore, were encouraged to draw up an independent constitution for their territory, which kept them busy, and grateful, for the rest of the year. Not surprisingly, the end product was based closely on the Constitution of the Year III. But no such freedom was allowed to the turbulent radicals of Milan. By the end of May, their two-week old club had been dissolved, and only began cautiously meeting again, as a ‘patriotic society’, two months later. In September it was reborn yet again, as an ‘Academy of Literature and Public Instruction’, with the sanction of Bonaparte, but as soon as it began agitating for a national convention to regenerate the whole of Italy, adopting a distinctive tricolour cockade of red, white, and green, it met renewed French resistance. Neither the Directory in Paris nor Bonaparte had any interest in uniting Italy. So that when, in November, a renewed Austrian offensive threatened to expel the French, the club prepared to seize power the moment they withdrew. A demonstration was organized to plant a liberty tree in the city centre and proclaim, with legal formalities, the independence of the Lombard nation. But the Austrians were once more defeated and the French, more firmly in control than ever, crushed the movement and the club which had sponsored it.
Yet Bonaparte realized that to spurn such aspirations was to turn his back on France’s surest source of support. The energies of Italian patriots should be harnessed, if possible, rather than rejected. It was for this reason that, in the autumn, he encouraged those whom French power had placed in control at Bologna and Ferrara, and at Modena (a duchy also swamped by the French tide), to concert their action against local conservative resistance. Nor did he demur when, at the end of December, their representatives meeting at Reggio declared themselves a single one and indivisible Cispadane Republic. In fact, he intervened personally to expedite the drafting of the new state’s constitution, which was eventually proclaimed on 27 March 1797. Thus the first of the Italian sister republics was born, and it was recognized by the Pope, at whose expense it had largely been created, in the treaty of Tolentino in February.
Lombard radicals watched these moves with mounting excitement, although Bonaparte refused to allow them to send representatives to the Reggio congress. When the Cispadanes adopted the new tricolour and, following an example set in Milan the previous autumn, set up a national guard or ‘Italian Legion’ to give armed support to the new state, they saw clear signs of common aspirations. Accordingly, the results of the first elections, held in April 1797 under a constitution once more closely modelled on that of France, came as a shock. Large numbers of conservatives were returned, under the influence of the clergy. Bonaparte too was shocked. Occupied since February with his final pursuit of the Austrians up the Alpine valleys towards Vienna, he had been in no position to control this first free expression of Italian opinion. ‘Like Lombardy,’ he complained,12 ‘the Cispadane Republic needs a provisional government for three or four years, during which the influence of the priests can be lessened; otherwise, you will have done nothing by giving liberty … However … I shall start by joining Lombardy and the Cispadane, under a single provisional government.’ This was on 1 May. Within a few weeks (29 June) the Cisalpine Republic had been created, and the short-lived Cispadane had been incorporated into it.
From Paris it looked like the deliberate creation of a personal client state, and the imperious way in which the general went on to dictate its constitution, and rule it by decree all that summer from lordly surroundings in the palace of Mombello, suggested long-meditated ambitions in this direction. In fact the concept seems to have emerged much more haphazardly, and at every stage strategic considerations seem to have been paramount. The Cispadane Republic was a buffer against attack from the south, with viable natural frontiers. Nothing comparable could have been created in Lombardy until the Austrians were expelled from Mantua: and Venetian territory marched with the eastern and northern limits of French occupation along purely jurisdictional lines of no strategic logic. Venice had remained neutral in the conflict but, straddling as it did all the main Austrian lines of communication with Italy, its territory was a major theatre of war throughout the campaign. When Bonaparte disappeared northwards towards Leoben, there were vicious outbreaks of hostility to the garrisons he had left to guard his lines of communication through the terraferma, culminating on 17 April with the massacre of 400 French soldiers in Verona. In response he issued blood-curdling threats against the Doge and Senate of Venice. But when the Austrians, at Leoben, asked for compensation for their losses in Belgium and Lombardy, the outrages offered a perfect occasion for a diplomatic deal. Venetia would be given to the Habsburgs, shorn of a number of outlying territories which would consolidate French conquests further west. When, therefore, two months later, the Cisalpine Republic came into being, it had a coherent frontier to the east, at least, along the Adige; which the Austrians accepted, along with their own acquisition of the rest of Venetia, at Campo Formio the following October.
In these circumstances the creation of a consolidated north Italian sister republic was logical. The alternative—to incorporate the conquered territories into France—would have made little sense and would have outraged all her Italian friends. As it was they were outraged enough. Expecting to draft their own constitution in the Cispadane manner, they found it dictated to them by Bonaparte. And all but the most moderate found themselves excluded from positions of authority in the new state. Although the new constitution, promulgated on 9 July, was elective, Bonaparte decreed that, so that the passage from a military to a constitutional regime should occur ‘without shocks, without anarchy’, he would nominate all members of executive and legislature for the first year of its operation. In the event the constitution only lasted fourteen months, and the republic itself only seven more. But during that time it became a byword both for French exploitation of allies (‘We do not wish to allow ourselves to be cisalpinised’, complained a Swiss official,13 as French requisitions began) and for radical turbulence. Milan rapidly became a centre for Jacobin refugees fleeing from Venice, from Piedmont, from the Papal States, and from Naples. They agitated constantly for an Italian republic, freedom of the press, and antinoble and anti-clerical legislation. So long as Bonaparte remained in Italy, he acted decisively against such activity. The constitution made no explicit provision for clubs, and when, imitating post-Fructidorian France, a constitutional circle was set up in November 1797, it was closed within a few days as a hotbed of ‘anarchists’. Not until he had left, a month later, was it allowed to reopen, and then it became an organ for all the views and opinions he had feared. Only too clearly the Jacobins of Milan dreamed of an Italian Year II to sweep away all obstacles: one female enthusiast even offered to marry the man who would bring her the Pope’s head. The terms which France imposed on her latest sister republic were further grist to their mill. In February 1798 a treaty of alliance was signed. It stipulated that a French Army of 25,000 would be stationed in the Republic and maintained at its expense. It was also required to raise and maintain an army of its own of 22,000 men—which it had no prospect of doing without resort to the always-explosive conscription. Preferential tariffs were to be extended to French goods, while British ones were to be totally excluded. Given that the republic was a French creation, and depended utterly on France for its survival, these terms were perhaps not excessively onerous, but they shocked a wide range of opinion. While clubs, in Milan and other cities, denounced the treaty, the legislature refused to confirm it. Eventually they yielded, but not before orders had gone out from Paris, at the suggestion of the Cisalpine ambassador there, for a ‘Cisalpine Fructidor’. In April 1798, accordingly, the legislative councils and the Directory were purged, removing the most conservative of Bonaparte’s nominees (much to his fury), and leaving in control elements much more sympathetic to the radicals of the clubs.
Calls for Italian unity were now loudly renewed. The issue was becoming more urgent as separate sister republics appeared all over the peninsula. The ancient city-republic of Genoa, quite unable to resist French power, had been transformed into the Ligurian Republic in June 1797, following the crushing of an uprising of Genoese patriots and their French collaborators. The new republic’s constitution, drafted locally, was approved in a plebiscite in December—in striking contrast with Cisalpine experience. At the end of the same month a riot in Rome resulted in the accidental death of a French general, and the ambassador, Bonaparte’s brother Joseph, fled in panic to Florence. The Directory, in renewed anti-clerical mood since Fructidor, ordered an invasion of what was left of the Papal States after the surrender at Tolentino. The Pope had no army, and Rome was occupied without resistance on 10 February 1798. Five days later a small group of Jacobins, most of whom were not native Romans but adventurers from the sister republics of the north, proclaimed a Roman Republic. It was recognized on the spot by the French commander. The Pope was deported. But not until a popular uprising, the so-called ‘Roman Vespers’, was put down on 25 February was the new state securely established. Echoes of it continued for days afterwards in the Alban hills, and hundreds were shot in the mopping-up which followed. Nor was there any question here of native Italians drafting their own constitution. A commission of jurists was sent from Paris. They produced a structure full of ancient Roman terminology, with Consuls, a Senate, and a Tribunate, but modern and Parisian in form. Like the Cisalpine constitution it was to be operated by nominees, not elected officials, for its first year. And nothing was to be enacted without the consent of the French commandant, who was for good measure authorized to make whatever laws he saw fit. Nothing could have stated more explicitly that the new Italian republics existed primarily for the convenience of the Great Nation.
And the way these latest additions to the constellation of sister republics were treated emphasized the point. The first demand made on the Ligurian Republic, presumed inheritor of the traditional Genoese role as international banker, was for a loan of 800,000 francs. When the legislature refused, the French ambassador engineered a coup (31 August 1798) which purged the leading resisters. Similarly, the continued fermentation at Milan, positively encouraged by the more radical elements left in control after the April purge, led to renewed pressure from Paris for French agents to assert themselves. The purpose of the Cisalpine Republic, a new ambassador was told in June 1798,14 was ‘to serve the exclusive interests of the French Republic, and to help it become, over the entire peninsula, the arbiter of all political contests. It must become powerful enough to be useful to us, but never so much that we are damaged.’ More conservative elements, hostile to ideas of Italian unification, should therefore be brought to power. A new constitution, modelled on that of the Roman Republic and with a restricted franchise based on the highest taxpayers, was proposed. Leaked in advance by General Brune, who had been ordered against his will to support its imposition with military force, it raised a furore both in Milan and Paris, where resurgent Jacobins feared that it would be a trial run for constitutional remodelling in France itself. Nevertheless it was imposed on 30 August, and Brune was ordered to ensure that the changes were ratified by primary assemblies. Instead, he secured ratification for the mass expulsion of moderates from the government, deliberately defying orders from Paris in what was effectively the third Cisalpine coup d’état in a year. A fourth followed his inevitable recall, with the 30 August constitution finally being imposed, and Jacobins once more being expelled, in December. This time the response was more muted, for the war of the second coalition had begun, on whose outcome the fate of all the sister republics would depend.
The first shots, in fact, had been fired in Italy. On 12 November the Neapolitan army invaded the Roman Republic, and within two weeks it had taken its capital, to be welcomed by excited crowds disgusted by the anti-religious excesses of ten months of republican rule. During this time churches had been plundered, pious fraternities dissolved, new monastic vows forbidden, and many religious houses closed down. In a state whose sole resources were religion and tourism, and whose swarming poor relied on clerical charities, these reforms were catastrophic. Paper money issued by the new authorities had plummeted in value almost at once, exacerbating the problems. Even worse was to follow a few weeks later, when the regrouped French forces returned to chase the invaders back to Naples. The Roman Jacobins resurfaced more militant than ever, now banning all public signs of religious practice, restricting ordinations, and imposing forced loans. French exactions were renewed, their total value reaching perhaps 70 millions.
There was scarcely time to extend this pattern to the last of the sister republics, and the shortest-lived—the Parthenopean Republic proclaimed at Naples by Championnet on 26 January 1799. By this time the Directors wanted no more of such satellites. As the Austrians and Russians prepared to march into Switzerland and Italy, the French armies were already dangerously stretched, and the poor, remote Neapolitan kingdom had limited strategic value. Championnet knew this, and after the flight of Ferdinand IV’s forces was at first content to conclude an armistice under which he occupied the northern provinces but not the city of Naples—by far Italy’s largest. All he demanded there was that Nelson and his British squadron should be denied a landing. But the panic-stricken king and queen abandoned Naples, sailing off to Sicily with Nelson. Chaos gripped the city as the volatile Neapolitan poor, the notorious lazzaroni, armed to confront the French and ended up lynching noblemen and sacking the empty royal palace. The city’s Jacobins, emerging from three years of prudent obscurity since the breakup of their clubs in 1795, appealed to Championnet to intervene. He could not resist this opportunity to emulate Bonaparte, but a thousand Frenchmen and three times that number oflazzaroni lay dead or wounded before the blue, red, and yellow tricolour of the Parthenopean Republic flew over Naples. A provisional government of Jacobins now set about drafting a constitution, while a club dedicated to ‘public instruction’ elaborated a whole range of Utopian reform projects. Championnet, however, was recalled in disgrace after expelling a critical civil commissioner from Naples in true Bonapartist style. His dismissal was the last triumph under the Directory of the civil arm over the military, and even that rebounded in June when a court-martial failed to convict him. And by then the Republic he had created in southern Italy had disappeared. The Russians had arrived in Lombardy, and in order to avoid being cut off the new French commander in Naples, MacDonald, abandoned the city in a desperate march northwards. His collaborators were left with no force to rely on but a few hundred French troops garrisoning strong points. This might be enough to contain the lazzaroni, but it was certainly no match for the royalist forces now making for Naples from the south—the ‘Christian Army of the Holy Faith’ led by a fighting prince of the Church, Cardinal Ruffo.
Ruffo was a Calabrian who had served in the papal curia but had found more favour at the Neapolitan court. Sailing with the royal family to Sicily, he offered to raise his native province for the king before the French got there. Feeling he had nothing to lose, Ferdinand IV accepted the offer, and Ruffo landed in Calabria with a handful of companions and a banner bearing the cross and the royal arms on 7 February. Within weeks his followers had swelled to an army of 17,000 and were in control of the whole toe of Italy. Soon the neighbouring provinces of Apulia and Basilicata had fallen to them as well. Ruffo’s technique was to appeal pointedly to social antagonisms in an area recently ravaged by natural disasters, over-populated, deeply impoverished, and groaning under heavy indirect taxes and feudal burdens. He proclaimed the latter abolished while the Jacobins in Naples were merely toying with the idea, thus inferring that the French and their friends represented the rich and powerful. He also whipped up the deep-rooted antagonism of peasants for the towns, knowing that if all townsmen were not Jacobins, all Jacobins were certainly townsmen. As everywhere, political labels were stuck on innumerable long-standing local antagonisms and vendettas and provided new justifications for pursuing them. The march of the ‘Sanfedist’ army was a peasants’ revolt which in other circumstances might just as easily have been against the Bourbon government. Like other such revolts, it was chaotic, undisciplined, and largely local in its impetus and effects. Law and order in Calabria did not recover from it for decades. Even so, enough of those involved were prepared to march with Ruffo up to defenceless Naples, where they arrived on June 13 as British ships threatened the city from the bay. A week of confused siege and renewed anarchy followed.
The populace [reported Ruffo, appalled at the savagery now unleashed], and many outlaws who have come to fight for the King … are robbing and plundering without let or hindrance. All respectable folk are fleeing to the country. Our better soldiers are guarding the houses against pillage, but to little purpose. Often the pretext is Jacobinism: that is what they call it, but in fact it is plunder that often produces Jacobin proprietors. I find the same in small places. To the cry of ‘Long live the King!’ they dare anything with impunity.15
He could see no point in further draconian reprisals once calm returned; but his royal master, his fearsome Habsburg queen, and their British advisers thought otherwise. They demanded victims, and show trials followed the royal return to Naples. In consequence, 120 Jacobins were hanged and over 1,100 more imprisoned.
By now the whole of Italy was in revolt against the French and their protégés. Briefly, as the forces of the coalition massed, the invaders attempted to seize control of the whole peninsula. Piedmont, surrounded as a result of the previous war by French, or French-controlled, territory, had been browbeaten into a treaty of alliance in October 1797. The following June the Republic’s troops were allowed to garrison the citadel at Turin, from where they encouraged local sympathizers to demonstrate against the monarchy. Matters came to a crisis when the French demanded that the lands of dissolved Cisalpine monasteries on Piedmontese territory should be sold. King Charles Emmanuel IV refused, unless the citadel was returned. The French response was to demand yet more military facilities, and when the king held out, they occupied the whole country (December 1798) and forced him to abdicate. Exhorting his former subjects to obey the French, he left for the island kingdom of Sardinia that was still his. Piedmontese patriots rejoiced, but not for long. In February 1798 a carefully rigged referendum approved the annexation of Piedmont to France. Such a solution was not contemplated in Tuscany, further south, but as war resumed in the spring the French decided they needed to occupy it and draw on its still untouched resources. In March 1799 they marched in, packing the Grand Duke Ferdinand off to his brother in Vienna. But no sooner was this control asserted than it was challenged—by the Austro-Russian invasion from outside, and by indigenous revolts from within.
All over the peninsula there were anti-French outbreaks, especially as the Republic’s overstretched forces withdrew to concentrate in the north. Taken together they probably represented the greatest and most spectacular repudiation of the French Revolution and its principles that this turbulent decade had produced. For the Italian peasants who were the mainstay of the revolts, the French stood for military marauding and looting, and heavy impositions. All too often, despite grandiloquent denunciations of feudalism, they prolonged the exactions of landlords as a convenient source of revenue. Worse, the French stood for impiety, with their plunder of churches and contempt for religious customs and superstitions. Bonaparte was not alone among their generals in seeing what damage such behaviour could do. They eagerly curried support among the quite numerous prelates and clerics who were ready to establish a working relationship with them, and distributed copies of sermons proclaiming that Liberty, Equality, and Christianity were perfectly compatible. But they could not control the everyday behaviour of soldiers who knew from years of experience, at home and abroad, that priestcraft was the most persistent and insidious enemy of the Revolution. Producing acts of casual blasphemy and sacrilege, such beliefs were self-confirming. Finally the French stood for the rule of Jacobins: rich, educated townsmen more intent, in peasant eyes, on seizing power for themselves, often again with a show of gratuitous anti-religious excess, than in addressing the problems country people thought important. Peasants knew that these people owed their power to the French, and kept it by doing the foreign invaders’ bidding, and used it to enrich themselves by expropriating the Church and buying up the proceeds. Frenchmen often compared rural revolts in Italy to the Vendée, or called the rebels chouans; and in the mixture of religious and material resentments, and country versus town antagonisms, there was a good deal in common between Italian insurgents and France’s own archetypal anti-revolutionaries.
But not all those who rejected the rule of the French were peasants. French occupation, looting, and exactions brought severe disruption to urban life, too. The anti-French rallying cry of Vive Maria! was heard most loudly in Rome in 1798 or Florence in 1799. Here again, however, local conflicts often underlay the resistance—resentment at attacks on the Church which in Tuscany went back to the 1760s, outrage that the French and their clients did not revoke the free-trade policies that had pushed up the price of subsistence in the swollen cities, again since the 1760s. Jews, too, whose ambiguous status all Jacobins vowed to improve, came under popular attack when the French withdrew. By 1799, in fact, increasing numbers of the Italian Jacobins themselves were turning against their benefactors. They had never been united. Everywhere moderates who hoped only for a resumption of the steady, ordered reforms of the 1780s, in the individual territories of the peninsula, struggled with radicals who sought its prompt unification, if necessary by methods of terror. Consistently thwarted once French control was well established, the latter by 1798 had begun to hatch ambitious plots, sometimes in concert with antidirectorial Jacobins in France itself, ‘There can be no doubt’, wrote a well-informed directorial agent in October 1798,16 ‘that at this moment a vast plot is being hatched to assassinate Frenchmen … Scoundrels are planning a new Sicilian vespers against the Italian governments. They have been listened to by many people, and mystery still shrouds part of the horrors that have been prepared to make the war more deadly for the hated nation, if fighting should start again.’ In Piedmont the conspirators actually managed to enlist peasant sympathies, and in February 1799, although their plot was uncovered, peasants in the Langhe district rose in protest at impending French annexation, carrying not (ultimate irony) pious objects and symbols, but miniatures of the Jacobin martyrs Le Peletier and Marat.
The Year VII, therefore, beginning in September 1798, was marked by popular uprisings against the French and their Revolution in most of the areas where they had penetrated—Belgium, Luxembourg, Switzerland, and Italy. Although a new wave of unrest swept the distant Russian steppes in 1796-8, and may have owed something to garbled rumours of upheaval far to the west, the only pro-French uprising of any significance occurred in a place Frenchmen never reached until it was over. Even there it was obvious that Irish peasants had no idea what they stood for. ‘God help these simpletons’, remarked one of Humbert’s officers.17 ‘If they knew how little we cared for the Pope or his religion, they would not be so hot in expecting help from us.’ By the late 1790s, the fact is that whereas the friends of revolutionary France beyond her borders still ran into thousands, their numbers were rapidly diminishing. Her enemies, on the other hand, ran into millions, and were increasing all the time. Combined with the organized forces of the second coalition, who on paper at least could muster between them armies of over 400,000, they constituted a threat to the revolutionary Republic more mortal than any it had faced since the Year II. And although the outbreaks of resistance had been contained or reduced to a sustainable level of defiance by the time military campaigning began in earnest in the spring of 1799, in Italy they completely outran French resources.
Yet the arrogance born of four years of uninterrupted success died hard. It was the French who declared war on Austria, and they began it by taking the offensive on all fronts. In Germany Jourdan crossed the Rhine and marched towards Vienna. Despite being outnumbered three to one, he gave battle to the Archduke Charles at Stockach on 25 March and suffered a paralysing defeat. Armies that had advanced from Switzerland now had to fall back, pursued by Austrian and Russian forces. Equally outnumbered in Italy, and confronted by the redoubtable Suvorov, the French fought a bloody rearguard campaign. By the end of June they were penned into a coastal strip around Genoa. The sister republics collapsed in a welter of revenge and reprisal, and Suvorov proclaimed the restoration of Charles Emmanuel IV in Turin. Only in distant Egypt did the general who, more than any other single person, had precipitated this new crisis continue to win victories. But nobody in Europe knew this, and Bonaparte in turn was unaware of French disasters in the new war. Late in June he was writing to Paris asking for more troops to be sent. It was not until the beginning of August that, by courtesy of a British admiral, he received newspapers already two months old announcing defeat upon defeat. Already disillusioned about what might be achieved in Egypt, he now foresaw nothing but ultimate surrender. The Directory took the same view, On 25 May, in fact, it had ordered him to evacuate Egypt. But these orders had still not arrived when, on 24 August, he sailed secretly for France of his own accord, leaving the army he had taken to the east to shift for itself. Two years later, depleted by two-thirds, its diseased and demoralized remnants surrendered to the British, who transported them back at last to a France now ruled by the general who had abandoned them.