THE French Revolution took the whole of Europe by surprise. To be sure, all educated Europeans were aware in the 1780s that they lived in an age of upheaval and defiance of authority. America had thrown off British sovereignty, and Ireland had defied it. In the Dutch Republic self-styled patriots were struggling to deprive the prince of Orange of what quasi-monarchical powers he retained. But if any great monarchy seemed destined soon to collapse, it was not that of the French Bourbons, but that of the Habsburgs. Restless and unpredictable, the Emperor Joseph II was turning his German dominions upside-down in a headlong attempt to create a rational, efficient military despotism. By the middle of the decade he was switching his attention to his more outlying territories, Hungary and the southern Netherlands, and soon both were in turmoil.
French diplomats positively encouraged all these developments. Without French help American independence could not have been achieved so rapidly and decisively. The Dutch patriot movement also stood in the way of Orangist attempts to reforge the century-long alliance with the British, ruptured in 1780; so the patriots were promised every support from Versailles. And anything which preoccupied Joseph II domestically was to be welcomed if it curbed his international adventures. But Vergennes, the friend of foreign rebels, was a stern authoritarian at home. Neither he, nor the foreign observers who watched him confidently deploying his master’s international influence, discerned that the ground was crumbling beneath him. Yet within six months of his death in February 1787 France, too, was in turmoil.
The first sign that France had been internationally weakened by domestic crisis came in September 1787, when she failed to keep her promises to the Dutch patriots and allowed the Prussians to march into the Republic and crush their movement. The chanceries of Europe registered the change instantly, and not without some gloating. ‘If God’, wrote the British ambassador to the Hague, ‘wished to punish them in the way they have sinned, how I should admire divine justice.’1 Apparently God did. For the next four years the French became ever more preoccupied with their internal problems, and their international power withered away. Diplomatic relations were conducted, for the first time in centuries, without regard for what the French might think or do. Their apparent inability to restore financial or practical stability amazed and amused the rest of Europe, at least down to the summer of 1789. Until then, few onlookers knew what to make of it all. But with the fall of the Bastille, suddenly and simultaneously throughout the continent the meaning of what was going on in France seemed to fall into place. The Bastille was a state prison. Its storming marked the overthrow of despotism by subjects who until now had known no liberty under kingly rule.
The news was romantic and thrilling. All over Europe people thronged bookshops and reading rooms, clamouring for the latest information. ‘I do not know where to turn,’ wrote a German lady, ‘for the papers contain such great and splendid news that I am hot from reading.’2 The leaders of German literary life were almost unanimous in welcoming the events in France. Philosophers like Kant and Herder, poets like Klopstock, Hölderlin, and Wieland were enraptured by what they heard. Even those, like Goethe and Schiller, who were more sceptical right from the start followed the news avidly. Richer and more adventurous Germans took the road to Paris to observe the new liberty at first hand, and one at least became notorious there—Anacharsis Clootz, a wealthy Prussian nobleman who had left France in 1785 vowing never to return until the Bastille had fallen. He was in Sicily when it did, and hurried back to throw himself into the democratic politics he had hitherto only dreamed of. The impact was similar among the intellectuals of Italy, who rejoiced to see what had seemed the most well established of states shattered by popular uprising and then rededicating itself to national reform. Wholesale reform was not, after all, just for dreamers, or for Americans free to start again in virgin territory: it could take place in the heart of Europe, in the continent’s very intellectual capital. That meant it could take place anywhere. As far away as Stockholm the news from France was the talk of the salons and cafés. ‘Tell me,’ wrote the young Swedish poet Kellgren to his brother, ‘was there ever anything more sublime in History, even in Rome or Greece? I wept like a child, like a man, at the story of this great victory.’3 In St Petersburg, there was jubilation in the streets and a vast expansion in the circulation of news-sheets. Russians were present at the fall of the Bastille, in fact. ‘The cry of freedom rings in my ears’, rhapsodized one of them, Count Stroganov, ‘and the best day of my life will be that when I see Russia regenerated by such a Revolution.’4
One country in Europe felt no such need. In 1788 there were widespread celebrations in Great Britain to mark the centenary of the ‘Glorious Revolution’ which had thwarted Stuart despotism and finally established parliamentary government and the rule of law. Englishmen revelled in their freedom, and had traditionally regarded the French as slaves to tyranny, superstition, and poverty. They were now benevolently interested to see their neighbour catching up. Fox, leader of the Whig opposition, proclaimed the fall of the Bastille the greatest and best event in history; and while not all British observers went so far, there was little initial hostility. ‘It will perhaps surprise you,’ one Member of Parliament wrote to a correspondent in France on 28 July 1789, ‘but it is certainly true, that the Revolution … produced a very sincere and very general joy here. It is the subject of all conversations; and even all the newspapers, without one exception, though they are not conducted by the most liberal or most philosophical of men, join in sounding forth the praises of the Parisians, and in rejoicing at an event so important for mankind.’5 And meanwhile those who had seen more recent attempts at revolution suppressed or aborted took comfort and encouragement. Many of them were already refugees in France anyway. Genevan democrats, whose attempts to widen the circles of political power in the city-state had been crushed by armed intervention by a league of neighbouring powers, led by France, in 1782, hoped the new regime in Paris would abandon its oligarchic puppets. Shamed at its failure to help the Dutch patriots more tangibly in 1787, the dying absolute monarchy in France had at least extended hospitality to refugees from Orangist and Prussian vengeance. By the end of 1788 perhaps 1,500 Dutch families had been granted residence and small pensions by Louis XVI. When power in France fell into the hands of men who also called themselves patriots and sought to share power more widely, the Dutch exiles were delighted. Largely concentrated in a handful of towns in French Flanders, by 1790 they were forming clubs and setting up National Guard units. The National Assembly, recognizing spiritual allies, continued to subsidize them, too; although its pacific professions and military weakness offered them scant hope at this stage of reversing their defeat of 1787 with French help.
Most of the Dutch exiles, however, did not penetrate as far as France. The vast majority of the 40,000 or so fugitives from the Orangist reaction ended up nearer home, in the Austrian Netherlands or the ecclesiastical principality of Liège. Belgian resistance to Joseph II’s rationalizing policies in Church and State was gathering momentum by the time of the Dutch political exodus. The refugees found the atmosphere of defiance, as well as linguistic affinities, congenial; but the issues at stake in Belgium were very different from those preoccupying Dutch patriots. The opponents of William V had sought to change the way things were done. In Belgium it was the distant emperor who sought change: his Flemish and Walloon subjects merely wanted to be left alone. In 1787 and 1788 that brought them closer to the French than to the Dutch; but whereas, by 1789, the French had moved on, and were looking to create a whole new order based on liberty, the Belgian rebels remained largely wedded to protecting existing liberties, that whole complex of customs and prescriptive rights which French patriots were now beginning to denounce as unjust and meaningless privileges. Both conflicts came to a head in the first half of 1789, however, and during the excitement of the struggle few noticed the increasing divergence between the French and what they called the Brabant Revolution. The day after the third estate in Versailles proclaimed themselves the National Assembly and claimed the sole right to authorize taxation, Joseph II demanded that the estates of Brabant grant him a limitless right to tax and legislate (18 June 1789). When they refused, he dissolved them, and renounced the ‘Joyous Entry’, the charter of liberties which he like all preceding sovereigns had sworn to uphold on his accession. The grain shortage that was so important in France at this moment also affected the crowded cities of the low countries, and as in Paris the hungry populace threw its weight behind the opponents of authority. ‘Here as in Paris’ in fact became the popular cry in Brussels, and a secret revolutionary society was established to tap anti-Austrian feeling. Using a slogan already favoured by Irish and Dutch para-military reform organizations earlier in the decade, it called itself Pro Aris et Focis—for altars and hearths—and it was generously funded by the Church, which here as elsewhere in the Habsburg Empire had borne the brunt of Joseph II’s reforms. No popular uprising came, however, until companies of armed exiles intervened in the autumn. The acknowledged leader of resistance to the emperor, the colourful Brussels lawyer Van der Noot, had been in exile in Holland since August 1788, hoping to interest foreign powers in his compatriots’ plight. Spurned by monarchs well content to see Joseph II mired by chaos in Belgium, eventually he turned to armed self-help. In cooperation with the founder of Pro Aris et Focis, his fellow lawyer Vonck, in October 1789 he organized an invasion which overwhelmed the small, over-confident Austrian garrison. The insurgents came not just from across the Dutch frontier, but from Liège in the south, where in mid-August opponents of the prince-bishop had seized power, visibly encouraged by the example of France. By December the Belgian rebels, backed by popular uprisings, were in control of the entire country, and in Brussels everyone was wearing national cockades like the French—but here in black, yellow, and red. On 10 January 1790, at the invitation of the estates of Brabant, representatives of all the provinces met and declared themselves an independent United States of Belgium. The chorus of approval from France was unanimous. But almost at once it became clear how little the two revolutions had in common.
The new ‘statist’ regime sought only to carry on as before, but without a monarch. Power was to remain with the estates of the various provinces, dominated as they were by great nobles and above all the Church in the form of its traditional representatives, the abbots of the greater monasteries. Van der Noot, now installed as first minister, had no sympathy with a France where the lands of the Church had already been confiscated, monasteries were about to be dissolved, and noble power had been broken. Vonck, however, felt that the moment of establishing a new political order was an opportunity for reform. At the end of January he issued an appeal for constitutional change obviously inspired by the French example. He called for the admission of petty nobles and parish priests to the estates, the doubling of third-estate representation, and the creation of a fourth estate representing small towns. Even this was conservative by the standards now reached in France, but it was bitterly denounced by the statists and the Church as a formula for Frenchified levelling. When Vonck’s ‘progressives’ petitioned for a modification of the Joyous Entry the people of Brussels attacked the houses of their known leaders. When part of the new federation’s army mutinied in support of Vonck, thousands of peasants poured into Brussels to protect the statists. Isolated, persecuted, and in a tiny minority amid their deeply conservative countrymen, Vonck and most of the leading progressives fled to France—thus confirming all the worst suspicions of their persecutors.
Yet neither France nor the French example were any real threat to the new Belgian regime. The danger still came from Austria. Joseph II, who had touched off the original revolt, died on 20 February 1790. He was succeeded by his brother Leopold, who initially at least had no despotic ambitions. Grand Duke of Tuscany since 1765, Leopold had sought to rule in Florence with the co-operation and participation of his subjects. He had positively welcomed the first news from France in the spring of 1789. ‘The regeneration of France’, he wrote on 14 June, ‘will be an example which all sovereigns and governments of Europe will be forced, willy-nilly, to copy. Infinite happiness will result from this everywhere, the end of injustice, wars, conflicts and arrests, and it will be one of the most useful fashions introduced by France into Europe.’6 By 1790 he was less sanguine, but he still had no intention of following Joseph’s high-handed policies in Belgium. In fact, in March he offered to confirm the entire new statist regime in return for acknowledgement of his sovereignty. He received no reply. Subsequently he approached Vonck in his French exile, offering to support the progressives if they would work for his restoration. Aware of his liberal reputation, they negotiated for a while; but by now they were being radicalized by the French atmosphere and the contacts lapsed. Only then did Leopold resort to force. First he cleared the diplomatic decks by reaching an accord with Prussia, which had been on the point of war with Joseph when he died. Called in as mediators in the Liège revolution, Prussian troops now straddled the route to Belgium. But when Leopold assured King Frederick William II that his intentions were pacific throughout Europe, Liège was evacuated, and on 27 July 1790 the two German powers concluded the Convention of Reichenbach. Under it Leopold agreed to end Joseph’s war against the Turks, going on since 1787, seeking no substantial territorial gains. Thus reassured, Prussia agreed to stop supporting rebels against the Habsburg Crown, whether in Hungary or Belgium. Peace was duly made with the Turks in September, releasing the necessary troops, and the recovery of Belgium began. The new state’s army was swept aside; so were irregular companies of peasant volunteers raised in what was known as the ‘September Crusade’. By the beginning of December Austrian soldiers had overrun the whole country, and Liège into the bargain, where the bishop returned on their coat-tails. Van der Noot fled once more to Holland. The United States of Belgium had lasted less than a year.
No friends came to their rescue. The British, traditional protectors of the low countries, had actually helped to engineer the Reichenbach agreement. And the French, who were not consulted, looked on with indifference. They had now recognized how little Van der Noot’s revolution had in common with their own; and besides, only on 22 May, the National Assembly had elevated France’s diplomatic nullity to a point of principle by declaring that the nation renounced offensive warfare. The question arose when a request for diplomatic support arrived from Spain. A year earlier, off Vancouver Island in the far Pacific, Spanish coastguards had tried to arrest British merchantmen in Nootka Sound on the grounds that the entire west coast of America was Spain’s. When news of the incident arrived in Europe, the British refused to accept Spanish claims, and both sides began to mobilize for war. Madrid now invoked the Family Compact, the alliance with France repeatedly renewed over the century since its first conclusion in 1733. Louis XVI and his ministers were inclined to send the help requested, even at the risk of war; but the National Assembly, confronting diplomatic questions for the first time, spurned the Spanish request. A national, representative regime did not recognize family ties between ruling houses as fit bases for international agreements, much less action. And so although much traditional Anglophobia surfaced in the Nootka Sound debates, and there was intermittent talk of readying the fleet, the Spaniards were offered no tangible help, and were forced to back down. The revolutionaries felt proud of the way they had refused to perpetuate dynastic diplomacy. Two months later they raged against another specimen of it when Leopold, still nominally France’s ally, sought permission for Austrian troops to cross French territory on the way to Belgium. Fears now began to be expressed for the first time of an international plot to attack France and destroy the Revolution. Marie-Antoinette and her circle might dream of it, but nothing could have been further from the truth. As the Turkish war in the east came to an end, the great continental powers were more than happy to leave France wallowing in what they saw as helpless chaos while they turned their predatory attentions to Poland.
In 1772 the Russians, Prussians, and Austrians had combined, in the first partition, to deprive Poland of a third of her territory and population. What was left was little more than a Russian puppet state; but under it many Poles schemed and planned for a national revival when an opportunity should present itself. It did so in 1788, when the Russians became distracted on two fronts by simultaneous war against the Swedes and the Turks. Between October 1788 and January 1789 the Polish diet threw off Russian control and began a massive expansion of the army to protect the country’s recovered independence in the future. The advocates of this programme called themselves patriots, and they warmed to the news by then coming from France. Educated Poles knew that France was their country’s traditional friend, many read and spoke French, and they felt involved in a common struggle against despotism when they read the French news which flooded the Warsaw news-sheets. But as with Belgium, apart from rebellion against established authority, the situations in Poland and France had nothing in common. Political life in Poland was a noble monopoly, and the diet was outraged when, in November 1789, 141 towns subscribed to a petition calling for non-noble representation. Liberty in Poland meant ‘Golden Liberty’: the anarchical old constitution in which the king was elected and exercised no real power, legislation could be blocked by a single contrary vote (liberum veto), and dissatisfied elements enjoyed a legalized right to rebel. The Russians, for their own reasons, favoured these arrangements, and styled themselves guarantors of the Polish constitution. Patriots, on the contrary, became identified in the course of 1790 with a stronger executive including a hereditary monarchy, majority votes in the diet, and an end to legalized rebellion. Only modernization on this scale, they thought, could give Poland the strength to resist Russia in the future; and with the Convention of Reichenbach signalling the imminent end of the Turkish war the matter became urgent. On 3 May 1791 the king and the patriots combined to push a new constitution through a thinly attended diet surrounded by troops. The phraseology of the 3 May constitution contained many echoes of that being elaborated in France at the same time; and its supporters organized themselves into a club called the Friends of the Constitution. Again the parallel was superficial, but so was the perception of the Polish magnates who had been the mainstay of the old constitution; and so, above all, was that of Catherine II of Russia. The new Polish constitution was in her eyes plainly Jacobinical. Catherine had been determined to recover control in Poland from the moment it was lost. The echoes of France she discerned there made her all the more determined. Paradoxically it would be the actions of the French revolutionaries in 1792 which would enable her finally to do so.
Meanwhile, however, western Europe seemed to be adjusting to the new order in France. Much of the initial enthusiasm had cooled when the fall of the Bastille was followed by continued upheavals. The October Days in particular dismayed many observers of orderly disposition, and hardly anybody outside France thought the first anniversary of the fall of the Bastille worth celebrating. But the full extent of the Revolution’s quarrel with the Church to which the vast majority of Europeans belonged was not evident until the spring of 1791; and pity and puzzlement rather than alarm were the predominant attitudes in 1790. People were no longer sure what to think. In November of that year, however, a powerful and persuasive voice began to tell them, with extraordinary success. In that month, Edmund Burke published his Reflexions on the Revolution in France.
Initially Burke had been no more sure than anybody else what to make of French events, although he was never swept along by the enthusiasm of some of his fellow Whigs. But what outraged him was the inspiration the Revolution had clearly given to the movement in Great Britain for parliamentary reform. Originating in the late 1760s, agitation for the redistribution of parliamentary seats, shorter parliaments, and extension of the franchise had flagged in the mid-1780s after a ministerial reform bill introduced by Pitt had failed to pass. The centenary celebrations in 1788 revived interest in reform, particularly among dissenters excluded from the franchise by religion. Dissenters proved one of the mainstays of a ‘Revolution Society’ established to perpetuate these revived aspirations, and it was a leading dissenting minister, Dr Richard Price, who stung Burke into action with a sermon preached under the auspices of the Revolution Society in 1789 on 4 November (birthday of William III, the hero of 1688). France, Price implied, had now overtaken Great Britain in the pursuit of liberty. Its religious laws were more liberal, its system of government more representative. And, with news of the October Days still the topic of every conversation, he thanked God that ‘I have lived to see THIRTY MILLIONS of people, indignant and resolute, spurning at slavery, and demanding liberty with an irresistible voice; their king led in triumph, and an arbitrary monarch surrendering himself to his subjects.’7
Burke’s indignation at this interpretation of French events knew no bounds. It triggered an impassioned denunciation of the Revolution in Parliament in February 1790 which left his fellow Whigs dumbfounded. And in the following November it produced his great pamphlet. What had happened in 1688, he protested, was not revolution in the new, French sense, but rather the preservation of hallowed English liberties from the attacks of a monarch bent on subverting them. Reverence for ancient institutions and established practices was the true English way: in fact it was the only way for any self-respecting nation. Yet the French had spurned this principle. Repudiating the wisdom of their ancestors, and heedless of the consequences for their posterity, they were now in the process of renouncing their entire heritage. ‘You had’, he told them, ‘the elements of a constitution very nearly as good as could be wished …; but you chose to act as if you had never been moulded into civil society, and had everything to begin anew. You began ill, because you began by despising everything that belonged to you.’ The mildest of monarchs, and the most beautiful of queens, had ruled over a spirited, honourable, and cultivated nobility, a respectable clergy and an independent judiciary. The monarchy had been ‘a despotism rather in appearance than in reality’, and with a little modest adaptation the Estates-General might have become a body as representative as the British Parliament of the nation’s true interests. But the elections of 1789 had brought to power not ‘the natural landed interest of the country’, but ‘country curates’ and ‘obscure provincial advocates … stewards of petty local jurisdictions, country attorneys, notarys, and the whole train of the ministers of municipal litigation, the fomenters and conductors of the petty war of village vexation … Was it to be expected that they would attend to the stability of property, whose existence had always depended upon whatever rendered property questionable, ambiguous and insecure?’ It was not; and in fact an Assembly dominated by such men had embarked on a confiscation of property unparalleled in history. By the time Burke finished the Reflexions the lands of the Church had been nationalized in what he saw as a ‘momentum of ignorance, rashness, presumption and lust of plunder, which nothing has been able to resist’. This expropriation had been used to launch a fraudulent paper currency with no possible stable future, and had necessitated a civil constitution which no honourable cleric could submit himself to. ‘It seems to me,’ he concluded, ‘that this new ecclesiastical establishment is intended only to be temporary, and preparatory to the utter abolition, under any of its forms, of the Christian religion.’
These thoughts brought Burke to the causes of the Revolution. Convinced that nothing was fundamentally wrong with the old order, he attributed its subversion to a conspiracy. On the one hand were the ‘moneyed interest’, resentful at their lack of esteem and greedy for new profits; on the other, and even more important, were the so-called philosophers of the Enlightenment, a ‘literary cabal’ committed to the destruction of Christianity by any and every available means. The idea of a philosophic conspiracy was not new. It went back to the only one ever conclusively proved to have existed, the plot of the self-styled Illuminati to undermine the Church-dominated government of Bavaria. The Bavarian government published a sensational collection of documents to illustrate its gravity, and Burke had read it. Although he was not the first to attribute events in France to conspiracy of the sort thwarted in Bavaria, the way he included the idea in the most comprehensive denunciation of the Revolution yet to appear lent it unprecedented authority. Nor was the destruction of Christianity and the triumph of atheism the only catastrophe he predicted. Disgusted by the way the ‘Republic of Paris’ and its ‘swinish multitude’ held the government captive, the provinces would eventually cut loose and France would fall apart. The assignats would drive out sound coinage and hasten, rather than avert, bankruptcy. The only possible end to France’s self-induced anarchy would come when ‘some popular general, who understands the art of conciliating the soldiery, and who possesses the true spirit of command, shall draw the eyes of all men upon himself. Armies will obey him on his personal account … the moment in which that event shall happen, the person who really commands the army is your master.’
Burke’s determination in the Reflexions was to persuade his countrymen that the French example was not one to follow. And undoubtedly he articulated what many conservative Englishmen were vaguely feeling about cross-Channel events. But the fury and venom of his attack also focused the minds of France’s British admirers, and in so doing paradoxically breathed new life into a domestic reform movement that was once again flagging as Pitt registered yet another victory in the general election of 1790. Burke’s intemperate diatribe, reformers felt, must be answered, and several cogent responses appeared in the early months of 1791. All were outshone, however, by Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man, which was published in February and at once hailed as the definitive reply. An advocate of republican revolution since he had first urged the common sense of it on the American rebels in 1776, Paine had returned to Europe in 1787 and had been looking for an opportunity to announce his views on the French Revolution since visiting Paris over the winter of 1789-90. Burke’s outburst provided it.
He began by pouring scorn on Burke’s reverence for the past. ‘Every age and generation must be as free to act for itself in all cases as the ages and generations which preceded it. The variety and presumption of governing beyond the grave is the most ridiculous and insolent of all tyrannies.’ He then went on to a detailed refutation of Burke’s picture of French affairs, denouncing him as an admirer of power, not principles, and one who, pitying the plumage of the old order, forgot the dying bird. He sought to correct lurid allusions to popular savagery by detailed accounts of the fall of the Bastille (scarcely mentioned by Burke) and the October Days. The overriding purpose of these movements, Paine argued, was to establish the Rights of Man; and he printed a full translated text of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, glossing it at length as a way of refuting Burke’s ‘pathless wilderness of rhapsodies … a sort of descant upon Governments, in which he asserts whatever he pleases’. The French were now in the process of giving themselves a rational, equitable, established constitution, whereas that of Great Britain, so vaunted by Burke, was nothing but a random and arbitrary collection of unjust customs going back to no better title than conquest by a Norman adventurer. Now was the time for all peoples to follow the French example by abolishing nobility and titles, destroying tithes, and proclaiming the regeneration of man. Paine even urged the British to go further, and abandon monarchy itself. ‘From what we now see,’ he concluded, ‘nothing of reform in the political world ought to be held improbable. It is an age of Revolutions, in which everything may be looked for.’
Thus began a great debate which polarized British public life for the rest of the decade. Burke’s Reflexions were a best-seller (30,000 in two years) but were easily outstripped by sales totalling perhaps 200,000 for Rights of Man as hitherto moribund reform societies revitalized themselves to promote its diffusion in London, the provinces, and Scotland and Ireland too. It was, reported the radical young Dublin lawyer Wolfe Tone on his first visit to Ulster in October 1791, the Bible of Belfast. The second anniversary of the Bastille’s fall, in contrast to the previous year, was marked with banquets in major provincial towns throughout the British Isles. In London they drank to Burke—for having provoked the debate. Paine by then was in Paris, where he helped to draft the republican petition of the Champ de Mars; but he was back in London by November, bringing Pétion as a guest of honour to the Revolution Society. By then it had become fashionable for radical clubs to exchange fraternal addresses with the Jacobins, and as 1791 closed there was evidence that the debate was awakening groups hitherto dormant politically. December saw the foundation by ‘five or six mechanics’ of the Sheffield Constitutional Society to press for manhood suffrage and annual parliaments. By March 1792 it had 2,000 members. In January a Scottish shoemaker, Thomas Hardy, founded the London Corresponding Society with similar aims. The appearance of a second part of Rights of Man that spring, full less of general principles than of practical British radicalism, provoked the foundation during the year of corresponding societies in most leading provincial cities to promote its distribution. But not all of England was radicalized. In Birmingham a ‘Bastille dinner’ in July 1791 led to a riot against the dissenters who had been its leading attenders. Crowds cheering for Church and King sacked chapels, meeting houses, and the home of the unitarian scientist Joseph Priestley, while local magistrates stood obligingly aside. Decades of fruitless effort to launch ‘God Save the King’ as a national song were suddenly crowned with success as respectable people reflected on the flight to Varennes; and in May 1792 the government issued a proclamation against seditious writings and opened proceedings against Paine.
Nor did the British debate begun by Burke go unnoticed elsewhere. As soon as the Reflexions appeared they were translated into French, Italian, Spanish, and German. Within four months the French edition had sold 16,000, and sales of the three German editions eventually far exceeded that. Even those who disagreed with Burke’s analysis, like his Prussian translator Friedrich Gentz, were profoundly influenced by the comprehensive vigour of his denunciation. Paine struck nothing like the same echoes; for by 1791 most Germans, even those who had been carried away by enthusiasm two years previously, viewed the continuing upheaval in France with mounting horror, and found the Englishman’s faith in the rationality of what the French were doing quite incomprehensible. Subjects of benign, unwarlike prince-bishops were shocked by the pillage of the French Church; the teeming bureaucrats well schooled in public law who kept the hundreds of German states going were repelled by the disorder the Revolution seemed to have produced. They therefore took little persuading by Burke, his disciples, and translators that peoples were unwise to abandon their own heritage and traditions in order to start again from scratch. And the attitude of Germany’s rulers could be taken completely for granted. The National Assembly, after all, had voted in the course of its attack on feudalism in August 1789 to deprive a number of them of valuable rights guaranteed to them for ever by the Peace of Westphalia. No compensation had been offered. Germany, therefore, was an obvious place for the French émigrés to converge on when Artois decided to move his court from Turin in January 1791. After some wandering he settled in Koblenz, the capital of his uncle the prince-archbishop of Trier, a matter of days before the flight to Varennes. There he was joined a few weeks later by his brother Provence, and there the thousands of new émigrés who left France after Varennes now gathered, if they did not prefer to join the Prince de Condé further up the Rhine in the territories of another prince-bishop, the elector of Mainz. And as soon as they arrived they organized for war, subsidized by grants from the Emperor and the rulers of Prussia, Russia, and Spain, as well as a number of German princelings. The disruption caused by their preparations, and the general arrogance of their behaviour, scarcely endeared them to the ordinary Rhinelanders; but even this did not create much German sympathy for the Revolution they had turned their backs on. It was one more reason for blaming it.
Yet the war which the Rhinelanders dreaded and the émigrés ached for was slow to come. Even after the Declaration of Pillnitz, the only monarch who burned to cross swords with what he called the ‘Orang-Outangs of Europe’ was Gustavus III of Sweden, who had authorized his subject Fersen to organize the flight to Varennes, and travelled to Aachen in June 1791 in the hope of welcoming Louis XVI to freedom. Disappointed in this, he nevertheless cleared the decks for an attack by offering peace in his three-year war with Russia. Catherine II was delighted, but not because of the opportunity of joining an anti-French crusade. She wanted to fight Jacobinism—but in Poland. While her diplomats were instructed to keep urging the Emperor and the king of Prussia to move against France, she made peace with enemies on both her own flanks: with Sweden in October, with Turkey at the end of December. But Leopold II chose to regard Louis XVI’s acceptance of the constitution as rendering any follow-up to Pillnitz unnecessary: the king and the Revolution were reconciled. So Catherine had to bide her time, concentrating her energies meanwhile on suppressing subversion at home.
It is remarkable how slow most governments were to recognize material emanating from France as subversive. Only in Spain, where the Inquisition had retained close control over all expressions of opinion, was French influence combated from the start. As early as May 1789 the official press stopped reporting French events. In September the Holy Office was authorized by the minister Floridablanca, hitherto famous for his enlightened attitudes, to clamp down on all writings which, directly or indirectly, promoted insubordination. In 1791 troops sealed the frontiers and all foreign residents were required to register with local authorities. So successful were these efforts that French émigrés in 1792 found villages in Spain where the Revolution had still not been heard of. Few other parts of Europe managed to be so insulated; but by 1791 most governments were beginning to regret earlier openness. Press censorship in Sweden began in 1790, culminating in 1792 in the banning of all imports of written material from France, and prohibition of all reference to French affairs. April 1790 also saw the Russian police authorized to watch out for French propaganda and suspicious-sounding meetings; and two months later the empress herself was thrown into a rage on reading Alexander Radischev’s Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow, whose attacks on serfdom and paeans to liberty she regarded as a French-inspired call to overthrow the established order. Radischev was a well-educated civil servant, a dreamer rather than a revolutionary, but his book earned him a death sentence, subsequently commuted. His trial brought his book more fame than it would probably have won by itself, even though most copies were destroyed; but from then on the censorship (which had passed it) became increasingly vigilant.
There can be little doubt that the intellectual debate which first exploded in England was responsible for some of this heightened awareness of the dangerous potency of French principles. But even more important in this process was the flight to Varennes and the subsequent indignities suffered by Louis XVI. Monarchs everywhere saw it as an awful and perhaps portentous example. Their fears were certainly exaggerated, as the subsequent feebleness of non-French revolutionaries, even when everything was in their favour, showed. But they were not to know this, having witnessed the most glorious monarchy in Europe reduced to ignominy by its own subjects. Nor were they reassured by the defiant noises increasingly being heard from Paris in the aftermath of Varennes. In spite of their peaceable professions, the French revolutionaries had always believed that they stood for principles of universal validity. At a famous session on 19 June 1790 the National Assembly had allowed Anacharsis Clootz to bring a self-styled international delegation to its bar to proclaim that the trumpet-call now heard in France was awakening peoples from slavery everywhere. Actors in fancy-dress were among them, occasioning much scorn among more detached observers. But there were also representatives of thousands of genuine political exiles, from Geneva, from Holland, and from Belgium, who hoped that French help might yet enable them to return home to power. The Varennes crisis encouraged them, and they were prominent in urging the French to defy the despots of Europe, whose power could never survive contact with armed apostles of French liberty. Nobody in the dying Constituent Assembly believed it, and nor did the royal family. The army was visibly falling to pieces as its officers decamped in their thousands to join theémigrés. Fortunately troops were not required to annex Avignon, so the Constituent Assembly’s final defiant gesture came cheap. But the days when Europe could observe events in France with detachment were now over. Increasingly, the revolutionaries would seek to solve their problems by inflicting them on their neighbours.