Civil War in an Age of Revolutions: The Eighteenth Century

That civil wars and revolutions must always be distinguished from each other is a fundamental assumption of modern politics. The usual view—that revolution is driven by high ideals and transformative hopes while base motives and senseless violence animate civil war—can be traced to the late eighteenth century, in the era of the American and French Revolutions, when conceptions of revolution first emerged. And that view has persisted, even after the fall of Communism in 1989, after the Arab Spring, and into our present age of civil wars. In November 2013, for example, The Guardian published an interview with a Syrian businessman forced into exile in Turkey by the ongoing crisis in his homeland. He lamented that the high ideals of the uprising against the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad—freedom, some kind of equality, the protection of Islam—had been replaced by sectarian violence and fighting among various militias, jihadis, and foreigners. “This is not a revolution against a regime any more, this is a civil war,” he said.1

On the surface, there do seem to be compelling reasons to keep revolution and civil war conceptually distinct. Civil wars have generally been assumed to be sterile, bringing only misery and disaster, while revolutions have often been seen as fertile ground for innovation and improvement. Civil wars hark back to ancient grievances and deep-dyed divisions, while revolutions point the way toward an open and expansive future. Likewise, civil wars are local and time-bound, taking place within particular, usually national, communities, at particular moments.2 By contrast, revolution seems almost a contagion, occurring when it does across the world, at least the modern world, which in a sense it defines, as an unfolding progress of human liberation. Since at least the collapse of Communism, however, it has been much harder to view revolutions without an acute awareness of the violence and human devastation that attend them too. As a result, after 1989, the comparative study of that noble creature, revolution, declined rapidly even as the study of that rough beast, civil war, boomed. Thus a repressed truth was rediscovered: the heart of most great modern revolutions was civil war.

It has been a bitter pill to swallow. Civil wars, by the conventional understanding, betoken the blighting and collapse of the human spirit, while revolutions affirm and actualize it. How disturbing, then, to realize that a force so definitively modern, novel, and forward-looking might owe so much to one so archaic, traditional, and backward facing. Not that there wasn’t something new about revolution. As the political theorist Hannah Arendt (1906–75) noted in 1963, “Revolutions, properly speaking, did not exist prior to the modern age; they are among the most recent of all major political data.” She contrasted them with the enduring category of wars—including civil wars—which, she thought, were “among the oldest phenomena of the recorded past.”3

The opposition between revolution and civil war has deep historical roots. According to the towering German historian of political concepts Reinhart Koselleck (1923–2006), revolution emerged across the course of the eighteenth century “as a concept in contrast to that of civil war.” At the beginning of the century, by contrast, the two expressions “were not interchangeable, but were not at the same time mutually exclusive.” With its associations of destructive religious conflict across Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, civil war was the very sort of calamity that proponents of enlightenment hoped to prevent in the future. By contrast, revolution was synonymous with the leading edge of useful transformation across all domains of human activity: in education, morality, law, politics, science, and, not least, religion. The irrational, atavistic, and destructive weed of civil war would wither away, never to find favorable soil again. This was one of the very goals of the Enlightenment. The absence of any entry for “civil war” (guerre civile) in that great summation of enlightened knowledge, Diderot and d’Alembert’s Encyclopédie (1751–65), was itself a small but significant indication of how successful the philosophes thought their age had been at eradicating the problem.4 At the same time, the practical desire to abolish civil war gave way to a visionary program for promoting revolution. The result by the late eighteenth century was the relatively sharp duality with which we are familiar. “In many respects, then,” as Koselleck concluded, “ ‘civil war’ had now acquired the meaning of a senseless circling upon itself, with respect to which Revolution sought to open up a new vista.”5

But that would take time. Meanwhile, it should be clear by now that the page on which self-consciously modern revolutionaries rewrote the script of political change was in fact a palimpsest—underneath the new version, still very much visible, was the one transmitted by the historians of Rome’s civil wars. That new script, no less than the old, was an act of will. It too would feature contestations over sovereignty and be likewise shadowed by the specter of recurrence. Still, the synoptic accounts of Roman conflicts inspired a new genre of European historical writing in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, one that presented the histories of particular nations or peoples as narratives of their “revolutions”—meaning their experiences of invasion, their disputes over the succession to the throne in monarchies, and their civil wars.6

The Romans and their descendants had concatenated specific internal struggles into larger narratives that, for the most part, assumed that civil wars would form a destructive sequence of events. Monarchists and writers favoring empire would depict that cumulative horror as the disease for which autocratic rule would be the cure. But the story of successive violent upheavals leading to fundamental changes in authority and sovereignty was never abandoned, only transformed by European historians. It would endure as a history of revolutions stretching across the centuries and bit by bit effacing the blight that was civil war. Eventually, a modern genealogy of revolution was re-created, in which civil war was the inconvenient ancestor that had to be suppressed but never quite seemed to go away.

Historians in the late seventeenth century reconstructed a sequence of disruptive “revolutions” by which Rome had moved over the centuries from its early monarchy to its empire via the period of the republic.7 For example, the English cleric Laurence Echard (1672–1730) composed The Roman History from the Building of the City to the Perfect Settlement of the Empire by Augustus Cæsar (1695, and later editions) along these lines and followed it by translating the work of the French scholar Pierre Joseph d’Orléans as The History of the Revolutions in England Under the Family of the Stuarts, from the Year 1603, to 1690 (1722), while Vertot himself capitalized on the success of his own Histoire des révolutions arrivées dans le gouvernement de la république romaine (1719, and later editions) to treat the more recent “revolutions” in Portugal and Sweden.8Imitators would anatomize revolutions throughout European history and in the wider world of Europe and Asia. Throughout the life span of this genre, civil wars were included in the rosters of revolutions, and revolutions could not be distinguished conceptually from civil wars. “Revolutions” also became the standard European description for violent upheavals in Asia, including the fall of the Ming dynasty in China in 1644. Only toward the end of the eighteenth century did Europeans cease to call these Asian struggles “revolutions,” as they jealously reserved that term for their own political transformations.9

By that time, contemporary European thinkers could distinguish at least three forms of civil war: what might be called “successionist,” “supersessionist,” and “secessionist” civil wars. Successionist civil wars were the besetting sin of monarchies. They arose from those disputes over the succession to the thrones of Europe that had plagued royal regimes since the Middle Ages, as Algernon Sidney, among others, mercilessly pointed out. In the 1680s—when the thrones of the Three Kingdoms of Britain and Ireland were under dispute between two branches of the Stuart family—Sidney had written that such successionist struggles were like the civil wars of the Romans. They were repetitive and potentially unending because they sprang from the very nature of monarchy itself: “the violence of those who possessed the Crown, and the Ambition of such as aspired to it,” always meant “that the end of one Civil War has bin the beginning of another.”10 This was the Roman model of recurrence transposed to a post-Roman world of both monarchies and republics.

Supersessionist civil wars were those in which opposing parties battled for authority over a single territory. In these, the state did not have two heads, as the Roman metaphor had painted it, but it had become effectively two bodies, each trying to supersede the other. Division alone was not the distinguishing feature of this species; the Romans and their heirs knew that well enough. It was the elevated status of both sides in a civil war—the incumbent sovereign, whether a monarch or a republican assembly, for instance, and the rebels—as “constituting, at least for a time, two separate bodies, two distinct societies” that marked this as novel.11 This conception was a matter of law, not fact. Indeed, the legal construction of civil war that originated in the mid-eighteenth century would shape arguments with decisive effect during both the American and the French Revolutions. It would also remain operative in the context of international law well into the nineteenth century. But this is getting ahead of the matter.

Secessionist civil war, by contrast, was a relatively new fact in the late eighteenth century. Secession had been a Roman category but with a much more specific meaning than it would later acquire. On three occasions, in 494, 449, and 287 B.C.E., the lower classes of Rome—the plebs—went on strike and retreated to spaces outside the city, actions known as the “secessions of the plebs.” These did not lead to civil wars and indeed happened long before those conflicts the Romans would recognize as wars among their citizens. The modern usage of “secession” referred more generally to the attempt by part of a political community to break away from the existing political authority and assert its own independence, or, in the words of the American Declaration of Independence of 1776, when “one People…dissolve the Political Bands which have connected them with another,…to assume among the Powers of the Earth, the separate and equal Station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them.”12 There were few precedents before the late eighteenth century for such an action, most notably the Dutch Revolt from the Spanish monarchy in the 1580s; it was only after the success of Britain’s North American colonies in exiting from the empire in 1776 that this model began to proliferate and to gain legal recognition. Thus, the Americans provided a truly revolutionary conception of civil war that would be imitated across the world in the following two centuries.


The great innovator in modern conceptions of civil war was the Swiss writer Emer de Vattel (1714–67). Little known today, except by scholars, he was for almost a century probably the most influential contemporary legal thinker in the world. Vattel was born in the Swiss canton of Neuchâtel and aspired to a diplomatic position. He had been thoroughly schooled in what contemporaries knew as the law of nature and nations—that is, the intellectual tradition originating ultimately in Roman law and philosophy that treats the norms governing the behavior of individuals and states as being inherent in the rational nature of humans themselves. Vattel’s major work would be a summation of natural law as it applied to the conduct of states or nations, a compendious work titled The Law of Nations (1758). The book secured him political preferment from the elector of Saxony in Dresden. It also put him on the map as a great legal authority, not least for the use Thomas Jefferson and others made of his work when writing the Declaration of Independence in 1776.

The subject of Vattel’s Law of Nations was what we would now call international law, though Vattel looked broadly to the law of nature, not simply to the behavior of states. For the American founders, it would serve almost as a bible of international conduct in the era of the American Revolution. Widely translated from its original French, it would inspire a new generation of revolutionaries in Latin America and in southern Europe a few decades later. And it could be found in the libraries or on the desks of lawyers, politicians, and administrators across the world at least until the 1830s. What made Vattel appealing to so many was his blend of realism and morality. He wrote within the robust ethical framework of natural law, but he also evinced a pragmatic understanding of international politics. His work was furthermore so wide-ranging and comprehensive that it could supply arguments for almost any position, whether submission or resistance, colonialism or anticolonialism, for instance. He artfully combined existing arguments and traditions while seeking to clarify and invent where the rules of international conduct were unclear or lacking. Civil war was just one subject in which his innovations would be profoundly influential as he sought to bring it within the scope of the law of nations for the first time.

Vattel wrote self-consciously within a tradition that included many of the seventeenth-century thinkers we have already encountered, particularly Hugo Grotius, Thomas Hobbes, and John Locke. From Locke, he took a cautious theory of resistance to unjust rulers. “We seldom see such monsters as Nero,” he wrote. From Hobbes, he inherited a theory of the sovereignty of free and independent states within the international realm. And from Grotius he derived much of his interest in the definition of war and the laws designed to regulate it, whether the justifications for going to war (or what is known technically as the jus ad bellum: the right to go to war) or the rules governing its conduct (what is known as the jus in bello, or the rights during a war). Vattel’s own definition of war was “that state in which we prosecute our right by force.” He nonetheless disagreed with Grotius that there could be any such thing as a private war, confining its exercise to states alone, as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, writing four years later, would in his Second Discourse. This was, in his definition, “public war…which takes place between nations or sovereigns and which is carried on in the name of the public power, and by its order.”13 On the face of it, Vattel’s definition would seem to exclude any chance that rebels against a sovereign or “public power” could be recognized as legitimate belligerents. But his crucial innovation was to argue that they could, thereby opening the way both to the application of the laws of war to civil conflicts and to a potentially radical doctrine by which outside powers could intervene in the affairs of other sovereign states.

Vattel’s argument had begun from the “question very much debated” as to whether sovereigns should treat rebellious subjects according to the laws of war. One consideration was empirical; there were various forms of disturbance that could afflict a state, among them a tumultuous “commotion,” a more violent “sedition,” or an “insurrection” covering a whole city or province, challenging the sovereign authority itself. None of these could be called legitimate, he thought: “every citizen should…patiently endure evils which are not insupportable” unless they are denied justice, in which case resistance might be justified “if the evils be intolerable, and the oppression great and manifest.”14 This had been Locke’s argument in his Second Treatise; it would also be a central contention of the American Declaration of Independence. In that document, Thomas Jefferson had even gone back to the language of the charge against Charles I in 1649, which had accused him of levying “cruel and unnatural wars.” In one passage excised from the final version of the declaration, Jefferson accuses George III of personally promoting the slave trade across the Atlantic as the basis for charging him with the same crime his ancestor had allegedly committed: that he had “waged cruel war against human nature itself” by depriving Africans of their liberty and transporting them across the ocean. His waging such a “cruel war” against “a distant people who never offended him”—in this case, African people—was justification for the colonists to cast off the king’s sovereignty.15

But what if the sovereign’s demands become intolerable, causing his own people to rise up in arms against them? Then, Vattel stated in a groundbreaking definition, we have a case of civil war: “When a party is formed in a state, who no longer obey the sovereign, and are possessed of sufficient strength to oppose him,—or when, in a republic, the nation is divided into two opposite factions, and both sides take up arms—this is called civil war.” This could be distinguished from a mere rebellion by the fact of the insurgents having justice on their side; if the cause of opposition is just, then the sovereign (or divided authority in a republic) must wage formal war against the opposition: “Custom appropriates the term of ‘civil war’ to every war between the members of one and the same political society.”16

Vattel then backed into one of the most revealing paradoxes about civil war: that the apprehension of fragmentation sharpens the awareness of affinity. The sides in a civil war can recognize each other as parts of “the same political society” at the point they have splintered into separate and hostile factions, because “it produces in the nation two independent parties, who consider each other as enemies, and acknowledge no common judge,” and who become “two separate bodies, two distinct societies.” (Nowhere does he consider the possibility that more than two parties might fight a civil war within the same society.) Vattel’s novel move was the inference he then drew from the fact of this stark division: “They stand therefore in precisely the same predicament as two nations, who engage in a contest, and, being unable to come to an agreement, have recourse to arms.” It followed that if the two independent bodies were now, in effect, two nations, the law of nations should regulate their contentions; a “civil” war thereby became an international war. If rebel subjects had just cause and had raised arms, sovereigns should treat them according to the law of war, for by this point the unitary nation or state has already ceased to exist. The conflict has become “a public war between two nations.” It therefore no longer falls under internal domestic law.17

But who was to judge whether the conditions for civil war had been met? The shift in jurisdiction and perspective that Vattel proposed had startling implications for external powers. Under normal circumstances, the integrity of a sovereign state was sacrosanct; no outside authority could interfere in its affairs. But in the case of a state split into two “nations,” other powers could try to restore peace, for example by mediation. If that failed, Vattel went on, they may “assist the party which they shall judge to have right on its side, in case that party requests their assistance or accepts the offer of it,” as they would in the case of a war between two states.18 This opened up the possibility of intervention, on humanitarian grounds or others, at the discretion of foreign parties regarding the internal affairs of other states.19 Vattel’s key example of such a civil war from recent European history was the Glorious Revolution. “The English justly complained of James II” in 1688, he argued, and then appealed to the Dutch for help, which William of Orange duly gave before taking the throne as King William. Because the resistance was justified and had thus made the English people and the monarchy of James II “distinct powers,” William’s intervention was legitimate: “Whenever therefore matters are carried so far as to produce a civil war, foreign powers may assist that party which appears to them to have justice on its side.”20 In 1758, this was still an earthshaking view of civil war; its full potential would become evident only in the revolutions after Vattel’s death in 1767.


Shortly after the Battles of Lexington and Concord in April 1775 and of Bunker Hill in June of that year, the Dutch-born surveyor and cartographer Bernard Romans (ca. 1720–84) published a chart of Massachusetts with a teasing caption: “Map of the Seat of Civil War in America.”21 A few weeks earlier, he had issued a proposal for subscribers to buy his planned publication, “Shewing the Seat of the Present Unhappy Civil War in North-America.” The map itself contained detailed vignettes of Boston and of the battle lines constructed across the city “by the Ministerial Army.”22Romans sympathized with the colonial cause and had fought as an engineer and troop commander in the years before issuing his snapshot of occupied Boston. As if his political allegiances were not clear enough, he dedicated his 1775 map to John Hancock, then president of the Continental Congress and whose house, occupied by British troops, appeared in the illustration of Boston. Romans would be best known for his Concise Natural History of East and West Florida (1775), but later in the conflict he published another kind of history, an account of the Dutch Revolt of the sixteenth century as a “proper and seasonable mirror for the present Americans” in 1778–82.23

The meaning of the title “Map of the Seat of Civil War” might not now be obvious. Surely this was a revolution, not a civil war? Otherwise, what conception of war could possibly describe the events leading up to 1775? Traditional histories of the American “Revolution” would resist calling it a civil war.24 There were surely many reasons for this among future generations of American historians and the wider public in the United States. The most obvious was the wish to avoid confusing or conflating the event with the much more divisive American civil war that took place between 1861 and 1865. By the mid-nineteenth century, the designation “civil war” implied, not least, slaughter on an industrial scale by modern armies waging huge pitched battles, with the entire society on a war footing—a total war, in fact. By contrast, the military encounters of the American Revolution appeared relatively small-scale, with casualties, of course, but little spillover into the society at large—nothing like the violence visited on civilian populations in, say, the French Revolution. The American Revolution was also assumed, again in popular mythology, to have been cohesive rather than divisive, with a population broadly united behind the cause of independence. By these lights, the Revolution was an act of liberation by self-identified Americans who felt their distance from Britain and demanded self-determination as recompense for just grievances. “Every thing that is right or natural pleads for separation,” Thomas Paine argued in January 1776. “The blood of the slain, the weeping voice of nature cries, ’TIS TIME TO PART.”25

If American nationalist histories of the Revolution portrayed it as a crisis of disintegration, more recent historians have seen it as a crisis of integration, sparked by the similarities, not the differences, between British subjects on either side of the Atlantic. Owing to the pressures of war with France, the connections created by more integrated communications, and their place in a burgeoning transatlantic consumer economy, American colonists had grown closer to Britons in the metropolis over the course of the eighteenth century. In the aftermath of the Seven Years’ War—that titanic struggle between Britain and France for imperial dominance in North America and South Asia—the British Parliament’s will that colonial subjects cover their share of the costs of their defense and of the wartime deficits led to a series of revenue-raising measures that aroused opposition in North America. The resulting controversy split the empire, and not simply between colonial and metropolitan subjects but between those in the colonies who joined colonial resistance, mostly from the thirteen British colonies along the Eastern Seaboard of North America, and those that did not—in Nova Scotia, Quebec, and the British Caribbean, for instance. A divided empire was the battleground for a war among fellow citizens—a civil war.26

As for the Revolution, recent historians, less enthralled to pious narratives of American destiny, have reconsidered it a civil war, too. After substantial numbers of British troops had arrived in North America, it took on the characteristics of a full-scale war, with generals, trumpets, and standards (as the Romans might have noticed), and it was uniquely wrenching precisely because it was fought against domestic kindred rather than identifiably foreign enemies, not least in local conflicts in bitterly divided colonies like New York and South Carolina. But the conflict also split families and the wider population into so-called Patriots (supporters of resistance against Great Britain) and Loyalists, who, at the very least, retained their allegiance to the Crown but were otherwise politically and ethnically diverse. They included British colonists, Native American groups like the Cherokee and Mohawk, and an estimated twenty thousand enslaved persons who liberated themselves from their masters by crossing British lines during the course of the war. The best estimates for the total number of white Loyalists suggest that about 20 percent of the population, or roughly half a million colonists, remained loyal to the Crown by the end of the war in 1783; some sixty thousand of them, along with fifteen thousand slaves, left the United States as part of a global diaspora that reached Canada, East and West Florida, the Bahamas, Sierra Leone, British India, and Australia. The proportion of the population of British North America in arms was, in fact, comparable to those fighting during the U.S. Civil War.27 “This, then,” concludes a leading historian of the Atlantic world about the American Revolution, “was a civil war as much as a revolution.”28

Civil war had not been the first Roman model used during the course of the British imperial crisis of the 1760s and 1770s. Initially, another had come to hand: the Social War, which had concerned metropolitan relations and the rights of allies to be recognized as full citizens. For example, in 1766, the London-based agent for the Massachusetts Bay Colony, William Bollan (d. 1776), charged that British ministers “seem to delight in blood, and are…sollicitous to introduce a social war, whereby after so narrowly escaping the sword of our enemies we should employ our own swords in destroying ourselves.” Bollan’s accusation came with a warning from Roman history: “Rome when in her flourishing estate was brought to the brink of ruin by the social war, occasioned by her refusal to communicate the Roman right.” Could Britain meet the same fate if it likewise failed to extend the full range of its rights to its “allies” within the empire?29 Ten years later, the English dissenting minister and pamphleteer Richard Price (1723–91), in one of the most widely reprinted polemics on the political controversy in the British Atlantic, likewise recalled the contribution of Rome’s allies to the success of its wars, their claim to equal rights, and the disasters that followed Roman rebuffs: “A war followed, the most horrible in the annals of mankind, which ended in the ruin of the Roman Republic.” He too wondered whether Britain might suffer the same calamity, should it refuse to enfranchise its “allies” within the empire.30

The most prominent analysis of the transatlantic conflict as a social war came in the longest pamphlet of the revolutionary controversy: Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations (1776). Smith was not as alarmist as Bollan or Price, but he did adduce Rome’s belated response to the Social Wars as a possible solution to the present conflict:

Towards the declension of the Roman republick, the allies of Rome, who had borne the principal burden of defending the state and extending the empire, demanded to be admitted to all the privileges of Roman citizens. Upon being refused, the social war broke out. During the course of that war Rome granted those privileges to the greater part of them, one by one, and in proportion as they detached themselves from the general confederacy…If to each colony, which should detach itself from the general confederacy, Great Britain should allow such a number of representatives as suited the proportion of what it contributed to the publick revenue of the empire, in consequence of its being subjected to the same taxes, and in compensation admitted to the same freedom of trade with its fellow-subjects at home…a new method of acquiring importance, a new and more dazzling object of ambition would be presented to the leading men of each colony.31

By the time The Wealth of Nations appeared in the autumn of 1776, however, American independence had already been declared in July. Smith’s proposal of an imperial parliament, with representatives from the American colonies, came too late. Any federal solution was unlikely to be adopted by either side, and the conception of the American war as a social war disappeared along with the idea of equal rights and representation for Britons on both sides of the Atlantic.

The idea of the transatlantic conflict as a “social war” implied that those Britons who inhabited the western side of the Atlantic Ocean differed from those in metropolitan Britain in their status and their rights. They were “allies,” or as the Romans would have said, socii, but not equal citizens, or fellow cives.32 The language of civil war implied much closer kinship among all parties, as well as the existence of a common polity, of which all were fellow members. That polity was the British Atlantic empire, and it was even more expansive than Rome’s Mediterranean empire at its zenith; to assume otherwise would have reinforced the suspicion of war hawks in Britain that the colonists had been set on secession and independence for months, if not years, before July 4, 1776. As in the case of Rome, it was at the moment of internal fragmentation and collapse that the boundaries of community—and the contested bonds of fraternity—could become most painfully evident.

After British troops had opened fire on colonial militiamen at Lexington and Concord in April 1775, contemporary commentators began freely to use the language of civil war. On April 24, 1775, The Newport Mercury, a newspaper in Rhode Island, noted the change that had taken place in the conflict with the use of military force: “Through the sanguinary Measures of a wicked Ministry, and the Readiness of a standing Army to execute their Mandates, has commenced the American Civil War, which will hereafter fill an important page in history.”33 Other writers in 1775–76 also called it a “civil war,” a “civil war with America,” and an “American civil war.”34 In 1780, a historical novel appeared that was inspired by “some recent circumstances” in America titled Emma Corbett; or, The Miseries of Civil War, which represented the traumas of the American civil war through family division and images of gender confusion and disguise.35 Fifty years later still, the American novelist James Fenimore Cooper reflected on the implications of calling the Revolution a civil war, with the benefit of hindsight and after a nationalist narrative of the dispute as a movement for Americans’ self-determination had already coalesced:

The dispute between England and the United States of America, though not strictly a family quarrel, had many of the features of a civil war. Though the people of the latter were never properly and constitutionally subject to the people of the former, the inhabitants of both countries owed allegiance to a common king. As the Americans, as a nation, disavowed this allegiance, and as the English chose to support their sovereign in the attempt to regain his power, most of the feelings of an internal struggle were involved in the conflict.36

At the very least, calling it a “civil war,” American or otherwise, placed the imperial crisis into a sequence of British civil wars, stretching back (by some definitions, at least) through the Glorious Revolution via the three English Civil Wars of 1642–45, 1648–49, and 1649–51 to the Middle Ages, as Paine did. Later historians would also see this transatlantic civil war as part of a series of “British revolutions” in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.37

In July 1775, the same month that Bernard Romans’s “Map of the Seat of Civil War in America” appeared, the Continental Congress issued its first declaration, almost exactly a year before the much more famous Declaration of Independence. Also drafted by Thomas Jefferson, the “Declaration…Seting Forth the Causes and Necessity of Their Taking Up Arms” justified the move to armed resistance against British forces. The members of Congress tried to reassure “the minds of our friends and fellow subjects in any part of the empire…that we mean not to dissolve that Union which has so long and so happily subsisted between us, and which we sincerely wish to see restored.” Their stated aim was “reconciliation on reasonable terms,…thereby to relieve the empire from the calamities of civil war.38 The July 1775 declaration accompanied the Olive Branch Petition to George III requesting conciliation with the colonists, but both arrived in Britain after the British ministry had already perceived a fundamental change in the nature of the conflict; Lord North wrote to King George III on July 26, 1775, that “the war is now grown to such a height, that it must be treated as a foreign war.”39 In August 1775, the king duly declared the mainland colonies to be in open rebellion and no longer under his protection, and Parliament confirmed the royal proclamation with legislation in December 1775. The British American rebels became the first to face the dilemma of transforming struggles within an empire to a conflict outside it.

Writing in Philadelphia in January 1776, Thomas Paine (1737–1809) presented the case for American independence according to the contemporary “custom of Nations” in the closing pages of his incendiary pamphlet Common Sense. He argued that only independence would permit a mediator to negotiate peace between the United States and Great Britain. Foreign alliances could not be secured without it. Charges of rebellion would persist if it were not declared. Moreover, it was essential for a “manifesto to be published, and despatched to foreign courts”; until it was, “the custom of all courts is against us, and will be so, until by an independance, we take rank with other nations.”40 In order to become legitimate belligerents outside the British Empire rather than rebels within it, the colonists had to transform themselves into bodies recognizable within the prevailing norms of the international realm. Only then could they declare war and enter into agreements with other independent sovereign states. The first American civil war would end; the first Anglo-American war could begin.

Paine bolstered his larger argument in favor of independence from Great Britain with a historical account of civil war. He reached back to the Roman narrative of sequential civil wars as it had been reimagined by Algernon Sidney to present an argument in favor of nonhereditary government on the grounds that it was a better safeguard of peace. He contrasted his own attachment to republicanism with what he called the “most plausible plea, which hath ever been offered in favour of hereditary succession,” in a passage that hewed closely to Sidney’s arguments from almost a century earlier. The traditional justification for monarchy, he recalled, was supposedly

that it preserves a Nation from civil wars; and were this true, it would be weighty; whereas, it is the most barefaced falsity ever imposed upon mankind. The whole history of England disowns the fact. Thirty kings and two minors have reigned in that distracted kingdom since the [Norman] conquest, in which time there have been (including the [Glorious] Revolution) no less than eight civil wars and nineteen Rebellions. Wherefore instead of making for peace, it makes against it, and destroys the very foundation it seems to stand on…In short, monarchy and succession have laid (not this or that kingdom only) but the world in blood and ashes.41

Paine’s antimonarchical mathematics are worth pausing over. It is not clear how many civil wars Paine would have discerned during the Wars of the Roses, or even amid the mid-seventeenth-century troubles, nor does he suggest how to distinguish “rebellions” from “civil wars.” What is striking, however, is that he seems to include the Glorious Revolution among the roster of England’s civil wars; 1688–89 was a year of two monarchs, James II and William (and his consort, Mary), and thereby no doubt only half as bad as the Year of the Four Emperors chronicled by Tacitus in his Histories. For Paine, the Glorious Revolution was simply one more example of how a contested succession could lead to national instability, setting citizens against citizens in their quest to affirm their monarchical subjecthood. The cure for civil war was not, as the pro-Augustan writers and their heirs asserted, the imposition of monarchy but rather the installation of government without kings.42 This would be the solution implicit in the Declaration of Independence when it severed the tie between British American colonists and the British Crown by declaring that the former colonies were now “United States.”

In July 1776, the Declaration of Independence publicly presented facts to a “candid World” to prove that “the United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be, Free and Independent States…and that all political Connection between them and the State of Great-Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved.”43 In the eyes of the declaration’s proponents, Britain was now on one side of an international conflict, the United States of America—in the plural, of course—on the other. They were no longer conceived of as being part of the same political community, and hence their inhabitants were not fellow citizens or members of what Algernon Sidney called the same “Civil Society.” The American war was no longer what Paine might have reckoned to be the ninth British civil war since 1066.

The Declaration of Independence had informed the great powers of Europe that the United States was (or, in fact, were) now open for business and available for alliances. It did so in the language of the contemporary legal norms, drawn directly from Vattel’s Law of Nations. Vattel had been the first major proponent of the natural law tradition in Europe to identify independence with external sovereignty, or statehood in the international realm.44 It was for this reason that Benjamin Franklin sent the latest edition of Vattel’s work to the Continental Congress in 1775, because “the circumstances of a rising state make it necessary frequently to consult the law of nations.”45 Vattel’s repeated and characteristic description of states as “free and independent” featured prominently in the declaration as a means of ensuring recognition from “the Powers of the Earth” for the American struggle against Great Britain, as did his arguments (derived from Locke) that the camel’s back had been broken after a “long Train of Abuses and Usurpations” had justified not merely rebellion but secession from the British Empire.46 With this act, what had begun as a typical early modern provincial tax revolt and then turned into a British civil war became “the American War.”

Transforming rebellious struggles within empires to legitimate conflicts outside them was a problem faced by insurgents throughout the Americas in an age of imperial revolutions that were also civil wars.47 Moving from internal to external conflicts shifted the source of relevant norms and sanctions from domestic law to the laws of war and to the law of nations. For example, facing viceregal charges of rebellion in New Spain in 1812, José María Cos sought to transform a “war between brothers and citizens” into a war of independence by asserting the legitimate equality of New Spain with Spain and by subjecting their contentions to the “laws of nations and of war.” Later, in 1816, José de San Martín in Argentina likewise protested, “Our enemies, and with good reason, treat us as insurgents, while we declare ourselves vassals. You can be sure no-one will aid us in such a situation”: an almost exact echo of Thomas Paine’s argument forty years earlier.48

In all these struggles, independence, in the sense promoted by Vattel of autonomy from interference by outside powers, was only one solution among many to imperial crisis; in most cases, it was not the first, but in fact often the last, option embraced by Americans, North and South, in their struggles for sovereignty. The hemisphere’s multiple transitions from empire to state (and, in some cases, like Mexico and Brazil, from one empire to another) were never smooth or uncontested, in part because the legal and political sources of sovereignty were eclectic and plural. Sovereignty was less a source of jurisdictional certainty than a site of ferocious contestation because empires, not states, were the communities in the Americas within which civil wars were fought in this alleged age of “revolutions.” As in the case of Rome, it was only at the moment of internal fragmentation and collapse that the boundaries of community—and the contested bonds of fraternity—could become most painfully evident.


The great test case for the mutual implication of revolution with civil war is the French Revolution. Historians have located the origins of the modern vision of revolution precisely in France in 1789. This was the moment when, we are told, the concept of “revolution was revolutionised.” It was novel because in that year “the French imagined a radical break with the past achieved by the conscious will of human actors, an inaugural moment for a drama of change and transformation projected indefinitely into the future.”49 Before 1789, revolutions were often conceived as unavoidable feats of nature, as predetermined astronomical cycles, or as eternal recurrences in human affairs.50 One of the characters in Hobbes’s dialogue on the English Civil Wars, Behemoth, had classically expressed this view with regard to the events of 1649–60 in Britain: “I have seen in this revolution a circular motion, of the Soveraigne Power through two Usurpers Father and Son [Oliver Cromwell and Richard Cromwell], from the late King [Charles I] to this his Son [Charles II].” This was a revolution in the sense of returning, not overturning.51

After 1789, revolutions in the plural became revolution in the singular. What had been natural, unavoidable, and beyond human control became instead voluntary, calculated, and repeatable. Revolution as an occurrence gave way to revolution as an act. With that daring feat of collective imagination, it became irreversibly political, encompassing primarily (but not exclusively) those fundamental changes in the distribution of power and sovereignty. In the years after 1789, revolution also developed into an authority in its own right, in whose name political violence could be legitimated. Taken together, these features made up “the script for modern politics invented in 1789,” a script designed in part to expel civil war to the wings of the historical stage and put a new cast of actors in its place.52

These elements constituted a novel conception of revolution as a process by which the world could be made over again. It was an idea very different from the compulsive repetition of civil war in the Roman narratives and reflected a larger movement toward new ideas of historical time in the last eighteenth century, one that led away from assumptions of recurrence inherited from antiquity.53 “Every revolution,” noted the French historian François Furet, “and above all the French Revolution itself, has tended to perceive itself as an absolute beginning, as ground zero of history.” By this logic, it was a paradox that the uniqueness of each successive revolution indicated its universality.54

Since its composition in 1789, the modern script of revolution has been frequently reenacted on stages around the world. The later revolutionaries adapted it to their purposes and added new properties for each performance. Their dramas borrowed lines and gestures, symbols and costumes, from previous productions. Such borrowings could constrain the actors, as Karl Marx classically noted in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte: “Thus Luther donned the mask of the Apostle Paul, the Revolution of 1789 to 1814 draped itself alternately as the Roman republic and the Roman empire, and the Revolution of 1848 knew nothing better to do than to parody, now 1789, now the revolutionary tradition of 1793 to 1795.”55 But they invariably justified the effort, because each attempt to overthrow tradition contributed to the creation of a new tradition. In this manner, after 1789, a consciously accumulating repertoire of revolutions came to form the scarlet thread of modernity.

Given such a potent reputation, it might appear that looking for the civil war at the heart of any revolution is downright counterrevolutionary. Opponents of revolution have often attempted to deny its legitimacy by calling attention to the violence and destruction attending any effort to overturn the existing social and economic order, a cost that no such transformation could ever justify. And with civil war having now acquired such retrograde connotations, to tag a revolution as such could be seen as undermining its potential for liberation and opening up a new future. Yet there can be no innovation without tradition. As Marx pointed out, even the primal revolutionaries of 1789 cast their eyes back to the Romans, as their successors would in turn look back to 1789 for their inspiration.

The French Revolution was not a secessionist process, in the manner of the American Revolution. Nor was it a successionist one, because there was no dispute about the legitimacy of the Bourbon claim to the French throne—just the legitimacy of placing sovereignty in the figure of a monarch rather than the nation. Was it then a supersessionist civil war, in the sense that Vattel had defined it? Did France, at some point after the storming of the Bastille, break into two parts, even two nations, battling each other for authority and supremacy? One contemporary who thought so was Edmund Burke (1729–97). The Irish-born politician and thinker made his name through both his political writings and his speeches in the British Parliament. Like Thomas Paine, but for very different reasons, he had supported the cause of American independence, as he also approved the cause of other downtrodden peoples, in Ireland and India, for example. Yet he became a prophetically skeptical commentator, and an increasingly aggressive antagonist, in the British debate on the course and consequences of the French Revolution.

Burke agreed with Paine not only about the essential justice of the American Revolution. He also concurred with him that the Glorious Revolution had been a civil war. In Common Sense, Paine had sought to shake his colonial readers out of their complacent British monarchism by reminding them of the warlike tendencies at the heart of monarchy itself, not least by including the Glorious Revolution in the litany of civil wars since 1066. Burke’s depiction of the events of 1688–89 as a civil war was meant, by contrast, to defend monarchy against the incipient tendencies of the revolution to strip the royal family of their legitimacy, perhaps even their lives. In his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), he notes acidly that the “ceremony of cashiering kings”

can rarely, if ever, be performed without force. It then becomes a case of war, and not of constitution. Laws are commanded to hold their tongues amongst arms, and tribunals fall to the ground with the peace they are no longer able to uphold. The Revolution of 1688 was obtained by a just war, in the only case in which any war, and much more a civil war, can be just. Justa bella quibus necessaria.56

Why did Burke call the Glorious Revolution a “civil” war? It is possible that he wrote here as an Irishman rather than as an English politician and that recalling the armed conflict between James II and William III on his native soil brought to mind its enduring consequences for his homeland. (The Battle of the Boyne in 1690, at which “King Billy” was victorious, is still commemorated annually by Protestants in Northern Ireland.) In light of this experience, he would argue two years later that the Glorious Revolution was “not a revolution, but a conquest; which is not to say a great deal in its favour.”57 Or Burke might have remembered the English side of the revolution as an invasion by one claimant to the thrones of the Three Kingdoms, backed by force and by his English supporters, against another. He certainly seemed to agree with Vattel that William had intervened justifiably into English affairs to assist the English people, who had been wronged and had appealed for his help. England, and perhaps by implication, the other British kingdoms, had become internally divided to the degree that a state of civil war existed; only its people, oppressed by a tyrant, had justice on their side; therefore, it was into a just war on their behalf that William had entered. In any case, Burke was arguing that what had happened in 1688 was exceptional and not to be repeated. Dethroning a monarch could not be regulated by law or determined by right; it was a question of armed necessity and hence of war. And because it was fought between members of the same political community, it was by definition civil.

Behind Burke’s argument about 1688 in the light of 1789 lay a history stretching back through Vattel to ancient Rome. The quotation with which he ended this passage—“Justa bella quibus necessaria,” or in English, “Those wars are just to those whom they are necessary”—comes from a famous exchange in Livy’s History of Rome, wherein one of Rome’s enemies justifies offensive war on the grounds that the Romans had rejected an overture of peace. Burke could well have remembered the line from Livy, but he was also surely aware that Vattel had quoted it in The Law of Nations. There, Vattel imagines circumstances in which a nation fights against an invader with just cause for making war. If the invader does not accept terms of submission, however, then the balance of justice tips in favor of the nation invaded, “and his hostilities now becoming unjust…may very justly be opposed.” Citing the incident from Livy, Vattel concludes the paragraph quoting the passage at greater length.58 While the specific context in Vattel is a war between nations, or states, Burke was well aware that the author meant all such justifications to apply as well when a state had divided into two “nations” as a result of civil war.

Rejecting the very notion of the Revolution, Burke saw the French after 1789 as having instead fissured into two warring nations, each of which claimed sovereignty, one in the name of the king, the other on behalf of the people. He took this analysis from “the latest and best [account of the law of nations], and whose testimony he preferred”—that is, from Vattel, who had used it to legitimate external intervention in a formerly sovereign nation’s affairs.59 Following suit, as early as 1791, Burke argued that Britain and its allies could—indeed, should—intervene in France on the side of the king and his supporters. He used Vattel explicitly to prove that “in this state of things (that is in the case of a divided kingdom) by the law of nations, Great Britain, like every other Power, is free to take any part she pleases.”60 “Revolutionary” France was in actuality a divided nation in a state of civil war; indeed, it was effectively two nations, and Britain was free to judge which had justice on its side. For all Vattel’s insistent caveats, in the absence of any external tribunal, the judgment of which side’s cause was just remained discretionary.

The debate concerning foreign intervention in civil war, encapsulated by Vattel and joined by Burke, is a reminder that conflicts within national borders cannot be wholly distinguished from international ones. The success or failure of one faction may depend on foreign aid or recognition, and such intervention can readily transform the hostilities into external war with geopolitical consequences well beyond the borders of the community in which the conflict first arose. To be sure, Vattel did not want to see his “maxim” abused, to “make a handle of it to authorise odious machinations against the internal tranquility of states,” but hardheaded arguments in such circumstances might easily support any act of intervention, so long as a revolution had been conscientiously redefined as a civil war.61

It was reasons of state like this, soothing as they were to established rulers, that led Immanuel Kant in his Perpetual Peace to include Vattel among the “sorry comforters,” the proponents of natural law who, with their expedient ethics, encouraged amoral political action. Nonetheless, Kant’s own rather more restrictive grounds for intervention could have been taken straight out of Vattel:

If a state, through internal discord, were to split into two parts, each putting itself forward as a separate state and laying claim to the whole; in that case a foreign state could not be charged with interfering in the constitution of another state if it gave assistance to one of them (for this is anarchy). But as long as this internal conflict is not yet critical, such interference of foreign powers would be a violation of the right of a people dependent upon no other and only struggling with its internal illness; thus it would itself be a scandal given and would make the autonomy of all states insecure.62

In the context of the French Revolutionary Wars, such a doctrine could nonetheless become a license for perpetual war rather than for perpetual peace. A year after Kant had written, Burke argued in his “Second Letter on a Regicide Peace” (1796) that the French proponents of popular sovereignty had turned their “armed doctrine” against the rest of Europe and that for these Jacobins the ensuing conflict “in it’s spirit, and for it’s objects,…was a civil war; and as such they pursued it…a war between the partizans of the antient, moral, and political order of Europe against a sect of fanatical and ambitious atheists which means to change them all.”63 All states were now undoubtedly insecure, Burke believed, for what had begun as a revolution had mutated first into a civil war confined to France and then into one engulfing all the inhabitants of Europe.


Burke was an unsympathetic observer of the course of the French Revolution. His conflation of revolution and civil war was meant to undermine the legitimacy of the revolutionaries, not to make any subtle historical point about confusion of categories. In an odd way, he did anticipate some recent historians of the Revolution, who have seen it as a civil war in multiple dimensions—for instance, in the executions of the Terror and in the military suppression of counterrevolutionary activity in the Vendée, in western France, in 1793–95, which claimed more than 150,000 lives.64More is the pity, then, that this political and social cataclysm would most determine the script of revolution for the future. At the same time, it would also be the one perhaps most amply to confirm the suggestion that civil war is a “common form of collective violence which fires the Furies of revolution, all the more so if it should interlock with quasi-religious foreign war.”65 Pace one leading historian of the French Revolution, every revolution was not a “war of independence”; each might instead be considered a civil war.66

Revolutionaries rebottled what in other circumstances—or by other ideologues—had been labeled rebellions, insurrections, or civil wars. Indeed, one sure sign of a revolution’s success is precisely that retrospective re-branding. It can happen relatively quickly; for example, the transatlantic conflict of the 1770s that many contemporaries saw as a British “civil war” or even “the American Civil War” was first called “the American Revolution” in a speech by the chief justice of South Carolina as early as October 1776, though the term did not appear officially until the Continental Congress issued its Observations on the American Revolution in 1779.67 The rebranding can also come more slowly, as when the French historian François Guizot became the first in 1826 to call the mid-seventeenth-century crisis in Britain the “English Revolution”; as he explained, “the analogy of the two revolutions is such that [the English] would never have been understood [as one] had not [the French] taken place.”68

To uncover the modern script of revolution from these mystifications, we need to be alert to the scripts of civil war that revolutionaries have followed and subsequently attempted to efface or deny. In The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels note that “in depicting the most general phases of the development of the proletariat, we traced the more or less veiled civil war, raging within existing society, up to the point where that war breaks out into open revolution.”69 Just over twenty years later, in The Civil War in France (1871), Marx remarks how the conservative French government joined forces with the Prussians, who had just defeated France to crush the Paris Commune in 1871: “The highest heroic effort of which old society is still capable is national war; and this is now proved to be a mere governmental humbug, intended to defer the struggle of classes, and to be thrown aside as soon as the class struggle bursts into civil war.”70 Writing in 1916, in the middle of World War I, not long after he had emerged from a careful reading of Clausewitz’s On War, Lenin argued that following the victory of the proletarian revolution, at least three kinds of wars would remain: wars of nationalist self-determination; wars of bourgeois suppression, fought against emergent socialist states; and civil wars.71

As “a professional revolutionary of global civil war,” Lenin would continue to maintain that the oppressed could liberate themselves only by violent means.72 For peoples beyond Europe, war would be the tool for national liberation against imperialism; to argue otherwise was simply European chauvinism. Socialism would not eliminate war. Its victory could not be instantaneous or universal. It would take many blows to vanquish the hydra of capitalism. And insofar as socialist revolution itself could not be divorced from war, it would be bound up with civil war: “He who accepts the class struggle cannot fail to accept civil wars, which in every class society are the natural, and under certain conditions inevitable, continuation, development and intensification of the class struggle. That has been confirmed by every great revolution.”73 Looking back on the Russian Revolution, Joseph Stalin would agree with Lenin’s analysis: “The seizure of power by the proletariat in 1917 was a form of civil war.”74 For revolutionary actors, then, civil war was integral to evaluating the causes, course, and consequences of modern “revolutions.” In light of this, when tracing the genealogy of modern revolutions, we should seriously consider the hypothesis that civil war was the genus of which revolution was only a species.75

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