Violence In Late Eighteenth Century Revolutions

By Reuben Pierrepoint

‘The streets of Paris, strewed with the carcases of the mangled victims, are become so familiar to the sight, that they are passed by and trod on without any particular notice’.[1] Such was the popular contemporary imagination of the French Revolution as a violent and desensitised upheaval. The establishment of Enlightenment ideals in France and beyond has been viewed similarly by historians as a violent reorganisation of the social order, exported under force of arms.[2] This narrative of the end of the ancien régime, however, fails to acknowledge the differing experiences of revolution across the continent, and the underlying diversity in political thought, socio-economic circumstance, and national identity that gave a seemingly universal revolution regional distinctions. The examples of peaceful demonstrations in Paris throughout the revolutionary period, and of the popular revolutions in Geneva, Switzerland and the Netherlands, defy the definition of a revolution as including ‘forcible transfers of power over states’ and give a deeper understanding of the nature of the ancient régime.[3]

The philosophy of the Enlightenment formed the foundation of the Atlantic democratic revolutions. Ideas of sovereignty, egalitarianism and reason challenged the often arbitrary power of the authoritarian monarch, and the successful revolution in America showed that these liberal ideals could be implemented into government effectively. Such a realisation stirred the idealistic middle-class intellectuals in Europe’s cities to action, and proved that violent insurrection could bring down a greater power.[4] Traditional histories of the Enlightenment, though, have placed too much emphasis on the role of the great thinkers and writers such as Voltaire, Descartes and Diderot, who’s anti-Catholic rhetoric undoubtedly had an impact on the course of the Revolution in France.[5] The decision of the Constituent Assembly in November 1789 to nationalise Church lands and require an oath from the clergy without first consulting Pope or clergy created huge opposition from what was still a devout population, and the anti-Assembly sermons given by those abused priests formed the beginnings of counter-revolution that would eventually escalate to civil war and the Terror.[6] Although the nationalisation of Church lands was partly motivated by a desire to reduce national debt, the anti-ecclesiastical strain of French Enlightenment thought also played a role, supported as well by the Assembly’s earlier abolition of tithes. As Dorinda Outram has shown, this difference in ideology could avert violence or indeed revolution altogether.[7] For example, the intellectual tradition of Cameralwissenschaft, which called for governance in the interest of the common good, was to some extent more inclusive and allowed for more radical change to systems of governance, without the need for violence. Differences in Enlightenment thought were made possible by the multitude of smaller publishers, previously unnoticed by historians, who drew on regional intellectual traditions in their works, and thus created distinct, regional Enlightenments. These smaller publishers were read more than the big thinkers of the era, and thus explains the diversity in Enlightenment thought.[8] This is more explicitly demonstrated in the case of the Swiss cantons, where in 1794 Heinrich Nehracher and other intellectuals from Stäfa demanded that all those in Zürich be treated equally. In contrast to events in France however, the Stäfa intellectuals based their claims on inalienable rights and the ancient liberties of the citizens; it was this merging of pre-existing rights with new rational rights that made their demands more palatable and reinforced the threat of French invasion and violence.[9]

This is not to say that the Revolution in France was always violent. In some ways the revolution in Paris saw the birth of the mass political protest, as opposed to older methods such as petitions and town gatherings.[10] The intellectual origins and universality of the revolutionary ideology allowed for cross-class cooperation. The bourgeoisie saw an opportunity for unprecedented political participation, and the lower classes saw relief from the low economic conditions created by poor government management. The protesting artisans and middle-classes had a vested interest in keeping demonstrations peaceful, since violent demonstrations would lead to damaged property and business. Indeed, of the forty-three demonstrations in Paris in 1789, the year the Revolution began, just six of them were violent, the rest having been peaceful.[11] In some of these demonstrations weapons were carried, but often they were simply defensive or made to create a threatening atmosphere to give weight to their protest. This tactic would later be adopted by organisations such as the Birmingham Political Union in Britain during the Reform Act Crisis; the carrying of arms could be an exercise of civil rights and privileges. Micah Alpaugh even goes so far as to argue that it was the establishment of this form of popular demonstration that was the most significant and long lasting legacy of the French Revolution, although this is a somewhat dubious claim in comparison to the end of the ancient régime throughout Europe.[12]

Whilst the French Revolution in Paris may have, at its inception, been relatively peaceful, in the countryside it certainly was not. In July 1789 the breakdown in law and order following the creation of the National Assembly and the circulation of rumours regarding the seizure of crops by the nobility, led to a large-scale outbreak of violence known as the ‘Great Fear’ in which property was burnt and estate representatives attacked[13]. This fear and mistrust of the ruling classes can partly explain why violence broke out so readily in France, whereas in Britain political change (albeit not on a scale or to a severity that could be labelled ‘revolutionary’) was relatively peaceful. In Britain, or at least England, the alliance and connections between the Church and social elite created an intrinsic link between piety and followership, or obedience to one’s landlord. In this sense, a paternal contract was formed to some extent between tenant and landlord, and insured that the countryside remained relatively peaceful during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, with the notable exception of the 1830 Swing Riots. Also of note is the difference in economics between the two nations, France, having fought various major wars, which amounted to a government deficit of almost 160 million livres by 1788.[14] Furthermore, in Britain peasants starved less, trade was freer, and towns more prosperous than in France or most of the remaining mainland Europe.[15] As Rostow’s social tension chart demonstrates in a rudimentary fashion, there is a correlation between prosperity of a people and respective economic growth[16]. The relative prosperity of British peasants in comparison to their French equivalents allowed the British elite to survive the political upheavals of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, a luxury the struggling French economy could not afford its elites.

It was this trust, coupled with Britain’s previous revolutionary experience and redefinition of the role of the monarchy in the ‘Glorious’ Revolution of 1688, that allowed the British elite to weather the challenges of the Industrial Revolution, which had its beginnings in this period.[17] The Repeal of the Test and Corporations Act in 1826, quickly followed thereafter by the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829, demonstrated that the British establishment feared revolution, especially in Ireland, and were willing to broaden access to the elite to prevent it. Furthermore, the Reform Act of 1832 gave sufficient access to the rising industrial class to prevent a cross-class alliance as was seen in the Dutch Republic and in Revolutionary France. Furthermore, British empiricism and deep distrust of Catholicism ensured that short of a few radical sympathisers, revolutionary ideas did not hold sway in the UK.

Just as ancient liberties and privileges in Britain and the Swiss cantons had shielded them to some extent from the aggressive egalitarianism of French Republicanism, in the Netherlands radical change was achieved without violence. When war broke out between France and Britain in 1778, the country was split between the Orangists, who supported British Protestantism, and the pro-French Patriots.[18] When the British were defeated by the Orange, William V – who commanded the army – was held responsible for the failure. The radical Patriot Van der Capellen wrote An Address to the Netherlands People, the language within it is telling, comparing the citizens to shareholders in a company, drawing on the Dutch mercantile tradition and liberties. Merging this with French Enlightenment values, Capellen called for the establishment of Free Corps, who then occupied most of the major Dutch cities, forcing the Orange leaders to flee.[19] Although the peacefulness of the Patriot Revolution has been debated recently, for its time it was remarkable in its bloodlessness as a popular, democratic revolution.[20] Even though the Patriot regime was eventually quashed by the Prussians, Marc Lerner has argued that much like the Swiss, when the French reoccupied the Netherlands in 1795, the imperative for the creation of a Republic similar to the French model came from the remains of the Dutch Patriot movement. The Batavian Republic was formed on the same amalgamation of old national liberties and French constitutionalism, as Nehracher had in his appeal to the Zurich authorities, and had done so with minimal violence.[21]

The end of the ancien régime was a violent and bloody affair, it led to numerous wars and various bloody revolutions and coups as the French Republic installed governments with similar ideals in the states it overwhelmed. However, violence was not a pre-requisite for revolution or radical political change. In those states with a liberal tradition, such as Geneva in the 1760s, and the Dutch Republic and Swiss Cantons at the end of the eighteenth century, intellectuals could, by merging these traditions with Enlightenment thinking, achieve bloodless revolution. Furthermore, by enlisting the support of the disenfranchised bourgeoisie, even the Parisians at the crucible of French Revolution could appear legitimate yet intimidating enough to enforce change peacefully.[22] Finally, the case of Britain and the Netherlands demonstrates how economic prosperity can help avoid conflagration in the countryside and achieve peaceful revolution, whether it be industrial or political.

[1] London Times, 10 Sep. 1792.

[2] Micah Alpaugh, Non-Violenceand the French Revolution: Political Demonstrations in Paris, 1787-1795, (Cambridge, 2014), p. 6.

[3] Charles Tilly, European Revolutions, 1492-1992, Jacques Le Goff, The Making of Europe, (Blackwell, 1993), p. 5.

[4] William Doyle, The Old European Order 1660-1800, J.M. Roberts, The Short Oxford History of the Modern World, (Oxford, 1978), p. 299.

[5] Ernst Cassirer, The Philosophy of the Enlightenment, Fritz C.A Koelln & James P. Pettegrove, (Princeton, 1951).

[6] Doyle, The Old European Order, pp. 332 – 333.

[7] Dorinda Outram, The Enlightenment, William Beik & T.C. W. Blanning, New Approaches to European History, Second Edition, (Cambridge, 2005), p. 3.

[8] Ibid, pp. 4 – 6.

[9] Marc H. Lerner, ’13. Radical Elements and Attempted Revolutions in the Late-18th-Century Republics’ in André Holenstein, Thomas Maissen, Maarten Prak (eds.) The Republican Alternative: The Netherlands and Switzerland Compared’ (Amsterdam, 2008), pp. 305 -307.

[10] Alpgaugh, Non-Violence and the French Revolution, pp. 1-3.

[11] Ibid, p. 4.

[12] Ibid, p. 2.

[13] Doyle, The Old European Order, p. 325.

[14] Ibid, p. 318.

[15] Linda Colley, Britons: Forging the Nation 1707 – 1837, Vintage Edition, (Vintage 1996), p. 45.

[16] W. W. Rostow, British Economy of the Nineteenth Century (Oxford, 1948).

[17] Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Revolution: Europe 1789 – 1848, (London 1962).

[18] Doyle, The Old European Order, pp. 311 – 312.

[19] Ibid, p. 312.

[20] Wayne P. Te Brake, ‘Violence in the Dutch Patriot Revolution’, Comparative Studies in Society and History 30 (1988), pp. 143 – 145.

[21] Marc H. Lerner, ‘Radical Elements and Attempted Revolutions’, pp. 310 – 312.

[22] Alpgaugh, Non-Violence and the French Revolution, p. 1.


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