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One Mars Unshackled: The French Revolution in World-Historical Perspective1
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Geopolitical Decline and the Outbreak of the Revolution

As is well known, the Old Regime's descent into the maelstrom started when the monarchy exhausted its ability to raise loans for military purposes, called without success on an Assembly of Notables for help, and then backed down in the face of demands by the parlements for the convening of the long-defunct Estates-General. Yet culturally oriented scholars are certainly right to pinpoint the subsequent emergence of demands for a National Assembly, a body that was challenger and alternative to the Estates, as the originating moment


of revolution (rather than of reforms within the basic structure of the Old Regime).

More was involved here than contending groups of privileged Frenchmen vying for the best framework of representation in which to press their particular status interests against the king and one another. New political practices and a rhetoric of national regeneration came suddenly to the fore, just as Lynn Hunt would have it. In the search for a unifying political charisma to replace sacred absolute monarchy, Hunt tells us, successive leadership groups in the Revolution devised oaths and staged symbolic festivals. They also invoked "certain key words . . . as revolutionary incantations," including "patrie , constitution, law, and, more specific to the radicals, regeneration, virtue, and vigilance."[16] Among the key words of the Revolution, "nation was perhaps the most universally sacred" right from the start in 1789[17] —just as the bid of certain urban-based leaders to create the unified National Assembly was at the heart of the early revolutionary challenge to the Old Regime's monarchical and corporatist system of authority.[18]

To be sure, certain aspects of the innovative political practices and rhetoric of 1789 were inspired by certain readings of Enlightenment literatures, understandings that had gestated for some years in discussions by certain educated critics of the Old Regime, urban Third Estate and aristocratic critics alike. But the Enlightenment did not cause the new politics of 1789, for its many texts and ideals had been equally well invoked by defenders of monarchy or by coporatist critics of royal initiatives such as the parlements. To understand the revolutionary urge for uniformly national representation, we must understand how badly many French elites wanted to find a road to national regeneration in the late eighteenth century.

During the course of the eighteenth century, the French Old Regime, with its hodgepodge of monarchy and corporatist privilege, had proved recurrently unable to sustain the glory of France in the face of rising, newly efficient rivals and military enemies, especially Prussia on the continent of Europe and Britain on the high seas.[19] The French monarchy lost all of the intra-European wars of the eighteenth century in which it became involved, achieving a victory of sorts only in the far-flung conflict over American independence. The humiliation of martial defeats, along with the strain of raising revenues for wars, rendered credible critics' arguments that the country's institutions were in need of basic overhaul. "Nothing did more to fuel . . . [the] surge of public discussion than the Seven Years' War" of 1756—1763. "Undertaken with no clear aims, in alliance with Austria, a traditional enemy of centuries standing, it led to humiliating defeats on land and sea at what seemed like enormous economic cost. Taxes and state borrowing had soared, but there was nothing to show for such efforts. In these circumstances an inquest began which spared no aspect of French society or institutions, and was encouraged . . . by the government itself."[20]


Indeed, in the wake of the embarrassing French defeats at the hand of smaller Prussian armies in the Seven Years' War, major organizational changes in the army were devised by a succession of activist ministers, among the most influential of whom were Étienne François de Choiseul and Claude Louis de Saint-Germain. These changes, which laid the basis for later accomplishments under the Republic and Napoleon, featured the organization of infantry, cavalry, artillery, and support troops into self-sufficient divisions and corps; the subordination of individual regiments and companies to unified division and corps commands; and the unification of military supply operations, which were henceforth nominally directed by the monarchy rather than by private military contractors, thus taking them out of the hands of "enterprising" colonels and captains.[21] France's next major martial involvement did not, however, allow the effectiveness of these reforms to be fully tested; nor did it bring political payoffs to the monarchy. French victories in the War of American Independence were gained at sea against Britain. And even though France prevailed in this conflict, the Old Regime's longstanding fiscal inefficiencies—which had hampered earlier war efforts as well—reached an apogee in the war's immediate aftermath. In the words of Simon Schama,

[T]he pleasures of witnessing British imperial disarray and the belated satisfaction for the defeats of the Seven Years' War carried an expensive price tag . . . . [T]he ballooning of the deficit so weakened the nerfs —the sinews—of state that by 1787, its foreign policy was robbed of real freedom of action. For in that year sheer financial exigency prevented France from intervening decisively in the civil war in the Dutch Republic to support its own partisans, themselves going by the name of "Patriots." Paradoxically, then, the war that had been intended to restore the imperial power of France ended up compromising it so badly that king and patrie seemed to be two different, and before long irreconcilable, entities. It was not much longer before this process was taken even further, so that the court itself seemed a foreign parasite feeding off the body of the "true" Nation.[22]

Institutional transformations, statesmen and elites understood, would have to encompass the king's fundamental political relationship to tax-paying Frenchmen as well as the inner workings of the military machine. By 1787–1789 French elites were not just worried about who might have to pay more taxes than whom to solve a temporary monarchical financial crisis. Inspired by the British example of parliamentarism, as well as by the achievements of the American Revolution, many of them believed that the monarchy could not restore French international prestige without somehow consulting and involving them in fundamental decisions for the future.[23] In this context of a crisis of legitimacy in the state's basic mission and structure, the door was opened for certain elite elements to make a radical argument: that the entire


nation, not just separate privileged sectors, needed to be "represented" together with the king in the great work of political regeneration that was at hand.

We are suggesting, in short, that without the prior decades of geopolitical stress and relative decline for a great power that was facing escalating simultaneous challenges from land and sea, the national—moralistic dimension of the crisis of 1787–1789 might have been absent. Had this dimension been absent, the ensuing intraelite struggles might have resembled the decentralizing and particularistic conflicts of the Fronde over a century earlier, rather than leading into a politics of national regeneration, which was triggered by the calling of the Estates-General in 1789. The French elites who assembled to argue in—and about—the representative institutions of a constitutional monarchy were, despite their many differences, jointly concerned about how to strengthen the French nation through expanded political participation. Although in the early years of the Revolution declarations of war were far from the minds of most elites with contending constitutionalist visions, it was surely crucial that all French elites took for granted the past and potential future glory of the French state and nation. They argued within and about the central political and administrative institutions of a great power struggling against relative international decline, and the rhetoric of national regeneration resonated with this context.

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