Pierre Serna, Antonino De Francesco, Judith A. Miller, eds. Republics at War, 1776-1840: Revolutions, Conflicts, and Geopolitics in Europe and the Atlantic World. War, Culture and Society, 1750-1850 Series. Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013. xvi + 291 pp. $95.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-137-32881-6.
Reviewed by Michael Rapport (University of Glasgow)
Published on H-Diplo (September, 2014)
Commissioned by Seth Offenbach (Bronx Community College, The City University of New York)
In the winter of 1791-92, the Paris Jacobin Club was the scene of an epic political clash between Maximilien Robespierre and Jacques-Pierre Brissot. Brissot argued fervently for war against the German princes, including the Habsburg emperor, who harbored or supported French émigrés and counterrevolutionaries. The war, Brissot promised his rapt audience, would consolidate the Revolution in France; he then moved on to call for war against all Europe, which would bring the hierarchical order of the old regime tumbling down and spread the emancipating promise of the French Revolution. Robespierre was less heated in his rhetoric, and he ultimately lost the argument since France went to war with Austria in April 1792, but his prognosis was proven right. He warned that war would strengthen the Revolution’s domestic enemies and lead to military dictatorship, and, as for the idea that French troops would be greeted as liberators by other Europeans, he uttered his finest aphorism when he warned that “no one likes armed missionaries.” Although the debate took place when France was still a constitutional monarchy, it encapsulated some of the spiky questions that are addressed in this volume, part of Palgrave’s rich and ever-growing series War, Culture and Society, 1750-1850.
This collection of essays explores the controversial relationship between republicanism, revolution, and war. As such, it makes an important contribution to an important historiographical area in studies on the French Revolution and Napoleon, as well as the impact of the French Wars of 1792-1815 on French, European, and, increasingly, global societies. The effects of the conflict in French politics, society, and culture have preoccupied historians of the French Revolution, such as Alan Forrest, John A. Lynn, Jean-Paul Bertaud, and Rafe Blaufarb, among others. The experiences and effects of war, occupation, and resistance, and their ramifications have engaged Europeanists such as Annie Jourdan, Michael Broers, Charles Esdaile, Michael Rowe, and Agustín Guimera, to name but a few. The wider, global effects of the wars have been, and continue to be, explored, often in a broader chronological context, by such historians as Suzanne Desan and C. A. Bayly. Collectively, therefore, the essays in Republics at War engage with questions that are of current concern among historians. At the same time, they give historical perspective to some of the key problems that vex modern democracies and their relationship with war: how can a republic or democracy live at peace and secure legitimacy within a hostile world? When or how is it legitimate to export democratic or republican ideals by force? What internal dangers do wars hold for republics or democracies? How essential is the link between mass mobilization and democratic or republican citizenship? What, if anything, is distinctive about the ways in which republics wage war, “revolutionary” or otherwise?
These problems are explored in detail in the volume, which focuses (despite the chronology implied by the title) on the period of the French Revolution and, in particular, on the years of the Directory (1795-99). The tone of the volume is set by one of the editors, Pierre Serna, in a rich and thoughtful introductory essay. It teases out the theoretical problems in the relationship between war and republics. On the one hand, eighteenth-century republicans liked to reject the connection between republicanism and war, preferring instead to envisage a time when free, sovereign states would relate to each other within a framework of international law or even be bound within a federation. On the other hand, the experience of the wars of the American and French Revolutions seemed to show that for republics to survive against the persistent danger of monarchies and counterrevolutionaries, every citizen had to be prepared to fight (“every citizen must be a soldier, and every soldier a citizen,” declared the military reformer Edmond Dubois-Crancé in 1789). The tension between these two visions encapsulates the complexity and controversy in the relationship between republicanism and war. This was a relationship that was nebulous, as Marc Belissa shows in his chapter about the debate on the French Republic’s place in the European order in the Year 4 (1795-96). For moderate republicans, it was necessary to engage diplomatically with monarchies and refrain from spreading revolutionary ideas abroad in order to show that the French Republic could be both powerful and peaceful in a world where republics were few and far between. For the political Left, however, war preserved the revolutionary momentum and the only guarantor of security was in the expansion of republican institutions and ideas across Europe.
On this last point, one of the nuances that emerges from this volume—and supporting the detailed work of Annie Jourdan in La Révolution: Une Exception Francaise? (2004)—is the case of the “sister republics” of the late 1790s. On the one hand, there is little doubt that they were intended to serve the strategic interests of France; on the other hand, it is also apparent that the Dutch, Italian, and Swiss republicans who embraced the experiment were capable of showing remarkable independence and planted the seed for later democratic ideas. The friction implicit in this contradiction, as Sylvie Kleinman shows in her deeply researched chapter on the brutally tragic example of Ireland and Wolfe Tone, was never happily resolved. In their more unguarded moments, French officers let slip that there never was any intention to establish a republic in Ireland: rather, the purposes of the attempted invasions of 1796 and 1798 were merely “to annoy England” (p. 98).
Overall, the case studies are well chosen, illustrating clearly the dilemmas confronted by republics and republicans at war, particularly the friction between the emancipating ideology of republicanism and strategic and military interests, but also the tensions and contradictions within republicanism itself when it confronted warfare and diplomacy. The pursuit of good governance within republics was accompanied by a lingering eighteenth-century ideal that, in a world where rights were universal, international relations would ultimately be directed by a framework of law or federation. This sat uneasily with both the linkage between citizenship and military service encapsulated in the “nation-in-arms” and the pursuit of the strategic security of the Grande Nation—the expansive French Republic. In these circumstances, the closest the French Republic got to achieving a “new European order” was in the creation of sister republics.
Most of the essays—ten out of twelve—are focused entirely or primarily on the decade of the French Revolution and of those, five concentrate on the years in which the Directory teetered uncertainly at the head of the French Republic. There is, certainly, a case to be made for this choice of content. In the introduction to the volume, Serna argues that the years of the Directory were when the association between war and republic became irrevocably established, not just for Frenchmen and Frenchwomen of every background, but also for Europeans who experienced the onslaught of the French armies. Yet within France one could surely argue that the connection between republicanism and war was already irreversible for many French people—at least in a strongly negative sense—with the attempts to impose the levy of three hundred thousand conscripts, which sparked the Vendée and the Chouannerie, the counterrevolutionary insurgency in the west of France. Indeed, the war was the very midwife of the republic itself, the monarchy crashing violently down on August 10, 1792, against a background of military crisis and suspicions of royal treason. This was, already, the months of the patrie en danger (the fatherland in danger) and it was followed by the levée en masse (mass levy) in August 1793—and these developments are considered by Annie Crépin in a remarkable essay that covers French military reforms across the entire revolutionary decade. For the French, the events of 1792-94 made the connection between republican citizenship and mobilization in war a powerful one indeed. In times of international crisis in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, French republicans would evoke the spirit of “1792” or “1793” in the defence of the patrie. Conversely, so strong was the historical association of the republic with war that at the founding of the Second French Republic in 1848, Alphonse Lamartine, the provisional government’s foreign minister, was compelled to reassure Europe that, this time around, France had no bellicose intentions.
Where Serna’s case for the importance of the Directorial period is far stronger is in the European, indeed global, dimension in the experience of war and republicanism after 1795. From that date, the French Republic exported the Revolution by conquest and force of arms. The significance of this relatively short period, therefore, was the very intensity in which the relationship between war and republicanism was experienced outside France—in Europe as well as in the Atlantic, Mediterranean, and Asian worlds. Inside France, the military expansion after 1795 gave special urgency to the debate over the relationship between the republic and war, as well as the republic’s place in the European order, for the Revolution could no longer claim to be fighting a war of legitimate defense against foreign invasion, as it had done in 1792-94. The solutions included Caesarism, the transformation of the republic into an empire under a triumphant general; forging the occupied territories into a chain of sister republics; or a reversion to the old “balance of power” diplomacy by bartering France’s conquests for territorial and strategic advantage. In practice, they ended up doing all three.
Yet such a concentration on 1795-99 does have its drawbacks. Readers looking for a comprehensive, textbook-style coverage of the relationship between republics and war from the American Revolution until the eve of the 1848 revolutions will not find it here, despite the title. Of course, no single volume of essays can hope to be comprehensive and, to be sure, the nature of republican warfare in the American War of Independence is not neglected: Serna makes some trenchant observations on it in his introductory chapter; Marie-Jeanne Rossignol contributes a superb and fascinating essay on the mobilization of African Americans during the conflict; and Antonino De Francesco looks afresh at the debate over the war in France in 1791-92, skillfully casting into relief French references to the American conflict to show how notions of “revolutionary war” took shape. Yet there is no chapter that engages directly with the American experience in 1776-83, or on the years of the early republic, which would include the guerre de course (pregnant with possibilities because here the two republics—French and American—came to blows) and the War of 1812. At the other end of the period, while there is a chapter on Haiti and the Caribbean by Frédéric Régent, there is nothing substantive on the volume’s themes as they related to the emancipation of another part of the Americas: the Latin American wars of independence.
Having said that, Pedro Rújula discusses the conflicts that ravaged metropolitan Spain between 1793, when the kingdom found itself at war with France, and the end of the First Carlist War in 1840. The presence of Rújula’s chapter, alongside that of Mario Tosti, who explores counterrevolution in the papal states, shows that the flip side of the relationship between republics and war, in the shape of mass mobilization in opposition to republicanism, is far from being overlooked. In his fascinating essay on the counterrevolution in Italy, Tosti shows how the dissemination of propaganda and the forging of a mass movement in the papal states were widely discussed by the elites, but caused some unease: in 1797, the abbé Giovanni Marchetti acknowledged the unprecedented strength that the French drew from the relationship between republicanism and military mobilization, but warned against arming the people because of the chaos that might ensure. In Spain, Rújula concludes that the monarchy made the war a popular cause because such a mobilization could be used as a sort of plebiscite “confirming the bonds between people and monarchy” (p. 255). The problems and opportunities of using popular support to combat revolutionary ideas are important, because they show that the connection between mass mobilization and republican citizenship in warfare is not unbreakable, or even necessary: as Crépin observes, states that adopted radical methods of mobilization, “most glaringly the Prussian monarchy,” were anything but republican (p. 143). All in all, this is a thought-provoking collection of well-researched essays—and, since this is the fruit of a truly international collaboration, it should also be said that the translations of the chapters originally written in French, Italian, or Spanish are elegantly done.
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Michael Rapport. Review of Serna, Pierre; De Francesco, Antonino; Miller, Judith A., eds., Republics at War, 1776-1840: Revolutions, Conflicts, and Geopolitics in Europe and the Atlantic World.
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