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essays

1837

“The Ghost of the French Revolution:” Europe After Napoleon

“Battles,’ said Voltaire, ‘are not lost by [numbers] of killed and wounded, but by the effect…on the survivers.’ The same holds now of the principle of freedom.”

Editor’s Introduction

In the following excerpt from John L. O’Sullivan’s Democratic Review, the author surveys the state of European aristocratic and democratic politics after the cataclysmic and transformative French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (ca. 1789-1815).  Taking each major power in turn, O’Sullivan develops his concept of democratic-republican “manifest destiny,” arguing that if only the people of Europe were to forsake their masters, democracy would proliferate across the continent.  Such a pattern, O’Sullivan states, is historically determined and unavoidable if and only if common people forced their governments to obey the laws of Nature, establish democratic-republican institutions, and never again interfere with the equal rights of individuals.  Once the people were so resolved, neither kings nor even czars could stand in the way of democratic progress.  Ultimately, O’Sullivan believed that ideas moved history and those ideas which conformed to the truths of Nature were quite literally destined to prevail.

Perhaps most importantly for modern readers, the Democratic Review envisions virtually inevitable conflict between the autocratic despotism in Russia and the democratic forces of the West, led by Great Britain and inspired by American and French ideas.  O’Sullivan argues that the incredibly complex diversity of ethnic, linguistic, and religious groups in the Russian Empire was only held together as a single nation-state by the Czar’s crushing power and authority.  Far from presenting Jacksonian readers with a proto-Cold Warrior’s scaremongering, however, O’Sullivan’s Review declared even the Czar a mere paper tiger in the face of a Russian population infected with democratic ideas.  Autocratic despotism required, above all else, constant and strong military presences in any rebellious areas.  Wherever the Czar’s soldiers mingled with democratic populations—notably in Poland—there spread the republican disease that would eventually, though ruthlessly and indiscriminately, exterminate aristocracies across the globe.

 

Anthony Comegna

Assistant Editor for Intellectual History

 

 

“Retrospective View of the State of European Politics, Especially of Germany, Since the Last Congress of Vienna,” Excerpts

U.S. Magazine & Democratic Review, Vol. I, No. I.  1837.

By John L. O’Sullivan

No sooner was the Corsican lion overpowered, and the great, but degenerate, representative of the French revolution trodden in the dust, than the same princes who, in Paris, had sued for the permission of wearing crowns, and plundering and selling the remnant of their subjects, assembled at the Congress of Vienna, to deliberate on the fate of Europe. England and the continent joined in exultation at the humiliation of the tyrant, whose eagle-bannered legions had been the terror of kings, and the woe and desolation of the people. But in the convulsive struggle of Europe against one man, whose great historic crime was the impious audacity with which he attempted to convert the principles of democracy, that had brought him into power, into a delusive phantom of military glory, for the re-establishment of a Byzantine empire, there were employed elements which could only act in concert on the spur of the moment, to avert a common danger, and must needs have assumed a mutually hostile attitude, from the moment they were gain left to their fate. England had nobly fought for conservative principles—for her lords and bishops; the nations on the continent had been thirsting for liberty, and were quenching their thirst with the blood of unfortunate France…

As soon as the Congress of Vienna met, the people began to undeceive themselves. They became aware of their true position. They found that they had chanced the gorgeous despotism of the great Emperor for the pusillanimous tyranny of their own sordid princes; the humiliating necessity of obeying, the mandate of a foreign dictator, for the abject condition of domestic slaves. The seed of liberty, which the Germans had sown on the battle-fields of Leipsic and Hanau, tilled with their sword; and moistened with their blood, had indeed sprung up and borne fruit; but their kings carried off the harvest…

And what was the reward of the German people for the thousand sacrifices of lives and property during the long war of the revolution?—…“an improved system of common schools” was considered sufficient to heal the wounds of an hundred unfortunate battles…Russia was the only European power which derived a signal advantage from the downfall of the French empire; she obtained by it the duchy of Warsaw…She opened to herself the road to Turkey and the wealth of India, and acquired a most powerful and pernicious influence on continental politics, especially on that of Germany. England, who had paid nearly two-thirds of all the expenses of the war, and who had involved herself in an immense national debt, lost nearly her whole influence on the continent, while the enormous sacrifices she had been obliged to make in order to exclude democratic principles from her dominions, only hastened their speedy introduction…

FRANCE, in the midst of her humiliation, laid the foundation of a better government than that of which she had been deprived by the united efforts of her enemies…As all conquering nations imbibe the manners and customs of the conquered, and, by this means, finally become themselves vanquished, so did the invasion of France do more for the spreading of liberal principles, and the overthrow of monarchy in Europe, than all the victories of the republic; and the doctrines of the revolution were never nearer inflaming the world than when their last representative was retiring from the field.

The armies of the allied powers left France with respect for the manners, custom; and laws of her inhabitants. They had seen more equality in France than they had ever before or after witnessed in their own countries; they had seen the dignity of man respected in the humblest of his species; and their hatred and prejudice against the French, which were constantly nursed by cunning politicians, had gradually yielded to feelings of forbearance and kindness. In short, France, though young and inexperienced in every liberal form of government, abounded, nevertheless, with all the elements of democracy, and had given proof of her deserving to be free, by the readiness with which her children were prepared to die for liberty. Her example was far from being lost even upon Russia; and many a rude warrior, like the crusaders of old, returned home to the confines of barbarism, there to plant the seed of new life and civilization…

The ghost of the French revolution is staring them everywhere in the face, whether they look to Italy or Spain, to Portugal or Belgium, France or Poland, England or Germany. Nor is it confined there; it is haunting Turkey and Egypt, convulsing Asia and Africa, and, in its more remote consequences, is even felt in the United States. Herein consists the immortality of principles which, once born to light, cannot, by any earthly power, be deprived of their action, until they have produced all the ultimate consequences resulting from their single and combined application. No intolerance, no persecution, no martyrdom can prevent their promulgation; and they seem to acquire even an additional momentum from every obstacle they meet on their progress…

England has, for the last ten years, made greater progress towards a pure democracy than any other country in Europe. Her nobility, the wealthiest and worthiest aristocracy in the world, is daily losing more of its moral influence in Parliament and on the minds of the people. Its riches and learning—its physical and moral power—will yet for years be felt in the councils of the nation; but it is no longer based upon, and entwined with, the affection and loyalty of the people. It has lost the magic of directing the multitudes and inspiring awe…

Let us now turn our eyes to France, that land of political miracles and popular credulity, whose people has in scarcely fifty years accomplished the history of five centuries…If we look upon a nation as representing the aggregate of intelligence and virtue of all the individuals composing it, we must at once admit that France has not only been regenerated by the revolution, but that her liberties—inconsiderable as they may appear to the English and Americans—are nevertheless resting on the firmest basis on which they can possibly be established in any country—on the determination of the people to be free, and their courage to assert that freedom, in opposition to every moral or physical obstacle…

What statesman would now think it possible to lead the French people back to the state from which they emerged by the revolution?…

We consider the appearance of Louis Philippe as a mere interlude in the history of France, resembling some of Shakespeare’s clowns, introduced to relieve the gravity of the drama;—a mere pause in the revolution. During this pause, the nations of Europe may fall asleep; but they will awake with fresh vigor at the first signal of battle, to conquer or die on the field. Louis Philippe has taught the people of all countries a memorable lesson, which, it is hoped, will not be lost upon them…

GERMANY, of all countries, suffered most by the wars of the French revolution…Twenty years in succession did the Germans combat the principle of liberty and supremacy in France; twenty long years were they beaten, insulted, and sacked by their victorious foes…This time the people themselves took the field, and, in one great struggle for liberty, achieved their emancipation. That it was not the coalition, and especially, not the German princes, which produced the fall of Napoleon, was allowed by the Emperor himself when he declared that he had been defeated by the power of liberal ideas in Germany

The philosophy of the Germans is indeed an armor which renders them perfectly invulnerable. Oppress them with an iron rod, insult them, ridicule them, strike them, extort from them their last penny, starve them, bury them, only do not separate them from their book, and they will be satisfied…There is not a single principle of liberty or justice which may not there be found ably and satisfactorily commented upon; there exists, in Germany, on paper, the most perfect democracy which ever governed any community; there may be found, in books, enough of radicalism to break down the thrones of kings and emperors, to destroy the last remnant of feudalism, to banish bishops and nobles, ribbons and stars, and to drive the last tithe-gatherer out of the country—if a man will only put himself to the trouble of collecting it from the millions of volumes in her public libraries.

With such a people, the policy of the Prussian government must be eminently successful. It opens to them the treasures of science and literature, reserving to itself nothing but their application; it equalizes, as far as practicable, nobles and commoners, claiming but the privilege of elevating the servants of the crown; it establishes a military democracy, in which the king, as a true soldier, demands but implicit obedience; it abolishes, by the union of the tariff the odious system of excise in the interior, but taxes commerce on the frontiers, and there establishes monopolies; in short, it is a policy which is no more akin to liberalism than hypocrisy to religion; and is just as much more pernicious to the progress of liberty in Germany, than the open despotism of Prince Metternich, as a treacherous friend is more dangerous than a declared enemy.

Much praise has been bestowed, in and out of Germany, on the Prussian system of common schools. Excellent as this may be in many respects, it is nevertheless a powerful organ of perpetuating slavery. What, after all, can be more opposed to freedom than a system of instruction…in which the whole population is taught to think, feel, and act, according to the political and religious catechism of a single man? Were it ten times the best system ever invented, we would not recommend it to any state or empire in which the people claim to be more than mere wire-puppets in the hands of their legislators…

The particular position of the Austrian empire is this. It cannot depend for its safety, or the stability of its institutions, on the voluntary submission of the people, or the assistance which so many different nations would, of their own accord, render it in time of danger…The spirit of democracy has found its way to one-third of the Austrian empire, (Hungary and Transylvania having, together, more than 11,000,000 inhabitants,) and is there making even more rapid progress than in Germany…

These indices cannot be mistaken. Hungary and Transylvania have caught the spirit of the Polish revolution. But the Hungarians are a stronger and more energetic people than the Poles; they are not divided amongst themselves, and began their popular movement by an attempt to emancipate the lower classes. They are the most warlike and chivalrous people of the whole Austrian empire, and in possession of the richest soil— A revolution in Hungary would be more fatal to Austria than the Polish revolution could ever have become to Russia, and would at once sever the empire…

With the exception of Austria and Prussia, there exists no absolute monarchy in Germany; all the minor States possessing, more or less, liberal constitutions. These constitutions, insignificant as they are, when compared to the free institutions of Britain, or even France, were, nevertheless, extorted by the force of public opinion, or, as was tiles case in Bavaria, by the financial embarrassments of the country.  The necessity of conceding certain rights and privileges to the people was implicitly acknowledged; and, though the princes afterwards regretted having made these concessions, it was no longer in their power wholly to retract them…

The Liberal went even so far as to advocate the re-union of the different States into a Germanic empire, not under the auspices of Austria or Prussia, but under those of duke Leopold of Baaden. This prince, one of the few virtuous of his class united the suffrages of nearly the whole liberal party, and was actually set up as a candidate for the dignity of emperor…

The diet of 1832 abolished the liberty of the press, threw the most distinguished editors into prison, excluded the champions of liberty from the legislative assemblies, abolished the most liberal papers…and put an end to all freedom of speech. All this was done so abruptly and unexpectedly, that the people who had ventured to rely on the promises of their princes, and had consequently omitted to concert measures for their common defence could not for several months recover from their astonishment; and when they did recover, the Austrians were at Frankfort.

Thus ended the first fair dream of liberty in Germany; but the dreamers are now roused from their sleep, and made sensible of their true position. They have now tested, to the fullest extent, the veracity and good faith of their princes, and will not soon trust again to their sincerity…

“Battles,” said Voltaire, “are not lost by the number of killed and wounded, but by the effect which these produce on the survivers.” The same holds now of the principle of freedom. Let liberty be once firmly established in Spain; let it be known that freedom found its way through darkness and superstition, through despotism and the inquisition; and it will inspire the liberals of all Europe with fresh enthusiasm for their cause. They will learn from it, that a people is free from the moment it is resolved to be so…

Opposed to the liberal principles and common interests of mankind is the power of RUSSIA, hovering like an eagle over its prey, and threatening, at every moment, to seize upon its victims—the civilized nations of Europe. The power of Russia is unquestionably alarming, and on the increase; but it is nevertheless overrated by friends and foes.

Russia consists of an assemblage of forty-eight different nations, united into an empire by nothing but a military despotism. These forty-eight different nations speak so many different languages; are widely separated from each other by customs and manners; and among them are many, who, like the Polish, entertain the most implacable hatred against the Czar. So many heterogeneous elements can only act in concert as long as they are barbarous. Accustomed blindly to obey the mandates of their military chieftains, civilization separates them by attaching them to the soil and to the interests of their respective countries. These, it would teach them, are not identified with the growing despotism of Russia; but, on the contrary, with the destruction of its baneful influence. The different people of Russia cease to be Russians when brought under the humanizing influence of the arts and sciences. They then become Europeans—subjects of that great moral empire, which extends from the extreme west of America to the confines of Asia,—and rebels in their own country. Civilization weakens the Russian empire instead of dividing it strength, as is the case with every other country. It cannot give the Russians a national impulse, because it pleads the cause of her enemies, and is identified with their political progress…It must, therefore, be the policy of Russia to check the progress of civilization and the arts; to diminish the means of instruction, and to prevent, as far as possible, the formation of a public spirit. She is thus forced to destroy the chief elements of a nation’s greatness, and reduced to no other means of attack or defence than the huge masses of her soldiery. In case of a war, the power of Russia would rest on mere numerical elements, while national enthusiasm, love of country and of home, devotion to liberty, and the strong principle of national honor, would unite to increase the moral energy of her antagonists…

Civilization, moreover, is no longer confined to one or two particular states, but, by the press, is spreading over the world. Every ship which enters a Russian port discharges its carbo of intelligence, and reclaims her subjects from barbarism. Russia will be partially civilized before she will attempt the conquest of Europe; but then the elements of her power will no longer act in her favor…

The Russian army stationed in Poland has already imbibed many principles which it has combatted with the sword. The conquest of Poland is perhaps one of the surest means of scattering them amongst the Russian population; and who can foretell whether the very division of Poland may not, in its fatal retribution, destroy the powers which sullied history by the Commission of that crime…

So far then from seeing, in the growing democracy of England, a cause of her future decline, we view in it the providential development of a principle which imparts new life and vigor to her people, and is destined to save not only her, but the rest of mankind, from oppression and bondage. We look upon the genius of England as the good genius of history, and trust that England will be true to it.