Robert R. Palmer, professor of history at Princeton and Yale, was one of the 20th Century’s most influential scholars of modern European history. His textbook, A History of the Modern World, now in its 10th edition, with associates Joel Cramer and Lloyd Kramer, has long been the standard in high school and university classrooms. His two-volume The Age of the Democratic Revolution: A Political History of Europe and America, 1760–1800 established Palmer as a pioneer of the now-burgeoning fields of international and comparative Atlantic history. Palmer’s Age of the Democratic Revolution is an encyclopedic account and interpretation of the political and social upheavals in Europe and the Americas during the latter half of the 18th century. Palmer’s conclusions were and remain controversial, but all serious students of strategy and diplomacy are in debt to his indefatigable spadework and his search for a theme in this great historical and intellectual pudding.
The French Revolution, in Palmer’s account, was part of a much broader historical current of political and social change that swept up the American colonies, the British Isles, and most of the European continent. Palmer drew on his own reading knowledge of French, German, Italian and Dutch, and enlisted assistance for such languages as Hungarian and Polish. His main conclusion in Volume I, The Challenge: “These events of the 18th century were a single movement, revolutionary in character, for which the world ‘democratic’ is appropriate and enlightening; a movement which, however different in different countries, was everywhere aimed against closed elites, self-selecting power groups, hereditary castes, and forms of special advantage or discrimination that no longer served any useful purpose. These were summed up in such terms as feudalism, aristocracy and privilege, against which the idea of a common citizenship in a more centralized state, or common membership in a free political nation, was offered as a more satisfactory basis for the human community.”
Palmer argued that the major impediment to democratic political change was not absolute monarchy—which in many cases favored modernization and meritocracy, if not political liberalization—but various “constituted bodies,” oligarchies that ranged from the unreformed British Parliament to the Estates of the Netherlands and the Parlements of France. In resisting the monarchy or the church, these bodies could be liberal or even revolutionary. But such progressive inclinations were secondary to the efforts of aristocrats to exclude all others from membership in the ruling elite. The common challenge for democratic political reformers was how to break the stranglehold of these bodies with their defense of traditional privileges. In this struggle, “the effects of the American Revolution, as a Revolution, were imponderable but very great,” Palmer writes. “It inspired the sense of a new era. It added a new content to the conception of progress. It gave a whole new dimension to ides of liberty and equality made familiar by the Enlightenment. It got people in the habit of thinking more concretely about political questions. It made them more readily critical of their own governments and society. It dethroned England, and set up America, as a model for those seeking a better world. It brought written constitutions, declarations of rights, and constituent assemblies into the realm of the possible. The apparition on the other side of the Atlantic of certain ideas already familiar in Europe made such ideas seem more truly universal, and confirmed the habit of thinking in terms of humanity at large. … America made Europe seem unsatisfactory to many people of the middle and lower classes, and to those of the upper classes who wished them well. It made a good many Europeans feel sorry for themselves, and induced a kind of spiritual fight from the Old Regime.”
In the larger scene, however, it was the French Revolution of 1789 that represented the decisive breakthrough in this battle against the constituted bodies of the ancien regime. Palmer disagrees with the argument of John Quincy Adams and Edmund Burke that there was a difference in principles between the French and American Revolutions. In his view, the two revolutions shared a great deal in common with each other, and with the sentiments of various peoples and movements in other countries. “The difference is that these principles were much more deeply rooted in America, and that contrary or competing principles, monarchist or aristocratic or feudal or ecclesiastical, though not absent from America, were, in comparison to Europe, very weak.” The same principles provoked much more conflict in France than in America. In other words: the stronger the forces of conservatism, the more radical and violent democrats would have to become in order to supplant them.
Volume II, The Struggle, considered the Wars of the French Revolution and the domestic violence in France and elsewhere, including Britain, Ireland, the Low Countries, Italy, and Poland. For many modern diplomatic historians, these struggles were the manifestation of French imperialism under the guise—sincere on the part of some French leaders, opportunistic on the part of others—of defending France’s democratic allies and exporting liberty. For European conservatives such as Barreul, Burke and de Maistre, these conflicts were driven by an underlying conspiracy: “It is not France extending a foreign empire over other nations; it is a sect aiming at universal empire, and beginning with the conquest of France.” According to Palmer, however, the great division was not between imperialistic or conspiracy-driven France and a coalition of hostile states, but a conflict of groups within various states—revolutionary patriots or democratic forces struggling against conservative, counter-revolutionary, or traditional forces. For the revolutionary and democratic forces to succeed, the French Revolution had to be internationalized. But there was never any concerted international organization directed from Paris or anywhere else. Palmer acknowledges that radicals or revolutionaries in other countries accomplished nothing except in conjunction with the French armies. Revolutions failed where they were attempted without French military support, as in Poland and Ireland. They succeeded where, and as long as, they could make use of French power, as in the Netherlands and Italy. But the sister republics were not French satellites. They represented significant indigenous democratic forces and were not mere byproducts of the French invasion. They arose everywhere out of local, genuine, and specific causes; and they reflected conditions that were universal throughout the Western world (as set out in Volume I). They were not mere imitators of the French; or at least they did not imitate them blindly.
According to Palmer, a distinguishable pattern emerged as early as 1792-1793. The populations of the invaded territories would greet the arrival of the French with enthusiasm, set about introducing liberty and equality, and hope to enjoy an independent republic. They wanted the French to protect them against their old regimes but were unwilling or unable to share in the war effort; and they objected to French exploitation of their resources for this purpose. They become disillusioned with the French, who in turn became contemptuous of them. Some become more dependent on the French, even subservient, than they originally meant to be. Some of those who originally hailed the invaders, or who were at least willing to accept them, begin to regret the disappearance of the old order; while still others remained revolutionary in spirit while turning anti-French. There was also, for the French government, the problem of control over the military command, the fear that a successful French general in the field, enjoying the prestige of a sensational victory, and building a base for himself in an occupied country, through keeping control of its resources in his own hands, and directing the loyalties of local sympathizers, might become independent of the government in Paris, overshadow his own civilian superiors, and emerge as a military dictator over the revolution.
Despite this, the French Republic, even under the imperfect regime of the Directory, continued to exert an attraction for many restless peoples in Europe, who considered it to represent a better way of life than the various regimes in their own countries under which they lived. And supporters of revolution in Italy and the Netherlands were able to pay for their own “liberation”; the success of their revolutions was entirely dependent on the defeat of the Coalition, and there was no good reason, from their own point of view, why they should not contribute to the common French-led war effort. It was the arbitrary and disorderly character of much requisitioning, and the private corruption and self-enrichment by the French, which was the cause of legitimate complaint.
In the short run, according to Palmer, neither side can be said to have won. The counter-revolution was certainly defeated, but the New Order prevailed only by being transmuted into something else, the authoritarian, innovating, dynamic and yet compromising semi-monarchism or semi-republicanism represented by Bonaparte. Napoleon was mixture of adventurer and dreamer—the genuine believer in the modernizing principles of the Enlightenment and the realist accustomed to a careful weighing of political forces as he saw them. For a time, Bonaparte treated republicans and royalists pretty much alike, giving them jobs if they could be useful and imprisoning or even executing those who persisted in conspiracy or subversion. The forces making for change were content to operate for a while within an authoritarian framework which he provided. Men of practical bent and modern outlook, freed both from popular demands and from old-noble pretensions, relieved of the fear both of revolution and reaction and protected by armed force against the inroads of ever-reviving Coalitions, worked together at the liquidation of the Old Regime in various countries. Thus Hegel, as he watched Napoleon ride through the streets of Jena in 1806, just before annihilating the Prussian Army, believed he saw the movement of history, of humanity, and of true liberty embodied before his eyes—”the World Soul sitting on a horse.”
Within a decade, the intellectual and political counterrevolution would dethrone Napoleon and the cause of enlightenment, whether democratic or absolutist. But, according to Palmer, it could not erase the foundation of liberal democracy that had been planted above all by the French Revolution in the soil of European nations. For Palmer, that is the true legacy of the Age of the Democratic Revolution, however flawed its particular manifestations might have been. He insists that the French Revolution was not the precursor of the tyrannical practices produced by the Russian and Chinese Revolutions.