1789: The Threshold of the Modern Age

If you were to make a shortlist of history’s most memorable dates — (1066, 1492, 1776, 1941), then 1789, the year of the French Revolution, would have to be near the top. Historian David Andress isn’t so much interested in 1789’s specific events — such as the storming of the Bastille on July 14th, or the issuance of France’s Declaration of the Rights of Man, or even its philosophical echo in the drafting of the Bill of Rights in the new United States — as much as he wants to explore the interconnections between all these epochal events. Andress’s in-depth yet highly readable account succeeds in illuminating how 1789 was experienced as an international phenomenon in three nations undergoing major transitions: France, the United States, and Great Britain.

It was a year in which contradictions abounded. While France and the United States moved aggressively to establish written constitutions and legal protections based on universal principles of natural rights, Britain kept its governmental traditions of limited monarchy. Yet in the decade after 1789, France and the United States would pull back because of a desire to establish order amid rapid change, while tradition-loving Britain would begin gradually reforming its system and expanding its global empire. “Not least of the lessons of 1789,” writes Andress, “was how fast the nations that most eagerly erected ideals into principles retreated from them in practice; and how, the nation that shunned such effusions, Britain, began reforming and empire-building.

Perhaps unlike any other single year (though the cultural tumult of 1968 comes to mind), 1789 triggered a global debate centering on change versus tradition. Inside each of the three nations Andress examines, these ideological conflagrations raged everywhere, from the halls of government to street demonstrations to the pages of political theorists. Understandably, much of Andress’s account explores the ideals and often-violent events of the French Revolution. He does an outstanding job explaining the pre-1789 financial crisis of Louis XVI and how it was made worse by a feudal taxation system that exempted the nobility and clergy.

It was the French monarchy’s desperate need for more revenue — ironically created in part by France’s support for the American Revolution — that compelled Louis XVI to summon the Estates-General. The nearly bankrupt king hoped to use this ancient body to rubber-stamp his proposals for the elimination of tax exemptions for the nobility and clergy. Yet when the Estates-General actually began its deliberations, it became the focus for centuries of pent-up grievances, especially from the Third Estate (which represented the majority of French citizens). As Andress makes clear, the nobility and the clergy both opposed the king’s demands for tax reform as well as the Third Estate’s agenda for political inclusion. A showdown was inevitable, but it was hastened by mob violence in the streets.

In the nascent United States, the need for tax revenue also propelled political change. Under the old Articles of Confederation, the federal government lacked the power to demand taxes. It could ask the states for revenue, but the states could (and often did) ignore such requests. Those Founders who spearheaded the calling of a Constitutional Convention, like Alexander Hamilton, George Washington, and James Madison, did so to strengthen the federal government and give it stronger powers to compel taxation. Yet opponents of the new Constitution feared excessive federal power, citing the examples of monarchial France and Britain. Many state ratifying conventions, as part of their approval for the new Constitution, conditionally demanded written protections of natural liberties against governmental intrusion. These demands would be incorporated into the Bill of Rights, largely crafted by James Madison.

In Britain, King George III would become mentally incapacitated, thus triggering a constitutional crisis about the relationship between king and Parliament. If not quite so much as France, the nobility in Britain disproportionately controlled its political system. Andress writes in detail about the corrupt system of Parliamentary representation, where small boroughs of fewer than a dozen voters would send the same number of representatives as the burgeoning industrial cities like Manchester. “The distribution of seats bore no relation to population,” Andress notes, rendering Britain’s politics an “undemocratic system, riddled with corruption and elite patronage.” Britain would change eventually, but incrementally and with relatively little bloodshed.

Andress’s unique, tripartite perspective on the eventful year shows how reformers in Britain used events in France and America to buttress their demands for political reform. The threat of violence in all three nations put pressure on the political class to enact change, but also created a climate of fear that brought a predictable conservative crackdown. In France, the radicals would ultimately take control after much bloodshed, only to be ousted later by the (ultimately) conservative military coup of Napoleon Bonaparte. In the U.S., Federalists like President John Adams took draconian action against anti-government dissenters. The 1798 Alien and Sedition Acts, a true low point in the history of American law, made it a crime to speak out against the government, and was used to effectively gag Francophile democrats like Thomas Jefferson. In Britain, radicals like Thomas Paine, whose 1789 book The Rights of Man created a global sensation, were hounded by British authorities and forced to flee the country.

British Prime Minister William Pitt took advantage of France’s internal troubles by expanding the British empire while trying to stifle radical voices in his own country. “Pitt’s ministry founds itself in an enviable position,” Andress observes, “able to sit back and watch domestic politics ruin her on the world stage.” Britain moved ahead aggressively, especially in India, toward an imperial system that would make it the wealthiest nation on the planet. Meanwhile, British traditionalists such as Edmund Burke defended the historical development of the British political system as superior to the revolutionary upheavals and violence happening in France. In direct response to Burke’s classic Reflections on the Revolution in France, Paine wrote his equally monumental defense of universal liberty, The Rights of Man. The passionate political debates of 1789 haven’t died down since.

Regardless of the calendar, societies will always experience revolution and reaction, ever-competing claims for change and tradition. Yet the French and American model of written constitutions based on natural rights and universal principles of liberty would come to define much of the next two centuries after 1789. Looking back at the speed and magnitude of the change they wrought still yields a dramatic thrill: “Written constitutions, with liberal guarantees of rights…spread like measles across Europe and post-colonial states of Latin America from the 1820s onward.” It’s been less than a century since those same principles were embodied in a truly international body, the United Nations. After reading Andress’s long examination of those 12 fateful months, 1789 doesn’t seem so distant after all.