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Against War and EmpireGeneva, Britain, and France in the Eighteenth Century
By Richard Whatmore
Yale UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 2012 Yale University
All right reserved.
Chapter One1782 AND After
A rebellion against the government of Geneva occurred in April 1782. It was deemed necessary by the représentants because of the overweening power of France in the affairs of the state. Situated at the southwest end of Lake Leman, Europe's largest freshwater lake, and between France, Savoy, and Switzerland, forty-five miles north of Chambéry, thirty-four miles southwest of Lausanne, and seventy-two miles southwest from Bern, Geneva in 1782 was a walled city-state of "about three miles compass." It was said that only Bordeaux and Constantinople could challenge the beauty and natural advantages of Geneva's geographical location. The city was divided by the river Rhone, which ran in two channels between the sides of Geneva, forming an island of barely half a mile between them, all of which were connected by two bridges. The southern or left-hand side of the city, looking south from the island, was called "Geneva" by its inhabitants and encompassed a lower part comprising houses on a flat plain and an upper town on the hill, where the better-off citizens and burghers tended to live. On the north or right side of the Rhone stood "Saint-Gervais," deemed rougher, less wealthy, less orthodox, and less austere. Geneva was, of course, a Rome for Protestants. The Genevan Academy, established in 1558, provided one of the most rigorous training regimes for Protestant ministry and civil education. By 1760 there were eleven professors, each elected by the Venerable Company of Pastors: three of theology and ecclesiastical history, one of oriental languages, two of natural and civil law, one of German law, two of philosophy, one of mathematics, and one of belles lettres. It was said that the academy "hath spread the name and fame of Geneva all over the world, whereas it was before that, hardly known beyond the limits of Switzerland and Savoy."
If the history of the independent republic of Geneva was intertwined with religion, it was equally concerned with trade. It was at Geneva that the major trade routes crossed from Marseille to Lyon and to southern Germany, and from Milan to St. Bernard to Paris. This continued into the eighteenth century, with the city acting as a hub for the exchange of goods between Italy, the Swiss cantons, France, and the German states, having particularly good road and commercial connections with Lyon, Strasbourg, and Frankfurt. Genevans were well known for their manufactures and especially for "silks, gold and silver lace, thread-lace, pistols, shammy leather, watches, and printing of books." They were increasingly well known for banking, with the dynasties of the Lullins, Gallatins, and Boissiers being followed by the de Tournes, Neckers, Thellusons, and Vernets among others. The compatibility of wealth and virtue was always questioned at Geneva. This was why luxury was forbidden, manners were monitored and supervised, and estates were divided between children equally at death in order to prevent the growth of excessive riches.
Geneva had always had "jealous and potent neighbours," and historically had subsisted "like a bone 'twixt three mastiffs," the Holy Roman emperor, the French king, and the dukes of Savoy. The crucial point was that none of the surrounding powers "dare touch it singly, for fear that the other two would fly upon him." Geneva had remained into the eighteenth century "acknowledged as a free, sovereign State by all the Princes of Europe, even the greatest, as the King of France, Louis XIV ... hath sometimes used the expression, We desire and pray the Republick of Geneva." Proof of a direct relationship between godliness and national survival was seen as manifest in the greatest event in the history of Genevan patriotism, the "Escalade" of 1602. The Escalade followed the decision of Charles Emmanuel, son of Philibert the Duke of Savoy, to attack Geneva at night with a body of over a thousand troops, two hundred of whom used ladders (escalades) to scale the bastions. Fortunately for the town, an alarm was called. Portcullises closed before the invaders could open the gates with a petard, and the citizens managed to repulse the invasion with courage and self-sacrifice. Sixteen Genevans died in addition to more than two hundred Savoyard troops. A tradition of republican valor and a reputation for self-defense was thenceforth created, and the Escalade was celebrated every subsequent 11 December. One observer recalled, "Some body at that time happily enough found out the Word vengee [reveng'd] in that of Genève." The aged academy rector Théodore de Bèze had slept through the agitation of the Escalade, but he returned to the pulpit on 12 December and preached a sermon during which Psalm 124 was sung. The psalm became an emblem of popular patriotism, with its plain message that Genevans had thrown back the invaders because of "the Lord who was on our side." There could be no more direct example of the beneficial relationship between Calvinism, republicanism, and liberty. Calvinism generated patriotism. When fused with republican virtus, the survival of the little republic was assured.
Such a view was challenged in the eighteenth century because of the extent of the difference in power between Geneva and the states surrounding it. In the late 1730s the Marquis d'Argens expressed the opinion that fortune alone could explain the survival of Geneva. The city had not been incorporated into a larger empire only because the jealous powers surrounding it would interpret the destruction of the city as a slight upon their own status:
Two reasons oblige France and the Swiss to protect Geneva; in the first place, it is no doubt the interest of the former to prevent the Savoyards and Piedmontese from extending their dominion on this side of the Alps; and next it is no less the interest of the Protestant cantons to prevent the destruction or subduing of a city which may be looked upon as the metropolis of the Calvinist religion.
D'Argens pointed out that the Genevan government's investment in extended fortifications earlier in the century had been foolish, because they would never deter invasion. He deemed them also dangerous, because the existence of advanced fortifications threatened to upset the delicate balance that maintained Genevan independence:
To give a man, whose heart is easily inflamed, an opportunity of gazing upon a beautiful woman whom he may find means to gain, is a dangerous step. A day may perhaps come, when the people of Geneva will repent their having dressed out and adorned their city like a new bride. Some King of France may happen to fall in love with her and even force her into an irregular marriage.
For many Genevan représentants, exactly this came to pass in 1782. Geneva was on the edge of a precipice because of the likelihood of its becoming part of a French empire.
THE GENEVAN REVOLUTION
The représentants believed that Geneva was in decline, and that the only hope for the future moral and economic health of the city lay in democratic reform. They recognized that France was unlikely to accept such reform but attempted to persuade the court at Versailles to support them. The Genevan représentants hoped that France might view events at Geneva in the same fashion as the republican rebellion against Britain's North American colonies. Following the logic of the reformist ministry of Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot between 1774 and 1776, the belief was widespread that France had abandoned its historic development of an imperial and mercantile empire, had turned its back on Colbert's legacy, and was instead pursuing a new policy based on free trade and international peace. Such a strategy had been advocated, without the expectation by its author that it could be realized, in Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations (1776) and dovetailed with the ideas of the second generation of French physiocrats such as André Morellet and Pierre-Samuel Dupont de Nemours.
It was in expectation that the French foreign minister Charles Gravier, comte de Vergennes, might be willing to apply his North American policy to Europe that the leading représentants Etienne Clavière and Jacques-Antoine du Roveray met him in 1781. Instead, Vergennes warned them that the security of France with respect to all of the powers of Europe depended on Geneva, and that "such a place would be ill defended by a democracy." Vergennes also referred to the ancient French guarantee of Geneva's constitution, and instructed the représentants that the guarantee allowed France to put down any rebellion at Geneva, on the grounds of preventing Genevans from "imposing" laws to do with the reconstitution of the state. This was a reference to a committee established to revise the laws of Geneva, in which Clavière and Du Roveray were prominent, and which in September 1779, having failed to agree upon a new code of law, was refused leave to continue its labors by the executive Council of Two Hundred. The result was a stalemate that left, according to some observers, a French-led governing aristocracy facing a factious group of democrats supported by Britain.
Du Roveray had united the représentants in 1780 with radical members of the "natif" party: residents of the city who had been born at Geneva but whose parents were neither bourgeois nor citizens, and who in consequence enjoyed limited civil and commercial rights. Complaints were sent to the executive Council of Two Hundred regarding the excessive power of the French résident (legate) at Geneva, and the existence of paid spies serving the French interest rather than the public good. Vergennes demanded that Du Roveray lose his citizenship. In order to placate France the magistrates at Geneva removed him from the office of procureur général. In response some of the représentants and natifs decided to seize the government of the state. This came to pass on 5 February 1781, when a tumult followed a gathering of antagonistic parties of natifs arguing about revisions to the constitution. After the commander of the arsenal accidentally killed two supporters of magistracy, having mistaken them for violent représentants, disorder spread, and quickly the party of représentants took control of the town. They demanded greater civil rights for the natifs and, more significantly, that the government should "renounce all interference whatever of foreign powers," which amounted to a renunciation of the constitutional guarantee of France and the Swiss cantons.
The prevarication of the magistrates after the revolt of the natifs led directly to the revolution of 89 April 1782, which once again saw the représentants begin to govern the city. This time the magistrates were locked up, deaths occurred during battles for two of the gates of the city, and order was restored only with difficulty. Clavière, writing to his friend the banker Théophile Cazenove at London, had hopes that France would rely on negotiation, avoiding military intervention because of its consequences for international relations; in other words, he hoped that some shame would be felt by a France countenancing intervention at Geneva, having supported liberty in North America, and that this would prevent military involvement in the affairs of the small republic. Clavière was then using his friend Pierre-Marc Bourrit to present the perspective of the représentants directly to Vergennes, and was seeking to persuade other intermediaries, such as Jean-André Deluc, to do the same. He was altogether mistaken about Vergennes's intentions, and the reaction of France caused Clavière to believe that he might be assassinated. He anticipated "our unfortunate republic becoming a theater for the most appalling desolation." Louis XVI reportedly told Vergennes:
While the political differences at Geneva were confined to matters of mere dispute, it was to be doubted whether France had any right to take notice of them. But now, when all principles, destructive of society, have established there one set of people, who tyrannise over and imprison the other; now that this usurpation has seized on an authority disputed by all classes; I owe it to the Genevese government, whose ally and protector I am, as my ancestors have ever been, to give them relief and assistance in their distress.
Opponents of the représentants were writing that they would prefer to become French subjects rather than be "governed by such men as Du Roveray, Clavière, Vieusseux and the like," who would leave the magistrates "at the mercy of the devil." Vergennes promised to intervene "to banish the sources of division from the republic and to fix the rights and powers of each of the bodies that form the state." From London, Willoughby Bertie, 4th Earl of Abingdon, was reputedly already negotiating with François d'Ivernois about British assistance to the rebels. In 1766 he had been living at Geneva, and he sought to involve William Pitt the Elder, then prime minister, in the affairs of the republic. Abingdon's dispatches of 1766 never reached their destination because they were intercepted and confiscated by the magistrates. They were said to contain his will and an expression of his desire to die beside the représentants in defense of their city.
Due to such links, in 1782 emissaries were sent to London by the représentants, who were encouraged by the prominence of their British supporters. Du Roveray led the delegation. Abingdon then gave d'Ivernois the bad news that "the fleets of England were the speaking trumpets of justice to the whole world," but Britain was now "no longer in a capacity to speak to the enemies of the liberties of mankind in its wonted tone of authority." Du Roveray reportedly met Charles-James Fox, then minister of foreign affairs in the Rockingham ministry, in May 1782, and was offered the meager support of Britain's putting pressure on Savoy not to intervene at Geneva. Samuel Romilly noted that the British ministers, while vocally ardent in favor of Geneva, were as likely to go to the aid of the city as to help an oppressed nation on the moon. Related appeals to Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II, who was asked to behave in the manner of his forefather Charles V and to save Geneva as had occurred in 1540, came to nothing.
The représentant emissaries then traveled to Turin, which was clearly a more important court for them than London, but were equally unsuccessful. Lord John Mount Stuart, British ambassador to Savoy, had been receiving information about Geneva from the représentants since 1779. He resigned his position at Turin because of his opposition to the sending of Savoyard troops under the Count de la Mormora to put down the rebels. The troopsover ten thousand of themwere led by the French general Charles-Léopold, Marquis de Jaucourt, who, in addition to the Savoyards and his own regiment, also headed a body of Bernese soldiers under Steiger de Watieville de Bels. The philosophe Jacques-Pierre Brissot, traveling to Neuchâtel and curious to see Geneva, despite "the state of this poor town today," observed work being undertaken upon the ramparts of the city and noted that the inhabitants had hopes of a general peace because of the goodwill of the mediating powers. This was not forthcoming. Arriving at the city on 29 June 1782, the three generals demanded the reinstatement of the magistrates and the delivery of all arms to the invading troops, offering five hours for surrender, which was increased to a whole day at the request of the insurgents. D'Ivernois later noted the irony that Jaucourt's troops included a regiment newly returned from North America, underscoring the gulf in French policy between the continents. Geneva had suffered "a universal abandonment."
According to the historian Jean-Louis Giraud Soulavie, in the defense of the city wives were seen "exhorting their husbands, and mothers their children, to expire on the ramparts." Gunpowder was amassed in two central houses of the aristocratic quarter of the city and also placed in the center of the cathedral of Saint-Pierre. The représentant pastor Isaac Salomon Anspach asked his fellow citizens to "embrace our oppressorsbut let it be the embrace of Samson, to crush them in the last ruins and ashes of our temples." Another représentant, Jacques Grenus, proclaimed that it was better to die at the hands of the invaders rather than being hung in the aftermath. Religious songs were sung through the ramparts by the defenders. It was said that there was not a single voice raised against the desire to die for the country. Such was the ardor of the populace that the poor beyond the city, and women within it, joined the defensive body:
The peasants of the territory flocked of their own accord, and without pay, to mount guard, and to work at the fortifications; women, of all ranks, crowded to the ramparts, as to a place of public amusement; encouraging and animating the men to persevere in their labour; and some even sharing in their fatigue assisted in transporting burdens or in planting cannon on the bastions ... about eighty women and girls, dressed in uniforms, offered to form themselves into a company, for the purpose of defending the country. The committee of safety accepted their services, and placed them in a barrack, which by its situation was covered from the cannon of the besiegers. These amazons, with a spirit above their sex, refused a station that was not sufficiently exposed.
From beyond the city, représentants such as Jean Roget, safely ensconced at Lausanne, exhorted their fellows to sacrifice themselves rather than accept a tyranny, even if it entailed the destruction of the sacred city. Attempts by the Consistory to negotiate with the invaders failed.
On the evening of 1 July 1782, the heads of the political circles who were organizing the resistance resolved to allow the hostages to leave the city and then to defend it to the last man. During the night, however, while the French batteries were being assembled, discussion began to center on the likely losses of up to two thousand people during a siege lasting two days, and the effects of the constant bombardment by French guns. The members of the government then decided that opposition to the troops would serve only to destroy the town and its populace. Proposals to bring the hostages to the ramparts were rejected. On the night of 12 July 1782, fifty-seven of the leading rebels voted for capitulation, while forty continued to support resistance. Gradually, amid the fear and panic, the argument was accepted that it was better to save "the effusion of so much blood from virtuous men," and that liberty might be enjoyed "in another country, which [Genevans] could no longer expect to find in their own." The old magistrates were then released, the cannons disabled, and other weapons broken. The generals were invited to enter the town. Some of the représentants, having gone to sleep in the anticipation of an honorable death in the name of liberty, awoke to find that the city had been handed over to foreign troops.
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