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Was There an 'Atlantic Revolution'

The successful revolt of the American colonies against Britain provided European radicals with a model; whether there was an "Atlantic Revolution" is debatable. Since the French Revolution people have been tempted to find links between it and the American Revolution which had preceded it by a decade. French troops had fought alongside the colonists and French commitment in America on the side of the colonists had further weakened the unstable finances of the ancien régime. In both upheavals, some of the revolutionaries spoke in terms of liberty, equality and the rights of man.

In recent years it has been suggested that there was more than just a link between the American and French revolutions. It has been noted that as well as the revolutions in America and France, here were political disturbances and upheavals in Britain, the Low Countries and elsewhere in Europe. It has been concluded that towards the end of the eighteenth century a single revolutionary movement spanned the Atlantic Ocean. The aim of this movement is deemed to have been the creation of a more democratic society.

R.R. Palmer begins his theory of the Atlantic Revolution in 1763 where he sees some of the characteristics of the revolutionary era becoming apparent:

By 1770 Rousseau had published his Social Contract and the ideas of the philosophes had been publicised. In 1765 the French Assembly of the Clergy had denounced philosophe literature, which it said would undermine all churches, states and societies. In England, the 'Wilkes and Liberty' movement had begun in 1763; in 1764 and 1765 the Sugar and Stamp Acts had created colonial resistance to British rule. The Americans appealed to historic or natural rights against the sovereign authority of Britain and gathered the merchant and lawyer class into clubs and committees. They exploited mob violence to obtain their ends.

Ideas

The demand for self-determination rather than adjustment to pre-existing authoritative standards underlies all the demands for political and economic liberty. Anarchy is avoided in the political sphere by the stress on equal rights, fraternity and the law. All these are bound together in the idea of constitutionalism. In economic theory, natural law or natural harmony prevents liberty from degenerating into confusion.

International revolutionaries

There was no international organisation of revolutionaries. Agitators and subversives did exist in many countries but there is little connection between them.

Class analysis

The establishment of American independence was followed by the heightened democratic agitation of the 1790s to decide who should rule America. The same pattern can be seen in Europe, especially in regions subject to a sovereignty increasingly felt to be foreign: Lombardy and Belgium for example. The same pattern can also be seen in countries having native governments because the rulers were 'foreign' to their people. The French revolution began with the revolt of the notables against royal absolutism, for instance.

If the revolutionary role of the aristocracy is accepted, then the attempts of the Polish gentry to revolt against the partitioning Powers (Russia, Austria and Prussia), or the uprising of Hungary and Belgium against Joseph II, or the English gentry demanding parliamentary reform can be fitted into the picture.

In countries where there was a middle class, a bourgeois phase soon followed the aristocratic protest; the working classes often made themselves heard too: for example in France, England, Scotland and Holland. Usually the landed classes had the last word; only in France and America did small farmers become revolutionary and only there can be found complete and thoroughly indigenous revolutions. In Ireland the rural population was disaffected but helpless. In England, "the land" meant the aristocracy.

General causes of unrest in Europe existed by c. 1780

The defeated troops of General Cornwallis marched out of Yorktown in 1781. However, the American colonists were no social revolutionaries. Only occasionally did the lower classes and the 'mob' emerge as a force to be reckoned with. However, once the ball of revolution had started to roll, it was not easy either to control or stop.

The "Atlantic Revolution" had started in North America in the prosperous British colonies. Thousands of European troops who had been involved in the war, including Lafayette, returned to Europe after 1783. All over Europe, enthusiasts extolled the triumphant colonists, often in terms which represented more good will than accurate information. By the 1780s conditions were favourable to revolution in a number of European states. It was in France where all the main ingredients were assembled at the ideal moment.

For most sympathisers in Europe, including many Englishmen, the important aspect of the American revolution lay in its specifically political implications. The colonists recently were transplanted Europeans who were able to put forward their own philosophes in Franklin, Adams, Jefferson and others of the Founding Fathers. They had succeeded in defying the mightiest naval and commercial power of the day. They were also demonstrating that free men could frame, modify and reframe a lasting structure of responsible authority through the action of a new device - constitutional conventions.

England

Both the unsuccessful course of the war in America and the increased taxes it entailed gave rise to widespread charges of misgovernment. Demands for reform came from sources as diverse as the County Associations, parliament and the artisans. The aims of all the groups concerned was to make parliament more responsive to the views of a larger proportion of the population.

Ireland

During the American War the Protestants had established the Irish Volunteers. By 1780 they had increased in numbers and in popularity to the point where leaders in the Irish parliament, notably Henry Grattan and Henry Flood, could use the militia as a source of pressure on the Westminster government. Grattan and his fellow agitators mobilised protest meetings attended by thousands of armed Volunteers.

Lord North granted concessions; the immediate aim of the Volunteers was achieved and the Anglo-Irish Protestants resumed a conservative attitude. The Volunteers shifted their field of agitation and were demanding a broadened electoral franchise and the elimination of the rotten boroughs.

In 1783 a Grand National Convention of the Volunteers in Dublin agreed to support Flood's proposal for an expansion of the Protestant franchise, but it was voted down in parliament. The National Convention disbanded in 1785 amid numerous arrests and increasing censorship of anti-government publications.

The United Provinces

The immediate background of the crisis was the lost war against England, ending in 1784. The first stages of resistance to the House of Orange saw wealthy merchants and radical Patriots working together in an attempt to curb the powers of the Stadtholder, William V. Both groups claimed that foreign affairs had been mismanaged owing to official corruption resulting from William having intervened in the civil administration. Both objected to the Stadtholder's efforts to control the appointment of public officials. However, the conservative members of the opposition were equally alarmed by the threat of popular agitation

The Austrian Netherlands

The people here objected violently to Joseph II's drive to modernise his empire. By promoting legal equality for Protestants, suppressing several monasteries which he deemed to be superfluous and extending to the Low Countries the rest of his campaign against Church privileges, the "revolutionary Emperor" infuriated Belgium's Catholic hierarchy. When he ruled that guild monopolies and employment restrictions should en, he alienated the town oligarchies. By attempting to abolish manorial courts in 1787 he turned the landed nobility against him.

Belgian opposition to the Emperor was marked by less social cleavage than had appeared in the Dutch rising. It appeared to be essentially conservative, for the defence of native tradition against foreign innovation. It had the support of Churchmen, bankers, the aristocracy, professional men and master craftsmen.

In 1789 the storm broke and before the end of the year, in a display of military weakness, Austrian power simply evaporated in the Netherlands. The various provinces promptly declared their independence. With foreign control seemingly at an end, the familiar conflict between local conservatives and democrats came to light in Belgium as it had elsewhere in Europe.

The reactionary forces won the day through the use of the "White Terror". By March 1790 the radicals had been crushed completely, their leaders either imprisoned or exiled. The Estates Party failed to bring either peace or justice to Belgium and reduced resistance to Hapsburg rule in the process. Also in 1790, Joseph II died and was succeeded by his brother Leopold II. The quarrels in the Estates allowed Leopold to resume control in the Netherlands.

France

All the general sources of unrest existed in France in c. 1780 together with national bankruptcy as a result of French involvement in the American was and a body of men who had fought in America.


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Last modified 12 January, 2016

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