In a recent post (Jan. 3rd.) we looked at the role ideals have played in historical events. Ideals evolve – they can be the culmination of the efforts of thinkers over thousands of years. We mentioned the concepts behind the English Civil War as being particularly significant in modern history, and not just in Europe. It was during this period (mid 1600’s) that the North American colonies were growing apace, and fretting under the heavy hand (relatively) of the mother country. So it is not surprising that in America by the mid 1700’s concepts of greater political freedom, less arbitrary rule, independence, were emerging. Philosophers abounded in the 18th. century – the “Century of Enlightenment”. Voltaire and Rousseau in France, Tom Paine in England were but a few examples. Concepts such as the Rights of Man, civil liberties, etc. were being thrashed out. By the 1770’s in America the die was cast and political discussion of ideals culminated in the use of force. Sad this – it is such fun to argue round the table over ideals – but there is another serious side of the coin when the ideals are taken seriously, and meet determined opposition. The resultant independent United States of America still broadcasts its ideals of that age to the world.
At the period in question France had a long-standing feud with England over trade, colonies and related matters, and somewhat perversely decided to throw in its weight with the American colonists, sending over armies to support the colonists, under such leaders as Lafayette. There was already in France a strong idealistic movement triggered by the writings of such thinkers as Rousseau and Tom Paine. Seemingly arbitrary royal rule, ill-treatment of the “lower orders” by nobility and Church, a desire for change, were opposed by a large element of “the powers that be”. Both officers and men who had sailed from France to support the American colonists often returned to France wondering what all the fuss was about in America – the situation was so much worse in France!
There is a romantic idea that the French Revolution occurred on July 14th. 1789 with the assault on the Bastille. In fact that event gained a lot of publicity in the media of the day. (You couldn’t trust the media then either!) The English poet Wordsworth reacted along the lines of – “WHAT BLISS IT WAS THAT DAY TO BE ALIVE – WHEN TO BE YOUNG WAS VERY HEAVEN”. But revolutions are not made nor are ideals achieved in a single day. As in England in the 1640’s it took several years before it had to be finally decided that the King was not going to reign as a constitutional monarch, and trial and execution proved the only alternative. As in England 150-odd years earlier internal dissent made strong government on military lines necessary to hold the country together, but in France the situation was exacerbated by the development of a concerted attack on the country by its neighbours, determined to reverse the spread of revolutionary ideals. Hence the rise of Napoleon, like Cromwell, the strong military man.
So “bye-bye” to high-flown ideals? Perhaps not – There is still hope. In both France (1815) and in England (1660) “Kings” were restored. But things were never the same again – England first and later France progressed to Parliamentary democracies, the latter emulating the former. The system spread and for all its defects is accepted by mature political societies world-wide.
Other countries have passed through parallel circumstances. Sometimes ideals flare up and fizzle out under outside force. In 1798 Ireland looked to be raising the French revolutionary banner of “Liberty, Equality. Fraternity” under French inspiration and support, but the movement died. Was America luckier than England and France in maintaining the momentum of its revolution? I think not – there was a form of delayed action until the American Civil War erupted in the 19th. century when issues connected with working out a “federal” system came ta head.
Hopefully mankind will never cease to have ideals. Achieving them can be a painful process. Perhaps it can be made less painful if we learn from the lessons of History – BUT WHO EVER “LEARNED FROM HISTORY?” (Now that could be a theme of its own).