British Foreign Policy and the French Revolution
From 'A History of the British Nation' by AD Innes, 1912
For five-and-twenty years after the Peace of Paris, Great Britain had stood aloof from continental politics, in the isolation which Bute had procured for her. For a dozen years she had neglected Europe as though its affairs had no interest for her; she had paid no attention while France absorbed Corsica and while Russia, Austria, and Prussia absorbed the greater part of Poland among them. Then the American War had put it out of her power to concern herself with the doings of other nations, though other nations had found the opportunity to concern themselves very actively with her affairs, and then Pitt, in the early years of his administration, recognised that the first essential for Britain was to set her own house in order. The revival of prosperity however was-rapid, and by 1788 Pitt was ready for the country to assert itself in foreign affairs if the occasion should arise.
In spite of the French commercial treaty, Bourbon aggression was the inevitable object of suspicion for British statesmanship, and Pitt achieved a temporary diplomatic triumph by forming in that year, 1788, the Triple Alliance with Prussia - now under a new king, Frederick William II, since Frederick II. died in 1786 - and Holland. The primary end secured was the establishment of the supremacy in Holland of the Stadtholder William of Orange, with whose house Great Britain had always remained in alliance, whereas the republican and anti-Orange party habitually leaned to France.
The restored prestige of Great Britain was presently decisively asserted in a quarrel with Spain, which laid claim to Nootka Sound on the west coast of North America, where there was a British settlement. The Spaniards took possession and seized the British settlers, on the ground that Spaniards not British had discovered the country. Pitt replied that the claim to possession rested not on discovery but on occupation, and prepared to back the argument with a fleet. Spain appealed to France, but France, already in the throes of the Revolution, declined to intervene; and by the Convention of 1791 Spain surrendered completely.
In another direction, however, Pitt met with a defeat. He viewed with alarm the aggressive policy of the Russian Tsarina Catherine, who was already scheming for the absorption not only of Poland but also of Turkish dominions, which would establish Russia as a maritime power on the Mediterranean. Chatham at an earlier stage had favoured the progress of Russia as a Power which could be called in to counteract Bourbon ascendency on the Continent; while to Burke and Fox, as to later English Liberalism when it was dominated by Mr. Gladstone, the suppression of the Turk appeared to be far from undesirable. With Pitt began that attitude of suspicious hostility towards Russia which so largely dominated British foreign policy at most periods of the nineteenth century.
But Pitt found himself unsupported by public opinion; having threatened war, he was obliged to draw back. At the Peace of Jassy Catherine obtained her immediate desire by securing the line of the Dniester; and Frederick William of Prussia, who had expected to check her advance by British aid, began instead to seek the Tsarina's friendship, looking upon Pitt as a broken reed. The result was shortly afterwards shown in a fresh dismemberment of Poland.
In the four years, however, from the beginning of 1789 to the close of 1792, the French Revolution and the fall of the Bourbon monarchy were totally subverting the whole European system. France was the type of an absolute monarchy associated with a completely exclusive aristocracy, entirely dominant over bourgeoisie and peasantry who bore the whole burden of taxation without having any voice in the government. The burden of the taxation was cruel, and the finances of the country had been reduced to utter chaos by a century of costly and perpetual wars. There was no civilised country where the "Rights of Man" were less regarded in practice. But in theory the Rights of Man were regarded with enthusiastic admiration.
French thinkers and writers had pointed out, sometimes with scathing ridicule, sometimes with remorseless logic, and sometimes with sentimental rhetoric, the iniquities and follies of the existing system, and had contrasted them soberly with the infinitely more equitable government of Great Britain or picturesquely with the ideal life of an imaginary Golden Age before man had learnt to tyrannise over man. French aristocrats made much of the heroes of liberty who set America free from British tyranny; some of them magnificently gave their swords to serve the same cause; and at last, when French finances were persistently going from bad to worse, the advisers of Louis XVI bethought themselves of summoning the States General, the assembly of the Three Estates of noblesse, clergy, and commons, which had not been called together since the early years of the seventeenth century.
The Outbreak of Revolution
The States General were brought together in May 1789, when the Third Estate, supported by a few of the clergy and a few of the nobility, promptly asserted itself. At the outset it seemed that there was going to be a constitutional revolt against privilege and absolutism. Everywhere the souls of lovers of liberty rejoiced when the populace of Paris pulled down the Bastille, the emblem of arbitrary power. Monarchs and aristocrats, however, took alarm at the idea of the subject masses laying claim to political rights and repudiating their subjection.
British respectability reproved but on the whole did not condemn a praiseworthy if ill-regulated effort to follow the paths of constitutionalism along which the British nation had already advanced with so much conscious rectitude. It was not long, however, before Edmund Burke, with more penetration, was denouncing the proceedings of the French as an attack upon every conservative principle, destructive of all the ideas upon which the framework of society rested. In England constitutionalism had been an orderly development, a steady growth, rooted always in the same principles.
Progress had been made not by introducing innovations but by closing the door to reactionary innovations, by a process of adaptation to changing conditions. France was setting herself to cut down the system which had developed naturally, and to substitute a brand new logical system wholly unrelated to the existing conditions. The inevitable result would be first a hideous anarchy and then a military despotism. In English democrats, however, the first stages of the French Revolution inspired no such terrors. In their eyes there was room for a good deal of reform even in the sacred British constitution, in which privilege still played far too large a part, and popular rights were scandalously repressed.
The French Revolution was a war upon privilege. As it went forward it became more and more violent, more and more destructive of everything which could preserve a society that assumed distinctions of rank to be the first fundamental condition of public order and decency. In England itself, in the lower social strata, men were already beginning to feel the pinch of the rural and industrial revolutions that were going on. The aggregate of wealth was increasing rapidly, but the area of its distribution was becoming more and more restricted. The agricultural and industrial output was expanding, while the amount of labour employed on it was diminishing, and the population was multiplying rapidly. The superabundant supply of labour was driving wages below the subsistence level; and for this state of things men found the cause not in the economic but in the social conditions. There were not wanting those who persuaded themselves that the remedy was to be sought in a political reconstruction, of which France was setting the example.
In 1789 the States General, converted into a National Assembly, made a clean sweep of feudal privileges. Then it set to work to invent a new constitution. There was a considerable exodus of the nobility, and then in 1791 Louis attempted flight. His departure was defected, and he was brought back to Paris from the frontier; but France believed that he had been on his way to make an appeal to his brother monarchs to restore the French monarchy by force of arms. A corresponding interpretation was placed upon the attitude of the King of Prussia and the Austrian Emperor, with the result that early in 1792 Louis was compelled to declare war upon Austria.
Thus began the European conflagration, for which, in the first instance, France had two distinct motives. The first was national resentment at the interference of a foreign Power in France's conduct of her own private affairs, and the second was the revival of the old idea of Louis XIV that France was entitled to extend her borders to her "natural boundaries," the Rhine and the Alps. But by this time the French monarchy was already doomed, and very shortly a third motive was added - that of extending "liberty" to all the peoples of Europe, who were ready to burst the bonds of monarchical and aristocratic dominion.
Pitt and France
In the early months of 1792, Pitt's attitude towards France was still one almost of benevolent neutrality. He saw no reason to anticipate that the country would be involved in war, and his budget was framed without any regard to such a possibility. Leopold of Austria who, during his all too brief reign, which was ended by his premature death early in this year before the declaration of war by France, had shown himself the most practically intelligent statesman in Europe, had declined to yield to the clamour of the French Emigres or to dictate to France after Louis accepted the constitution. Pitt certainly saw no reason for Great Britain to interfere on behalf of the French monarchy, especially as the Crown was still recognised as an integral part of the constitution. If France chose to involve herself in a war with Austria and Prussia, the struggle was not likely to last long in view of the chaotic condition of the French government and the French finances, to say nothing of the French army. France, in short, might create a great deal of disturbance, but there was no reason to be afraid of her aggression.
The September Massacre
The prophets who prophesied her downfall derived support from the blunders of her first military movements on the Netherlands frontier, followed up by the Prussian declaration of war. Then the effective government was captured by the Paris Commune, which was led by the extreme revolutionists; the mob broke into the palace of the Tuileries, and the king and the royal family were virtually made prisoners. From the frontier came the news that the foreign invaders were on French soil, and Paris in a panic massacred a number of "suspects" who were accused of treason to the state and of being in league with the alien invader. Terror turned to sudden triumph when the attack of the Prussians was repulsed at Valmy by Dumouriez, an engagement which inspired a new and indomitable confidence in the patriotic national levies which had gathered to hurl defiance at the invader.
Death of a King
But the "September massacre" had sent a shudder of horror through Europe, while the Revolution set the seal upon its defiance of the world by making the proclamation of the French Republic the first act of the new National Assembly. Though hitherto France had claimed to be acting on the defensive against the unwarrantable dictation of foreign Powers, an attitude for which she had at least exceedingly strong warrant, she now became avowedly aggressive. The new Republic openly asserted its right to absorb Savoy and Belgium, and to carry its frontier to the "natural boundary." It proclaimed itself the friend and ally of every people which desired freedom, the enemy of all monarchies. It asserted its right to ignore existing treaties, and its intention of enforcing the opening of the navigation of the Scheldt, in defiance of the guarantees given by Great Britain as well as by other Powers; and in the terrible phrase of Danton, it resolved to "fling before the kings of Europe the head of a king as the gage of battle."
Before the year was out "Louis Capet" was brought to trial for his life; within a month his head fell beneath the guillotine. But before that, war with Britain had already become a certainty. France had assumed an impossibly dictatorial attitude to the courts of Europe, setting at nought all the rules of diplomatic intercourse; and Britain was pledged up to the hilt to oppose the opening of the Scheldt even at the cost of war. In January 1793 war was declared.