Nationalism and the Great Revolutions

The Stroming of the Bastille

During and after the great revolutions in the eighteenth century—particularly the American and the French—expressions redolent with nationalism did not have the meaning they often have today.

The word “patriot” was not used to express a special loyalty to a “Fatherland” two centuries ago; the word normally was used in both the American and French revolutions to delegitimate the claim of the monarchy to literally own the countries and colonies it ruled as the personal patrimony of the King and establish the ordinary citizen’s status as a “shareholder” in what had previously been regarded as a royal estate. Accordingly, the American revolutionaries who declared their independence from the British monarchy in 1776 fundamentally altered their ties to the “mother country” by replacing royal rule with a republican system structured politically around citizenship rather than subjecthood. The French, a decade and a half later, deliberately changed the title of Louis XVI from “King of France” to “King of the French,” a shift that was not a mere semantic one. Just as King George III could no longer claim to possess the American colonies, a claim the colonists never really regarded as existentially valid, so Louis XVI no longer “owned” France once the National Assembly was formed.

The word “patriot,” so widely used in both revolutions, and la “Nation” in the French revolution legally restored a national patrimony to the people. Indeed, terms like “Nation” essentially referred to the citizen body as a whole in contrast to the “Court,” which referred to the proprietary authority of the royal family. Indeed, the distinction between “Court” and “Country” had already been made in the English revolution of the 1640s, and was to find expression later in distinctions between “royalist” and “patriot” during the late 1700s.

Characteristically, the historic documents that proclaimed a fundamental alteration of of the ties between a “Nation” and its former rulers were addressed to humanity as a whole, not merely to a given people. Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence opens with the challenging remarks that ”a decent respect for the opinions of mankind require that [the Americans] should declare what impels them” to sever their bonds with the British monarchy. Like the French revolutionary documents that were to follow, it based this claim on the belief ”that all men are created equal” and that ”Government is instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed [emphasis added].”

The American Declaration of July 4, 1776, was to become the theoretical template for similar declarations by the French revolutionaries. Far from being nationalistic statements, they were fervently cosmopolitan and addressed to the world at large. Thomas Paine’s famous personal maxim, “My country is the world,” was not idiosyncratic to the American revolutionary leaders. George Washington did not hesitate to declare that he was “a citizen of the great republic of humanity,” and Benjamin Rush allowed that the revolution opened “no breach in the republic of letters.” In a statement that fervently expressed the spirit of the Enlightenment, John Adams was to state that, the war in the colonies notwithstanding, “Science and literature are of no party nor nation.” The phrase “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” is reported to have been given to the French by Benjamin Franklin, whose freedom from nationalism and parochialism earned widespread admiration. “Where liberty is at stake,” he declared in 1783, “there is my country.”

The thinkers and propagators in the French Enlightenment were no different in spirit and conveyed it fully to the revolutions of 1789. Montesquieu, whose Persian Letters (1721) has been called the “first major work of the French Enlightenment,” by Norman Hampson, was to jot in his notebooks: “When I act, I am a citizen; but when I write, I am a man and regard all the peoples of Europe with as much impartiality as those of Madagaskar.” This universalism was characteristic of essentially all the Encyclopedists with the possible exception of Rousseau, whose mystification of his Swiss origins involved a democratic but often sentimental passion for a fictitious ruralism of which he was never part of in his real life. That French became the language of educated Europe was not accidental: the worldly outlook of the Enlightenment intellectuals, in fact, created a secular republic of letters that was to be eroded over time by romanticism, mysticism, and ultimately an identification of nationhood with race or ethnic superiority.

Nationalism existed outside the orbit of the Enlightenment and the great revolutions of the eighteenth century, which were explicitly universalistic in their social and cultural spirit. Never ceasing to be captivated by cultural variety and its more humanistic features, the revolutionaries of the time, like the Enlighteners who prepared the intellectual bases of their social activities, saw themselves above all as “citizens” of a secular human community that knew no intellectual, political, or territorial frontiers.


Editorial Comment

"Nationalism and the Great Revolutions" was written as an appendix to "Nationalism and the "National Question"." This article was written March 1993 and was published in Society and Nature 2, no. 2 (1994). Here it is presented as it was prepared for Murray Bookchin's Free Cities: Communalism and the Left.