This post is a part of our “Challenging Democratic Revolutions” series, which explores the ways in which democratic ideologies challenged Old Regimes and how revolutionaries challenged notions of democratic liberty.
By Micah Alpaugh
The London Revolution Society’s entry into French Revolutionary politics helped inspire the creation of the Jacobin Club network. In the French National Assembly on November 25, 1789, the session’s President read a letter from the British club, which “disdaining National partialities,” declared its approbation of France’s revolution and “the prospect it gives to the two first Kingdoms in the World of a common participation in the blessings of Civil and Religious Liberty.” By asserting the “inalienable rights of mankind,” revolution could “make the World free and happy.” The address produced a “great sensation and loud applause in the Assembly, which wrote back to London declaring it had seen the “aurora of the beautiful day” where the two nations could place aside their differences and “contract an intimate liaison by the similarity of their opinions, and by their common enthusiasm for liberty.” Within a week, growing Anglophilia inspired the founding of Paris’ own Société de la Révolution, which only in January 1790 adopted the better-known Société des amis de la Constitution, retaining the English-style nickname Club des Jacobins.
Three and a half years later, events of longer-lasting direct import took place, setting the United States on its course towards modern party politics. Into Charleston harbor on April 8, 1793 sailed the French warship L’Embuscade. Crowds gathered by the dock, anxious to hear news of whether the French Republic had declared war on the British monarchy. Before them appeared Jacobin Edmond-Charles Genet, newly appointed French ambassador to the United States, blown six hundred miles off course from Philadelphia, who answered affirmatively to loud applause. With the Southern port town already a hotbed of pro-French sentiment, boasting a French Patriotic Society corresponding with the Paris Jacobins and affiliated with Bordeaux’s Société des amis de la liberté et de l’égalité, Genet spent eleven days participating in Charleston banquets, reviewing parades, and commissioning pirating expeditions against British shipping. A new Charleston Republican Society took shape during his stay. Once Genet toured overland to the capital, Philadelphia enthusiasts founded a new network of popular societies – taking not the initially suggested Sons of Liberty for their name but rather, at Genet’s suggestion, adopting a name describing their principles: “the Democratic Club.”
Before becoming widely accepted by elite theorists, democratization was advanced on the ground level, as revolutionaries adapted international examples to craft new social movement networks. My current book project, “Friends of Freedom: The Interconnected Rise of Social Movements in America, Britain, Ireland, France and Haiti,” examines how the trans-regional political correspondence networks of affiliated societies first crafted by the Sons of Liberty during the Stamp Act Crisis of 1765-6 inspired Atlantic reformers and revolutionaries. Britain’s Wilkes and Liberty Movement in 1769 organized affiliated Societies of Supporters of the Bill of Rights with Virginian Arthur Lee soon serving as its coordinating secretary. Lee in turn wrote to Samuel Adams, encouraging him to propose the Committees of Correspondence that came to organize the American Revolutionary War. The American war led to the first organized social movement pushing for Parliamentary Reform in Britain, while Irish militias borrowing from the American example successfully pressured for Irish Parliamentary independence in 1782. The war simultaneously laid the groundwork for the rise of organized movements to abolish the slave trade and extend religious civil rights, with Anglophone activists working closely in tandem.
The French Revolution set off a second wave of still more radical changes. France’s revolutionary Jacobin founders took explicit inspiration from the preceding groups, and the unprecedented power of their nationwide network helped inspire new movements for free blacks’ political rights in the French colonies (that soon helped galvanize the Haitian Revolution), radical reform mobilization in Britain, a nonsectarian independence movement by the United Irishmen, and the rise of the Democratic-Republican Societies (and soon political party) in the United States. Each network explicitly built on international examples, pledged support to their international brethren, and remained in dialogue with sister movements. Only under the French First Republic and then in the American Democratic Party’s rise would “democracy” lose its pejorative theoretical connotations and become an aspiration instead.
Organizers forged new standards for pursuing enlightenment through activism. As “friends of freedom” they commonly pledged to support their national and international brethren in sister movements against the era’s worst excesses. An activist like Anglican antislavery stalwart Granville Sharp built connections with both London and Philadelphia Quakers, advocated for American political rights in the 1770s, participated in British Parliamentary reform campaigns, campaigned in favor of civil rights for English Protestant dissenters, helped develop abolitionist societies in America and France, and only then helped craft the British abolitionist corresponding societies that became the era’s broadest and most inclusive campaign. Frenchman Jacques-Pierre Brissot experienced Swiss and Dutch uprisings of the 1780s, interacted with British abolitionists and reformers while living in London, and travelled across much of the United States in 1788 (meeting revolutionary veterans and budding abolitionists), before founding France’s first abolition society and helping lead the early Jacobin Club network. Despite national pride and local particularity, reformers and revolutionaries privileged potentially universal models, regularly cheering advancements occurring elsewhere, seeking out distant interactions, and looking to integrate useful examples from abroad into their own movements.
R.R. Palmer did not go far enough in his comparative Age of the Democratic Revolution, largely overlooking the transnational connections that made the era’s revolutions an interconnected phenomenon. Two hundred years of nationalist historiographies has minimized the extent to which eighteenth-century cosmopolitans saw themselves as part of a common movement. Whereas Atlantic History, by contrast, has been criticized for its neoliberal over-emphasis on trade and elite thinkers, this study focuses on the radical subversive potential of useful organizing concepts that mobilized millions – leading to future revolutionary as well as liberal internationalism. In these political societies, activists succeeded in implementing largely democratic networks in practice – commonly featuring elected leaders, open debating, participation across social classes and a broad willingness to challenge the status quo. “Democratic Revolution,” for all its (necessary) imperfection, remains one of the strongest concepts we have for describing what made the late eighteenth century revolutionary.
Micah Alpaugh is Associate Professor of History at the University of Central Missouri. He is the author of Non-Violence and the French Revolution: Political Demonstrations in Paris, 1787-1795 (Cambridge, 2015), and currently completing a book manuscript, “Friends of Freedom: The Interconnected Rise of Social Movements in America, Britain, Ireland, France and Haiti, 1765-1800.”
Seth Cotlar, Tom Paine’s America: The Rise and Fall of Transatlantic Radicalism in the Early Republic. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2011.
R.R. Palmer, The Age of the Democratic Revolution: A Political History of Europe and America, 1760-1800, 2 volumes. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1959 and 1964.
Nathan Perl-Rosenthal, “Atlantic Cultures and the Age of Revolution,” William and Mary Quarterly,74, no. 4 (2017), 667-696.
Janet Polasky, Revolutions Without Borders: The Call to Liberty in the Atlantic World. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015.