1789

The Threshold of the Modern Age

David Andress

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Introduction

 

Winter had come upon Europe like an apocalypse. The frosts had arrived early, and by November 1788 the land was thickly carpeted in snow. Far into the south of France the numbing cold had done its work, shattering the ancient olive trees and withering vines in the stone-hard ground. Nothing moved on the blizzard-buried roads, and rivers were frozen like iron. Cold was not the only portent of doom that had come from the skies. In the high summer a hailstorm had swept in from nowhere, ripping its way through the ripening crops across a huge swath of central France. Peasants had gazed on their ruined fields, well knowing the likely consequence, and by the end of that summer there had already been riots bred from a real fear of hunger. Now the whole of France looked out on the damage done by the awful cold, and could see only disaster ahead.

 

Late in January 1789, as an early thaw set in, turning the rivers to impassable torrents, the French were summoned from their .resides to meet in every parish in the land, there to answer the call of King Louis XVI to send him delegates for an Estates-General. No one had an inkling of what such an event might produce - the last had happened 175 years earlier. For all that time, the will of the king had been enough to give the country new laws, and to wrestle taxes from its recalcitrant population to fight in Europe's endless succession of wars. Now, by a remarkable twist of historical irony, a war embarked on to help free Britain's American colonists from the imperial grip had left the aristocrats of France fiscally exhausted. The country's coffers were drained by ruinous loans to fund ships and soldiers, and government teetered on the verge of paralysis as age-old institutions locked horns with the king and refused to cede new taxes.

 

Judges and lawyers had pored over archaic records, deciding that the Estates-General, a meeting of delegates of Clergy, Nobility and Commons, was the only way to produce new laws that might wrest the country from its impasse of bankruptcy and fiscal deadlock. They also knew that to summon the Estates was to invite the grievances of the population, and so the king's official proclamation had been explicit: 'His Majesty wishes that everyone, from the extremities of his realm and from the most remote dwelling places, may be assured that his desires and claims will reach Him.'1 Thus tens of thousands of nobles, clergymen, lawyers and merchants, hundreds of thousands of townsfolk, and millions of peasants, trudging through slush and mud to their village churches, prepared to unleash upon the Crown of France the weight of their troubles. From their current material suffering, from long reflection on the inequities of an aristocratic society riddled with traces of feudal exactions, from the reverberations of a century of new enlightened thought, and not a little from the echoes of revolutionary events across the Atlantic, the French were about to create the conditions for the traumatic birth of modern Europe.

 

Far to the north, in comfortable lodgings amid the deep snow of Yorkshire's Pennine Hills, one man knew a great deal about the power of grievances to change history. Thomas Paine was approaching his fifty-second birthday after a life full of incident that was only just about to launch into its most turbulent episode. Paine was from humble roots, the son of a Norfolk stay-maker, and after failed careers as a privateer and excise man had landed in Pennsylvania fifteen years before, just as the fires of American independence were being stoked. Eager to put his pen to work in this new cause, and ever keen to provoke controversy, he gained instant fame with Common Sense, a pungent tract in favour of the colonials' liberty. the conflict unfolded, Thomas Paine had documented it in a series of broadsides he called The American Crisis, lambasting both the British enemy and divisions in the rebels' ranks. Summoning new strength with his pen, he was the Americans' most able propagandist, a man who could justly claim to have brought an empire low with his words.

 

But now, as 1789 dawned, Paine was working to build, not to destroy. A long-nosed seeker after quarrels, his piercing black eyes always questing after dispute, he had a difficult reputation, not helped by a fondness for the bottle that every enemy, past and future, was to harp on. Paine's almost pathological inability to be diplomatic had made him enemies among the new American elite, and he had taken refuge from politics in the realm of engineering. The sharpness of his disputatious intellect was not confined to politics, and modern techniques of forging iron had given him inspiration for a new kind of bridge, a low arch that might be cast across spans of hundreds of feet. Weather such as that now devastating France was common in the northern United States, where bridges built on pilings soon clogged with winter ice. Paine's bridge would soar above such difficulties, but even in a new young land, ripe for innovation, he could not persuade anyone to invest in his scheme, and remarkably, given his radical history, Paine had turned to the monarchies of old Europe for help.

 

Benjamin Franklin, another man of humble origins who had risen to become one of the sages of the era, had written Paine letters of introduction to France's Royal Academy of Sciences. Just as the republican Franklin had wooed the French grandees into financial and military support for the infant United States in the 1770s, so Paine now hoped to gain royal cash for his upstart scheme. Nor did he confine himself to France. After gaining a favourable technical report from the French experts, and entering his bridge into a competition for a new crossing of the Seine in Paris, Paine took several ideas from his rivals' models, incorporating them shamelessly into a design granted a British patent under the Great Seal of 'His Most Excellent Majesty King George the Third'.2

 

By the logic of our times Paine was an enemy of the British state. But by that of the late 1780s he was a 'citizen of the world', embraced by the international 'Republic of Letters' that united scientists, engineers, doctors and thinkers. Like our own age, the late eighteenth century embraced globalisation and the free circulation of ideas - at least, those ideas that did not threaten to disturb the unthinking masses. With the vehement prejudices of militant nationalism still only a shadow on the future, Paine and men like him could surpass the confines of geography. He had no hesitation in sending a precious, laboriously made model of his bridge to Sir Joseph Banks, president of the Royal Society in London, who kept it securely for months, as its owner shuttled between London and Paris seeking support for his invention.

 

By early 1788 it was apparent that the French end of this effort would come to nothing, as the only bridge granted public funding was the entirely conventional stone design for what is now the Pont de la Concorde. However, new avenues were opening up for Paine's project, and by the end of that year he was hard at work in his Yorkshire fastness, having secured the support of the Thomas Walker iron foundry, a substantial firm well able to undertake the ambitious experimental arch Paine had in mind. The course of events seemed to be disproving the prejudiced note Paine had .red off against his native country a year earlier: 'While the English boast of the freedom of their government, that government is the oppressor of freedom in all other countries, and France its protectress.'3 Paine's American experience, and sympathies, inclined him to see British politics in particular with a jaundiced eye, and yet it was on Britain that he would continue to rest his hopes of commercial success for several years to come, years in which his revolutionary understanding of the world would first seem to be validated, before everything he believed would be called into question.

 

The world in 1789 stood on the threshold of a great transformation, one that centred squarely on the three interlocked powers of Great Britain, France and the United States of America. These states alone, although pre-eminent in definitions of the 'West' since this era, do not of course represent global history. Their peoples were, and are, but a small proportion of the globe's population, and vast epics of history, even since 1789, have been forged without their participation. But it is also worth recalling how absolutely significant our three subjects have been in that same era, and that between them they present the challenge of a global history. As soon as one begins to find the words to justify a focus on the United States, the task itself seems absurd - the great goal of emigrant hope in the nineteenth century, accelerating industrial powerhouse, financial motor of Allied victory in 1918, arsenal of democracy in the 1940s and on, ever upwards in wealth, influence and, let it be said, ambition.

 

Britain too, at least before 1945, commands a reckoning. From a small, damp island to sovereignty over a quarter of the world, and control of over a third of global commerce: this is a story bearing comparison with any epic. France, perhaps, lacks such an easy claim to distinction, though in the eighteenth century, and after, the French were themselves clear that the British, in particular, were engaged in a shameful and mercenary usurpation of a natural Gallic supremacy. However, France in the modern era was the only nation to hold down a multi-continental empire that even began to approach the scope of the British, and the only one to continue to parlay it, into the late twentieth century, into a geopolitical role of similar significance. France in 1789 also gave the world a new political language: the Rights of Man. Simultaneous with the inauguration of the first government under the United States Constitution - and almost to the day with the Americans' drafting of their own Bill of Rights - the French revolutionary declaration marked a true epoch in world history.

 

The interplay between freedom and subjection, equality and difference, is complex in every historical era. The claims about freedom, equality and rights launched in 1789 were strikingly clear, but also bore with them unexpectedly intricate subtexts and contradictions in practice. If a new language emerged to confront the holders of power within societies, such assertions too often also licensed aggression against those outside the boundaries of constitutions and declarations. A remarkable number of currents converged on 1789, some of which contributed to its humanitarian ethos, and some of which challenged and subverted it. In Britain and France it marked a political birth for anti-slavery campaigning, while in the Caribbean it was a high point in the evolution of slavery, an institution that was to weather attacks, both political and physical, and endure for over a generation to come. In India, a step change took place in relations with European traders, soldiers and administrators, turning them from actors within the shifting confines of South Asian civilisation to overlords, claiming the right to remould a culture they had only just begun to try to understand. Across the Pacific, sailors, convicts, explorers and mutineers were imposing themselves on societies as far removed in space and culture as they could be from the cold shores of Britain, France and America. The new age of federal government for the United States was also about to bring down a new reckoning, rooted in a tangled nexus of fiscal and financial realities, for the American Indian nations that struggled to live alongside the new continental behemoth.

 

Meanwhile, within these Western societies bent on global expansion, other currents were also at work, beyond the liberalism of the makers of declarations. The new focus on the individual, which in France in particular launched a frontal assault on a society framed by hierarchy and collective distinctions, was matched by new explorations of ways to control that individual. One solution embarked on by the British was to turn convict transportation from the sideline it had been across the Atlantic into a new branch of imperialism in Australia. Other routes, however, looked more closely into controlling society from within, so that the individual became more, rather than less, beholden to the state in the age of rights. Juxtaposed to an ongoing process of industrialisation, which took a major leap forward into steam-powered mechanisation in these years, such changes were yet more foundations for the distinctive modernity that was to be the final gift of this era to the world. The more we look into this moment, the more striking are the convergent lines of evolution that mark a radical shift from a pre-modern past to a contemporary world.

 

Thomas Paine was among those who foresaw only good from the transformations of the moment. On the one hand, his plans for his own bridge, fruit of the era's advances in metallurgy, saw it as capable of spanning the Seine in Paris, or London's Thames, or being transported in kit form 'to any part of the world to be erected'.4 He it was, on the other hand, who would cast into his own brand of fervent, demotic English the message of French revolutionary change as The Rights of Man, and see himself hounded from his motherland for seditious libel, imprisoned in France as a suspect foreign plotter and shunned in his final retreat to the United States as a drunkard atheist infidel. Not least of the lessons of 1789 is how fast the nations that most eagerly erected ideals into principles retreated from them in practice; and how, even more strikingly, the nation that shunned such effusions, Britain, built a new set of world-spanning imperial claims upon such opposition.

 

To approach all these topics means seeing 1789 as a culmination of multiple crises, and as the point in time when contingent threads of economic, social and political development were bound together into new patterns, many still coloured by what had gone before, but the whole irresistibly changed nonetheless. It means we must begin with the existing crisis out of which 1789's events would coalesce, and with a trip back to review the deeper currents on which the politics of the 1780s were swirling. Few men can illustrate these better than the one to whom Thomas Paine had gone to gain introduction to the leading minds of Britain and France, who was in his fashion the epitome of all that was positive in the roots of the transformations to come: the homespun sage of the eighteenth century, Benjamin Franklin.

 

Excerpted from 1789 The Threshold of the Modern Age by DAVID ANDRESS
Copyright © 2008 by David Andress
Published in 2009 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux

 

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