Chapter 7: The End of Aristocracy
The preceding chapters have been spent building up a model of civilized society. Now the time has almost come to apply it to the historical evidence at hand and see if anything interesting comes of it. The proof of the pudding is in the tasting, as they say.
Before I begin, though, I should issue a disclaimer of sorts. Most historians recoil when asked to generalize and systematize their craft too broadly, especially when the results are expected to have political implications. Instead, they like to spend their time either emphasizing historical continuity between things that seem distinct to the average reader, or they choose to focus on tracing the search for “root causes” for any given event back as far as the evidence will allow. These are understandable, even laudable impulses, when the collective goal is to establish and refine truth in our collective historical recollection.
But for my purposes, in order to make any progress at all I’m forced to draw with extremely broad strokes over vast swaths of scholarship. While I do this, just try to keep in mind that real life is always fuzzy. Zooming in on any particular segment of the historical record yields all sorts of interesting details, some of which are bound to conflict with my broad treatment. My hope here is that I manage to get the macro-scale trends correct, so that my overall argument holds.
If you’re still with me, it’s time to embark. We’re about to go on a wild ride throughout modern history. In the words of the great Samuel L. Jackson in “Jurassic Park”: “Hold on to your butts.”
Before the French Revolution, Europe was mostly ruled by officially Christian monarchies. Each monarch was supported by a sect: Roman Catholicism in France, Spain, Poland, and Austria; Protestantism in Prussia, Britain, and Sweden; and Eastern Orthodoxy in Russia. The competition of the Early Modern period had led to the consolidation of powerful states around the monarch, whose principle reason for being was to raise and maintain professional armies to fight other European powers who were doing the same thing right back at them.
Conquest and absorption of inefficient, ineffective, or sometimes just insufficiently large states was common. The only check on this process was military. Countries could only establish and maintain independence by force of arms – either their own or those of other major powers interested in denying a prize to a rival. For example, the Spanish (the preeminent power of the day) were forced to release the rich Netherlands in the early 17th Century after they were unable to forcibly suppress the rebellion there. Similarly, the American Revolution was successful in creating an independent country in large part because of significant French and Spanish support, stemming from a desire to check British power.
OK. In the terms I’ve established, I’d argue that most of these countries were aristocracies. The kings of Europe drew their legitimacy from their military ability to defend their holdings and to establish their law over their territory. Which was quite the undertaking, it’s worth mentioning. In the previous era, the states were highly decentralized. Each noble of sufficient rank had his own fortress and military force which he was in theory obligated to deliver to the king when needed, in exchange for rights to the land and a piece of the take. In practice, it was a nightmare trying to get all of these nobles on the same page, and internecine conflict was common.
Anyhow, once the siege cannon was developed, it became cost-effective to conquer castles. Before, investing a castle meant you had to have an army stand around it and cut off any attempt to resupply them, and then wait for their food to run out. Either that or you could charge the walls, which tended to lead to a huge, bloody mess. But after cost-effective cannon were available, the attacking army could just knock down the walls and then stroll in. And once castles stopped being militarily effective, decentralization stopped being as attractive a prospect to the various monarchs.
So the trend in Europe was from feudal monarchy toward what was seen as a more modern absolute monarchy. Kings spent the period using their professional armies to knock down their own castles, centralizing law and administration in the royal court as much as they could get away with, and then hiring a bunch of bureaucrats to run the new establishment. The kings who did better at this than their peers got rewarded with international prestige, new lands to conquer, and better tax receipts.
This meant that you had two main elements of the elite. First, there were the children of the old fighting aristocracy, who could trace their lineage and their rights to land back to the medieval era (or even before, in some cases). Then there were the new bureaucratic nobility who were comparatively recently issued title and lands by the king for pushing papers. In my model, this is obviously an important shift. If people are policy, then you’ll get real change by taking authority away from the traditional landed nobility and favoring recently ennobled bureaucrats.
But it’s important to keep in mind that this was a shift within an aristocratic paradigm. Within the system, the way one moved up in the civil or martial bureaucracies was to gain the favor of the king, to take and give orders effectively, and to ensure the success of the organization. And in the broader society, the way to gain status was to find some way into the nobility, and then, once in the club, to gain prestige within it (often by dueling with other aristocrats who were jockeying for position as well). Even though martial valor was no longer strictly required, it was expected that these families would send their sons into the army or navy, and valor remained an effective way to rise in social standing.
Interestingly, you can see this sort of thinking in the trade policies of the time. The few places that were ruled by who I’d classify as merchants (notably, the powerful Dutch Republic) were in favor of free trade and made cash hand over fist in foreign markets. But the larger countries of the time preferred mercantilist trade policies and sought colonies in part as guaranteed markets. The idea was that foreign trade should be managed to strengthen the team (by supporting domestic industry), and that extensive trading with potential enemies would only strengthen them, regardless of how much money could be made in the endeavor. This aristocratic preference for mercantilism is consistent and remains to this day, because from that perspective the logic is perfectly sound.
OK, so that’s the trend for a good two hundred years or so of European history. Aristocracies have been running everything for a long time; war is common, professionalized, and relatively limited; military technology is enabling increasing centralization; lots of money is being made in both internal development and both foreign trade and colonial ventures; and average and median state size is growing due to the regular conquest of smaller independent states.
Then the French Revolution happens. Welcome to the Modern era!
That’s only a little bit of a simplification. There are a few important shifts that converge around this time and come to a head at the French Revolution. The first is that all the money that’s getting made in what is often called the Commercial Revolution has strengthened the merchant class considerably. Before, land was the source of the vast majority of the wealth. But foreign trade, especially in valuable agricultural products like sugar, spices, and cotton that are hard to come by in Europe, is starting to change that calculus.
The second, feeding off of that first change, is the Industrial Revolution that’s just starting to take off in Britain. Throughout the 18th Century, the British took the lead in building coal mines (with the first steam engines for pumping the water out of the mines) and sophisticated textile spinning machines that start substituting machine labor for human labor in a big way. Around the time of the French Revolution is when this starts to really kick off into high gear.
And the third is the continued development of gunpowder weapons (firearms and cannon). At the beginning of the period, hand-held gunpowder weapons were short ranged and horribly unreliable, while cannon were huge, unwieldsome things that could only be expected to hit the literal broad side of a barn (or a castle, as the case may be). But, by the time of the French Revolution, muskets are now reliable enough to be loaded and fired without a lot of hassle, if slowly and somewhat inaccurately. And the invention of the bayonet means that, if things come down to close combat, a bunch of musket-wielding infantry can double as half-decent pikemen (as opposed to easily-butchered club men). Similarly, cannon have been improved, so that they’re now mobile and accurate enough to be used as direct fire weapons during a fight.
And the really interesting thing about gunpowder weapons of this era is not that they’re better than their earlier equivalents. Ben Franklin famously commented that he thought the longbow would be the future of warfare, because an archer could shoot further, faster, and more accurately than anyone wielding a smoothbore musket. And he was right. But what made muskets the future was that they were so much easier to learn. Becoming an archer or knight took a lifetime of practice. Becoming a musketman took a few weeks’ training, and being an artilleryman wasn’t all that much harder.
What this means is that, for the first time in a very long time, quantity began to decisively beat quality. A well-disciplined and well-drilled professional army could be swamped with waves of minimally trained musketmen. And within this fact lies the seed of the inevitable death of the aristocratic value complex. When men who’ve spent years training for battle can’t reliably beat draftees, it’s a lot harder to argue that the best warriors have any special claim to rule.
Back to the French Revolution we go. The first tidbit to take away from this momentous event is that the French killed or exiled a bunch of the old nobility and clergy. They lopped off most of the top of the old hierarchy (often literally, with guillotines) and replaced it with an uneasy alliance of merchants and secular-minded priests intent on restarting history from scratch. Then, when the other major powers united to attempt to destroy the new revolutionary regime, the French instituted the levée en masse. Basically, they drafted a large army with a novel anti-aristocratic justification: since the entire nation was now represented in the assembly and the government, it was now the duty of all the people to fight in defense of the nation.
In the new technological and social conditions, this new French army was very successful. Against some pretty long odds (by the old reckoning) they were able to fight off their opponents and move on the offensive. Then, when Napoleon arose to power after a period in which the revolutionary leadership spent a few years guillotining each other, he was able to use this army and the tax base that supported it to conquer and reorganize all of Continental Europe into pliant vassal states. He finally foundered in an attempt to conquer Russia and was eventually defeated by a coalition financed and led by Great Britain.
It should be mentioned that, despite his revolutionary origins, Napoleon was an aristocrat by caste. He rose through the military ranks, felt that he deserved his position largely on the basis of his military feats and genius, and crowned himself Emperor on the way to conquering most of Europe. For this reason, a lot of people (both at the time and throughout history) have considered him to be a “counterrevolutionary” figure.
But, at the same time, people who considered themselves actual counterrevolutionaries tended to dislike him as well. Even in defeat, his upheaval of the international system and his codification of the law uprooted the previous foundations of the ancient regime, which the counterrevolutionaries wanted to restore or defend. But more important than what he was able to accomplish was how he did it and how he was defeated.
Napoleon’s overall strategic goal was to make France the hegemonic ruler of Europe. It wasn’t really in the cards for France to directly annex and absorb all of Germany, let alone the entirety of Continental Europe. But he could theoretically turn all the other nations into vassal states or allies of France through a combination of carrots and sticks. The idea was to use France’s superior military to defeat the other countries and force them to the peace table, where their rulers would have to agree to play by France’s rules or be deposed. Then, once a country signed on to follow France’s lead, it’d be brought into what was called the “Continental System”, which was basically a big free-trade area with trade largely banned with outsiders who had not accepted French supremacy, like Great Britain.
The British obviously didn’t care for this idea much. So they kept organizing coalitions to fight the French. The pattern went something like this: get the Austrians and the Prussians to fight France; watch Napoleon win and force the Austrians and Prussians to sign a humiliating peace treaty; convince the Austrians and Prussians to join up with the Russians and try again; watch Napoleon win again; and so on. This was really expensive, because after each defeat the loser countries demanded more money and support to try again.
At the same time, they spent a good deal of time supporting resistance movements wherever French-supported rule was unpopular. For instance, Napoleon spent years trying to finish off the Spanish resistance. He’d win every battle easily, but after he’d leave, the British would show up again with a big pile of cash and gather more revolutionaries to the cause. In fact, it was from this struggle that the term “guerilla” came to have its modern meaning, and proxy wars since then have taken roughly this shape.
And, finally, they used their naval superiority to undermine Napoleon’s Continental System wherever they could. Napoleon was never able to win a smashing victory over the Royal Navy in the same way he was able to beat the armies of the continent, in part because navies are quite costly. Without that victory, he couldn’t enforce his trade edicts. Essentially, through a massive financial expenditure, Britain was able to make it so that it was always in the economic best interest of the countries of Europe to continue to resist the French bid for hegemony. By the end of the war, the debt of the British government was over 200% of GDP. That’s a lot! Most countries would have suffered some sort of terrible financial or political collapse well before that point.
Many people drew different lessons from the French Revolution. To this day, it’s practically a rite of passage for aspiring historians to draw their own. But it really is for good reason. The next hundred years of European history consists in large part of reactions to the events of the Revolution and the rise and fall of Napoleonic France. For our purposes, though, the key lesson is this: the levée en masse beat the ancien régime, but cold, hard cash triumphed in the end.