Three 18th-Century Revolutions and Why They Matter in 2017

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This content was originally published by RUSSELL SHORTO on 18 May 2017 | 1:00 pm.
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Three societies grappling with the titanic force of incipient democracy is a lot for one book to manage. Rapport, a historian who teaches at the University of Glasgow, narrows the task by focusing on three cities: New York, London and Paris. While his argument can feel a bit academic at times, as when he woodenly observes that political struggle always occurs in “a location, a geographical space, an environment,” for the most part his urban focus yields a refreshingly vibrant narrative. At times, his political study could almost double as a travelogue.

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Franz Xavier Habermann/The New York Public Library

What was it about New York that made revolution play out there the way it did? The fact that Manhattan is an island gave the city a special dynamic. Beyond that, the American colonies’ inheritance of a set of rights and freedoms from Britain, which stemmed from the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the establishment of an English Bill of Rights, meant that New York had a built-in basis for principled resistance. As Britain suffered under the financial burdens stemming from the Seven Years’ War (or, as the North American theater became known, the French and Indian War), it taxed its colonies without giving them a say, and New York’s longstanding elected assembly became a focal point of resistance. Coffeehouses and taverns, which had long been venues for discussing the events of the day, now became political hubs.

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Since the colonies had inherited England’s tradition of open-air political gatherings, it was only natural that Gen. George Washington would order the Declaration of Independence to be read out to his troops on “the Common,” at what is now City Hall Park. When the British Army stormed Long Island and then Manhattan, the whole city — from the Gowanus Pass to Kips Bay — became a landscape of revolution. Rapport anchors his prose with compact sense-of-place notes as he follows the action: “The Americans managed to drive the British back to a buckwheat field, now the site of Columbia University.”

Paris was a different sort of place, with a wholly different political background. The French monarchy was near absolute; before 1789, there had been few concessions to the growing clamor for democracy. Without a tradition of public political protest, when the forces of revolutionary change struck people “took over and adapted the buildings of the old order — especially churches, convents, monasteries, aristocratic townhouses, royal places — that were not remotely constructed for the purposes intended by the revolutionaries.”

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One particular locale, to which Rapport pays fascinating attention, was the Palais-Royal. This vast complex of buildings, arcades and gardens on the Right Bank was originally built by Cardinal Richelieu in the 1620s. In 1780, its owner, the duc d’Orléans, cousin to the king, decided to make some money by turning it into a kind of shopping mall. With boutiques and cafes and elegant spaces to stroll and linger, it became a new kind of urban space, a place to be for all levels of society. Thus when events built rapidly toward a crisis, the Palais-Royal became “the central gathering place of Parisians hungry for news, opinion and recreation.”

When the mass outbreak came, however, it was centered on the place Parisians identified with monarchic abuse of power: the prison fortress of the Bastille. Here, too, Rapport gives not just political but geographic perspective: The Bastille overlooked the Faubourg Saint-Antoine, the cramped district of Paris that was packed with the homes and work spaces of artisans and shopkeepers, groups that were among the economically oppressed.

London was, yet again, geographically and historically distinct. The Enlightenment ideas held at bay for decades by the French monarchy had made inroads in England, and in particular its capital. Londoners had over the course of the 18th century used their economic might as a lever to force the king to grant them special rights and freedoms. The city’s relative autonomy was such that, technically, the king needed permission to enter its precincts. Most important, as Rapport explains, “the city had its own political system, which made it virtually self-governing.”

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Soldiers encamped in London during the Gordon Riots.

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P. Sandby/Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division, Washington, DC

And yet the individual freedoms that had been promised in 1688 were never fully realized, in part because the aristocracy colluded with the monarchy to hold onto power. One of the leaders of the English protest against absolutism in the 1760s — which took place in London at the same time that resistance was building in the American colonies — was John Wilkes, a radical Whig member of Parliament and shameless self-promoter who nonetheless gave voice to the unrest many Britons felt. Wilkes was lauded in America (Wilkes-Barre, Pa., is named after him and a fellow Whig, Isaac Barré) and rose to become Lord Mayor of London in 1774.

The popular unrest in London climaxed in the Gordon Riots of 1780. But these disturbances didn’t lead to revolution. The American colonists rose up not only against their British overlords but against their own elites; those elites were then forced to choose between revolution and loyalty to Britain. In London, however, Rapport writes, “the broader metropolitan movement in support of Wilkes did not seek to attack the privileges of the city,” but rather joined the elites in forcing a degree of reform, so that “Londoners were able to make their protests without challenging the wider structures of politics.”

The central realization left by Rapport’s book is that the democratic structures that have supported us for so long came about as a result of a series of convulsions of the established order. That violence was not inevitable in all cases is reason for comfort. But it makes you wonder whether we may somehow be coming full circle.

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