We can get a better idea of what might have happened in the early United States by looking at the French Revolution.
THe Three Estates
The French government was still basically medieval. Society was divided into three estates. The first two estates were the nobility and the clergy – the both of them made up the 1’s. But the group we want to focus on is the Third Estate. This section of society was the bottom chunk of the pyramid and it made up of everyone else who wasn’t a noble or a church official. It included a growing middle class that was Enlightened and making money off trade and wanted more power (they’re called the bourgeoisie and they’re our 2’s). The rest of the Third Estate were the peasants (the 3’s).
Here’s the key: the Third Estate made up 98% of the population. They paid ALL of the taxes, but the way the voting worked in the medieval French parliament – each estate got 1 vote. So if you’ve been paying attention, you can see what happens. The two estates of the nobility and the clergy would team up and outvote the Third Estate (again 98% of the population) 2-1 every time. Pretty messed up. It would be like if each state in the U.S. only got 1 vote in Congress – states like Texas and California would be pretty pissed. I’m sure Texas would secede and elect Chuck Norris as our president – talk about the rise of a strong man.
OK back to France… Just like most revolutions, the Third Estate grew frustrated with the old regime – France was in debt, partly because they helped us win our Revolution – oops. Sorry. The peasants were starving, and there were some pretty clueless monarchs in charge.
Marie Antoinette never actually said “Let them eat cake” but she might as well have – it still gives us a pretty accurate idea of how out of touch they were with the plight of the people of France. There were various spontaneous violent outbursts. Some people stormed the Bastille to get weapons and free political prisoners. But my favorite event is the Women’s March on Versailles.
The Women’s March on Versailles
On October 5, 1789, 7,000 women marched from Paris to Versailles where the monarchs lived. But they weren’t wearing pink knitted hats, they were armed with pitchforks, pikes, and muskets. They wanted to bring the monarchs back to Paris so that they could see how bad things were and have to answer to the growing group of revolutionaries making demands.
They stormed the palace at Versailles and Marie Antoinette only escaped through a secret passageway to a secure apartment. The women wouldn’t leave, and they demanded that Marie Antoinette come out to deal with them. When she finally emerged she saw the heads of her bodyguards on pikes and thousands of muskets pointed at her head. Using her children as a human shield – you know, like you do – she confronted the crowd.
Surprisingly, they didn’t kill her. But they used the queen as collateral for their demands. The King was forced to sign the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen (it’s basically copied after our Declaration of Independence). And they moved to Paris where they were basically prisoners, but still monarchs, ruling alongside the new National Assembly. So they created a constitutional monarchy similar to the one in England.
The Reign of Terror
This new moderate government shared power with the king and it made a lot of the peasants angry. They felt like not enough had changed and a group of radicals, named the Jacobins and let by Maximilien Robespierre, ultimately overthrew the National Assembly and instituted the Reign of Terror. This is what we all think about when we picture the French Revolution – but it was really just one phase of a much longer process.
You know the drill: anyone who was an enemy of the revolution – maybe they sympathized with the monarch, maybe they were a moderate, maybe they just made the wrong enemy – they were guillotined. About 40,000 people were executed or murdered in this revolution-turned-mob.
You know who else was often executed? Women who dared to assert that women should be included in the new revolutionary ideals of equality and liberty. Olympe de Gouges, author of the Declaration of the Rights of Women and the Female Citizen, was convicted of treason and guillotined. Isn’t that messed up?
Modern Reform Movements
Side note: these revolutions and the implementation of Enlightenment ideas about equality and freedom are going to spark the modern women’s rights movement. In these new democracies that get formed throughout the 1800s, women will use their role as mothers to argue that they need more education themselves to teach their children to be good citizens.
Eventually, they’ll use this new education to push for the ability to go out and serve their community in non-profit organizations and eventually the right to vote so that they can advocate for their children and families, of course. This slow expansion of the women’s sphere of influence away from the home is happening in most of these early democracies.
Also, this sparks the modern abolition movement. It becomes pretty difficult for a lot of these new nations who are arguing for equality and democracy to continue to support slavery. Obviously, the United States is one of the last to give it up – and you could argue that our Civil War was just the radical part of our revolution where we disagreed about our government – just about 100 years later.
The rise of Napoleon
Back to France, King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette both lost their heads – sparking foreign powers to freak out and declare war on France. Austria was especially upset because Marie Antoinette’s mom was the Holy Roman Empress, Maria Theresa. Absolute monarchs around Europe were all terrified that they could be the next on the chopping block – literally. So there’s chaos within France and war coming from the outside, and out of this chaos rises a man from the military. He helps end the Reign of Terror and establish stability, but in exchange for a lot of power. His name is Napoleon Bonaparte.
So Napoleon is what George Washington could have been, if George had been even mildly interested in having political power. Napoleon rises out of the chaos and eventually gets named Emperor of France, echoing one of his idols, Julius Caesar.
He does a lot of great things for France: He simplified the outdated Roman laws (inherited from Justinian’s Code) and based French law off of reason and the idea that all men have equal rights. He changed the tax system so that it applied to everyone equally – getting rid of the three estates. And he made the government more efficient by centralizing power (under himself, how convenient). He made education more available to middle class boys, recognizing that he needed educated government officials and members of the military.
But Napoleon was not content to stay within the borders of France. He used the war from other absolute monarchies, like Austria, as justification to try to conquer all of Europe. He wanted to follow in the footsteps of Alexander, Caesar, and Charlemagne and create a massive empire. And he does pretty well until he tries to invade Russia in the winter. Ugh.
But Napoleon does successfully conquer the Iberian Peninsula, putting his brother on the throne of Spain – that has massive repercussions for Latin America. He also sweeps through Austria and Prussia, effectively breaking up the remnants of Charlemagne’s Holy Roman Empire. He is eventually captured by the Allies and exiled to the island of Elba off the coast of Tuscany.
Napoleon in Exile
To be clear, this exile was not prison. He got to choose the island he wanted and then was given complete control over Elba and its 12,000 residents. He held court, financed by the locals, and got visits from his mistress (his wife refused to come. I wonder why.) Napoleon was allowed to communicate with people in France and he spent his time building up a small navy and a 600-man Imperial Guard. Was no one watching him?! Meanwhile, back in France, the Allies had reinstated King Louis XVII (the son of the guy who got his head chopped off) but there were revolutionaries who still supported Napoleon.
When his English overseers left the island to report back to London, Napoleon painted his ship like an English vessel and left. He returned back to France to take up the fight, and he did, until he was finally defeated at Waterloo, and exiled to the even more remote St. Helena. He died there at the age of 51.
So, this is what could have happened to the U.S. And this is what happens to most other revolutions. Just like conquering an empire – the rebelling is the easy part. It’s a lot harder to build a new government that will sustain itself. And that’s what the American Founding Fathers did. I can definitely be cynical when it comes to a lot of parts of U.S. History but this is one that I am totally unsarcastic about: we should be really grateful that the first few guys who formed and led our government were rational, enlightened people who wanted to build a country instead of gain glory for themselves. Thanks George!
The Congress of Vienna
After Napoleon’s last exile, the nations of Europe sat down in Vienna to figure how to avoid one power rising up and taking over the rest of the continent again. They brokered a deal that established a pretty important precedent: balance of power.
Basically, the main powers in Europe – Britain, France, Austria, Russia, and Prussia (basically Germany 1.0) – established firm national boundaries that would balance each of the main nations size and power so that no one could ever (in theory) take too much or grow too powerful on the European continent.
By 1815 they were realizing that they had bigger fish to fry. Europe was out conquering the world and didn’t want to be distracted by border disputes at home. They gave land to some smaller countries to create buffers – like Switzerland, for example. And they also created a new German Confederation out of the ashes of the northern part of the Holy Roman Empire. Ironically, this new German state – which was created to provide stability in northeastern Europe between powers like France and Russia – is going to be the one that will shatter this balance of power in about 100 years.