The French Revolution and the Idea of the Nation: Nationalism In Europe

The first clear expression of nationalism came with the French Revolution in 1789. France, as you would remember, was a full-fledged territorial state in 1789 under the rule of an absolute monarch. The political and constitutional changes that came in the wake of the French Revolution led to the transfer of sovereignty from the monarchy to a body of French citizens.

The French revolution proclaimed that it was the people who would henceforth constitute the nation and shape its destiny. From the very beginning, the French revolutionaries introduced various measures and practices that could create a sense of collective identity amongst the French people. The ideas of la patrie (the fatherland) and le citoyen (the citizen) emphasized the notion of a united community enjoying equal rights under a constitution.

A new French flag, the tricolor, was chosen to replace the former royal standard. The Estates-General was elected by the body of active citizens and renamed the National Assembly. New hymns were composed, oaths taken and martyrs commemorated, all in the name of the nation. A centralized administrative system was put in place and it formulated uniform laws for all citizens within its territory.

Internal customs duties and dues were abolished and a uniform system of weights and measures was adopted. Regional dialects were discouraged and French, as it was spoken and written in Paris, became the common language of the nation. The revolutionaries further declared that it was the mission and the destiny of the French nation to liberate the peoples of Europe from despotism, in other words, to help other peoples of Europe to become nations.

When the news of the events in France reached the different cities of Europe, students and other members of educated middle classes began setting up Jacobin clubs. Their activities and campaigns prepared the way for the French armies which moved into Holland, Belgium, Switzerland, and much of Italy in the 1790s. With the outbreak of the revolutionary wars, the French armies began to carry the idea of nationalism abroad.

Within the wide swathe of territory that came under his control, Napoleon set about introducing many of the reforms that he had already introduced in France. Through a return to monarchy Napoleon had, no doubt destroyed democracy in France, but in the administrative field, he had incorporated revolutionary principles in order to make the whole system more rational and efficient.

The Civil Code of 1804 – usually known as the Napoleonic Code – did away with all privileges based on birth, established equality before the law, and secured the right to property.

This Code was exported to the regions under French control. In the Dutch Republic, in Switzerland, in Italy, and in Germany, Napoleon simplified administrative divisions, abolished the feudal system, and freed peasants from serfdom and manorial dues. In the towns too, guild restrictions were removed. Transport and communication systems were improved.

Peasants, artisans, workers, and new businessmen enjoyed newfound freedom. Businessmen and small-scale producers of goods, in particular, began to realize that uniform laws, standardized weights, and measures, and a common national currency would facilitate the movement and exchange of goods and capital from one region to another.

However, in the areas conquered, the reactions of the local populations to French rule were mixed. Initially, in many places such as Holland and Switzerland, as well as in certain cities like Brussels, Mainz, Milan, and Warsaw, the French armies were welcomed as harbingers of liberty.

But the initial enthusiasm soon turned to hostility, as it became clear that the new administrative arrangements did not go hand in hand with political freedom. Increased taxation, censorship, forced conscription into the French armies required to conquer the rest of Europe, all seemed to outweigh the advantages of the administrative changes.

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