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Web Letter

I enjoyed Cole's comparison of one post-Enlightenment imperial venture to another, and as a fellow scholar of what historians call the "Revolutionary and Napoleonic Period," I applaud it.

But I think that Cole has missed a point that many French historians of this period emphasize, that the imperialism of the French Republic in 1798 was partly an attempt by the regime to gain popular support, despite the fact that it had recently put an end to democracy (by taking away the right of propertyless male citizens to vote).

General Bonaparte became a dictator a month or two after his return from Egypt in 1798, and a year or two after that put an end to the Republic by becoming a monarch and having his one-man rule ratified by a democratic plebiscite.

It may be that when Republics turn warlike or imperialistic, it is in order to appeal to democracy--to "the people." Democracy, which has become the great post-Christian legitimizer of government, is also the great legitimizer of nationalism and nationalistic wars.

Democracies, ruled by majorities, are not automatically good for minorities. Republics protect minorities of many different kinds, states, tribes, readers of the news, owners of presses, members of small sects--even, now and then, foreigners. Since they are never ruled by only one person, no one in particular can claim to speak for them.

When one of its generals spoke for the French Republic in Egypt in 1798, many who had read their classical history predicted a coming Caesar who would put an end to the Republic.

By 1801 it had turned out they were right.

When the same thing happened again in 1852, Karl Marx made his famous statement about the first time being tragedy and the second time farce.

Let's not let that happen yet again.

William R. Everdell is the author of The End of Kings: A History of Republics and Republicans (Chicago, 2000).

William R. Everdell

Brooklyn, NY

Aug 24 2007 - 10:47pm

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