When Dante compares the city which was always mending its constitution with the sick man who is continually changing his posture to escape from pain, he touches with the comparison of a permanent feature of political life in Florence. The great modern fallacy that a constitution can be made, can be manufactured by a combination of existing forces and tendencies, was constantly cropping up in stormy times.

Jacob Burkhardt’s observations about Renaissance Italy also applied to his hometown Basel. In 1798 the rumors of political turmoil in France overtook the people of Basel. The citizens met and wrote a new constitution that provided new liberties. Within a few days they celebrated: they had achieved a complete “revolution” in a few days, reforming the corrupt ancien regime through peaceful means. And then Napoleon came.

Basel was not alone. The cities and communities throughout Europe overturned ancien regimes, erasing the last vestiges of medieval privileges and spreading their political culture, only to have their efforts judged inadequate by the prefect or general.

The municipal revolutions (as I like to call them) are seldom studied, except by local historians, and often don’t figure into the larger picture of the French Revolution. They involved entire urban communities, which examined their corporative practices and overturned vestiges of feudalism. Unfortunately they were labeled conservative. They attempted to amend their constitutions; in the minds of the bourgeoisies, revolution had clear goals and clear endpoints. The larger revolution disturbed them: the Jacobin desire to recreate society de novo, to centralize, to homogenize, and to break down resistance. Subsequently, the national revolution overwrote the accomplishments of the municipal revolutions.

What is unfair is to label the bourgeoisies “conservative”, or worse, “counterrevolutionary”. Without their presence the French Revolution is unthinkable. The values that impregnated political change, as Guizot and de Tocqueville noted, originated from the political culture that bourgeoisies had cultivated in their own municipal constitutions. Citizenship, rational government, democracy — the culture of the cities valued the participation of its members in the politics of the community, and that spirit overflowed the city walls to spread throughout France.

The radical revolution — the events in Paris, the Jacobins, the Terror — emerged as revolution became a way of life. The drive to transform society overwrote the desire for liberation from the Ancien Regime. As de Tocqueville wrote, reform took precedence over freedom, and the Revolution became a machine for recreating society:

They set no limit to [the state’s] rights and powers; its duty was not merely to reform but to transform the French nation — a task of which the central power alone was capable. “The State makes men exactly what it wishes them to be.”

In its evolution, the French Revolution feared the political participation of the people whom it claimed to liberate. And it endangered its own accomplishments.

The bourgeoisies outside of Paris distanced themselves from the revolution as an ongoing process. They saw themselves being written out of the political process, their ability to participate curtailed, and the will of the nation ruled by the Parisian mobs. This was more true outside of France, in western Germany, in cities that were sympathetic to revolution but that found themselves under repressive occupations.

Were the bourgeoisies ultimately conservative? No. If their reaction to the radicalism that the French Revolution took on is the only indication, it indicates their reserve and concern. In the larger historical frame, the bourgeoisie (having become a national and international class) continued to be the avant garde of politics in Europe, challenging aristocratic authority and restoration until 1850.

[Note: these comments, originally intended for Cliopatria’s symposium, were inspired by Gary Nash’s article, “America’s Unfinished Revolution”.]