Disclaimer: The transcript that follows has been generated using artificial intelligence. We strive to be as accurate as possible, but minor errors and slightly off timestamps may be present.
You can click the timestamp to jump to that time.
Mike Duncan (00:00):
Hello, and welcome to Revolutions, Episode 3.6, The Stately Quadrille. Thus far, we have been talking about the economic, political, and social frictions that were busy grinding Ancien Régime France to a halt at the end of the 18th century.
But all of this was not happening in a vacuum. And throughout the course of the French Revolution, international politics and war will heavily influence the course of events inside France. And indeed, some, if not all of the major turning points of the Revolution are attributable to the fortunes of France beyond the frontiers. Or when things start going really badly, the fortunes of France within the frontiers. So this week, we are going to pull back and survey the political landscape of Europe so that we can have some kind of working understanding of everyone’s motivations when the Revolution and then the Revolutionary Wars begin to break out. Because one thing that is very clear is that those wars were not about brother monarchs getting together and waging war against the evil revolutionaries on behalf of the French royal family. It was a hell of a lot more complicated than that. But also, hopefully, a hell of a lot more interesting.
So where to even begin? Let’s start with a gross oversimplification. On the eve of the French Revolution, there were five great powers in Europe. France, Austria, Prussia, Great Britain, and Russia. International politics in the 18th century was defined by shifting diplomatic and military alliances between these powers as each jockeyed for position. Which is where the label the stately quadrille comes from. The quadrille being a kind of popular four-person dance where everyone constantly switches partners.
So what we’ll do here today is give a brief thumbnail sketch of each of the great powers and then pick them all up at about 1740 on the eve of the War of Austrian Succession. Which is as good a place as any to start tangling, disentangling, and then reentangling the pieces on the board.
Now we can hopefully dispense with the British quickly since we’ve been talking about them pretty much non-stop here at the Revolution’s podcast. But just to run through it, you’ll remember that the policy of the early Stuarts had been to keep England out of the Continental Wars, and after the brief flip of Cromwell and his dream of a Protestant League, the later Stuarts pretty much maintained this low profile. But when the Glorious Revolution bequeathed unto England a constitutional monarchy able to mobilize the nation’s wealth far more efficiently than their autocratic cousins on the continent, England and then later the Kingdom of Great Britain after the Union of 1707, started a rapid naval and colonial expansion that forced the rest of Europe to pay attention. It is also around this time that the rivalry between the British and the French, which had been dormant for a while, began to pick back up in earnest, leading to what some historians have dubbed the Second Hundred Years’ War.
But in the early going, the British rivalry with France was a little bit one-sided because the French were primarily interested in the next great power we need to talk about, and that is the Austrians. And talking about the Austrians is a little tricky, because really what we’re talking about is the Habsburg monarchy, which ruled a large composite kingdom centered around lands that conform to present-day Austria, with a capital in Vienna.
The Austrian Habsburgs were a powerful force within the even larger Holy Roman Empire. If you thought Ancien Régime France was complicated, just try to pick your way through the Holy Roman Empire and its insane collection of little principalities and duchies, archbishoprics, free imperial cities, you name it, they’ve got it, and they all have their own rights, privileges and obligations to the larger empire. Technically, the Holy Roman Emperor was elected from among the various eligible princes. But from the mid-1400s, the Austrian Habsburgs had a mortal lock on the office, and the elections were there to simply confirm dynastic succession. Yes, it’s more complicated than that. No, we don’t need to get into it.
And generally speaking, the central aim of French foreign policy since the Bourbons came to power back in the late 1500s was to contain the Austrian Habsburgs, a policy taken to its greatest extreme by Louis XIV, who spent practically his entire reign doing battle with the Habsburgs over just about everything, along the way forging a leapfrog alliance network with the Swedish, the Polish, and the Ottoman Turks to surround and contain Habsburg ambition. But after Louis XIV died, this alliance network began to break down. As the nascent Swedish Empire was broken, the Turks started to lose their edge, and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was about to become a feeding ground for its more powerful neighbors.
And one of the big reasons this leapfrog network broke down was because of the rise of another great power, the Russians, who figured into no one’s grand plans until the great modernizer Peter the Great came along in 1672. There is even an old story, I’m not sure how apocryphal it is, that Louis XIV once decided to send a letter to the Tsar to see how things were going, and he addressed the letter to Tsar Michael, who had been dead for 12 years.
The rise of the Russians led directly to the breakdown of France’s old alliance system. As they took down the Swedes in the Great Northern War, which lasted from 1700 to 1721, they pressed south into lands ruled by the stagnating Turks, and then eyed permanent hegemony over Poland. So though Russia was a long way away, and will not begin battling the French directly for some time, their moves had a big impact on French diplomatic calculations. And then of course, as we will see in a moment, it was the outbreak of the Russo-Turkish War in 1787 that got the Austrians bogged down in the Balkans, which allowed the Prussians to push unchallenged into the United Provinces, which led to the crisis I mentioned at the end of last week that seemed to demand a French military response, and instead was met only with a we can’t afford to get involved.
So finally, we come to the last and newest addition to our five great powers, the Prussians. Prussia had once upon a time been a Polish fife, but it became its own little sovereign duchy in 1660 in exchange for helping the Swedes during the Second Northern War. Then in 1701, the Elector of Prussia was allowed to crown himself king in exchange for supporting the Austrians in the War of Spanish Succession, and more generally supporting Habsburg hegemony over the Holy Roman Empire.
But for the moment, the title was technically King in Prussia rather than King of Prussia because some of their dynastic lands were within the Holy Roman Empire. And within the Holy Roman Empire, you could only have three kings of something. King of the Germans, a title held by the emperor, King of Bohemia, also usually an imperial title, and King of the Romans, the official title of the imperial heir. Isn’t this all fascinating?
So the Prussians started to rise in the early 1700s under the stewardship of Frederick William I, who initiated the military and bureaucratic reforms for which the Prussians are about to become famous. Once the baton is passed to that most enlightened and most despotic of our enlightened despots, Frederick the Great, his land armies are about to become rationally devised, organized, and drilled juggernauts that will become the envy of generals across Europe.
Okay, so those are the major players of the 18th century. There were others out there, like the Spanish who were still a thing and connected by blood to the French Bourbons, but really, the main players are France, Austria, Great Britain, Prussia, and Russia. As you’ll notice though, only two of the five, France and Austria, were also major players in the 17th century. The other three, Great Britain, Prussia, and Russia, really just started taking off at the beginning of the century. The question on the minds of a lot of statesmen moving into the middle years of the 18th century was whether the two old powers would survive the rise of the three new powers.
The Habsburgs would attempt to maintain their position by laying down systemic reforms to modernize their own lands in particular and the Holy Roman Empire more generally. It was a strategy that nearly destroyed them, but they managed to hang on. And of course the alternative was the path taken by France, which was to just sort of keep putting one foot in front of the other and hope for the best. But as we are about to see, the middle years of the 18th century will not be kind to France at all on the world stage.
So in 1740, two major deaths paved the way for a new international order in Europe. First the King in Prussia, Frederick William I, and then the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles VI. These two deaths led directly to the War of Austrian Succession, which starts an international chain reaction that will eventually run right smack dab into the middle of the French Revolution.
So the deal was that being the last surviving male Habsburg, Charles VI had been concerned about a succession crisis from the very beginning of his reign and had issued an edict way back in 1713 to make it possible for his daughter to inherit all the Habsburg possessions. So when he died in October 1740, his daughter Maria Theresa, Marie Antoinette’s mother remember, did indeed inherit the Nainastic holdings. But critically, she herself was not able to become Holy Roman Emperor. So every enemy the Habsburgs ever had came out of the woodwork to dispute her claims to power, most especially the new king in Prussia, 28-year-old Frederick the Great. Brilliant, ambitious, and ruthless, Frederick seized this moment to march in and grab Austrian-ruled Silesia. This sparked an international crisis that would soon lead to global war as the other great powers lined up on either side of the fight, France holding to its policy of containing the Habsburgs joined Prussia, as did the declining but still powerful Spanish. Meanwhile the British, mostly worried about checking the French, had already signed a treaty with the Austrians and lent money and troops to Maria Theresa to defend her family’s claim to the throne, as did the Dutch who, since their native son William had become King of England, were very tightly linked to the British.
You got all that? Good. Because it’s all about to change. The war of Austrian succession went on until 1748, the main upshot being that Maria Theresa’s claims were validated and her husband was elected Holy Roman Emperor, though everyone knew where power really lay, Frederick the Great kept his hold on Silesia, and perhaps most important, none of the belligerents were particularly satisfied with the conduct of their nominal allies. So when the treaty that ended the war turned out to be merely a temporary truce between the Austrians and the Prussians, when they got back at it a few years later, everyone had a new set of partners.
So that brings us to the thing I’ve hinted at a few times now, and that’s the diplomatic revolution of 1756. The British had apparently been impressed by Prussia’s performance during the war, and were now convinced that the Prussians, rather than the Austrians, represented the best counterweight to France. So in January 1756, they promised not to provide aid to Austria if Frederick made another play against Habsburg lands.
Maria Theresa had already concluded that the price of friendship with Britain was much too high. They had all but forced her to recognize the Prussian claim to Silesia. And so after concluding a defensive pact with Russia, she turned to the longest standing enemy of her family, France, for assistance.
Louis XV was not super inclined to accept these Austrian overtures. The Franco-Austrian rivalry was deep and bitter. But holy moly, was there anything scarier than the thought of having to fight the combined strength of the British navy and the Prussian army all alone? No. So in May 1756, the two longest standing rivals in Europe, the Austrians and the French, signed a treaty of mutual defense. Frederick then invaded Saxony, sparking the Seven Years’ War.
Now we’ve talked a little bit about the Seven Years’ War, as the North American theater of that war figured so heavily into the lead up to the American Revolution. The crazy intricate details of this truly global conflict are too much for us to get into here. But the key result was that Prussia and Austria, the two central belligerents, wound up signing a treaty in 1763 restoring the status quo antebellum, that is, the way things had been before the war started. The big winner of this war, then, was the British, who won big at the expense of the big loser, the French, who were forced to cede their North American possessions after getting kicked around on the continent, on the high seas, and in the colonies.
Once again, though, the Seven Years’ War left all the belligerents kind of ticked off at their supposed allies. Frederick the Great felt personally betrayed by the British during the treaty negotiations, the Austrians were appalled at the performance of the French, and the French blamed the Austrians for dragging them into a war over Silesia that wound up gaining Austria nothing while costing France both her North American colonies and her international prestige. Right at the end of the Seven Years’ War, though, there was a major political turnover in one of our five great powers that led to further diplomatic upheavals. Until 1762, Russia had been allied with Austria and France against Britain and Prussia.
But then the old Tsar died, and the new Tsar, who greatly admired Frederick the Great, switched sides. This helped salvage the situation for the Prussians, but it also helped the new Tsar get himself overthrown by his wife Catherine, herself soon styled The Great. She switched Russia back to the Austrians as the Seven Years’ War wound down. But after all the treaties were signed in 1763, she decided to abandon Austria and forge an alliance with Prussia, forming a northern league linking Britain, Prussia, and Russia against Austria and the much-hobbled French.
Then Catherine revealed herself to be as ambitious a monarch as any in Europe, and started to push the Russian border south at the expense of the Ottoman Turks. This she achieved during the Russo-Turkish War of 1768-1774, which put the rest of Europe on edge when it came to the question of Poland, because somehow the question of Poland winds up explaining a lot about what everyone was really thinking when revolutionary France starts getting belligerent in the early 1790s. Okay, so, Poland.
The deal with Poland is that it used to be something, and now it really wasn’t. It was politically divided and not keeping pace with its neighbors. So as the 18th century progressed, it became more and more of a Russian protectorate. Flushed with victory over the Turks and sick to death of the near-continuous unrest inside Poland, Catherine looked to snuff out any hint of Polish independence and just annex their territories outright.
Meanwhile, the other two central powers, Prussia and Austria, looked to Catherine’s ambitions in Poland as a way to lay the foundations for a new balance of power in Central and Eastern Europe. Prussia was interested in keeping the Turks healthy and available for another potential war against Austria, and the Austrians were now completely freaked out by the rise of Russia and believed, not unjustly, that their entire eastern flank was exposed. So the three great powers started talking amongst themselves, and agreed that everyone would be best served by divvying up Poland. Everyone would get some new territory, no one would challenge the other’s claim, and for the moment they could all take a break from fighting and consolidate their new holdings.
So they pulled out a map, divided up what amounted to about a third of Poland’s total territory, and then simultaneously invaded in 1772 to occupy their newly-claimed lands which the fractious and weak Poles could not hope to defend. It’s called the First Partition of Poland. There will be two more partitions, leading to the obliteration of a sovereign Poland in 1795, that is, right in the heat of the Revolutionary Wars.
So the next big turning point in the European game of power politics was obviously something we’ve talked out quite a bit around these parts. Because while the Continental Powers were dividing up Poland, Britain was in the midst of bungling away its North American colonies. In France, this bungling coincided with the death of Louis XV and the ascension of Louis XVI, who brought with him the man who would be his foreign minister and eventually most trusted advisor for the next 14 years, Vergène.
Now we’ve been talking about Vergène for a while now, going back to the end of the American Revolution, but I underestimated just how much I would be talking about him, and so never gave him the treatment he probably deserves. So just in time for him to die, here is the life and career of the Comte de Vergène.
Vergène was born in 1712, and he joined the French diplomatic corps practically right out of the nursery. He started his career attached to an older relation, and together they were posted to Portugal, tasked with keeping the Portuguese from ever siding with the British. Then they hopped east as the War of Austrian Succession wound down to try to keep the enemies of Maria Theresa fighting, but in this they were obviously unsuccessful.
Vergène then got his own posting to the city of Trier in 1750. He tried to prevent Maria Theresa’s son Joseph from being named King of the Romans in 1752, that is, the imperial heir, but again he was unsuccessful, though not entirely unsuccessful, because he was able to help open up a rift between the Austrians and the British that would eventually lead to their divorce. After that, he was sent to Constantinople in 1755, where he would serve as ambassador to the Turks for the next 12 years.
Now while in Constantinople, the diplomatic revolution of 1756 hit, and with it the Seven Years’ War, and it was left to Vergène to explain to the Sultan why Austria is now our ally, and please please please don’t attack them.
With the humiliating peace of 1763, Vergène was ordered to do everything in his power to get the Turks to attack the Russians, but he couldn’t get it done in time to save his job, and he was recalled in 1768 after losing favor back in Versailles. But just as he was sailing away, the Turks did indeed go to war with the Russians, this being the Russo-Turkish War of 1768-1774 I just mentioned that saw the Turks get knocked around, making the Prussians and Austrians super-nervous and super-ready to go partition Poland. Vergène was back in Versailles’ good graces, though, by 1770, and he was posted to Sweden where he helped French-aligned Swedes pull off a neat little coup d’etat.
When young Louis XVI ascended to the throne in 1774, Vergène was brought back to Versailles, an appointed foreign minister, a post he would hold for the next 14 years. During these years, he revealed himself not much impressed with the current order of things, but also at kind of a loss about what to do about it. He wanted to check the growing power of Britain and Russia, and had no use whatsoever for the Austrians, but any potential move seemed like it was going to make the situation worse.
Then in 1775, he was presented with what appeared to be a golden opportunity in North America. Crazy colonial tax protesters had decided to try to take on the entire British military, and Vergène was all too willing to help them do it. He convinced the king it would be worth it, and then had a hand in getting Turgot kicked out of the ministry for pointing out that they probably couldn’t afford it. But Vergène’s master plan to humble the British by helping detach their North American colonies did not wind up paying off as much as he hoped, especially after the Americans went behind his back and negotiated a separate treaty with their ex-mother country.
In the end, the American War of Independence turned out to not utterly disable the British, while simultaneously playing a huge role in creating the insurmountable deficits that would utterly disable the French.
But for the moment, it did leave France in a strengthened position, and guiding an anti-British alliance that now included the Spanish and the Dutch. To keep this position, however, Vergène believed that the French would have to keep its military spending more or less at war levels. The idea that you could mobilize for a limited war, and then demobilize after the resulting peace, was no longer operative. To keep up with the other European powers, the French military had to be kept permanently ready to fight. This wreaked havoc with the royal treasury, because as first Neckerre and then Calonne tried to tap dance their way around the financial crisis, they had both assumed that once the American War ended, as it did in 1783, the king would not have to spend so much on his army and his navy. But Vergène convinced Louis that this was impossible. So rather than clearing all of that spending off the books, it just stayed put.
But Vergène matched this permanent state of military readiness with an initiative that he hoped would actually reduce tensions between France and Britain, and with luck stimulate the French economy. This is the Eden Treaty of 1785, named after the lead British negotiator. It was in essence a free trade agreement between the two kingdoms, that in theory would give the British a market for their surplus manufacturing, and the French a market for their surplus agriculture, most especially wine.
The new principles of international free trade embedded in the treaty were supposed to benefit both sides. But apparently the British negotiators like, ran circles around their French counterparts. The upshot was that British goods started flooding into France, and rather than stimulating domestic competition, instead just started to wipe it out. And these losses were not at all made up for by whatever extra cash they got from selling wine up to Britain. So you can add to the massive load of grievances piling up in the 1780s the Eden Treaty, which was pretty universally despised by every Frenchman.
So that pops us out basically where we left off last week, and we’ll end today with the crisis that devastated France’s international reputation, and made the other powers wonder if France might not be the next Poland. Okay so it’s the spring of 1787. France is engulfed in a financial crisis. While this crisis is unfolding, two big international events, one very close and one very far away, will conspire to expose just how weak France has become.
The first erupted a couple thousand miles away, when the Russians and Turks went to war, leading directly to the Austrians and Turks going to war, because FYI around 1781 Catherine the Great had grown tired of her Prussian alliance, and signed Russia back up with the Austrians because the dance just goes round and round and round.
But then, at that same moment, just up the road in the Netherlands, the United Provinces were dealing with a domestic crisis of their own, a little growing civil war to be exact. One that in some ways anticipated the revolution in France, and in other ways was completely different. But one thing that was about to become clear is that France had an interest in the outcome of that growing little civil war, indeed they had a side they were openly supporting, but they would not be able to do a thing when oh let’s say the Prussians decide to come marching in.
Okay so ever since William of Orange became King of England, the British and the Dutch had been pretty closely aligned. Indeed one of the most consistent goals of British diplomacy was maintaining their ascendancy in the Netherlands, both to prevent the French from having convenient ports to launch a direct invasion of the home islands, but also because the Dutch had a pretty great merchant fleet, and controlled a string of bases all the way to India and beyond that were critical to Britain’s growing trade empire.
But over the course of the century, the political makeup of the United Provinces began to change, as the power of the House of Orange was challenged by men who would soon enough be calling themselves the Patriots. These guys pushed for an even more Republican Republic, and the de facto elimination of the stadtholder’s power, what with it being a feudal anachronism and all.
The French were all too happy to support the Patriots, and when they started gaining control of the Dutch government, the Patriots were only too happy to support the French. This is, for example, how they wind up in the anti-British coalition during the American War of Independence. After the war, the Patriots muscled out the Orangists to the point where a formal treaty was signed with France in 1785, which as you can imagine, was fairly alarming to the British. In the mid-1780s, clashes between the French-supported Patriots and British-supported Orangists became more acute. The Patriots started mustering their own independent militias, and civil war appeared to be brewing.
The flashpoint finally came in June 1787, when the stadtholder’s wife, the Prussian Princess Wilhelmina, was captured by a Patriot militia company, and not necessarily treated with the respect due to a princess.
The British saw in all of this an opportunity to evict the Patriots, and restore the power of the Orangists, but they did not have the requisite forces to do it themselves. But guess who did? That’s right, the Prussians. Now for decades, Prussia had declined to do anything about the drift of Dutch politics towards a French orbit. Though the British and Prussians were allies, Frederick the Great calculated that in the Netherlands, no great Prussian interests were at stake, and getting involved would only mire them in a war with the French, who very much had a national interest in stake. Plus, Frederick recognized the natural ostrophobia of the French might eventually make them a key ally, so he saw no reason to step on their toes in Holland.
But Frederick the Great died in 1786 after 46 years on the throne, and power passed to his son Frederick William II, who was not quite the man his father was. And he decided, what the heck, let’s get into it. Partly to avenge the honor of his sister Wilhelmina, and partly to set the stage for a new age of Prussian expansion, the new king decided to invade the United Provinces. So in September 1787, in they went, and to everyone’s great surprise, the Prussians, the British, the suddenly all on their own Dutch patriots, the French did not lift a finger to stop them.
Now Brienne was probably right about France not being able to afford a war with the Prussians up in the United Provinces. But no matter how right he was, this was deeply embarrassing for France, and the Minister of War and the Minister of the Navy resigned in protest. It also estranged the monarchy from basically their entire officer corps, who cared little about account ledgers, but an awful lot about French honor. It was also a huge signal to everyone both inside and outside of France that something was deeply wrong, and the king was in real trouble.
But if you think that this made them want to lend a hand to a friend in need, you have not been paying attention, and out in London, and Berlin, and Vienna, and St. Petersburg, men began to dream of a France-less Europe. But we will leave them to dream, and next week we will turn our attention back to the reaction inside France, and watch as Brienne tries to push through the Paris parlement, the reform package that will hopefully save the kingdom from ruin. But if you think the Paris parlement had any interest in lending a hand to a friend in need, then you really haven’t been paying attention.
- Maria Theresa
- Marie Antoinette
- Louis XIV
- Louis XVI
- Frederick William I of Prussia
- Charles Gravier, comte de Vergennes
- Frederick William II of Prussia
Round and round and round it goes...
If you enjoyed this podcast, please consider buying Mike Duncan's books:
- Hero of Two Worlds: The Marquis de Lafayette in the Age of Revolution: https://amzn.to/3VNqViT
- The Storm Before the Storm: The Beginning of the End of the Roman Republic: https://amzn.to/3h26YpW
- The History of Rome: The Republic: https://amzn.to/3UAvImK
Podscript is a personal project to make podcast transcripts available to everyone for free. Please support this project by following us on Twitter.