Author Article: Against War and Empire. Geneva, Britain and France in the Eighteenth Century by Richard Whatmore

Richard Whatmore presents an intellectual history of the republicans who strove to safeguard Geneva’s survival as an independent state. The author of Against War and Empire shows how Genevan thinkers turned to Rousseau, Voltaire, Bentham and others, as they endeavored to make modern Europe safe for small states. The Genevan attempt to moralize the commercial world and align national self-interest with perpetual peace and the abandonment of empire had implications for the French Revolution, the British Empire and the identity of modern Europe.

The 1st July 1782 might have become a memorable date for lovers of liberty and advocates of popular resistance against despotism and autocracy. On that day the population of the small city republic of Geneva was reported to be willing to sacrifice themselves in the name of freedom, Calvinism and moral virtue. One inhabitant wrote that “the true patriots among the men, women and children are resolved to defend their liberty to the last drop of their blood.” Gunpowder had been amassed in the Cathedral of Saint-Pierre and placed in the houses of the chief magistrates; magistrates who had been removed from office in a popular revolution in April on the grounds that they were supporters of France, Catholicism and luxury, all forces that were destroying Genevan culture and independence. Beyond the city walls, three armies were ready with canon and mortar to assault the city, bomb it or commence a siege. Nine thousand troops from Geneva’s historic allies, France and the canton of Bern, united with three thousand of those of Geneva’s ancient enemy, Savoy, in order to crush what was deemed to be a rebellion by violent dissidents and malcontents. Calling themselves democrats, the rebels united in their opposition to the invasion. They planned for almost three months to defend the city, repaired the walls and prepared for a siege. They knew that they had no chance in armed combat against the forces ranged against them. Their plan was simply to wait; when the besiegers fired mortar bombs or canon balls into the city a fire would be sparked and Geneva would explode. It would become a burning symbol of the threat to free republics presented by France, and a warning to all Protestants of their likely future. The spirit of national unity was such that women were reported to be exhorting their children and husbands to expire on the ramparts. One rebel, the Pastor Isaac Salomon Anspach, asked his fellow citizens to ‘embrace our oppressors – but let it be the embrace of Samson, to crush them in the last ruins and ashes of our temples.’ The leaders of the revolution were planning for Geneva in 1782 to become the greatest example of republican self-sacrifice in the modern world.

As everyone knows Geneva was not destroyed on July 1 1782. Rather, the leaders of the rebels decided that resistance really was futile and in the early hours of the morning escaped the city by boat. Many of their supporters were said to have gone to sleep in the anticipation of an honorable death the following day, only to rise to find the city gates open and the enemy troops in their midst. Instead of becoming republican heroes, the leaders of the rebels became notorious for their cowardice. To say that the commanders of the rebellion led eventful lives subsequently is an understatement. Although they had abandoned the city of Geneva they did not believe that they were abandoning their cause. Their aim was to move all of their supporters in the city to a ‘new Geneva’ or to persuade the major commercial monarchies of Europe, above all Britain and France, to respect the right of the people to resist their magistrates in popular republics (in other words they hoped that if there were future revolutions at Geneva the French would respect the will of the people rather than putting down the rebellion by force of arms). The rebellion continued but took a different form in the following years, encompassing plans for the reform of constitutions, for the establishment of moral commerce, for the abandonment of empire and the inauguration of an era of perpetual peace, across Europe and beyond.

The story of how the Genevans, among the most peace-loving people of Europe, famous for their Calvinism and their commerce, came to be faced with a choice between pitiful surrender before troops led by Catholic France and mass suicide is told in Against War and Empire, Geneva, Britain and France in the Eighteenth Century. The story begins with enlightenment Geneva achieving a prominence in the world it had last experienced in the evangelizing decades following Calvin’s conversion of the city to Protestantism in 1536. The famous Genevan Academy, where Calvinist pastors were trained and citizens educated, was called one of the eyes of Europe by Thomas Jefferson as late as the 1790s (the other eye was deemed to be the University of Edinburgh). Geneva was a commercial centre at the apex several significant trade routes. It remained a Rome for Protestants. But the republic was in crisis because the city was divided between magistrates who increasingly looked to France, and citizens who believed that French morals would destroy both Calvinism and trade, by introducing luxury and selfishness into the state. Violence flared in the 1730s and 1760s but reached a peak in 1782. Afterwards those Genevans who believed that republicanism had a future in the modern world sought to use both British ministers and French philosophers in their campaign. They turned to Rousseau, Voltaire, Jeremy Bentham and other luminaries for support (which was only rarely forthcoming). The activities of the Genevan rebels had consequences for British perceptions of Europe, for the course of the French Revolution and for the identity of the continent over the decades of war after 1792. There are obvious parallels with the circumstances of small states today.

Professor Richard Whatmore directs the Sussex Centre for Intellectual History at the University of Sussex.

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