The Birth of Nations
Transforming Monarchies into Nation-States

Revolution and Change

It remains for us to consider the impact of modernist ideology on the lives of individuals living within societies subsumed under its dogma. Modernist ideology, like so many other terms used in the context of human knowledge, is ambiguous. Over the years there have been many attempts to understand what modernity is and how it has been used to describe society, social structures; and group relations. When we think in terms of the changes that serve to reveal the impact of modernity on individuals and societies, we must keep in mind that we are trying to determine how people were being conditioned to think. In this context, the view of society itself was being transformed from one based on the absolute rule of Kings to one that was more properly suited to human rationality. This conceptual transformation was in keeping with the move towards secularization or the idea that life, society and the universe in which we live can be understood without reference to God or any form of supernatural power. By implication, this turning away from established authority eventually came to include any royal lineage claimed by the monarchy. Thus, the epistemological shift towards Objectivism served as a guiding principle under which it was held that the world is what it is, independent of human beliefs or desires and that everything that exists in the world has its own nature that can be explained without reference to supernatural powers. What was basically being taught was that all phenomena can be reduced to scientific explanation. In other words, it was no longer necessary for individuals to judge their actions in relation to some supreme being. Rather, under modernist ideology individuals are free and supported by the beliefs of the people living within the boundaries of their own society.

When we think about the transition between existing European monarchies and their subsequently structured civil societies, we can abstractly conclude that it was a good thing to have happened. However, this does not give us a feel for what living during this period might have been like. In broad strokes we can say that between the middle of the seventeenth century and the end of the eighteenth century, European countries were engaged in a series of differing wars and conflicts between those that believed in the old power structures of monarchies and those that believed in the new power structures of parliaments, councils and other such quasi-representative governments. To accomplish such an historical change for so many people of different lands required a shifting of alliances to wage wars that eventually resulted in the settling of views on a variety of issues involving religion, politics and power. What is of interest for our story is not that we come to understand the particulars of each of these events but, rather, that we get a feel for the historical pivoting that was taking place in European societies as a whole. I want to consider two different aspects of this transformation that will help us to better understand the force and impact that was beneath the surface of so many different battlefronts: First, I want to talk about the similarities between wars occurring in different countries so that we can get a feel for what the people inhabiting the region were confronted with and, secondly, I want to consider the intellectual developments that helped to support this climate of social change that was occurring.

While it is my position that both the British Civil War (1642-1651) and the French Revolution (1789-1799) were based on the same underlying changes in European consciousness and serve as bookends to the slice of life I wish to herein consider, their particular points of contention among opposing groups and factions were obviously very different. Also, I do not wish to imply that there were no other battles before the British Civil War or after the French Revolution worthy of the attention of traditional academicians. Rather, I am merely telling a story about the impact of modernity on the lives of individuals living within countries subsumed under its dogma. In this context I believe that is it very significant to consider that in both instances monarchists, royalists or those who believed in the rule of Kings were being pitted against parliamentarians, reformists or those that were seeking to define a new form of representative government. In fact, this is the essential or fundamental pivot point upon which such historical change was brought about.

For the British the focal point of the struggle was manifest between Charles I and the House of Commons. In other words, the battle was viewed as a civil war precisely because the primary points of contention were centered on the fundamental differences of opinion surrounding governance. The struggle for power began within the House of Commons where both “Royalists” and “Parliamentarians” sought to gain control. Alternatively, the French Revolution was viewed as a revolution precisely because power was being taken by brute force from the monarchy by those aligned under the intent to bring reform to the governance of the country. While the British Civil War appeared to be a top-down phenomenon between those that govern, the French Revolution appeared to be a bottom-up battle between disenchanted peasants, an expanding class of bourgeoisie without political power and the fiscal crisis brought about by participation in the American Revolution. By the latter part of the eighteenth century French reformists, led by Maximilien Robespierre, engaged in a campaign known as the “Reign of Terror” that brought death to anyone suspected of alliance to the monarchy and thereby brought an end to the revolution. What is important for our story, however, is the intellectual climate that existed in Western European countries at the time.