Published online by Cambridge University Press: 11 December 2020
What I shall try to do in this contribution is to show that the subject of the present volume – the Sister Republics – is not just of interest to professional historians but to anyone who is concerned with the future of our European societies. This may sound a bit pretentious or too far-fetched but it is, I believe, a crucial point. Today, more than ever, we need to learn from our common past and to face our equally common future with some clarity of purpose.
The phrase ‘Sister Republics’ does in fact belong to a very particular moment in European history, the years that immediately preceded and followed the French Revolution, roughly the 1780s and 1790s. The formula is not, however, a French invention. It was coined and promoted by patriots of different nationalities (Dutch, Italian, Belgian, Swiss, etc.) who had fled their countries and found refuge in France, in some cases following a short-lived revolutionary experience. Their collective hope – beyond their specific national concerns – was that, after the success of the American War of Independence, the victory of the revolution in a large Continental country like France would promote republican government across Europe, leading to a federation of free states united by common values: government by the people, the respect of citizens’ natural rights, peace, and national independence. This project reversed a belief that had dominated European political thinking for a couple of centuries, namely the view that republics were a thing of the past, a form of regime that was only suitable for the small city-states of antiquity and of the Middle Ages. It also replaced the traditional vision of relations between European countries as necessarily competitive – if not openly conflictual – with one that focused upon their potential for synergy and cooperation.
As it happens, things did not turn out quite as the partisans of republicanism had hoped. In 1792, France did indeed become a large and powerful republic, and the French revolutionary government did initially offer friendship and support to those neighbouring states that wished to follow in the same path.