Political debate was transnational in the Europe of the 1790s to a higher degree than ever before. Varieties of Enlightenment thought and ideas of the gradually radicalizing French Revolution crossed national boundaries. Traditional monarchies were challenged by the strengthening of older oppositional discourses and the rise of new oppositional discourses, which often emphasized the involvement of ‘the people’ as ‘citizens’ in political debate and decision-making side by side with the ruler and old elites, and which sometimes also redefined ‘democracy’ as a form of government. The expanding – and in the case of several countries increasingly free – printed media was becoming interested in reporting on the proceedings of the representative institutions, creating new links between them and the general public. Politicians – both in the sense of political writers and that of acting statesmen –were readily drawing comparisons between constitutions at home and abroad.
The transformation and radicalization of Western political thought in the late eighteenth century took place in stages, through international interaction. French Enlightenment thinkers gave new connotations to democracy; the American colonists and their British sympathizers emphasized popular representation and increased parliamentary publicity; and the British political elite began to re-evaluate democracy and publicity within their mixed constitution and parliamentary government in the 1780s. The Dutch Patriots, aware of all of these trends of thought, combined the concepts of representation and democracy into ‘democracy by representation’. When the French joined the process of transformation with their Revolution in 1789, much of Europe was at first uncritically enthusiastic. However, the revolutionary process led to more radical redefinitions of democracy, citizenship, and other basic political concepts than anyone had ever expected, which made much of Europe react against such excesses. By 1795, the French were already exporting their revolutionary notions to their neighbouring countries: the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Italy.
In this section, we discuss the reception and consequences of this exportation project. The comparative and transnational European context is taken into account as we view republican and revolutionary understandings of the concepts of democracy and citizenship in the national spheres of Switzerland, Italy, and the Netherlands.