Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Richard Whatmore's "Against War and Empire"

Richard Whatmore is Professor of Intellectual History at the University of Sussex UK and director of the Sussex Centre for Intellectual History.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Against War and Empire: Geneva, Britain, and France in the Eighteenth Century, and reported the following:
Against War and Empire is about the struggle by a tiny republic to remain independent at a time in history when its traditional markets were being strangled by foreign competition, when its politics were being undermined by interference by imperial neighbors, and when the rise of commerce and luxury were seen to be threatening its national identity, and especially its religious identity.

The tiny republic was Geneva and the time was the eighteenth century and especially the decades leading up to the French Revolution and after. Geneva, as the Rome for Protestants, was seen by many of its inhabitants to be losing its Calvinist identity, to be losing its economic power, and above all to be losing its liberty.

The page 99 test reveals the background to the story. Two imperial powers, Britain and France, were battling for international supremacy during a second hundred-years war. Britain was accused of being obsessed by trade and of not giving a damn for morals or mores. France was accused of seeking to dominate Europe, by making itself a universal monarchy, and of plotting to destroy Protestantism and replacing it with its own Gallican version of Catholicism. The French accused the British of secretly fostering civil war within France (in other words of paying revolutionaries to do exactly this). One person who was convinced of this was Founding Father Benjamin Franklin. Franklin was worried that the independence of North America might be jeopardized by civil war in France paid for by Britain (French soldiers were of course fighting alongside the patriots against the British in North America).

Page 99 reveals that Franklin’s acquaintance, Jean-Louis Soulavie, a Catholic priest and natural philosopher, believed that the British government was paying Genevan revolutionaries to initiate civil war in France. Later in his life Soulavie was certain that the French Revolution of 1789 was caused by the British-funded Genevan rebels.

Later in the book I show how wrong Soulavie was. There was no British-inspired conspiracy. But the Genevans did try to save the independence of their state by becoming involved in politics in London and Paris, and in making the Genevan cause one embraced by cosmopolitans and friends of liberty and Protestantism everywhere.

The broader story is one of how modern states and politicians face difficulties in the midst of the ill winds of commerce, against a background of the clash of imperial rivals, and with corruption and inequality permanent challenges. The Genevans believed in a moralized world of liberty, pure religion and honest trade. Their great fear was that the modern world was one where democracy did not work, because markets were too powerful and states too large. Their solution was to try and abolish war and empire. The parallel with our times does not need to be underlined.
Learn more about Against War and Empire at the Yale University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue