A History Query, 19th Century France vs England

Let me premise this by saying I love history but have read little of English or French history, short of anything to do with the World Wars. But I am currently reading David McCullough’s book The Greater Journey, Americans in Paris. The book is basically about American artists and authors who spent time in Paris from roughly 1830-1890, but it is also a history of Paris during that time.

I have been surprised by the violence that occurred in Paris from say, the French Revolution to the Paris Commune of 1871. There were smaller violent uprisings in between. French killing French in the most violent and uncivilized fashion, representative of a true hatred between factions.

I wonder why in France, and not in England, which seems except for some religious based violence much earlier had become fairly stable? Was the treatment of the monarchies that different, the treatment of the social classes, leadership, economics, an older history of political acceptance, what?

The French seemed capable of erupting at almost any time while England seemed so very stable.

Again, my background on the subject is very limited, so I am open to suggestions as to why this was and to any books you would recommend.

Caveat that this period is about 50-100 years before the period I formally studied, but, a few ideas:
France was politically unstable during the long 19th century compared to Britain. It passed from republic-to-dictator-to-emperor-to-monarchy and back again several times in that span. I think possibly there were as many as 10 regime changes: Revolutionary France, First Republic, Napoleon, Bourbon Restoration, Second Republic, Second Empire, Third Republic, then relative stability in the Belle Epoque, off the top of my head, and I think I’m missing something. Add to that the extreme violence of the French Revolution was still part of the living memory of some people during this period. Violence becomes normalized and thus you are more likely to be okay with repeating it.

Moreover, this time period in continental Europe was itself rather violent. There were lots of revolutions and pogroms elsewhere. The Long 19th-century is often read as a transitionary period between Europe’s mercantile monarchist past and its liberal democratic present. Those are big changes and come with a cost, especially given the rapid reforms some polities were making (several of what we now recognize as human, labor, or liberty rights emerged in this period).

England went through a very violent period a few centuries earlier then stabilized itself with the parliamentary monarchy that sort of exists to this day. I don’t want to take too positivist/developmentalist a view of things, but that could explain some differences.

Also, France was frequently at war during its time since it became France. Again, this speaks to the normalization of violence. French culture in general could at times be rather violent, as were most pre-modern states. If you have an interest in cultural history, this (academically) famous book is good for getting a sense of French culture during the Enlightenment that directly led to the Revolution without being too dry or inaccessible:

I can only remember tid bits from my history classes about this period in time; during this time period there were lots of revolutions in Europe, so why not in England or Russia?

The short answer is that England was the most liberal and thus had the least pressure for revolutions, and the Russia was the most conservative and kept everyone locked down and in fear so there was no revolts. Everyone else was somewhere in between and that was the wrong mixture, so Boom! revolts everywhere.

Also, as you note, these competing ideas (democracy, anarchy, monarchy, etc.) were diametrically opposed and so they did have true hatred for each other. Factions were very divided. The views of the other represented a fundamentally opposed view that could not be reconciled with their own. Thus, murder.

The Church probably contributed as well in some instances. Its influence was waning in this period and it was not beyond inciting violence (or supporting those who did) to achieve its political ends.

I think politics is a mix of precedent and capacity.

  1. The tension between monarchism and republicanism was never really resolved after the Napoleonic wars. The restored monarchy was propped up by foreign powers, and the taint of terror and nationalism stained the character of Republicans for a century. Indeed that precedent of revolutionary terror would eventually find its final protege in the Bolsheviks, who looked closely at the fate of the Paris Commune both as their inspiration and their warning.

  2. Centralization of the French govt and society in Paris - basically all roads led to Paris, making it possible for revolutions based primarily in Paris to have nationwide effects.

  3. Cultural tradition. Basically it became a “tradition” for the urban plebs to agitate and riot in Paris - something that continues to this day.

  4. Anglo Saxon law was already more egalitarian than the French and had a shorter distance to travel - the US Revolutionary War also marks close to
    the end of the royal house of Britain actually making political and military decisions above the rule of parliament - afterwords the role of Prime Minister became effectively the head of the UK. By contrast the monarchs of France kept trying to reinstate as much power into the monarchy as they could get away with.

  5. Poltical competence. Actually it was a bit of see
    saw as both republican and monarchical governments went back and forth between competent and incompetent administration, leaving the other side a chance to seize power once more.

France had deep, deep three-estates issues that led up to the French Revolution. And then instead of solving/dealing with those massive class inequities, they instead got Napoleon conquering Europe. And then they got some more revolution. And then a little more after that. I mean, even well into the 19th century, France’s economy resembled one that was almost feudal in nature.

At any rate, the Revolutions podcast does a great job of covering in detail the French Revolution, and then the revolutions that followed in the restoration and then abolishment of monarchy after Napoleon.

There are several factors I would point to.

The Magna Carta and constitutional monarchy tradition

An actually empowered parliament

The legacy of Cromwell and the English Revolution 200 years prior


Starting off with the Magna Carta and Parliament. England was distinct from France, in that, they had revolutionary periods previously, had not had the absolute monarchy, had greater dynastic turnover, the legacy of the tetrarchy, Danelaw, cultural assimilation of Welsh Scottish and Irish populations, etc led to a state and regime that was not as absolutist. The head of state was not as powerful as the French absolute monarchy or later regimes. They had gone through periods of upheaval and had responded by diffusing power, giving greater regional autonomy and voice. Still extremely limited by modern standards, but a history of real representation.

See Cromwell and co had successfully overthrown the monarchy. And though it was only for a time, the return of monarchy came with several strings attached. This weaker state head certainly helped prevent the kind of scenarios we see in the revolutions of 1848 in places across Germany, Austria, France, etc. there the absolute monarchs were so afraid of any loosening leading to a Marxist takeover (the real deal Marx is alive and advocating for at the time Marxist) that they ratcheted up. This led to a very bloody year across Europe.

England was not immune, but it seems much of the revolutionary spirit and fervor centered around Ireland. That was the hotbed of unrest in Great Britain. Which we would see again post WWI, when most of Ireland formally broke away.

Plus do not discount the effect of empire. England had a common national goal and interest. Remember this is the time of the conquest of India. The British pride in empire probably helped suppress the worst. Because the biggest unrest came in places that were losing, or lacked, such ambitions.

That’s off the top of my head, and I certainly grant I could be wrong about some factors. But when I look over the history of England and France, the character of the mid 19th century revolutions, and why England was largely spared that is what I see.

It also helps that after the English Civil War basically the monarchy of England was an importer’s market and that those they imported in had very few heirs, so that a strong monarchical family tradition never really developed or had the chance to crack heads. For a good 50 years or so it was clear that the monarchy of England rested on the approval of Parliment.

British, or at least English, political development was stabilized pretty much by 1688 and the Glorious Revolution that finalized the shift from a traditional monarchy to a parliamentary monarchy. What you saw in the 18th century then was the slow consolidation of power by an elite derived largely from wealth and less and less from aristocratic or hereditary traditions. Governmental power was increasingly in the hands of people whose eyes were on wealth rather than status or hierarchy, in a traditional sense, which made for somewhat of a more diverse ruling class.

Mostly, though, I’d argue England was much better at imposing ideological conformity and in creating a political system that included the more crucial elements of the economic elite. Unlike France, where power rested more anachronistically with the nobility and Church, and where your up and coming bourgeoisie found their economic power way out of whack with their political impotence, England became a nation of merchants, manufacturers, and bankers. This insured that the people with the most real ability to affect day to day life and power had their hands on the levers of government, and hence were unlikely to foment rebellion.

There was a lot of poverty and oppression of the working class, but a combination of nationalism, isolation from the rest of Europe, and sops in the way of English political tradition and myths of yeomenry and independence were pretty effective in defusing problems before they became critical. When problems did occur, like the Chartists and such, a combination of a much more effective internal security apparatus, more wealth to use to effectively bribe the workers, and nationalism served as good tools to secure order.

tl;dr, the English did modern a lot better.

I’m sure people here are are much more well-versed in history than I am, but it’s hard not to be skeptical here.

I’m always skeptical of using only anglo-saxon sources to arrive to the conclusion that England was “better”, even more when it comes to archenemy France.

Since you asked, here are a few. It tends toward the academic, but they’re more readable than people assume. They are all still available and not too pricey the way some academic books are. These in addition to The Great Cat Massacre linked above, which is werid and fun in a way academic works usually aren’t.

Eric Hobsbawm’s Age of. . . series provide good overviews of the modern era (1789-1991) broken up into discreet sub-eras. It’s good and accessible unless you have a total aversion to his theoretical approach. Of these, probably start with this as it gives a good overview of European history and investigate the others if you find them particularly striking.

George Rude’s The Crowd in History: A Study of Popular Disturbances in France And England, 1730-1848 is a bit old but does a comparative history of France and England. Historiographically important for helping start the now standard trend of ‘bottom-up’ and social history (i.e., not ‘great men’ creating change, but rather ordinary people).

Lynn Hunt’s classic in cultural history that might explain why the French were so violent following the French Revolution (briefly, the experience of the Revolution showed them how they could bring about change via political action).

Vanessa Schwartz’ Spectacular Realities for how Paris (and, by extension, Europe itself) became relatively stable during the end of the nineteenth century. This is a personal favorite.

Victorian Babylon, which is similar to the above, but about how London (so not as cool as the one about Paris) became modern and the results of it.

For the record, I am always and forever #TeamFrance when it comes to France vs. England/Britain.

Which is perfectly fine, good even!

In this case there is an element of fact to it. The question here is about the 19th century revolutionary violence, and why did England have less of it? Less revolutions, regime change, people killed in violent protests. And it is a matter of historical record that, comparatively, England did have less. So they did in fact do better in this narrow context.

Nothing about culture, cuisine, or government aside from that. Was the British parliamentary monarchy better than the French absolute one? Eh matter of debate and criteria you use to judge (i.e. effectiveness, nobility, economy, personal freedom, view from the bottom etc.). But when it came to avoiding the violence and unrest England did do the 19th century better, so we are spitballing why :)

Really Excellent response. I’d only add in that France had a history of political and social instability that predated Louis XIV’s Ancien Regime, really since the Hundred Years War. The apparent stability during the reigns of the Troi Louis from the death of Mazarin to the financial troubles of Louis XVI that led to the Revolution really are an outlier.

Thanks for all the great responses. I did assume the relative stability of England’s political system and instability of France’s had to play a huge part of it. The English system did have time to mature before the French really got a chance to start.

And while I only mention French violence toward other French they were surely not the only country on the continent to kill it’s own. The latter Spanish Civil War, and events like the more recent Bosnian War stand out. And of course the Nazi’s willingness to kill other Germans based on races or religion.

“Better” in this context simply means better at navigating the emerging world system–a system that, surprise surprise, the British were at the forefront of shaping. It’s not a moral judgment at all, just as “modern” is not ipso facto a “good” adjective. It’s just descriptive.

I’d add to the great responses so far that Britain had the luxury of being on an island defended by the best fleet in the world at the time, essentially eliminating any external existential threat. France, on the other hand, was neck deep in continental affairs, particularly unification movements in Italy and Germany. At the same time foreign powers actively intervened in their internal politics as regime status quo in France was seen as critical to the post-Napoleonic status quo. Also, Britain’s trade network and early growth of manufacturing made it less susceptible to the economic shocks that blew up in the 1840s.