Revolutionary Yoke

William Doyle

  • The Cult of the Nation in France: Inventing Nationalism 1680-1800 by David A. Bell
    Harvard, 304 pp, £30.95, November 2001, ISBN 0 674 00447 7

Recording the moment Samuel Johnson startled his friends in 1775 by declaring patriotism to be the ‘last refuge of a scoundrel’, Boswell felt that the definition needed to be glossed. Johnson ‘did not mean’, he assured readers, ‘a real and generous love of our country, but that pretended patriotism which so many, in all ages and countries, have made a cloak for self-interest’. Europe, in that case, was a rascally place indeed. In Johnson’s England ambitious politicians had been cloaking themselves in patriotism since the 1730s, and George III himself had begun his reign glorying in the name of Briton. Across the Irish Sea, the legislative hegemony of Westminster over Dublin was stridently denounced by self-styled Irish patriots, some of whom, such as Henry Flood, dreamed of forcing themselves into office thereby. Within a few years, the Dutch Republic would take up arms against the Prince of Orange, and these resisters, too, called themselves ‘patriots’. They were copied in the late 1780s by Belgians revolting against the headlong rationalisations of Joseph II. By then Poland was seething with patriotic indignation at the way foreigners had sliced off portions of its historic territory under a Russian-imposed King. And France, even as Johnson spoke, was still echoing with applause at the return from exile of the magistrates of the parlements on the accession of Louis XVI, an event hailed by their supporters as a patriotic triumph. By 1789 the word ‘patriotic’ in France was practically a synonym for ‘revolutionary’. Johnson, if he had lived to see it, would certainly have felt his definition vindicated.

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