Sister Republics

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the revolutionary heritage
the political lives of the sister republics
the place of the sister republics in european history

The term sister republics denotes those states set up in the 1790s by the invading armies of Revolutionary France. The institutions of these republics were remodeled along the lines of republican France, usually to the point of direct imitation, and their governments were staffed by professed supporters of the new French regime, referred to as "Jacobins" in older historiography and more accurately as "patriots" at the time, because they seldom equated to the French Montagnard faction of the Terror period of 1793 to 1794, and, as foreigners, were often regarded as suspicious by that regime. The sister republics were all west European states, often with names taken from the classical past. They ranged from the Batavian Republic (the former Dutch Republic/United Provinces) in the north to the Parthenopean Republic (the mainland section of the Kingdom of Naples) in the south.

the revolutionary heritage

The origins of this particular kind of specifically ideological expansion are found in two elements of the early phases of the French Revolutionary Wars, which began in 1792. At the outset of the war between Revolutionary France and the Holy Roman Empire, the French Revolutionary government had the stated aim of helping any people, anywhere, who wished to overthrow their existing rulers and to establish a regime based on the principles of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, propounded in 1789. The French declared themselves ready to support revolts in this cause, by force. This doctrine—described by its proponents as "war on the castle and peace upon the cottage"—had been encouraged by many foreign politicians and agitators of revolutionary principles, who had taken refuge in Paris from 1789 onward, usually after being persecuted at home. The patriot "Anacharsis" Cloots, driven out of the Austrian Netherlands (now Belgium) for his part in the anti-Austrian Vonckist revolt of 1789, was the most vociferous among them, but they also included the Englishman Thomas Paine, the author of Common Sense and The Rights of Man, who had behaved in similar fashion in the early stages of the American Revolution, and Peter Ochs, a Swiss. Cloots did not see his homeland become a sister republic; it was annexed directly to France, a victim of another revolutionary doctrine, that of "natural frontiers," which placed the Austrian Netherlands on the wrong side of the Rhine to qualify as a sister republic. Paine was elected "deputy for the human race" by the National Assembly—and later jailed by the Terrorists as an enemy agent—but did not head an English sister republic. The agitation of these figures was crucial, however, in convincing the French government of 1792 to 1793, led by Jacques-Pierre Brissot and the Girondin faction, that the French would be welcomed elsewhere in western Europe as liberators. At this stage, only the future Terrorist, Maximilien Robespierre, refrained from enthusiasm for the creation of prospective sister republics, noting that "No one likes armed missionaries." Generally, he was proved more correct than Cloots or the Girondins.

the political lives of the sister republics

The sister republics had three major failings: they were brought into being only as a result of war, with all its attendant horrors and disruptions; they were foreign in origin—and more specifically, too novel in character—to most of those who became their "citizens"; above all, their resources were quickly appropriated by the French armies, as the basis of the Revolution's military strategy of "living off the land." For ordinary people, the creation of a sister republic was the result of invasion, rape, and pillage, and their institutionalization brought heavy taxation and conscription—"the blood tax." Whatever innovations and improvements the governments of the sister republics managed to introduce during the 1790s, they had to labor under French military occupation, and served as little more than milk cows for the armies of the country their rulers referred to as "the Great Nation."

It was for the last of these reasons that, despite the narrow support they attracted, the French could still be drawn to the concept of sister republics throughout the 1790s. The last such plan, in 1798, was for Ireland, which would have proved a useful "back door" for an invasion of Britain. In 1796 a French force had been sent to the southern coast of Ireland, but was driven back by bad weather. But when the Irish patriots, centered on the Society of United Irishmen led by Wolfe Tone, rose in 1798, they did so alone. This example is indicative of how French attitudes to potential sister republics had shifted in the light of the indigenous resistance they created: Early French optimism had given way to pragmatism that bordered on cynicism, in that France would commit troops only if Tone's organization initiated a reasonably successful rebellion, sustained by indigenous support. When the rebellion failed, the French held back.

A year later, the Parthenopean Republic in southern Italy collapsed in the face of widespread, popular, clerical-led resistance. Here, a peasant army (the so-called Army of the Holy Faith) drawn from Calabria and led by Cardinal Fabrizio Ruffo made common cause with the lazzaroni, the working classes of Naples, to destroy the republic without foreign troops. In Piedmont, in northwestern Italy, the short-lived republic of 1798 to 1799, set up during a disastrous French military retreat, was also assailed by huge peasant risings in support of the advancing Austro-Russian armies; after a brief flirtation with a revived Piedmontese "Consulate," the French opted for full, direct annexation. The year 1799 endures as "the black year" among progressive Italians, just as 1798 is a tragic landmark for Irish secularist republicans. For the French at the time, these were also lessons in caution, marking the sister republics as a phenomenon of a particular period of the French Revolution.

The Batavian Republic was the first sister republic to be created, in 1795. It was followed by the Cispadane, which was set up in late 1796 by Napoleon and was carved out of Papal and Austrian territory south of the river Po. The Cisalpine, centered on the Austrian-ruled Duchy of Milan—Lombardy—was created in June 1797, at which time the Cispadane was merged into it. Also created in 1797 were the Ligurian and Helvetic republics, followed by the Roman (1798) and the Parthenopean (1799). Plans for a sister republic in the Rhine-land came to nothing, the same fate as the "Irish Republic" of 1798. All were artificial creations, ideologically, but some were built on more solid foundations than others. The Helvetic and Batavian republics had strong historical roots; Helvetica is still the official name of Switzerland in the Romansh language. They were created in established political units, both of which had real, if nonrevolutionary, republican traditions. The Dutch had seen a revolution of their own—the "patriot revolt"—in 1787 to 1788, many of whose supporters rallied to the new regime. The Helvetic Republic survived, essentially, because the French were trusted to keep its warring factions in balance. In contrast, Napoleon revived the Cisalpine Republic in 1802, simply because he needed its resources, and knew he could count on support there, if the only alternative was a return to Austrian, as opposed to native, rule. Where such alternatives did exist, support for the French was very weak. The Parthenopean Republic, whose territory, if hardly its regime, were of ancient origin as a state, was revived as the Napoleonic Kingdom of Naples in 1806, when Napoleon put his brother Joseph on the throne and then replaced him in 1808, with his sister Caroline and his brother-in-law, Joachim Murat, but only after the Bourbons had betrayed their alliance with Napoleon. The French never really controlled it effectively. It remained a territorial state after 1815, when the Bourbons were restored, until the unification of Italy in 1861. The Ligurian Republic comprised the territory of the Republic of St. George, centered on Genoa in northwestern Italy, one of the oldest states in Europe; the French simply purged the old, aristocratic rulers and changed the name in 1797, later absorbing it into France, in 1805. The Batavian Republic went the same way, although it took longer: set up in 1795, it became the Kingdom of Holland, under Napoleon's younger brother Louis in 1806; finally, in 1810, it was made into French departments. Unlike the Ligurian Republic, however, it regained full independence in 1814. Most of the others, however, were short lived and artificial in nature; they seldom had real popular support and were propped up only by French arms. Where their lives were prolonged, it was because they were "converted" by Napoleon into "satellite kingdoms" thus enduring until his fall in 1814. This was the case for the Cisalpine—later Italian—Republic, which became the Kingdom of Italy (in 1805), which was ruled by Napoleon through his viceroy, Eugène de Beauharnais. The Roman Republic of 1798 to 1799, formed from the core of the Papal States, was never resurrected, however; when the French returned in 1809, they simply annexed its erstwhile territories to France.

Imitation of Revolutionary France was manifest institutionally in the creation of elected assemblies, where possible; the introduction of legal codes and the metric system of weights and measures; and the reorganization of administration, both local and national, along French lines. Many patriots, however, also sought to adapt these institutions to their indigenous traditions. This was usually lost on the majority of the populace, but where the republics survived, as in Switzerland and the Netherlands, and came under the leadership of more moderate patriots—such as Hans Reinhard in the former and Rutger Jan Schimmelpenninck in the latter—the experience made a direct and lasting contribution to the future. A civil war between traditionalists and supporters of a unitary state on the French model broke out in Switzerland in 1801, leading to Napoleon's Act of Mediation (1803). Politically, this favored the traditionalists, supporters of a more federal system that guaranteed the autonomy of the nineteen cantons, and thus the power bases of the old elites; unitarists such as Ochs now fell from power. Nevertheless, many institutional reforms were retained: religious toleration, legal equality, and educational and financial reforms modeled on those of France survived, but were now the preserve of the cantons, not a central government. This important compromise helped perpetuate much of the essence of the original sister republic after 1803, and then after 1814.

The Batavian Republic witnessed a comparable if not exact process of evolution. The patriot movement of 1787 to 1788 soon reemerged to take the reins of government and oust the Regent elites and the House of Orange, when the French definitively occupied the Netherlands in 1795, but such unity as there was in their ranks was short lived. As in Switzerland, serious divisions soon emerged between supporters of a unitarist, proto-French state, and those who sought to retain the autonomy of the traditional provinces and cities, "the federalists." Also as in Switzerland, these divisions tended to coincide with differing views on the scope of the new electorate, unitarists being, in the main, democrats, and federalists—such as Schimmelpenninck—oligarchs. In contrast to the history of the Helvetic Republic, Dutch disputes were not settled quickly, and the whole period, 1795 to 1806, was marked by a series of brief or abortive constitutional settlements. This lurching between unitarism and federalism was perpetuated as much by the political shifts within the French Directory as by internal Dutch politics. Only after 1799, under Napoleon, did the federalists gain any lasting hold on office, but the unitarists had made little impact on the country, at the local level. In direct contrast to the Swiss experience, whereas the Batavian Republic paid lip service to a unitary constitution for much of the time, the provinces and cities did little or nothing to implement proto-French reforms in the law, education, or financial policy. When Napoleon deposed Schimmelpenninck and created the Kingdom of Holland in 1806, the emphasis toward greater centralization gained impetus, and it was under Louis that the centralized state really took shape. This was the model adopted by the House of Orange, on its restoration in 1813. The Batavian Republic opened up a fundamental debate about the character of the new regime, but left it unresolved during its lifetime.

The prolongation of the Cisalpine/Italian Republic as the Kingdom of Italy did not achieve popular support, but it did influence the political classes of northern Italy, and French political culture put down real, if complex and nuanced, roots. The first republic lasted for only twenty-two months and collapsed in popular revolts in the wake of the French retreat of 1799, but it saw the first written constitution in Italy—slavishly modeled by Napoleon on that of the French Directory—together with a national flag, many legal reforms, and the creation of internal free trade. It would have counted for little, had Napoleon not reconquered Italy in 1800, and reestablished the republic, renamed "Italian," officially in 1802 and de facto from 1801. It was in this period, under the vice presidency of Francesco Melzi d'Eril, a moderate reformer akin to Schimmelpenninck and Reinhard, that the new regime took root and won more widespread support among the traditional elites. In these years, formerly disparate, small polities were welded into a unitary state, with no compromises to traditional political or administrative norms, and French laws and institutions had time to implant themselves. The direct nature of Napoleonic—as opposed to French Revolutionary—influence in the Cisalpine/Italian Republic gave it a more authoritarian character than in the Helvetic and Batavian cases. It was among the most heavily taxed and conscripted parts of Napoleonic Europe; like Batavia and Helvetia, it always had large contingents of French troops quartered on it, to spare France itself the full cost of war.

the place of the sister republics in european history

The lasting legacy of the sister republics was twofold. In practical terms, the creation of the proto-French new regimes was meaningful only in the cases of Batavia, Helvetia, and the Cisalpine/Italy, as these were the only republics to survive for an appreciable length of time. In these cases, however, much was done to lay the foundations for the character of these countries in the nineteenth century; the moments of republican reform mattered mainly because they were followed by over a decade of Napoleonic retrenchment, but they also served later generations of liberal and radical activists as a nebulous alternative model to Napoleonic authoritarianism. In this, their legacy merges with those of the more ephemeral republics in southern Italy and even Ireland. These brief, embattled moments became symbols to later generations of the possibility of truly liberal, parliamentary politics "on home soil." The more embattled and short lived the republican experience, the more heroic the failure. The Italian liberal Benedetto Croce (1866–1952) spoke thus of the patriots of the Parthenopean Republic, who were driven into the sea by their own "fellow citizens": "Our sympathies are with the precursors of the new Italy … they are with the flowers of meridional intellect and against obscurantism." In the years after 1945, when they might so easily have been equated with Quisling-like collaboration, the patriots of the sister republics were actually resurrected by Dutch and Italian liberals, as beacons of humanity and progress, in the postwar quest for a "usable past." The contemporary reality is better understood by the lynching of Giuseppe Prina, the finance minister of the Republic/Kingdom of Italy, by a mob in Milan, in 1814.

See alsoDirectory; French Revolution; French Revolutionary Wars and Napoleonic Wars; Jacobins; Napoleonic Empire.


Blanning, T. C. W. The Origins of the French Revolutionary Wars. London, 1986.

——. The French Revolutionary Wars, 1787–1802. London, 1996.

Elliott, Marianne. Wolfe Tone: Prophet of Irish Independence. New Haven, Conn., 1989. The best account of the Irish patriots and of 1798.

Grab, Alexander. Napoleon and the Transformation of Europe. Basingstoke, U.K., 2003. Contains information on western European countries across the period.

Oechsli, Wihelm. A History of Switzerland, 1499–1914. Translated by Eden and Cedar Paul. Cambridge, U.K., 1922.

Schama, Simon. Patriots and Liberators: Revolution in the Netherlands, 1780–1813. London, 1977. The best study in English of the Batavian Republic.

Woolf, Stuart. A History of Italy, 1700–1860: The Social Constraints of Political Change. London, 1979. Still the best general guide to Italy in this period.

Michael Broers