A War of Ideals: The Difference between War in Regency England and Revolutionary France

For a good portion of the Regency Era (and for the last decade of the 18th Century), Napoleonic WarEngland and France found themselves at war.


War was hardly a new thing for either country. With past wars between England and France, greed, land acquisition, and strengthening the monarchy were the usual catalysts and goals. But with the advent of the French Revolution (and the American Revolution preceding it), a new mentality regarding war arose among the common people.

Before the American and French Revolutions, commoners fought in wars that served to benefit the aristocracy or monarchy. With these new revolutions, regular citizens and common people had a better reason to fight: themselves. Each man standing in France’s army believed he would have a better life if he was allowed to choose who governed his country, rather than be subject to a hereditary monarch.

One thing that the British initially failed to understand about the French  and Americans was WHY they wanted to fight. If you study the French Revolution, American Revolution, Napoleonic War and then the War of 1812, you’ll find this misunderstanding for every single war. With the changes in the French and American governments came a type of energy and belief that the mass of the population could fight for freedom, or for a government they wanted rather than one handed to them by a monarch. And Britain failed to grasp these ideals.

Napoleonic WarsIf you were to ask a Frenchman in 1793 and 1803 why he fought, he would have given an answer that involved something about freedom and thwarting tyranny. Even if you were to ask this question a decade later in 1813, after twenty years of war, the answer may well have been the same. “We want freedom. We don’t want another Bourbon king.”

Interestingly enough, if you were to ask a British subject in 1793 why he fought, he likely would have answered “because the king wants us to fight.” If you were to ask the same British soldier that question in 1803, his answer might well be the same, or he might say something to the effect of “because I don’t trust that French Consulate and Napoleon.” If you were to ask the same question again in 1813, the answer would likely be, “Because that Corsican Monster Napoleon is trying to take over Europe, and he’ll take England if we don’t stop him.”

For the first decade of war between France and England, the average British sailor and Napoleonic Warsoldier didn’t have a reason to fight beyond “the government wants us to.” The average Englishman had nothing to gain by fighting with France until the English populace began to believe Napoleon Bonaparte a threat to England (part of which was came about as a result of printing intentionally untrue propaganda against Napoleon). And only then did Britain truly begin to best France in battle.

Now I’m curious about your views. Do you think Britain misunderstood the motivation of both the French and American people when they went to war? Do you think some of that misunderstanding is what led to two decades of war between Britain and France, and the United States defeating Britain two different times?  When you look at the French Revolution and Napoleonic War, do you believe the French people had a reason to fight? Do you believe the British people had a reason to fight?



7 thoughts on “A War of Ideals: The Difference between War in Regency England and Revolutionary France

  1. I don’t know enough to have an educated opinion, but this is really interesting! It puts a different perspective on the general populace and the reasons for war. I do know that, while something had to happen in France, the way the revolution proceeded there makes me shudder.

    • Thanks for stopping by, Anita. Definitely some shudder-worthy events that took place in the French Revolution. The thing that baffles me is that the French people started out with goals very similar to the Americans, and yet those two revolutions had such drastically different results. So sad.

    • There’s a reason you’d feel that way. The French Revolution fought against a doctrine. The American Revolution found to establish a new doctrine. The leaders of the French Revolution were evil men intent on gaining power for themselves. The leaders of the American Revolution were principled men who worked to keep most of the power out of the government. France thought all power belonged to the commoner but slaughtered their own people and turned to a dictator. America thought all power rests with God and democracy got a foothold.

      England probably held onto the aristocracy so long because they’d already begun work on giving some power to commoners through the law and the House of Commons, but I think also by their keen sense of morality during the Victorian era.

      • Those are some good points Elaine. The leadership during the French Revolution was definitely more self-serving than the leadership of the American Revolution, and it had some dire consequences that lead to massacres and the Reign of Terror and so forth.

        Another argument I’ve heard about the leadership of the French Revolution was that it was bound to fail because it was run by commoners why didn’t know what they were doing. While I do think a common born man is capable of governing well, some of these leaders didn’t have near the understanding of mankind or systems of government throughout history that people like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson had, even though they were both very much aristocrats.

  2. I asked about this when researching A Necessary Deception. Why was Napoleon such a monster? The answer is pretty simple and seen again and again in world history: He started out claiming to be a liberator and ended up a dictator.

    One reason the common man had to fight, however, was that they had pride in country. Maybe our cynical minds can’t comprehend that, and, in England at least, the attitude was: Family, Country, God in that order. Without country, family would suffer, so they fought for country pride and against the age-old enemy France or vice versa.

    • Yes, he really was a dictator, but the French people simply didn’t see him as such–at least not the majority of them–because quality of life was much, much better for the average Frenchman. Napoleon provided food and jobs and a lot of basic things that Louis XVI and then the delegates at the beginning of the revolution failed to provide.

      Can you tell I just brought home six library books on Napoleon? Lots of studying. Interestingly enough, he also had the first secret police with secret prisons and the like, long before Hitler or Stalin.

      But here’s one thing Britain had right that France had terribly wrong. Britain’s aristocracy had a sense of noblesse oblige (a duty to take care of the common people), while the French aristocracy was much more concerned with taking from the people than caring for them.

  3. I don’t think it’s actually possible to lump folks into such huge categories as all French or all English. A large number of French wanted their king back (and suffered for that), another group wanted Bonaparte gone (there were a number of assassination attempts on him)–some because they didn’t like having a military dictator, some because they wanted power. And not all Englishmen thought they were there for the king–the unrest in the late 1700’s through the early 1800’s in England was cause enough to make those in power wonder if a revolution there was going to happen.

    Now, you can make some generalities–the French Army was devoted to Bonaparte (which is why he came to power in the first place, and this was proven again in 1814). He did stabilize a revolution that had gone so far as to consume it’s leaders. He did a number of good things, but he also took France on a road that led to decades more problems (not to mention his “liberation” of countries that didn’t want liberating, his installation of his relatives as rulers, and his looting of every country he swept into).

    For this, some Frenchmen loved him, and others not so much. He even had a few English admirers early on–the French Revolution was generally held to have become a blood bath and almost every country eyed them as being a dangerous powder keg. (And the English had declared war mostly due to the French king being killed–he was related to the English king, and something has to be done when you have a relative who gets his head lopped off.)

    A number of English saw Bonaparte as a huge and direct threat to English lives and freedoms, however. The worry about a French invasion into England lasted well into the 1800’s–which means a number of Englishmen were fighting for England itself (not the king, but their homes and countries–the papers were full of what Bonaparte was doing to other countries).

    It should also not be overlooked that a large number of the English populous had a peculiar idea of being “free” Englishmen. They might not have much actual power, but they had the power to walk away from a job, to actually have an elected parliament (even if it had rotten boroughs), and they saw themselves as not being under the heel of a dictator such as Bonaparte. This is what led to a number of riots when English freedoms were perceived as being stepped on.

    It’s one of the things that makes for a complicated war, and an era with a great deal going on.

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