Properly speaking, the Jacobins were a radical revolutionary club established in Paris in 1789 whose name comes from the Dominican friary on the Rue St. Jacques where they held meetings. However, the term was subsequently applied indiscriminately to all proponents of revolutionary movements, especially those outside France.
Even as late as the 1860s, when Acts of the Servant is set, the European monarchies – of which Anglia and Scotland were one – together with the Ancien Régimes of Imperial Russia, Austro-Hungary and the Holy Roman Empire, regarded the French Republic as intrinsically suspicious and a source of radicalism threatening the privileged elite. In the early years of the French Revolution there had been an assumption on the part of other European states that it must fail; or rather, the aristocratic class of those nations could not imagine a society functioning without them. But once they had been startled by the rise of Buonoparte and the stabilising of France under ‘Little Caesar’ as a meritocratic and functioning state, Russia, Austro-Hungary and occasionally Prussia variously sought to destroy Buonoparte and return the Bourbon monarchy to the French throne.
Fortunately, they failed and the names of the battles where Buonoparte outfought them resound through history. Buonoparte’s tactical genius and French discipline forged the modern world and even I, a Tory with a love for our own dear royals, thank them for where France led other nations would eventually follow with emancipation of the common people and a fuller expression of human dignity in the form of Liberté, Égalité, and Fraternité. To oppose La Révolution, as Jean-Paul Saint-Pierre head-chef of the Fatted Calf in Devizes once said to me, is to oppose humanité and I believe he is probably right.
Of course, what Jean-Paul Saint-Pierre does not like to admit is that Buonoparte eventually became more Roman than the Romans on whom he modelled himself and was deposed by his own army who had tired of his grand ambitions and petty obsessions, but the republic that followed him retained all that had been gained in the revolutionary years and brought stability and peace. Not only had France proved that a stable, functioning society had no need for an aristocratic elite, but meritocracy had brought capable and inventive men to the fore and France had become too powerful to be weakened by less socially advanced nations.
But as I say, in the middle decades of the nineteenth century there remained throughout Europe a lingering suspicion that France had ambitions to extend the revolution beyond its borders and any group espousing populist democratic views was liable to be accused of spying or insurrection. Thus, the very success of France became something of a handicap for those groups like the Chartists, Larrikers, Labour Brotherhoods and so on, who made common cause with and took inspiration from their French “brothers”; hence the continued use of “Jacobin” to describe anyone arguing for ‘French’ ideas such as democratic rights and universal suffrage. Indeed, it is striking how often people can be discouraged from a patently good idea simply by someone in authority labelling it ‘foreign’.