The French revolution was to change the political state of Europe, to terminate the strife of kings among themselves, and to commence that between kings and people. This would have taken place much later had not the kings themselves provoked it. They sought to suppress the revolution, and they extended it; for by attacking it they were to render it victorious. Europe had then arrived at the term of the political system which swayed it. The political activity of the several states after being internal under the feudal government, had become external under the monarchical government. The first period terminated almost at the same time among all the great nations of Europe. Then kings who had so long been at war with their vassals, because they were in contact with them, encountered each other on the boundaries of their kingdoms, and fought. As no domination could become universal, neither that of Charles V. nor that of Louis XIV., the weak always uniting against the strong, after several vicissitudes of superiority and alliance, a sort of European equilibrium was established. In order to appreciate ulterior events, I propose to consider this equilibrium before the revolution.

Austria, England, and France had been, from the peace of Westphalia to the middle of the eighteenth century, the three great powers of Europe. Interest had leagued the two first against the third. Austria had reason to dread the influence of France in the Netherlands; England feared it on the sea. Rivalry of power and commerce often set them at variance, and they sought to weaken or plunder each other. Spain, since a prince of the house of Bourbon had been on the throne, was the ally of France against England. This, however, was a fallen power: confined to a corner of the continent, oppressed by the system of Philip II., deprived by the Family Compact of the only enemy that could keep it in action, by sea only had it retained any of its ancient superiority. But France had other allies on all sides of Austria: Sweden on the north; Poland and the Porte on the east; in the south of Germany, Bavaria; Prussia on the west; and in Italy, the kingdom of Naples. These powers, having reason to dread the encroachments of Austria, were naturally the allies of her enemy. Piedmont, placed between the two systems of alliance, sided, according to circumstances and its interests, with either. Holland was united with England or with France, as the party of the stadtholders or that of the people prevailed in the republic. Switzerland was neutral.

In the last half of the eighteenth century, two powers had risen in the north, Russia and Prussia. The latter had been changed from a simple electorate into an important kingdom, by Frederick-William, who had given it a treasure and an army; and by his son Frederick the Great, who had made use of these to extend his territory. Russia, long unconnected with the other states, had been more especially introduced into the politics of Europe by Peter I. and Catharine II. The accession of these two powers considerably modified the ancient alliances. In concert with the cabinet of Vienna, Russia and Prussia had executed the first partition of Poland in 1772; and after the death of Frederick the Great, the empress Catharine and the emperor Joseph united in 1785 to effect that of European Turkey.

The cabinet of Versailles, weakened since the imprudent and unfortunate Seven Years' War, had assisted at the partition of Poland without opposing it, had raised no obstacle to the fall of the Ottoman empire, and even allowed its ally, the republican party in Holland, to sink under the blows of Prussia and England, without assisting it. The latter powers had in 1787 re-established by force the hereditary, stadtholderate of the United Provinces. The only act which did honour to French policy, was the support it had happily given to the emancipation of North America. The revolution of 1789, while extending the moral influence of France, diminished still more its diplomatic influence.

England, under the government of young Pitt, was alarmed in 1788 at the ambitious projects of Russia, and united with Holland and Prussia to put an end to them. Hostilities were on the point of commencing when the emperor Joseph died, in February, 1790, and was succeeded by Leopold, who in July accepted the convention of Reichenbach. This convention, by the mediation of England, Russia, and Holland, settled the terms of the peace between Austria and Turkey, which was signed definitively, on the 4th of August, 1791, at Sistova; it at the same time provided for the pacification of the Netherlands. Urged by England and Prussia, Catharine II. also made peace with the Porte at Jassy, on the 29th of December, 1791. These negotiations, and the treaties they gave rise to, terminated the political struggles of the eighteenth century, and left the powers free to turn their attention to the French Revolution.