Why did Louis XVI convene the Estates-General in 1789 and why did it not solve his problems?
For all its real and supposed grandeur, the France of Louis XVI found itself inextricably tied up in the socio-economic difficulties which were manifested in the financial bankruptcy that plagued the kingdom in the late 1780s. This was without doubt a perilous situation otherwise Louis would not have taken the path no other Bourbon had dared use for almost two centuries-he took the ill-fated decision of summoning the Estates-General. That ancient body failed to present any clean set of proposals to the king; such was its fractious nature that members tore at each other like mad dogs over procedural issues. These dissensions only helped to further incite an already excitable populace with the result that all political and social hell suppressed until then, broke loose. Like a raging torrent it swept away absolutism, aristocratic privileges and the system that was known as the Ancien Regime. Right up to the guillotine Louis definitely rued his decision to summon the Estates-General that invariably opened the revolutionary floodgates. Yet this need not have been so had the character of the king been different. Various factors prevented the Estates-General from helping Louis XVI. Not least of all was his failure to effectively stamp his authority over proceedings and resolve the controversial question of its mode of operation.
Louis XVI convened the Estates-General in an attempt to find a solution to the crippling financial crisis. Louis XVI convened the Estates-General in order to find a solution to the urgent problem of the economic crisis. As highlighted above, the king was mired in serious financial difficulty which resulted in bankruptcy. The causes of France’s insolvency were many, varied and deep-rooted. The government’s expenditure far out-weighed the treasury’s income from all the country’s taxable sources. The king’s court is said to have accounted for about one twelfth of the state’s total expenditure. The state engaged in habitual extravagance like in supporting the American rebellion against British rule in the 1770s. The situation was worsened by the fact that some classes were exempt from paying most of the taxes because of the system of privileges. The result of the system of privileges was that the bourgeoisie and peasants (all Third Estate) shouldered the tax burden while the clergy and nobility (First and Second estates respectively) were largely exempt. There was an urgent need to raise more taxes and as such Louis XVI convened the Estates-General with one eye on the vast but barely tapped economic resources of the first two estates. Finding a solution to France’s economic woes was a huge task that required more than piece-meal measures hence there was need for a body of the magnitude of the Estates-General.
“The revolt of 1789 was against a government which was tyrannical, inefficient and insensitive to the needs of the people.” Do you agree?
The Third Estate revolted against a government they felt to be tyrannical because of its adherence to the doctrine of the “Divine Right of Kings”. The Bourbon monarchy made use of the doctrine of the “Divine Right of Kings.” This was a religious concept that stated that monarchical power was a God-given privilege. It implied that people had no right to challenge or seek any explanations from the king over the use of his power since he did not owe it to them. The people also did not have any right of seeking his removal even if they were dissatisfied with him. Such a doctrine would have been suitable in a theocratic or highly Christian state. The France of the late eighteenth century had become far more secular and the ideas of philosophers like Rousseau captured the imagination of the bourgeoisie. Rousseau was one of those who rejected the divine source of political power and argued that people in any society were the true source of all political power. He further asserted that those who held political power did so by agreement and permission of the nation which was the owner. That implied accountability and also the need to govern in the interests of the nation. It also implied participation of the nation in politics and that they could remove any ruler they no longer deemed to be exercising power in their interests.
The Third Estate also regarded the government as tyrannical because of its persistence in excluding them from politics. Much to their frustration, the bourgeoisie were excluded from politics along with the rest of the Third Estate. This exclusion was maintained despite the bourgeoisie’s great wealth and education. To them their continued exclusion had no justification. They regarded themselves as victims of a tyranny which was founded on an alliance of the monarchy, nobles (Second Estate) and clergy (First Estate). Their revolt in 1789 which led to the formation of the National Assembly was a revolt against a tyrannical government which had failed to accept and accommodate them as equal and important political players. To them it was tyranny for the government to decide on a procedure for the Estates-General which was likely to safeguard the interests of the First and Second estates.
How serious a threat to the French Revolution was presented by its enemies both internal and external during the period 1789-1793?
Revolution swept France like a sudden wild fire in 1789 mercilessly destroying up the political, social and economic structure long established in that country. Although the church, monarchy and the aristocracy were its most prominent victims they were by no means its only ones. The revolution operated like some kind of kaleidoscope such that even the bourgeoisie, peasants and workers long considered its beneficiaries also had their turn to grieve. Even outside France the revolution quickly attracted the wrath even of those countries that had initially been supportive. The picture of this period is that of a revolutionary experiment that made enemies of virtually every group in France and nation in Europe albeit at different times. All told, the purpose of this essay is to show that the threat posed to the revolution by these internal and external enemies was so serious such that by 1793 France was not only ablaze with civil war but also repelling foreign invasion from the Austrians, Prussians, Dutch and British among others
Louis XVI was a very serious threat to the revolution because he acted in ways that suggested that he was opposed to the revolution and encouraged his supporters within and outside France to oppose it. Louis XVI and the entire monarchical establishment were natural enemies of the revolution because The revolution systematically destroyed royal authority first by reducing Louis XVI to a constitutional monarch before eliminating the monarchy altogether in 1792. He was a threat to the revolution because it is clear that he did not willingly consent to revolutionary changes such as the abolition of the nobility’s privileges and the civil constitution of the clergy among others. He actually used his veto against the Legislative Assembly’s decision to deprive priests of their income if they did not take the civil oath within a week in November 1791. He also vetoed the decree that compelled the émigrés to return to France by 1January 1792 or face the death sentence. Such actions suggested that he was an opponent of the revolution and sided with those that sought to destroy it. Twice he attempted to flee France and that suggested that the revolutionaries were holding him against his will. The very presence of a king who was opposed to the internal developments was dangerous for the revolution.
Why did the inauguration of a constitutional monarchy in 1789 not prevent the execution of Louis XVI in 1793?
The inauguration of the constitutional monarchy failed to save Louis XVI from execution because of perceptions among revolutionaries that he was biased in favour of the reactionary nobles and clergy. Such perceptions grew out of observations of his selective use of veto powers whenever the National Assembly and Legislative Assembly passed laws that appeared to threaten the interests of the clergy and nobility. In August 1789 Louis XVI used his veto against the National Assembly’s decision to abolish the feudal privileges of the two estates. He also used it against the Declaration of Rights of Man and the Citizen in September 1789. These had been passed by the National Assembly to give civil rights to all French citizens. Again in 1790, Louis XVI used the veto against the Civil Constitution which was passed to reduce the power of the church and subordinate it to the state. Late in 1791, Louis XVI vetoed a decree to impose the death penalty and confiscate the property of all noble and clerical émigrés who did not return to France by the First of January 1792.
Apart from the perceived bias, Louis XVI was also seen as tactless, unreliable and treacherous and all these factors ultimately contributed to his execution. His lack of tact was manifested by his opposition to the various measures passed by the revolutionary governments as already been discussed above. Louis XVI did not endear himself to the revolutionaries by attempting to flee France in 1791. This was a tactless move which demonstrated to all that he was part of the government much against his will. It was treacherous enough to attempt to escape but the alleged discovery of documents linking him to other monarchical governments was a far worse treasonous act.
Louis XVI’s perceived incompetence in handling critical issues was another factor which convinced his detractors to dethrone him, abolish the monarchy and have him executed. Louis XVI failed in his capacity as head of state to deal with the various cases of civil unrest that rocked France from 1789 to 1792. First there was the so-called “great fear” period of peasant violence against noble landlords. In Paris mobs of poor people calling themselves the sans-culottes continued to be a menace to both king and legislative bodies. These lent their support to the Jacobins with catastrophic consequences for Louis XVI personally and for the monarchy in general. Louis XVI lost more support over his handling of the war with other European countries. Although France had declared war, its poorly organised armies were quickly put to flight by the Prussians and Austrians. Some of the leading generals like Dumouriez defected to the Austrian enemy and that cast a bad light on Louis XVI. Calls grew louder for the dethronement of Louis. The final straw was probably the alleged discovery of documents that suggested he was working with monarchical governments to bring down the revolutionary government of France. Soon after, he was placed under arrest. He was later put on trial, condemned to die and subsequently executed in January 1793.
How, and with what results, did the Civil Constitution of the Clergy constitute a turning point in the support base of the revolutionaries?
The Civil Constitution of the Clergy was passed by the revolutionary government in 1790 with the aim of reducing the power and influence of the church. It also aimed at subordinating the church to the state. The revolutionary government sought to achieve these aims by taking over the responsibility of paying the clergy’s salaries. The bishops would now be elected by the same voters who elected other government officials and they had to be approved by the government rather than by the pope. Finally it was decided that the clergy take an oath of loyalty to the government. Not surprisingly, the civil constitution was strongly opposed by the pope and soon most clergymen rejected it. Other Catholic countries also condemned it. Perhaps the most worrying thing for the government is the way in which it soon antagonised the peasants who had been an important component of the revolutionaries’ support base. This essay seeks to explore the civil constitution and show how it weakened the support base of the revolutionaries as it alienated the Catholic constituency that had been sympathetic all along. The essay will also show how the civil constitution had far-reaching consequences that included civil and international war.
The Civil Constitution narrowed the support base of the revolutionaries by antagonising the peasants and civil war was the ultimate result. Prior to the civil constitution, the outbreak of the revolution had united different sections of the Third Estate. The peasants who constituted just over ninety per cent of the French population were by far the largest component of the revolution’s support base. There was so much uniting the Third Estate including demands for political and civil rights. The civil constitution changed all that and drove a wedge among the revolutionaries. This was because the peasants who remained devout Catholics were ultimately influenced by the pope and clergy to reject the civil constitution. Peasants were incited into revolting against the government especially in places such as Vendee, Lyons, Marseille and Bordeaux. When the government responded with military force the situation degenerated into civil war in 1793.
The Civil Constitution alienated Louis XVI and increased conflict between the executive and legislative arms of the revolutionary government. Even before the passage of the civil constitution, the king and his colleagues in the revolutionary government were already at loggerheads. The National Assembly accused the king of bias in the use of his veto to protect the interests of the reactionary nobles and clergy. The civil constitution worsened things and certainly put Louis XVI in a difficult position as head of state on one hand and devout Catholic on the other. He had a dilemma deciding whether to act as head of state and approve the legislation or follow his religious convictions and reject the new law. Either way it was a difficult situation and when Louis XVI chose to follow the pope’s example in denouncing the civil constitution, he undermined his standing in the revolutionary government. That gave his opponents yet another excuse to seek his ouster and eventual execution in 1793. His downfall marked the end of the moderate course in France’s revolution.
“The fear that France wanted to export its revolution was unjustified.” How far is this true of France’s foreign policy in the years from the Declaration of Rights of Man (1789) to the fall of the Directory (1799)?
The aim of this essay is to show that to a large extent, the fear that France wanted to export its revolution was unjustified.
The 1789 Declaration of the Rights spoke of rights as universal to all people implying French support for revolutions elsewhere and that justified European fears about French intentions. The National Assembly voted to grant civil rights to all its citizens. More significantly and ominously for other European countries was the fact that it spoke of these rights as natural, inalienable and universal to all human beings. There was an implicit promise of support for revolutions carried out elsewhere in order to achieve those rights. Consequently there was great excitement all over Europe over the outbreak of the French Revolution. In Britain, celebrated poets like William Blake welcomed the revolution and spoke of it as the “dawn of a blissful era”. Given such excitement and implications of the declaration of rights, the monarchical governments of Europe had every reason to fear that France would want to export its revolution.
The 1791 Edict of Fraternity was explicit in its promise of support for people wishing to overthrow their monarchical governments and therefore the fears over French intentions were highly justified. The edict was issued in 1791 by an overzealous French government and it contained pledges of assistance to people all over Europe in their endeavours to overthrow monarchical rule and achieve civil rights for all. The French government followed up the edict with the proclamation of its doctrine of the “Sovereignty of the People”. They stated that all political power belonged to the people and rulers had to act in the best interests of their people. They were to be accountable to their people and could be removed by them. At that point the French Revolution ceased to be a purely French phenomenon, its focus had become European. According to C.A. Leeds “The French Revolution thus became of European concern.” Europeans were completely justified in their fears about French intentions which were no longer secret.
How far, and by what means, were the ideals of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity achieved in Revolutionary France in the years up to 1799?
The forced relocation of the king and National Assembly to Paris from Versailles was in contravention of the principles of liberty and fraternity. When the women of Paris marched on Versailles, they brought back the king and the National Assembly to Paris instead of the bread they had been demanding from the government. The king and National Assembly became virtual prisoners of the radical elements in Paris as a result of the forced relocations. They could no longer freely discharge their duties in Paris where there was greater mob interference and influence in government business. Given this scenario it was impossible to speak of political liberty and free expression as promised by the revolutionaries.
The peasants’ violence against the nobles was contrary to the principles of liberty and fraternity. The peasants displayed a lack of respect for property rights and impoverished the nobles and clergy through their orgy of violence and looting. The nobles’ right to life was also compromised by the murder that characterised the violence of the peasants during the so-called “Great Fear”. They were also exasperated into emigrating from France. As a result they were estranged and became sworn enemies of the revolution. That destroyed the chances of fraternity with the Third Estate.
The Civil Constitution of the Clergy limited the church’s influence in state affairs and contravened the principles of liberty and fraternity. Requirements that the clergy take an oath of loyalty to the government were felt to be degrading. It fanned conflict between the church and state especially after the majority of the clergy chose to reject the constitution. The Civil Constitution was the most significant cause of the revolt in Vendee in 1793 and the consequent civil war.
The classification of French people into the broad categories of “active” and “passive” citizens as contained in the 1791 constitution ran counter to the principle of equality. The government imposed property and income qualifications and these prevented the majority from voting or standing as candidates. Those who qualified to vote were classified as “active” citizens and those who did not were termed “passive” citizens. Such measures led to the perpetuation of class inequalities. The much advertised liberties that included the right of all to participate in politics either as voters or office-bearers in the end just a sham.
“It was more the weakness of the Directory than the character and ability of Napoleon that led to his rise to power.” Discuss.
Napoleon’s control of the army and ability as a military leader were an extremely significant in his rise to power. By October 1795, Napoleon had distinguished himself well enough to be appointed commander-in-chief of all armies within the boundaries of France. Less than a year later in March 1796, he was also appointed commander-in-chief of the French Army in Italy. It was in Italy where he would record the military victories that won him fame and acted as a launch-pad for his political career.
In an age where national prestige was highly valued, Napoleon rose to prominence on the strength of his military achievements. He offered France military success in the revolutionary wars especially against Austria in the Italian campaigns and established French power in Italy and brought rewards that included territorial enlargement, art treasures looted from Italy as well as reparations from the defeated Austrians.
Napoleon’s control of the army which was cultivated by shared experiences in battles was essential as a launch-pad for his political career and the command of armed force proved crucial. The army facilitated his rise to power by crushing opposition on his way to achieving power. He used the army used to crush a revolt by Council of Five Hundred against his proposal to assume power after abolishing the Directory in 1799 and to arrest those who dared oppose him and his brother Lucien Bonaparte.
He also gained support because of his ability to put down insurrection and disorder within France. Napoleon first came to prominence in December 1793 after master-minding the defeat of the British garrison at Toulon which had been assisting counter-revolutionary elements in the civil war in 1793 Again in October 1795, he commanded the troops of Paris in crushing an royalist uprising against the Directory.
His strong ambition was as important as his use of cunning in achieving power. Napoleon demonstrated time and again that he was cunning enough to disregard the Directory and actively promote his own credentials and claim to power. For example this came out clearly when he personally negotiated the terms of the Austrians’ surrender in Italy without any recourse to the Directory. He also displayed guile in becoming First Consul after outmanoeuvring the likes of Sieyes, Ducos and Barras with whom he had conspired with to destroy the Directory. Before that he had been shrewd enough to build strategic alliances with powerful people as demonstrated by his marriage to Josephine Beauharnais, a close confidante of the powerful Director Barras. It has been alleged that this strategic marriage inMarch 1796 brought him ever closer to the higher echelons of power and won him powerful appointments like the command of the army of Italy where he won some of his best remembered victories.
How far did the establishment of the empire of Napoleon 1 mark the end of Revolution in France?
The bourgeoisie made their mark in French politics by masterminding the famous revolution which started in 1789. With their rallying call for liberty, equality and fraternity, France and indeed Europe appeared to be on the threshold of a new political and social dispensation where all people could live together in a climate of equality, dignity and mutual respect. It would also be possible for anyone to rise to any position solely on merit regardless of circumstances of birth or any other form of privilege. For all its high-sounding and well-meaning ideals, the revolutionary episode seemed to succeed only in bringing out all that was negative about the French and Europeans in general especially as it unleashed the twin evils of civil and international conflict. The ensuring chaos set the stage for the advent of the empire of Napoleon 1. Ruling with an iron fist in France and waging war in Europe, Napoleon’s reign has attracted mixed views from historians over the centuries. He has been praised for reforms that left a lasting positive imprint on the socio-political landscape of France and Europe. Concepts such as the ‘careers open to talent’ and the Code Napoleon are prime examples of such reforms. Some have however poured cold water over his achievements claiming instead that the advent of his empire spelt the death sentence for the revolution and all the good it stood for. While there may be some truth in those assertions, it would be a gross exaggeration to claim that he completely destroyed the revolution. This essay seeks to show that Napoleon 1 did not end the revolution.
It is necessary to clarify what the revolution really was before Napoleon is brought to judgement. What should we consider as the true meaning of the French Revolution-do we define it in terms of its ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity? Or do we also consider the actual events that transpired from 1789 onwards? If we decide to judge Napoleon from the standpoint of the ideals then those who argue that his advent signalled an end to the revolution have a strong case. The very fact of establishing an empire effectively denied other people the opportunity to rise to the highest political position in the land. The revolution had destroyed the monarchical or dynastic political system and by restoring it Napoleon had re-wound the clock back to the pre-revolutionary era. It is therefore impossible to talk of the equality of opportunities when Napoleon had restored a nepotistic and hereditary system that benefited only his family line and not necessarily the man best qualified as envisaged in the revolution’s ideal of equality of opportunity. Napoleon ultimately showed neither respect for the people’s revolutionary right to choose their rulers nor his self-proclaimed concept of ‘careers open to talent’.
To what extent should Napoleon Bonaparte’s rule in France from 1799 to 1814 be described as “ruthless and dictatorial”?
To be Ruthless means to be cruel, harsh and oppressive. To be Dictatorial means personal rule, autocratic, intolerant and tyrannical.
Napoleon was both ruthless and dictatorial because he established his highly autocratic, intolerant and tyrannical rule in France in complete disregard for revolutionary ideals of democratic participation and representative democracy. Although he was supposedly a part of a three-man triumvirate, Napoleon was the only one who mattered as the First Consul. All executive power was vested in him and he had direct and indirect control of the legislative process. It was direct in so far as the deliberations of the State Council could only yield laws for France if he gave his consent. It was indirect but powerful all the same in the sense that he was the only one with the authority to nominate members to the State Council.
His political and administrative reforms demonstrated that he was driven by a selfish desire to secure and sustain his own power. Napoleon’s rule was dictatorial because central and local government were directly under his control. The government officials in the Senate, Tribunate, Mayors and Prefects were chosen directly and indirectly by him and were expected to implement his policies. Napoleon was dictatorial through his control of the Legislative process as laws were initiated by a Council of State chosen by him. The laws would then be discussed and voted by the Tribunate and legislative body. All these bodies were chosen by the Napoleon-appointed senate. They were however chosen from a list of candidates elected by the voters. The fact that those elections were often stage-managed to ensure the choosing of candidates loyal to Napoleon enabled him to impose his dictatorship over France.
Even the possession of that executive power was not enough to satisfy his boundless ambitions for personal power as he wasted no time in having himself proclaimed Emperor of the French. That followed hot on the heels of his earlier decision to convert himself to First Consul for Life. This self-aggrandisement was followed by the soon-to-be-familiar plebiscite. The plebiscites were really pageantries that merely confirmed accomplished facts giving them a veneer of democratic legitimacy. Their outcome was probably pre-determined which is why they were held in the first place. Napoleon thus became emperor which was a fact that flew in the face of revolutionary ideals of equality and ‘people’s power’. It was also a mockery of his oft-stated commitment to ‘careers open to talent’. France was now compelled to put up with the dynastic succession of Bonapartes even if they were not necessarily the best for the job.
“Napoleon Bonaparte’s downfall was inevitable.” How far do you agree with this assertion?
Napoleon’s downfall was made inevitable because his opponents had vastly superior resources in the long run. Napoleon had waged wars which he supported by looting and demanding reparations from those that he conquered but against the combined resources of the Austrian, British, Prussian and Russian governments even that was not enough to save him from eventual defeat. His arch-enemy Britain’s apparently bottomless reserves funded various European coalitions and assisted the Portuguese and Spanish guerilla campaigns against Napoleon. He later spoke of the “Spanish ulcer” which sapped the energies of his ‘Grand Army’. Napoleon’s frustrations at his failure to overcome the British led to his ambitious but ill-conceived Continental System which aimed to strangle the British by preventing them from trading with the European continent. It only hurt Europe and turned states against him including his former ally Russia. In 1812, Russia responded with a successful scorched earth policy which deprived Napoleon’s army of provisions and brought his defeat by Europe ever closer.
Recent European history had shown that those who maintained themselves in power through force ultimately lost it when they reached a point where they were unable to command sufficient force to maintain it. In France itself the likes of Robespierre who seemed invincible during the Reign of Terror were soon victims of the same guillotine they had used to eliminate their opponents. The Directory which seemed to have mastered the art of subverting popular will by annulling election results lost its battle to survive after being overthrown by Napoleon who had sustained it through armed force. Napoleon had got to power through the superior force he enjoyed through his control of the army and while domestic opposition was weak, the superiority of his external European enemies eventually brought him down.
Napoleon was doomed to fail because his popularity rested on military victories abroad which could not be permanently guaranteed or sustained. Napoleon very well knew that his fame rested on success in the military campaigns which were also an important source of employment for the lower classes and also for propping up the French economy through loot and reparations from conquered territories. Consequently, he had little choice but to continue waging wars but his task got ever harder because with time his opponents wizened to his tactics. Battles and wars became harder to win and inevitably the question became when not if he could be defeated. The day of reckoning did eventually arrive in 1814 when he was soundly defeated by the coalition of European states.
How valid is the claim that the true aim of the Congress of Vienna was nothing more than to divide among the victors the spoils taken from the vanquished?
In 1814 the European coalition finally defeated France after over twenty years of more-or-less continuous warfare. Not even Napoleon’s escape from Elba to which he had been banished could change that fact. His ‘hundred days’ return ultimately proved to be a swansong which only briefly interrupted the diplomats gathered at Vienna in their task of deciding the destiny of post-war Europe. When business eventually resumed in 1815 they came up with the Vienna Settlement whose most conspicuous feature were its territorial re-adjustments. Vanquished France was forced to return to its 1790 boundaries and ex-Napoleon ally Saxony had to cede territory to victorious Prussia. However it was not simply a case of victorious states grabbing what territory they wanted from the losers-the Congress of Vienna achieved more than that. Vanquished France certainly lost territory but so did victorious Austria, Prussia and Sweden. Over and above self-interest and vindictiveness the diplomats at Vienna were motivated by legitimacy and ‘balance of power’ objectives.
The Congress of Vienna was more concerned with ensuring lasting peace in Europe than in dividing among the victors the spoils taken from the losers. The diplomats believed that one way in which peace could be guaranteed would be through territorial re-adjustments by which weaker states would be given more territory to strengthen them and so that they could defend themselves in the event of attack by any other state. The idea was to evenly match the states so that none could be too powerful and none too weak. This is what they termed the ‘balance of power’ concept. France was indeed stripped off the conquests it had made during the revolutionary and Napoleonic wars but that was not just out of vindictiveness. It was to prevent from remaining too powerful so that it could once again disturb the peace. It lost Belgium, Holland and its Italian conquests among others. Belgium was merged with Holland to create a bigger state which was supposed to be capable of defending itself against France or any other state. The victorious Austrians won back control of Italy, were given control of the newly created German Bund while Prussia got the Rhineland and two-fifths of Saxony. The former was apparently being punished for remaining too long in Napoleon’s camp. France also lost many of its overseas colonies to Britain and this admittedly to reward victorious Britain. Although France was apparently punished as a loser in the final analysis balance of power objectives were uppermost in the minds of the diplomats.
In any case France was treated with great leniency. It was only pushed back to its 1792 boundaries thus allowing it to keep a large chunk of its earlier conquests. Napoleon was allowed to retain his title as emperor and was even given the island of Elba and an annual income of two hundred thousand pounds. France was only pushed back to its 1790 boundaries after Napoleon’s escape from Elba and made to suffer an army of occupation until it had paid a punitive indemnity. Even then it was allowed to keep works of art expropriated by Napoleon and allowed a representative at the congress who was effectively an equal partner. This leniency was motivated by the belief that France under the restored Bourbons was not a permanent enemy and should not be seriously weakened leaving it unable to defend itself.
“The Vienna Settlement reflected the triumph of the policies of the most reactionary forces in Europe.” How fair is this verdict?
France was finally defeated in 1814 by the coalition of European states and the victors immediately set upon the task of deciding the destiny of post-war Europe. In the ensuing Vienna Settlement, France was stripped off its conquests, territories re-distributed among the victors and old rulers restored where Napoleon had displaced them. A ‘Holy Alliance’ was even formed to fight all revolutionary forces including nationalism and liberalism. All these developments served to confirm the triumph of the most reactionary forces. While that cannot be doubted it is however necessary to state that reaction meant among other things a return to the concept that power was best exercised by the kings. Reaction was not necessarily anti-change but it was about going back to the kings as the ones who should implement it rather than by popularly elected rulers as prescribed by the French Revolution. This essay shall show that the verdict was correct assessment of the Vienna Settlement and argue that reaction was not necessarily negative as suggested by many historians.
France was stripped off its conquests and that was one demonstration of the triumph of reaction. It was stripped of Belgium, Holland and Italy among others and pushed back to its 1790 boundaries in order to restore the pre-revolutionary European status quo. This was also done to create a balance of power where France would not be too powerful to once again threaten the European peace.
It was also reaction when the territorial re-structuring immensely benefited the reactionary powers. Austria more than compensated for the loss of Belgium to Holland by re-establishing its authority in Italy and in Germany where it was awarded the leadership of the Bund that had been created in place of Napoleon’s Confederation of the Rhine. Napoleon had created it to replace the Holy Roman Empire. Russia re-established its hegemony in Poland and also gained Finland from Sweden and Bessarabia from Turkey. Prussia received the Rhineland and also got Pomerania which had belonged to Sweden. The congress also settled the old colonial disputes in Britain’s favour. Britain gained Mauritius, Guiana, Malta and Heligoland from France in addition to the Cape and Ceylon which were obtained from Holland.
To what extent did the Congress System between 1815 and 1823 seek to defend anything other than the self-interest of the major European powers?
Having defeated Napoleonic France in 1815, the major powers embarked on the also difficult task of mapping the future of post-war Europe. As this essay shall show issues of self-interest inevitably cropped up but the powers were none-the-less driven by common goals of achieving peace and stability during the congresses they held between 1815 and 1823.
Self-interest was certainly served by the territorial arrangements agreed upon at the Congress of Vienna in 1815.Austria re-asserted its authority in Italy and also gained the presidency of the newly constituted German Bund. Russia got the congress to endorse its acquisitions of Finland from Sweden, Bessarabia from Turkey and its control of Poland. The congress also acknowledged Prussia’s acquisition of Pomerania from Sweden in addition to gains of the Rhineland and two-fifths of Saxony. Britain also satisfied its thirst for colonies with gains of Mauritius, Guiana, Malta and Tobago from France as well as Ceylon and the Cape from Holland among others.
It was also in the interest of the major powers to restore monarchical governments that had been overthrown by the French revolutionaries. Austria particularly pushed for this return to ‘legitimacy’ because its own interests would be served by the restoration of the Hapsburg princes to their old Italian kingdoms. The French Bourbons also favoured the policy as it not only restored them to their French crown but it also restored their Bourbon cousins to Spain. Self-interest also led to the endorsement of the Russian scheme for a ‘Holy Alliance’ of the monarchs directed against liberal and nationalist forces wherever they would arise in Europe. Only Britain refused to join this anti-revolution crusade aimed at perpetuating absolute monarchical rule. Thus restoring monarchs and suppressing revolutionary forces were both self-serving schemes born out of the need for self-preservation.
Although self-interest was significant it was by no means the only consideration at the 1815 congress. Achieving peace and stability was also an important concern. The territorial arrangements already discussed were also undertaken with a view to achieving a balance of power which would leave no one state too powerful and therefore capable of attacking others and disturbing the peace. That is why even defeated France was treated with such leniency. It is worth noting that it was only pushed back to its 1790 boundaries after it had supported Napoleon’s ‘hundred days’ campaign and disturbed the peace once more. That was the point that the congress decided it had been too lenient in allowing France to keep its 1792 conquests therefore it had to be cut down to prevent it remaining too powerful. Liberal and nationalist principles of the French Revolution were being suppressed because their capacity to cause international conflict had already been witnessed. After more than twenty years of fighting a France that was inspired by such ideals and hell-bent on spreading them all over Europe, the congress of Vienna was justified in taking that hard-line stance against those forces.
Why, and with what success, did the Vienna Settlement lead to the suppression of Nationalism in Europe between 1815 and 1830?
Mindful of the more than twenty years of war they had endured, the European powers sought to create a permanently peaceful and stable Europe. To achieve that, they crafted the Vienna Settlement where the European states were territorially balanced so that there was none too strong and none too weak. In addition, they agreed on the formation of a Holy Alliance committed to suppressing revolutionary nationalist agitation which was held to be a serious threat to the general peace. Finally they agreed to the holding of periodic congresses to deal with threats to the peace as situations arose. They certainly paid little regard to nationalism in the territorial re-adjustments they made and even to destroy it through the Holy Alliance. As this essay shall show they were on the whole successful in suppressing it between 1815 and 1830.
The architects of the Vienna Settlement were driven by the need to create an atmosphere of permanent peace and stability and this often led to the disregard for nationalism. To achieve that they agreed on territorial arrangements geared at creating a balance of power where it was envisaged that no one state become too weak and none too powerful so that it could attack other states and endanger the peace. Thus Belgium was transferred from Austria without any due consideration to the nationalist aspirations of the Belgians because the over-riding consideration was to ensure that the Dutch would protect them from French aggression. For the same reason Austria was allowed to re-assert it authority in Italy.
With the exception of Britain, the architects of the Vienna Settlement were conservative absolute rulers who felt threatened by (French) revolutionary ideas such as nationalism and liberalism. Moreover Russia and Austria were multi-national empires whose very existence was threatened by nationalism such that any concession to that principle would be an act of suicide. The Russians, Austrians and Prussians had conservative rulers still firmly convinced of their ‘divine right to rule’ and they had not fought the French for so long only to concede their right to rule and that of their empires to exist at the congress table. Thus the Russians clung onto the Poles and the Finns among other nationalities while the Austrians did likewise to the Slavs, Serbs, Magyars and Italians in their multi-national empire. The tsar even proposed a ‘Holy Alliance’ of Christian monarchs devoted to the suppression of nationalist and liberal forces wherever they reared their heads. Although he privately declared it a “loud sounding nothing” Metternich whole-heartedly endorsed on behalf of the Austrian emperor. It occurred to him that it could be useful for suppressing opposition to monarchical rule.