Skip to main content
Humanities LibreTexts

4.2: Revolts and Revolutions

  • Page ID
    20771
  • As it turns out, they did not have long to wait to put the military commitment of the Holy Alliance into action. The first liberal revolt against a conservative monarch occurred in the immediate aftermath of the Congress of Vienna in what had traditionally been one of the most conservative states of Europe: Spain.

    During the Napoleonic period, Spanish liberal intellectuals had been stuck in an awkward position. Their country was ruled by a foreign power, France, one that taxed it and extracted resources for its wars, but it was also one that represented the best hope of liberal reform. The French Revolution was the symbol, for liberals all over Europe, of progress, even if they had misgivings about the Terror. When the Spanish resistance sprung up against the French under Napoleon, it was an alliance of conservative priests and peasants, along with conservative nobles, who spearheaded it. Most Spanish liberals did end up supporting the resistance, but they still hoped that the post-Napoleonic order would see liberal reforms to the Spanish monarchy.

    Toward the end of the Napoleonic period, the Spanish representative assembly, the cortes, approved a liberal constitution. Once he was back in power, however, the restored Spanish king Ferdinand VII refused to recognize the constitution, and he also refused to summon the cortes. With the approval of the other conservative monarchies of Europe, Ferdinand essentially moved to turn back the clock in Spain to the pre-revolutionary period.

    Ferdinand was able to force Spain back toward the old order, but he proved unable to squelch independence movements in Spain’s American colonies. In 1816 an anti-Spanish uprising in Argentina began and soon spread to the other colonies. By 1824 all of Central and South America was independent. In the midst of the failure of Spanish military expeditions to stop the revolutions, in 1820 an alliance of liberal politicians and military officers staged a coup against Ferdinand and began remaking Spain as a liberal state.

    Ferdinand VII in his rich royal garb.
    Figure 4.2.1: The Arch-Conservative Spanish King Ferdinand VII

    The Spanish liberal coup of 1820 was the first major test of the Holy Alliance’s commitment to prevent revolution anywhere in Europe. True to form, the continental members of the alliance supported a French army of 200,000 in invading Spain and restoring Ferdinand to the throne. The liberals were persecuted and hounded, and Spain was essentially ruled by an arch-conservative order for the next few decades. Incidentally, it was in this context that the American president James Monroe issued the Monroe Doctrine, which forbid European powers from interfering in the politics of the Americas. Monroe was afraid that the Holy Alliance would try to extend its intervention to the now-former Spanish colonies and he thus issued a proclamation that any attempt by a European power to intervene in the western hemisphere would be considered a threat to US peace and safety.

    The next liberal revolt occurred in the most conservative political context in Europe at the time: that of Russia. Late in the Napoleonic wars, some Russian officers in the Tsarist army underwent a pair of related revelations. First, they came to admire the bravery and loyalty of their soldiers, all of whom were drawn from the ranks of the serfs. In turn, they experienced the west firsthand as Russian armies fought Napoleon’s forces and then during the occupation of France. There, the sheer backwardness of Russia stood in contrast to the dynamism and vitality they discovered in French society (especially in Paris itself). The officers came to see serfdom as both fundamentally immoral and as totally incompatible with any hope of progress for Russia. Thus, as Russian armies returned home after the Congress of Vienna, a conspiracy of liberal officers emerged, intent on creating a liberal political order for the Russian state once the aging, fanatically religious, and arch-conservative Tsar Alexander I died.

    Ten years later (in 1825) he did die, and the result was the “Decembrist” uprising. During the years that followed Napoleon’s defeat, the conspiracy of army officers put plans in motion to force the government to accept liberal reforms, especially a constitution guaranteeing basic rights and freeing the serfs. When the new Tsar, Nicholas I, was crowned in December of 1825, the officers staged a rebellion in the square in front of the royal palace in St. Petersburg, hoping that the army as a whole would side with them and force the Tsar to accept reforms. Instead, after a tense day of waiting, troops loyal to the Tsar opened fire and crushed the uprising.

    Russian troops firing on the Decembrists outside of the winter palace in St. Petersburg.
    Figure 4.2.2: The Decembrist uprising, depicted at the moment troops loyal to the tsar opened fire.

    The Decembrist uprising was the one and only attempt at implementing liberal reform in Russia in the nineteenth century; it would take until 1905 for the next revolution to come to pass. Nicholas I was the ultimate reactionary, personally overseeing the police investigation of the Decembrist conspiracy and creating Europe’s first secret police force, The Third Section. He would go on to a long rule (r. 1825 - 1855) guided by the principles he defined for the Russian state: autocracy, orthodoxy, and nationality. In the decades that followed, the slightest sign of dissent from a Russian subject was grounds for imprisonment or exile to a Siberian prison-village, and the political and social changes that swept across the rest of Europe were thus held at bay. Tsarist power remained intact, but Russian society (and the Russian economy) stagnated.

    Even as the Decembrist uprising failed, another revolt was being fought in the heartland of “Western Civilization” itself: Greece. The Balkans, including not only Greece but territories like Bosnia, Serbia, and Macedonia, had been part of the Ottoman Empire for hundreds of years. There, the predominantly Christian subjects of the Ottomans enjoyed official religious toleration, but chafed at the tax burden and, increasingly by the late eighteenth century, resented the “foreign” rule of the Turks. This resentment coalesced around the new political ideology of nationalism by the early nineteenth century - just as “Germans” resented the conservative Austrian regime and Poles detested the Russian and Prussian states that had divided up Polish territory, Greeks (as well as Serbs, Croatians, and the other peoples of the Balkans) increasingly saw themselves as autonomous peoples artificially ruled by a foreign power.

    In 1821, a Greek prince named Alexander Ypsilantis organized a revolt centered on the demand for a Greek state. A series of uprisings occurred in Greece and on various islands in the Aegean Sea. Despite the fact that the Ottoman Empire was a nominal ally of the members of the Holy Alliance and an official part of the Congress System, and despite the fact that the Greek uprising was precisely the kind of thing that the Holy Alliance had been organized to prevent, Europeans soon flocked to support the rebellion. European scholars wrote impassioned articles about how Greece, as the birthplace of European culture, needed to be liberated from the “oriental” tyranny of the Turks.

    After reports of a Turkish massacre of Greeks were publicized in Europe, the Holy Alliance demanded that Turkey grant Greek independence. The Ottomans refused, so in 1827 a combined fleet of Britain, France, and Russia sunk an Ottoman fleet. Fighting continued between the rebels and the Ottomans for a few years, with support going to the rebels from the European powers (and Russia actually declaring war in 1829), and in 1833 the Ottomans finally relented and granted independence to Greece.

    Thus, in this case, the cultural bias pitting European Christians against (perceived) non-European Muslims proved stronger than the pragmatic, conservative concern with suppressing revolutions among the European powers. Following the Greek uprising, the Ottoman Empire entered into a period of marked decline in power, its territories attracting the unwanted attention of the European states. Europeans soon referred to the Ottoman Empire as the “sick man of Europe,” and squabbling over Ottoman territory became an increasing source of tension between the European great powers by the middle of the century.

    While the Greek uprising was raging in the eastern Mediterranean, revolution was brewing once again in France. King Charles X, the arch-conservative and nearly delusional king of France from 1824 – 1830, was one of the most unpopular monarchs in Europe. Under his watch the small group of rich politicians allowed to sit in the French Chamber of Deputies passed a law making religious sacrilege punishable by death (no one was ever actually executed), and he re-instituted harsh censorship even as French society had become increasingly literate and liberal. In July of 1830, angered at the growing strength of liberalism, Charles disenfranchised most of those who had been able to vote at all and further clamped down on the freedom of the press.

    The result was a kind of accidental revolution in which angry crowds took to the streets and the king lost his nerve and fled. Just as they had in the first French Revolution, the army sided with the crowd of protesters, not with the king. Charles X fled to exile in England, the last ever Bourbon monarch to have held the throne of France, and his cousin Louis-Philippe of the Orléans branch of the royal line became the king. The “citizen king” as he was called expanded the electorate, reinstituted freedom of the press, and abandoned the kind of medieval court etiquette favored by Charles X.

    The irony of the “July Monarchy” of Louis-Philippe is that it demonstrated some of the limitations of liberalism at the time. The electorate was very small, comprised of the wealthy (both noble and bourgeois). The government essentially ran like a company devoted to making the rich and connected richer and better connected, while leaving the majority of the population without access to political power. Workers were banned from forming unions and even relatively prosperous bourgeois were not rich enough to vote. Louis-Philippe himself became increasingly unpopular as the years went on (satirical cartoons at the time often depicted him as an obese, spoiled pear). The July Monarchy only lasted fourteen years, toppled during the revolutions of 1848.

    Meanwhile, in Great Britain, it seemed possible that a revolution might come to pass as well. Britain as of 1815 was comparatively “liberal” already, having been a constitutional monarchy since 1689, but there was still plenty for British liberals to attack. There was limited representative government in the parliament, and the electorate mostly represented the landowning gentry class. Furthermore, the electoral districts were either totally out of sync with the British population or were, in fact, complete nonsense. Voting districts had not been revised to reflect changes in population since the eighteenth century, and thus, the north was sorely underrepresented. Also, there were “rotten boroughs,” electoral districts with no one in them which were controlled remotely by a lord. One was a pasture. Another, called Dunwich, was literally underwater; due to changes in sea walls, it had been inundated for centuries. It still sent a lord to parliament, however, namely the descendant of the lords who had controlled it before it was submerged.

    A series of reforms in Britain, however, staved off a revolution along continental lines. First, in 1828 and 1829, separate bills made it legal for Catholics and non-Anglican Protestants to hold office. Then, the Great Reform Bill of 1832 expanded the electorate to encompass most of the urban middle class and eliminated the rotten boroughs entirely; it only passed the arch-conservative House of Lords because the lords were terrified that the disgruntled middle class would join with workers in an actual revolution. The newly liberalized parliament that followed swiftly voted to end slavery in British territories (1833), passed the controversial Poor Laws that created public workhouses (1834) for the unemployed, and eliminated corrupt and archaic city governments and replaced them with elected councils. A decade later, the hated Corn Laws were finally repealed after a protracted political struggle (1846). Thus, the pattern in British politics in the nineteenth century was a slow, steady liberalization, even as Britain clinched its position as the most powerful single state in Europe by the middle of the century.

    • Was this article helpful?