Europe, following the incessant French wars of 1790 to 1815 saw the rise of new political ideologies that had an unprecedented voice in European politics. European thought had been turned on its head as liberal ideologies dominated the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. Following the defeat of Napoleon the legacy of liberalism and its sponsoring of personal participation breathed life into civil society wherein all citizens became educated and proactive in the politics of the day.
This exciting and new society with its stressing of liberal ideals became the most contentious political issue of 1815 to 1848 as monarchs felt threatened in the new political climate which saw civil participation on an unprecedented scale. This issue would spur a nationwide conservative backlash in order to suppress liberal civil society in the wake of the revolutionary Europe.
Nevertheless, liberalism and its influence, resulting in the flourishing of civil society would spur a reemergence of political activism during the 1830s and 1840s that would produce new concessions from middle and lower classes that would loosen conservatism’s hold over Europe. Overall, the contention of liberalism during the early eighteenth century would produce widespread political instability. Although liberalism did not originate in the French Revolution, it undoubtedly thrived under it.
The French Revolution was built on Enlightenment ideals of which were adopted into French legislature like the Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizen which guaranteed individual liberties; inalienable rights; and the freedom of press, association, and religion. These ideologies would be solidified under the Napoleonic Code of 1814 which formally recognized individual rights and freedoms. In both cases, the individual became a central focus of political thought promoting personal political involvement which fostered new forms of political engagement, most notably through civil society.
Civil society was unprecedented as it was the entirety of society mobilized to think, converse, and share information pertaining to all facets of life including art, science, technology, and above all politics. This conversation was present in various institutions like that of the press, public meetings, societies, and associations. Civil society crossed all sects of society producing involvement from all genders, geographical locations, and social classes allowing for non-aristocrats to participate in political discusses, often promoting liberal thought rejecting absolutism and divine rights whilst encouraging political representation.
Although the French Revolution and Napoleon failed their liberal beliefs continued on through civil society. Despite liberalism flourishing during the French Revolution its failing outcome left many with an unpleasant sentiment towards its ideological objectives. As Edmund Burke, a British politician and critic of the revolution noted, “By following those false lights [of liberalism], France has bought undisguised calamities at a higher price than any nation has purchased the most unequivocal blessings.
Burke was not alone in his thought as many Europeans felt the French Revolution had resulted in a regression for European society as civilians, asking for political representation, degenerated into mob rule. This tainted liberalism, and with the lacking of liberal leaders European monarchs and high aristocrats were able to quickly produce a continent wide reimplementation of traditional European ideals. This movement of conservatism aimed to reinstate ancient privileges but more importantly, hoped to prevent another disruptive revolution.
In order deter revolutionary ideals conservatives believed they must attack the source; civil society. Instigated most notably by Klemens von Metternich, an Austrian politician, European powers enacted legislature that would suppress liberalism and its associations. In 1819, Metternich enacted the Carlsbad Resolutions which aimed to repress political organizations from threatening newly restored conservative Europe.
Moreover, it outline that all publications would be subject to “approval of the state officials. The aim was to subdue civil society from spreading political dissent. At its heart, conservative Europe wanted to dissuade liberalism from the political conservation in hopes to avoid a repeat of the French Revolution or Napoleonic like figures in order to maintain continental peace. In light of continent wide attempts to subdue civil society, liberalism was not hushed but rather produced louder voices of discontent.
Mainland Europeans, considering themselves heirs to Napoleon and the French Revolution continued to support “liberty, equality, and fraternity. In attempts to subdue liberal European society, conservative monarchs were regularly heavy handed in their administration, often provoking dissenters to rise up. Although war was not declared between countries, domestic riots stemming from illegal liberal associations and societies plagued Europe from 1815 to1848. Despite their attempts at subduing civil society, organizations continued illegally in secrecy continuing to promote action.
As conservative Europe began to crack, civil society began to reassert its position garnering support for many of their causes especially as Europe became completely enflamed in revolution in 1848. For example, in 1849 Louise Otto, a German activist was able to publish a statement rallying men and women to join in the revolutionary fight of 1848 stating that “being positive is not enough,” rather one must personally engage in revolution to obtain universal results.
The ability to call on men and women from all social classes demonstrates the perverse power in which civil society was able to garner, and threaten the established governments of Europe. Things were more orderly across the channel as British civil society continued to advocate for liberal ideologies, like that of representation. A notable example is of the People’s Petition of 1838 where English working class men petitioned Parliament for representation and political rights.
Their demands consisted of universal suffrage, the secret ballot, annual parliament, and the abolishment of “all property qualifications in the members. ” Although not entirely successful, some of their grievances were adopted into government. What this petition demonstrates is the ability for civil society to unify and make an impact on the political system. In essence, following the revolutionary period in Europe that ended with the Napoleonic Wars, leading European politicians believed liberalism was the instigator for the ceaseless wars and they sought to extinguish its influence.
To do so, aristocratic Europeans attacked civil society resulting in a conservative domination immediately following the end of the Napoleonic Wars. Unfortunately for them, civil society was only suppressed temporarily and liberal demands resurfaced throughout associations again demanding for representation. As viewed in Louise Otto and the People’s Petition of 1838, all ranks of society became involved in the political turmoil. This continual push and pull between civil society, liberalism, and conservatism plagued Europe continually resulting in violent uprisings and political instability.