The 1848 Revolutions
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The 1848 Revolutions

Peter Jones

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eBook - ePub

The 1848 Revolutions

Peter Jones

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In 1848 revolutions broke out all over Europe - in France, the Habsburg and German lands and the Italian peninsular. This Seminar Study considers why the revolutions occurred and why they were so widespread. The book offers a broad ranging investigation of the social, economic and political circumstances which led to the revolutions of 1848 as well as an account of the revolutions themselves. First published in 1981, and fully revised in 1991, the study has long established itself as one of the most accessible and valuable introductions to this complex subject.

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Part One:
The Background

The Outbreak of Revolution

On 20 February 1848, the opponents of the French government, which was headed by François Guizot*, made plans to hold a political banquet in Paris. The government banned the banquet and thereby brought the common people of Paris on to the streets of the capital. They marched on the Chamber of Deputies, where their leaders presented a petition demanding Guizot’s* resignation.
Popular dissatisfaction with the government, and with Guizot in particular, had been growing during 1847, but the opposition campaign had been led by middle-class politicians who were seeking to reform government rather than overthrow the monarchy of Louis Philippe. Now their cause became, at any rate in appearance, the cause of the common people of Paris, and on 22 February 1848 the police had to clear an unruly crowd in the Place de la Madeleine. The next day the King dismissed Guizot* and called on Louis-Mathieu Molé* to form a government. But the concession had come too late, because on the same evening a great throng of people had made their way along the Boulevard des Capucines to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, only to find their passage blocked by a troop of cavalry and infantry. According to Victor Hugo, the people at the head of the procession tried to stop and.turn aside, ‘but the irresistible pressure of the huge crowd weighed on the front ranks’. A shot rang out, and in the panic that followed a whole volley was fired. At least forty people were killed. The victims were piled on a cart lit with torches and within a few hours the city was blocked with barricades (30).
On the following morning, 24 February, Alexis de Tocqueville*, a prominent member of the Chamber of Deputies, left his house feeling that he could ‘scent revolution in the air’. A group of men gathered round him and asked for news, and he warned them that the only real danger to the government was if they themselves got too excited and took matters to extremes. ‘“That’s all very well, sir,” they said, “the government has got itself into this fix by its own fault; so let it get itself out as best it can … (7). Louis Philippe had done just that – he had abdicated that same afternoon and a provisional government had been set up.
The provisional government would probably have decided in favour of a regency, but a series of invasions of the Chamber of Deputies by republican activists, students and eventually a crowd of workers on the afternoon of 24 February pushed the provisional government reluctantly towards the declaration of a republic. Paris was now in the hands of the workers and the ‘dangerous classes’. Earlier that day they had invaded the Tuileries Palace and dumped Louis Philippe’s empty throne in the courtyard. According to Flaubert the ‘common herd ironically wrapped themselves in laces and cashmeres… Hats with ostrich feathers adorned blacksmiths’ heads, and ribbons of the Legion of Honour supplied waistbands for the prostitutes’ (quoted in 30). Lamartine, who was popular with the people, nevertheless witnessed the invasion of the Chamber of Deputies with fear:
They crowded the corridors, and rushed with their cries of mortal combat into the spectators’ galleries. Their clothes torn, their shirts open, their arms bare, their fists clenched and resembling muscular clubs, their hair wildly dishevelled and singed with cartridges, their countenances maddened with the delirium of revolution, their eyes smitten with the spectacle, so novel to them, presented by this Chamber … all revealed them to be desperadoes, who were come to make the last assault on the last refuge of royalty (74).
The crowd was armed with pikes, bayonets and sabres. ‘Down with the Regency!’ they shouted. ‘The Republic forever.’ The crowd had probably obtained their weapons from units of the National Guard, a volunteer citizens’ militia, who had capitulated with little or no resistance. Whatever the precise details of the Guard’s activity, it is clear that only one legion, largely recruited from the more prosperous right bank, and half of the Tenth Legion, actively followed orders. Elsewhere there was indifference, and in some cases the guardsmen actually defended the crowds from the troops (66). All this served to paralyse the forces of order, thus allowing the revolutionaries to gain the initiative. Once the crowd had made its way into the Chamber, it was then able to force the government to include socialist members, among them Louis Blanc*, as well as a solitary but symbolic worker, Alexandre Albert.
The revolution in France was followed by outbreaks of violence and revolutionary activity elsewhere in Europe. In southern Germany the peasants of the Odenwald and Schwarzwald descended on their landlords’ castles and destroyed the charters that perpetuated their feudal obligations. In Bavaria the revolution was intertwined with an old-style Court scandal. King Ludwig’s infatuation with a dark-eyed beauty, Lola Montez, had led him to consult her on political matters. He made her Countess of Landsberg, despite protests from ministers, the clergy and even the Pope. Her arrogance and insulting behaviour so incensed the students at the University of Munich that they launched an attack on her house in February 1848. The King attempted to have the university closed, but the news of the abdication of Louis Philippe brought crowds onto the street calling for a republic. Ludwig was forced to banish his beloved Lola and he soon abdicated, leaving the throne to his son, Maximilian. But it was not just the opposition in the streets that had forced Ludwig’s hand: it was also the dissatisfaction among the business and professional classes who were demanding a more liberal regime.
By March the revolutionary tide had spread eastwards to Berlin, the capital of Prussia, and to Vienna, Prague and Budapest. It was for long assumed that the rest of Europe was merely following the French example – a view embodied in the writings of the historian Jules Michelet, whose assumptions about the primacy of French culture led to the conclusion that anything which happened in France was ‘an event of European significance’ (22). The fact is that events in Europe had been assuming menacing proportions before the outbreak of revolution in Paris. In 1846 and 1847 the potato crop had been destroyed by disease, causing food riots among the poorer classes of central Europe (51, 59). Meanwhile, a financial crisis affecting the investing classes, as well as causing unemployment, had stoked up resentments among a wide range of social groups. There had been riots in Milan in January 1848 and these culminated in the famous ‘five days” street fighting in March, when the Milanese succeeded in expelling the Austrian garrison. January had also seen an insurrection in Palermo in Sicily. But economic discontent alone is insufficient to explain the widespread nature of the revolutions, for had it been, then they would probably have occurred in 1847, which was the low-point in both the agricultural and financial crises.
The revolutions of 1848 had two important features. First, they were widespread – there were even revolutions in Pernambuco in South America and later in Colombia. Secondly, they were initially successful. In Prussia King Frederick William IV temporarily went with the revolution, parading the streets swathed in the German national flag. But the most startling victory of the revolutionary year was the resignation of Metternich, not only the principal architect of the settlement of 1815, but for many the symbol of order and stability in Europe. Troubles in Vienna had grown from the moment that the news of the revolution in Paris arrived. On 13 March the Diet of Lower Austria, a traditional assembly that contained some liberal-minded nobles, was invaded by a crowd of workers and students (152, 159). Metternich argued, along with Windischgratz, the Provincial Governor of Bohemia, that swift action would quell the uprising. But it was too late. Metternich had lost the support of the Court and was soon to lose the ability to take the decisive action that he claimed was necessary. So it was against a background of popular revolution in the streets that Metternich resigned and eventually made his way to England as an exile.
The great Habsburg Empire, which Metternich had so long maintained, seemed on the point of disintegration. The Italians of Lombardy and Venetia were seeking to break free from the grip of Vienna; the Hungarians led by Kossuth were staking their claim for independence; and the first rumblings of Czech nationalism were making themselves heard in Prague. This vigorous activity was not caused solely by the example of the French, even though Michelet’s claim of 1846 may seem prophetic: ‘France possesses the divine genius of society… she is the pilot of the ship of humanity’ (quoted in 17). The outbreak of the revolution in those places already mentioned, as well as in Venice, Rome, Naples, Frankfurt and many of the smaller German states, together with troubles in Ireland and Britain, had general causes to be found in the years before 1848. Of course there were particular causes in different countries but there were nevertheless general European explanations which arose out of the dynamic processes of change that were affecting the whole of European society. It will be necessary to examine these processes and underlying causes in turn.

Part Two:
The European Transformation

Beginning in the eighteenth century, Europe had experienced a major transformation. There were two main elements in this. First, there was the onset of industrialisation together with urbanisation, initially in Britain, later in Belgium, and later still in France and Germany. Second, there was the growth of population in the countryside, which not only supplied a ready-made army of migrants for the towns but also placed great strain on the resources of the poorest sections of the rural population. These two major social and economic developments set into motion the long-term strains that contributed so much to the causes of the 1848 revolutions. Of course, the revolutions were also the outcome of political forces that had been released by the great French Revolution of 1789 which had signalled the end of the ancien régime. Nevertheless, it is a useful starting point to consider how the major social and economic transformations affected three major social groupings – the working classes, the middle classes and the rural poor. There are two main questions to be answered. Firstly, how did the European transformation affect the fortunes and wellbeing of these three groups? Secondly, did their changing experience in the years before 1848 induce revolutionary attitudes and behaviour?

The Impact of Industrialisation on the Working Classes

European writers in the 1830s and 1840s were impressed primarily by the growth of industrial power within their society. The problems of the countryside probably seemed less immediate to them. Nonetheless, the strains of population pressure that were being felt in the countryside should not be ignored by the historian, as it is often less obvious factors that are the springs of great events like revolutions. Contemporary writings, however, show that it was with the pathological problems of urban living – disease, mortality and overcrowding – that educated society was most concerned. In England, these writings formed part of a debate on the ‘Condition of England’ question. Similar debates were being carried on among the respectable classes of many European cities. The great fear of the respectable classes was of the urban poor who had already demonstrated their dangerous potential in Paris in 1789 and who continued to show signs of drunkenness, criminality and begging (64). The preoccupations of contemporaries are understandable, and the graphic portrayal of working-class misery in many industrial cities – Manchester, Lille, St Etienne – has frequently led historians to begin their accounts of the growth of working-class protest by accumulating evidence of the horrors of urban-industrial living. There is no doubt that the rapid growth of European cities in this period led to a crisis in the areas of municipal services, health and mortality, together with the growth of insanity, suicide, beggary, alcoholism, crime, infanticide and prostitution among the working classes. This has prompted the conclusion that social breakdown, labour protest and even revolution are of the same order (41, 64). However, such a conclusion is based on rather doubtful reasoning, not least because it devalues the coherence of working-class protest activity and fails to appreciate that there is a qualitative difference between behaviour that exhibits a lack of focus and purpose, and actions of protest, which are usually stimulated by specific grievances (21).
Before examining the effects of industrial urbanism on the working classes, some account of the extent of industrialisation is necessary. The first general observation to be made is that the continent of Europe was still overwhelmingly rural in 1848. Britain was the most advanced industrial nation and also the most urbanised, yet it was not subject to revolution in 1848. The second most industrialised nation was Belgium, which also managed to avoid revolution. There were probably special reasons for this avoidance (see below, pp. 18–19). However, the absence of revolution in these two advanced industrial states, where working-class misery and privation were extensive, serves as a warning against that line of reasoning which attempts to show a direct relationship between the growth of industry and working-class pauperisation followed by protest and ultimately revolution.
The rest of Europe was fully a generation behind Britain and Belgium in the development of industry (14). In France the most significant industrial region was in the north-east of the country based on the textile towns of Lille, Roubaix and Tourcoing. Roger Price has observed that poor transportation facilities, in particular, retarded French economic development (80). In technological terms too, France displayed backwardness – for example in the 1840s only forty-one blast furnaces out of a total of 462 used coke, whilst the remainder’ used charcoal. Poor transportation and abundant supplies of timber from the French forests for charcoal production encouraged manufacturers to stick to older techniques (93). The building of railways had also been slow, probably due to a lack of capital. It was this inadequate transport system that prompted the state to enter into the matter of raising finance during Guizot’s* administration in the 1840s. All this points to the underdevelopment of industry.
Even though the extent of industrialisation in France was limited compared with England and Belgium, it should not be forgotten that there were some 400,000 factory workers in France by 1848. The growth of factory production disrupted traditional artisanal modes of production. Artisan guilds were under attack from merchants and industrialists; immigrant labour constantly undersold itself in the new factories. Many of the newcomers to the towns were uneducated, and in Mulhouse in the 1840s it has been estimated that three-quarters of the illiterates were born outside the city. These new factory workers were often rootless, showing their discontent by resorting to drink, by abandoning religious practice and by stealing, especially from their place of work (41, 82, 108). Such behaviour may indicate a breakdown of the traditional social controls that had prevailed in rural society, and some historians have equated a rise in criminality and social disaffection with an increase in revolutionary protest activity (108).
There is no doubt that the condition of the industrial worker was grim. He could expect to die sooner than an agricultural worker, although in Lille the expectation of life of an industrial worker rose from twenty-eight years to thirty-two in the period 1830 to 1848. His diet was extremely monotonous and even the better-paid ‘spent at least half their income on starches alone’ (41). The evidence on working-class living standards and industrialisation is not conclusive – for example, the total meat consumption per capita appears to have remained unchanged between 1812 and 1840 (24) – but some historians have maintained that the real wages of French workers fell steadily between 1817 and 1848. Further, although the standard of living of the French worker was probably slightly better than his German counterpart (he was less dependent on the potato) his life was often wretched: the working day was often fourteen or fifteen hours compared with about thirteen hours in Germany (27). The living conditions of the French worker were exceptionally squalid and he was, of course, vulnerable to disease. The cholera epidemic of 1831–32 carried off 18,400 people in Paris alone in a span of six months. This is a long catalogue of misery and woe. However, it does not in itself provide a complete explanation of revolution.
It is certainly true that the revolutions in France and elsewhere came at the end of a long period o...

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