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congress of vienna
intellectual underpinnings
revolutions of 1830 and of 1848

Shortly after the fall of the Bastille, in July 1789, the term revolution came to assume its modern meaning, and with this its antithesis came into common usage as well. As soon as the brothers of Louis XVI (r. 1774–1792), and then his aunts, fled France, they were suspected of conspiring against the new constitutional regime being shaped by the deputies of the Constituent Assembly, and fear of counterrevolution became a salient feature of the political landscape of revolutionary France. Throughout the late months of 1789, and on into 1790, increasing numbers of émigré nobles gathered in Koblenz and Turin, just across the French border. Patriots suspected the émigrés of corresponding with networks of counterrevolutionaries within France, and violent incidents in Lyon seemed to confirm those fears. The bagarre de Nimes, the first serious incident of counterrevolutionary violence, claimed between two hundred and three hundred lives in a clash that pitted Protestants against Catholics, a distant echo of the hostilities of the Wars of Religion in southeastern France. Two months later nearly twenty-five thousand peasants, led by local nobles, gathered in a camp on the plain of Jalés, in Ardéche, north of Nimes. No violence followed, but a loosely organized leadership did emerge, and Jalès became synonymous with counterrevolution in southern France for the next three years. Camps gathered at Jalès at least twice thereafter, and a military engagement in the summer of 1792 resulted in the deaths of several hundred rebels.

In Paris the fear of counterrevolution following the military defeat at Verdun in late August 1792 triggered the September Massacres in the prisons, claiming nearly two thousand lives, many of them clergy, and in spring 1793 the introduction of military conscription led to rebellion in the Vendeée, the first widespread counterrevolutionary upheaval in France. The Vendée, a region along the Atlantic seaboard just to the south of Nantes, was a predominantly rural area, with no major cities. The textile economy in towns such as Cholet had suffered in the last years of the Old Regime, and few of the local peasantry had benefited from the sale of biens nationaux (confiscated church lands) in the early years of the Revolution. Indeed, the peasants of the Vendeée were intensely loyal to their priests, most of whom had been recruited locally, and most of whom refused to swear the civil oath of the clergy in accordance with a law passed by the Constituent Assembly in July 1790. Military recruitment, a slumping local economy, and resentment over the Civil Constitution of the Clergy thus brought together a coalition of disaffected peasants, refractory clergy, and royalist aristocrats in the most serious counterrevolutionary movement of the entire French Revolution.

Scattered uprisings quickly grew into something much larger, and the rebels formed what they called the Royal and Catholic Army. They took the city of Saumur in early June 1793, and by the end of the month Nantes was under siege. Republican volunteers rushed to the Vendée to combat the uprising, not only from Paris but also from throughout western France, including cities such as Caen and Bordeaux that were themselves resisting the National Convention at that time. The main rebel army was defeated in December 1793, with atrocities committed on both sides. In January 1794 General Louis-Marie Turreau unleashed his colonnes infernales to carry out a scorched-earth policy against the remnants of the rebel forces and their rural supporters. In Nantes, Jean-Baptiste Carrier oversaw the execution of approximately three thousand people, most of them accused of having participated in the Vendeée rebellion.

While the severe repression may have shattered the capability of the rebels to mount a serious military challenge in the Vendeée region, it also inspired widespread resentment and perpetuated scattered resistance for years to come. A formal treaty was signed in February 1795, ostensibly ending the rebellion, but a failed landing of émigré forces (supported by the British) at Quiberon in June 1795 triggered renewed unrest, and it was not until the signing of the Concordat under Napoleon Bonaparte in 1801 that peace returned permanently to the region. The cost to the west of France was enormous, with the countryside laid waste and as much as one-third of the population killed in the fighting and the Terror that followed.

After the fall of Maximilien Robespierre on 9 Thermidor (27 July 1794), the jeunesse dorée, or gilded youth, grew increasingly bold in their expression of counterrevolutionary sentiments and their attacks on republican officials. The violence of the Terror now gave way to a White Terror, particularly in regions of southern France and along the Rhone Valley, and the two-thirds decree passed by the National Convention in 1795, aimed at ensuring continuity in the national government, produced an upsurge of counterrevolutionary activity in and around Paris quelled only by military action in Vendémiaire 1795—Napoleon's famous "whiff of grapeshot." The fear of counterrevolution did not entirely subside until Napoleon seized power in 1799, but the political opposition between left and right, between revolution and counterrevolution, would persist long into the nineteenth century.

congress of vienna

While the regime of Napoleon Bonaparte (later Napoleon I, 1804–1814/15) suppressed republican politics within France, his imperial armies carried revolutionary ideas and ideals with them as they marched across Europe. After Napoleon's defeat, first in 1814 following the disastrous Russian campaign, and then definitively in 1815 following Waterloo, the monarchies of Europe sent their delegates to Vienna to craft a settlement that would both contain France and stem the revolutionary tide in Europe. Many European countries were represented at the Congress of Vienna, but the dominant players were Austria, Prussia, Russia, and Great Britain. The two most influential delegates at the table were Prince Clemens von Metternich (1773–1859), in charge of Austrian foreign affairs since 1809, and Robert Stewart, Viscount Castlereagh, representing Great Britain. Tsar Alexander I (r. 1801–1825) represented Russia himself, and while France was initially denied representation, Prince Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord eventually traveled to Vienna to join the talks and defend French interests.

The treaty that emerged reduced French borders to an area just slightly larger than its 1789 boundaries. The treaty also sought to restore the balance of power in Europe by reestablishing traditional institutions and returning legitimate rulers to power. To preserve the peace and the balance of power moving forward, the five great powers came together in what was called the Concert of Europe, whereby Great Britain, France, Austria, Prussia, and Russia agreed to bring their disputes to the negotiating table rather than going to war. This informal agreement did indeed prevent the outbreak of a Continental war until 1914.

Tsar Alexander I hoped that the great powers would more formally affirm the religious basis of legitimate monarchical rule by signing a document that he wrote as the basis for a Holy Alliance. France was not invited to sign, and Castlereagh refused to commit Great Britain to this project, but Prussia, Austria, and Russia did sign, pledging to uphold Christian principles of charity and peace and to provide mutual assistance in the face of challenges from revolution or liberalism. In the decades following the Congress of Vienna the Holy Alliance had several opportunities to defend its principles. In 1820, a weak and corrupt government in Naples collapsed, and revolutionaries succeeded in instituting a new regime and constitution. Metternich, citing the principle that constitutions could only legitimately be granted by sovereigns, not forced by revolutionaries, called on the Holy Alliance to intervene, which it did, sending Austrian troops into Naples to restore Ferdinand IV (king of Naples as Ferdinand IV, r. 1759–1806, 1815–1825; king of the Two Sicilies as Ferdinand I, r. 1816–1825) to the throne. Thousands of liberals and revolutionaries fled Naples, many of them finding their way to Spain, which was already facing unrest in its South and Central American colonies. While the European powers were unwilling to prop up Spanish monarchical rule in its colonies, the Holy Alliance did send two hundred thousand troops to Spain in 1823, easily routing opposition to the crown and forcing advocates of liberal revolution into exile or prison. Metternich and Tsar Alexander also intervened in the early 1820s to bolster Ottoman rule in Greece, though Greek nationalists did ultimately achieve Greek independence in 1829.

intellectual underpinnings

The diplomatic and political forces of counterrevolution were underpinned in the early nineteenth century by several important intellectual advocates of monarchical authority and political conservatism. First among these was Edmund Burke, whose Reflections on the Revolution in France appeared in 1790. Burke, an Irishman by birth and member of the British House of Commons, condemned the French Revolution as a blind incarnation of the abstract philosophy of the Enlightenment and its assertion of human universals. He argued that the events of 1789 in France represented a repudiation of the organic social order of France and a rejection of its historic tradition, and predicted that the Revolution would lead inevitably to atheism and military dictatorship. Burke's critique was recognized immediately and for many years thereafter as an eloquent expression of the ideology of counterrevolution.

Joining Burke in his repudiation of Enlightenment reason were two Frenchmen, Louis de Bonald (1754–1840) and Joseph de Maistre (1753–1821), both of whom emigrated from France during the Revolution. De Bonald argued that monarchy and Christianity, more particularly the Catholic Church, were the twin pillars necessary for the preservation of social order. He championed an organic vision of society in which the papacy and divine monarchs were the natural protectors of God's order on earth. De Maistre, too, believed that sovereignty flowed from God, not from the people, and rejected the Enlightenment concept of natural rights in favor of the natural order that had prevailed in Europe for centuries. For the conservatives who rallied to de Bonald and de Maistre, God and history (or tradition) were the only legitimate sources of political authority. And that authority, they argued, must be sustained by force. As de Maistre wrote, "the first servant of the crown should be the executioner."

Conservatives, then, rejected the universalism of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, insisting that the only legitimate rights were those granted by monarchs to their people. But they could not deny the powerful force, the enormous energy, unleashed by French nationalism during the 1790s, and the advocates of counterrevolution sought a way to tap that energy without unleashing the forces of liberalism and radical reform. Some found inspiration in the writings of Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744–1803), a Prussian Romantic who argued that national identity was rooted in a common history and culture, most profoundly expressed through language and folk literature. In Herder's ideas those who opposed popular sovereignty and individual liberties found an expression of a conservative nationalism that would serve the forces of counterrevolution well through the first half of the nineteenth century, and that would eventually lead to the unification of Germany in 1870.

revolutions of 1830 and of 1848

The revolutions of 1830, however, marked an end to the ability of the Holy Alliance to hold back political change across Europe. The most important of these occurred in France. When Charles X (r. 1824–1830) came to power in 1824, succeeding Louis XVIII (r. 1814–1815, 1815–1824), he attempted to reassert elements of traditional monarchical power and restrict political freedom. This led to a wave of protest and political agitation, culminating in popular uprisings in July 1830 that toppled the Bourbon crown and brought the more liberal Orléanist wing of the royal family to power. Louis-Philippe, the "citizen king," would govern France until 1848.

The change of regime in Paris inspired Belgian patriots to demand more autonomy from the Dutch king. Tsar Nicholas I (r. 1825–1855) wished to intervene in support of the Dutch, but troubles in Poland prevented a Russian mobilization. The Belgian revolution succeeded, with Belgium gaining complete independence. Great Britain and France then stepped in to negotiate an agreement whereby all five great powers pledged to recognize and guarantee Belgian neutrality in perpetuity. In Poland, by contrast, the Russian tsar acted with force to repress middle-class revolutionaries in 1831, and Poland was effectively annexed to Russia.

For the next two decades most Europeans saw the political landscape as one pitting proponents of revolution against the forces of counterrevolution. Metternich and his allies did all that they could to hold back the tide of parliamentary liberalism, to ward off the threat of social disorder and godless radicalism, but in the end they were fighting a losing battle. Liberal revolutionaries agitated all across Europe in the 1830s and 1840s, both openly and clandestinely, and as industrialization spread in western Europe and Great Britain, the advocates of liberal parliamentarianism were soon pressured from below by working people demanding universal manhood suffrage and socialist policies. When revolution did erupt in 1848, with major upheavals occurring almost simultaneously across the Continent, the first instinct of monarchs in France, Germany, Austria, Hungary, and Italy was to step back in fear and grant concessions for reform.

In France, relatively peaceful protests in Paris in February 1848 brought an end to the Orléanist monarchy, with King Louis-Philippe (r. 1830–1848) fleeing to London, and revolutionaries declaring a second French Republic. Widespread demonstrations in the German states, prompted by news from France and reports of upheaval in Vienna, led the Prussian king Frederick William IV (r. 1840–1861) to convene a United Diet of German states, to meet in Frankfurt in May with the purpose of drafting a constitution. Troubles in Austria began with an independence movement in Hungary, the news of which triggered protests among students and artisans in Vienna. Metternich quickly resigned his post, and Emperor Ferdinand I (r. 1835–1848) promised a liberal constitution and the granting of civil liberties. In northern Italy, advocates of liberal reform joined those eager to see Italian unification and independence from Austria.


Despite these initial successes, however, the forces of counterrevolution would ultimately prevail in nearly every case. Divisions among the revolutionaries themselves, and the strengthened resolve of the ruling houses, doomed the revolutions to failure. Much more rapidly than in 1789 or 1830, divisions emerged between the propertied bourgeoisie and the lower classes, both workers and peasants. Fearful of unrest and the "socialist" threat, the middle classes were willing to compromise some of their liberal ideals so that stability and order might be reestablished. In France this meant the election of Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, nephew of Napoleon I, as president in December 1848. Although he campaigned as a populist, he soon introduced an authoritarian regime, sent French troops in 1849 to support the pope against republican rebels in Italy, and in December 1851 declared himself emperor as Napoleon III (r. 1852–1871). Austria joined France and the papacy in sending troops against the Italian revolutionaries, who were easily defeated. At home, Francis Joseph I (r. 1848–1916) succeeded his uncle, Ferdinand, as Austro-Hungarian emperor in spring 1848, and the Habsburg government employed a military siege to suppress the revolutionary movement in Vienna, killing nearly three thousand rebels in the process. Austria required the assistance of Russian troops in the summer of 1849 to finally quell the Hungarian independence movement. In Germany, Frederick William IV dissolved an assembly meeting in Berlin in November 1848 and sent royal troops to occupy the city. The diet meeting in Frankfurt, composed largely of moderate liberals, could not agree on whether a unified Germany should include Austria, or be centered on the kingdom of Prussia. When they finally opted for the latter, and approached Frederick William to accept the new throne, he refused to accept "a crown from the gutter." The Prussian king now moved to dissolve the Frankfurt assembly and sent troops against the last flickers of revolt in the smaller German states.

In the end, then, counterrevolution prevailed and monarchies survived the revolutions of 1848. The unification of Italy and of Germany would eventually come, in 1870, but on much more authoritarian terms than the liberal revolutionaries of 1848 had envisaged. Otto von Bismarck's triumph in Germany did bring an end to the Second Empire in France, but the return of a republican government in Paris did little to shake the foundations of monarchy in the rest of Europe. Not until the convergence of World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution would emperors finally be toppled from their thrones in Berlin, Moscow, and Vienna.

See alsoFrench Revolution; Revolutions of 1830; Revolutions of 1848.


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Kissinger, Henry. A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh, and the Problems of Peace, 1812–1822. Boston, 1957.

Lively, Jack, ed. The Works of Joseph de Maistre. New York, 1965.

Mayer, Arno J. The Persistence of the Old Regime: Europe to the Great War. New York, 1981.

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Weiss, John. Conservatism in Europe, 1770–1945: Traditionalism, Reaction, and Counterrevolution. New York, 1977.

Paul R. Hanson