Revolutions in Europe

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Revolutions in Europe

Europe 1848


Revolutions swept much of Europe in 1848. The revolutions were a response to the dislocations of the Treaty of Vienna, the growth of centralized states with unchecked royal power, and the largely indirect effects of the Industrial Revolution. Although old quarrels played an important role in creating an unparalleled revolutionary situation on the European continent, the fall of established governments opened the way for new contenders on the political stage. In France particularly, artisans threatened by technology, hard pressed by competition from mechanized industry, and exploited by small masters entered the urban political arena. In 1848 in France, the labor movement asserted itself as an independent political entity on the European continent for the first time. European labor had previously been part of a broadly republican movement. The events of 1848 revealed previously concealed antagonisms between labor and the republican movement.


  • 1824: French engineer Sadi Carnot describes a perfect engine: one in which all energy input is converted to energy output. The ideas in his Reflections on the Motive Power of Fire will influence the formulation of the Second Law of Thermodynamics—which shows that such a perfect engine is an impossibility.
  • 1833: British Parliament passes the Slavery Abolition Act, giving freedom to all slaves throughout the British Empire.
  • 1838: As crops fail, spawning famine in Ireland, Britain imposes the Poor Law. Designed to discourage the indigent from seeking public assistance, the law makes labor in the workhouse worse than any work to be found on the outside, and thus has the effect of stimulating emigration.
  • 1842: In Sanitary Conditions of the Labouring Population of Great Britain, British reformer Edwin Chadwick draws attention to the squalor in the nation's mill town slums, and shows that working people have a much higher incidence of disease than do the middle and upper classes.
  • 1845: From Ireland to Russia, famine plagues Europe, killing some 2.5 million people.
  • 1846: Height of the Irish potato famine.
  • 1848: Mexican War ends with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, in which Mexico gives up half of its land area, including Texas, California, most of Arizona and New Mexico, and parts of Colorado, Utah, and Nevada. In another treaty, with Great Britain, the United States sets the boundaries of its Oregon Territory.
  • 1848: Discovery of gold at Sutter's Mill in California starts a gold rush, which brings a tremendous influx of settlers—and spells the beginning of the end for California's Native Americans.
  • 1848: Women's Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, New York, launches the women's suffrage movement.
  • 1850: German mathematical physicist Rudolf Julius Emanuel Clausius enunciates the Second Law of Thermodynamics, stating that heat cannot pass from a colder body to a warmer one, but only from a warmer to a colder body. This will prove to be one of the most significant principles of physics and chemistry, establishing that a perfectly efficient physical system is impossible, and that all physical systems ultimately succumb to entropy.
  • 1854: In the United States, the Kansas-Nebraska Act calls for decisions on the legality of slavery to be made through local votes. Instead of reducing divisions, this measure will result in widespread rioting and bloodshed, and will only further hasten the looming conflict over slavery and states' rights.
  • 1858: In a Springfield, Illinois, speech during his unsuccessful campaign for the Senate against Stephen Douglass, Abraham Lincoln makes a strong case against slavery, maintaining that "this Government cannot endure permanently half-slave and half-free."

Event and Its Context

Origins of Revolution

The revolutions of 1848 began as efforts to undo the settlements of 1815 brought about by the Treaty of Vienna. At that time, all of Europe was exhausted by war and most of it was tired of French domination. As French armies had retreated, all of Europe was glad to see them go. Rapacious, venal, intolerant, and brutal were among the kindest words used to describe them. Yet by early 1848, in most of continental Europe, some of Europe's best and brightest young men and women and some of its most skilled workers sported tricolor cockades and shouted for a republic.

The persistence and extension of state centralization, the expansion of market society, and the beginnings of industrialization account for this dramatic transformation and made it impossible to return to the old ways. Yet European rulers' fears of revolution led them to discount all efforts at reform. Within individual countries and regions of western and central Europe, networks of middle-class patriots formed during the years of the French Republic. The Empire served as the leaven for the development of new national political cultures and for the spread of revolutionary ideals. Together with regional opposition to centralization, middle-class hostility to absolutism and artisanal and peasant economic grievances provided the tinder for revolution.

Purged of many of its republican and imperial administrators, the state structures introduced by the French remained intact even as their armies withdrew, and so did many elements of their legal code and the social reforms that they had introduced. Restored governments in Bavaria, Naples, Savoy, Tuscany, the Joint Kingdom of the Netherlands, and Wü rttemberg kept most of the administrative apparatus left to them by the French, and the Napoleonic Civil Code remained in force in most of the Prussian Rhine province.

The Napoleonic threat also accelerated existing trends toward centralization in nations that had never been subjected fully to French rule. Before 1789, Fredrick II in Prussia and Marie-Theresa and Joseph II in the Austrian lands already had made great strides toward central administration. They built on past precedents: the restructuring of Prussia between 1807 and 1815 was stimulated by French successes and influenced by French examples, as was the Austrian General Civil Code of 1811 and the administrative system installed in Lombardy and Venetia in 1815.

The advance of state centralization increased the ability of European states to tax their subjects, conscript their soldiers, and intervene in local affairs. Although the states' ability to extract resources grew, their subjects received nothing in return. Yn France and the states run by French administrations, state centralization and enhanced state power had been counterbalanced by citizenship rights, including the right to trial by jury, religious toleration, freedom of the press, the end of legally privileged corporations, and the abolition of noble titles. More importantly, many males—the number varied according to different election laws—received the right to vote. In contrast, under the various restoration regimes, Europeans paid the price of the centralized states without receiving any of the benefits of citizenship.

The Vienna settlement had focused on strengthening the states bordering France by merging smaller states into more powerful ones. Such mergers, however, created new religious and economic tensions. Ardently Catholic Rhinelanders became subjects of the very Protestant Prussian monarch; liberal Protestants in the Rhenish Palatinate became subjects of a devoutly Catholic Bavarian king. Where mercantile states had been incorporated into agrarian empires, many merchants were dissatisfied. Merchants in Lombardy and Venetia who had formerly traded with France rued the prohibitive tariffs that tied them to stagnant Austrian markets. A Cologne businessman who, learning that his city had been given to Prussia, summed up the mercantile response to such mergers in his remark, "We have married into a poor family." Even in the case of the solidly commercial Dutch state, many in the Austrian Netherlands (modern day Belgium) resented having to pay off the enormous debts the Dutch state had accumulated under revolutionary rule.

Memories of the 25 years of French dominance proved hard to eradicate. Even when official amnesties were granted for past actions, in France, Italy, and Spain, many aristocrats and clergymen found it difficult to forgive or forget those who had purchased church property and confiscated familial estates. Those French businessmen and administrators who had rallied to Napoleon during the Hundred Day period when he returned from Elba found themselves in an especially exposed situation. Authorities were particularly unforgiving to these men who had banded together to support their country while Napoleon fought their foreign enemies. No matter whether they willed a permanent break or not, their actions had linked them irretrievably to the revolutionary era and, unable to escape this label, many embraced it.

The impact of Industrial Revolution and the implementation of French legislation in the economic arena, combined with unfavorable conditions in agriculture, provided further fuel for a revolutionary conflagration. The growing impact of market forces produced a new self-confidence and demand for recognition on the part of businessmen and financiers. Between 1815 and 1848, industrialization only indirectly affected the continent. The growth of an industrial proletariat played only a relatively minor role. Before 1848 only Belgium, parts of France, a few areas in Germany, and a portion of Bohemia had really begun to adopt the new English industrial technologies. Large-scale coal production was confined to the Liè ge basin in Belgium and the Stéphanois basin in France. The Upper Silesian coalfields were in production in both Prussia and Bohemia, but transportation costs limited the yield to local purposes. Of all the technologies of the Industrial Revolution, before 1848 only textiles had spread across the European continent from Barcelona to Lodz. As in Lancashire, cotton textiles gathered a workforce of mainly unskilled workers, largely women and children, into cities that lacked all social and health amenities. Cotton textile towns such as Barmen, Elberfeld, Elbeuf, Ghent, Mulhouse, and Verviers more or less replicated the miserable living conditions of their English urban contemporaries, and wool spinning towns such as Aachen, Liberic, and Tourcoing were as bad or worse.

The true impact of industrialization's contribution to social revolution, however, was indirect. Industrialization had its most dramatic effect in those areas where the legal code of the French Revolution had struck down guilds, privileged monopolies, and corporations and where it abolished the legal jurisdiction of towns over their surrounding countryside. In Berlin, Dü sseldorf, Paris, and Turin, subcontracting and domestic work increasingly menaced the livelihood of tailors, shoemakers, and cabinetmakers. In Cologne, ready-to-wear clothing threatened masters more than did machinery. Masters complained that journeymen and apprentices had become insubordinate and more inclined to set up their own shops before completing their training. By 1848 the capital cities were tinderboxes, filled with skilled workers who possessed strong traditions of solidarity and organizing and a growing sense of frustration and rage. The expansion of a discontented domestic workforce in the countryside also contributed to rural unrest. In Solingen, low paid domestic metalworkers replaced urban craft workers in the less skilled metal trades, but the living standards of domestic workers steadily declined as their charcoal-fired steel products were exposed to competition from English blast furnaces.

Economic crises in 1829 and 1846-1847 also increased the pressure on the working classes. Massive grain purchases to offset the failure of the potato and rye crops in northern Europe raised the price of bread and put further pressure on the living standards of artisans and rural outworkers.

The Revolution

There is a certain sameness to the events that opened the revolution of 1848 in different European cities. Imagine this scene: a serious political crisis occurs that brings people into the street of the capital city. The army is called out. Noisy crowds taunt uneasy and frightened troops. Violence erupts to the sounds of gunfire. Panicked, the soldiers fire on the crowd. Barricades arise, manned largely by skilled artisans. Columns of troops sent into the narrow streets of the preindustrial city find themselves surrounded and subjected to murderous crossfire and sniper bullets. Often the middle-class national guard or militia refuses to reinforce the regular troops, which then are pulled out of the city. Alternatively, a national guard or civil militia group forms in response to demands, and the hastily established group demands social reforms. In any case, leading oppositional politicians with no connection to the insurrection in the streets bring a series of demands, including one for a new constitution, to the ruler or his representative. Under pressure from the crowd, these politicians influence the selection of a temporary government that will rule until elections are carried out for a representative body that will write a new constitution. With minor modifications, the setting could be Milan, Munich, Palermo, Paris, Venice, or Vienna in 1848. Together, barricades, armed confrontation between militia men, and constitution-making constituted the repertoire of protest in 1848.

Workers in the Revolution of 1848

If there was a great similarity to the opening of revolutionary situations in key capital cities in February and March of 1848, divergences quickly appeared. From the young Karl Marx to the middle-aged Alexis de Tocqueville, social commentators were struck by the entry of organized workers on to the national political stage. In Paris, for the first time in 1848, an organized labor movement put forward in the national political arena demands that were explicitly class-related. Between 1815 and 1848, Paris had been in the political vanguard of revolutionary Europe: the middle classes and artisans had accumulated considerable revolutionary experience and had come to reject monarchism. In France alone, a significant section of politically active, middle-class liberals—men such as Alphone de Lamartine, a minority certainly—were committed to a democratic republicanism, that is, to a government without a king and to something approaching universal manhood suffrage.

Also in France, an artisanal working class, thrown into contact with these democratic republicans, combined republican political ideals and its own work-based feelings of solidarity to produce a new sense of class consciousness. These workers developed the core concepts of central state intervention, citizenship, and nationality to put forward their own political demands. Requests for government funds to implement workers' control at the workplace profoundly shocked the French middle class, even its republican members. In the 1840s the growth of trade unionism among highly skilled workers also threw workers into conflict with the state; trade unions were illegal and shared the shadows with secret political societies.

New rights only barely envisaged in 1793-1796 became the focus of political struggles in Paris in the months after February 1848. Organized workers presented their demands to the hastily established provisional government formed of mostly middle-class political leaders. Workers possessed leverage because many had joined the national guard and had acquired arms. At the same time, the army was demoralized, its embittered generals reticent to involve themselves in politics. The neutrality of the army and the deep divisions within the national guard, split between workers and the lower middle classes, constituted the enduring dual power situation that finally surfaced in June 1848. The demands of workers for a "right to work," their organized presence in the streets, and their determination to pressure the provisional government to recognize their demands produced glaring divisions with the republican camp.

Meanwhile the speed with which national elections were called gave very limited opportunity for educative political discussion; outside the urban political debate, peasants cast their votes for familiar names, which usually meant members of the landed elite. As a result, the new Constituent Assembly that met in early May 1848 had a monarchical majority. Only international divisions among the monarchist factions and the rise of a new authoritarian political figure, Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, prevented a restoration. This conservatized political environment made it increasingly unlikely that middle-class republicans would continue to yield to working-class pressures, while a trade depression, prolonged by the revolutionary turmoil, made workers all the more desperate for state employment.

While consolidating its political hold, the government temporized. It attempted to coopt workers by enrolling them in "national workshops" and in a citizens' militia, the Garde Mobile.The title national workshops came from a celebrated pamphlet by the socialist Louis Blanc. Instead of the state-funded collectives of skilled workers envisaged by Blanc, however, the national workshops became the traditional outdoor manual public workers' programs long used by French governments in times of high unemployment. Workers felt betrayed but enrolled in the national workshops for lack of other recourse. In June of 1848, when the workshops in Paris were abolished by the reactionary legislature, the unemployed revolted and, with guns obtained in the National Guard, rebuilt their barricades. Here the tense situation that had existed since February, when the French army had collapsed, finally reached its climax in armed conflict. The counter-revolutionary workers organized in the Garde Mobile subdued the revolutionary workers in the national workshops. The repression of these workers opened the way for a general smashing of left-wing opposition and, in the end, the defeat of the workers removed a key prop that had been supporting an already rickety republic. With the organized workers defeated and the republican camp in a shambles, the way was paved for the rise of Louis-Napoleon, the first of the plebiscitarian dictators.

Although the main action in 1848 involved artisanal workers, middle-class male republicans, and reactionary legislators, other social movements also began to develop in the public space created by the revolution. In 1848 women's rights activists claimed a portion of that space to argue that women should be admitted into full citizenship in the republic. Their demands attracted less attention than those of workers because they lacked the more powerful weapons possessed by male workers. Secret societies, national guards, trade unions, and most of the national workshops were strictly male preserves. Many of the political clubs that organized after February of 1848 did not admit female members. Some feminist scholars have suggested, plausibly, that the term "fraternity" in the revolutionary slogan referred to "male solidarity," its literal meaning, and entailed the exclusion of females. Yet women took advantage of the de facto freedom of assembly to organize their own clubs and used the language of universal rights to appeal for admission into citizenship. After June, the general suppression of opposition eliminated the organs of feminist claim-making just as thoroughly as they eliminated that of organized workers.

Key Players

Blanc, Louis (1811-1882): Published in 1840, Blanc's bookOrganization of Labor popularized socialist ideas. His idea of state-funded workers' cooperatives had great appeal to Parisian artisanal workers. During the heady days of the revolution, the provisional government appointed Blanc as a minister without portfolio and head of the Luxembourg Commission to study labor conditions. It soon became clear that this move was intended only to coopt a figure who had been popular among the working-classes. As soon as the working-class movement was defeated, Blanc was forced to flee into exile.

Blanqui, Louis-Auguste (1805-1881): Blanqui was famous throughout Europe for his conspiratorial activities and a brand of radical republicanism that touched on socialism. Blanqui organized secret societies intended to overthrow European monarchies and establish a dictatorship. Under the republican dictatorship, the people would be inculcated with republican antireligious views that would enable them to build a socialist order.

Bonaparte, Louis-Napoleon (1808-1873): The cousin of Napoleon Bonaparte, Louis-Napoleon was an adventurer who used his great name to become president of France (10 December 1848). Louis-Napoleon appealed to both popular and elitist segments of French society. To the elite, he was a man of order. To the impoverished, he was a man who favored social reform. Once established in the presidency, Louis-Napoleon at once began the quest to extend his term, engineering a coup d'etat in 1851 and becoming the Emperor Napoleon III. He lost his throne after defeat in the Franco Prussian War (1870-1871).

de Lamartine, Alphone (1790-1869): A great French poet who proved a mediocre political figure. Lamartine's romantic political rhetoric managed to carry along many, both middle class and artisan, in the exciting early days of the revolution. He was the de facto head of the provisional government that emerged after the February revolution. His attempt to paper over the increased conflict between middle classes and artisans finally led to his political fall. Beloved in February 1848, he was rejected by everyone when he ran for president in December 1848, polling last in a field of five.

See also: June Days Rebellion.



Harsin, Jill. Barricades: The War of the Streets in Revolutionary Paris, 1830-1848. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2002.

Sperber, Jonathan. The European Revolutions, 1848-1851.Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Tilly, Charles. European Revolutions, 1492-1992. Oxford, UK: Basil Blackwell, 1993.

Traugott, Mark. Armies of the Poor: Determinants of Working-Class Participation in the Parisian Insurrection of June 1848. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1985.

—Michael Hanagan

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Revolutions in Europe

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