The Liberal State

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Adrian Shubert

Liberalism as a political philosophy has a long history and incorporates complex influences from a number of countries. The word was first applied to a political movement in Spain in 1812, referring to the advocates of constitutional government. This use then extended to other countries. The political systems intended by their founders to be liberal incorporated this intellectual tradition but not it alone. They were also informed by traditions of eighteenth-century enlightened absolutism and the experience of popular revolution that began in France in 1789 and touched virtually all the Continent by 1848.

The European liberal state was a product of the coming together of these influences. Local circumstances guaranteed differences in emphasis and detail among countries, but the fundamental features of the liberal state were strikingly consistent. The hallmark of all liberal states was the creation of written constitutions that established representative governments based on highly restricted suffrage determined by wealth, literacy, or both. The right to vote was characteristically limited to between 1 and 10 percent of the population. The liberal state was also far removed from any conception of a "minimum" or "night watchman" state. Indeed once liberals came to power, state building was among their primary objectives. The liberal state was much more extensive in its reach across Europe and directly touched more of its citizens than had its ancien régime predecessor.

The watchwords of the builders of Europe's liberal states were centralization and homogenization. In large part these concerns derived from the experience of eighteenth-century enlightened reformers, whose goals were to enhance national military and economic power and to strengthen the Crown and bring it into closer contact with its subjects. Such a program meant that reformers and the liberals who succeeded them were simultaneously engaged in eliminating state intervention in a number of areas, primarily economic; in building the power of the state by weakening the multiplicity of privileges, intermediate institutions, and private jurisdictions that stood between government and subjects (or citizens); and in increasing the number of the state's own agents. This perspective was forcefully expressed by Pablo de Olavide, a reforming official in Spain under Charles III (1759–1788), when he described the ancien régime as:

A body composed of other and smaller bodies, separated and in opposition to one another, which oppress and despise each other and are in a continuous state of war. Each province, each religious house, each profession is separated from the rest of the nation and concentrated in itself . . . a monstrous Republic of little republics which contradict each other because the particular interest of each is in contradiction with the general interest.

Before liberals could build they had to destroy many of the institutions that characterized the ancien régime. These institutions did not always surrender quietly, especially religious institutions, which were often the most significant targets of such changes. Olavide ended up in the clutches of one of those intermediate bodies, the Inquisition. Across much of Europe and especially Catholic Europe the churches were the liberals' most persistent and most dangerous opponents.

The great era for the construction of liberal states was between the Restoration and the revolutions of 1848. Even Britain, which already had a parliamentary form of government with highly restrictive suffrage, saw an attack on a range of customary economic practices that had constituted breaks on the free play of market forces and had offered some form of protection to ordinary men and women. The regimes established under the Restoration were subject to a series of conspiracies and military coups that sought to restore or install parliamentary government. These were most frequent in southern Europe, where liberals wanted rulers to proclaim the Spanish Constitution of 1812. Few of these uprisings were successful, although the Spanish revolution of 1820 was defeated only by French intervention in 1823. Dynastic conflicts provided the opportunity for liberals to achieve definitive victories in Portugal and Spain in the 1830s, while in Belgium independence from the Netherlands, achieved with the aid of foreign intervention, was accompanied by the creation of a constitutional system. Greece became a constitutional monarchy in 1843, and Denmark and the Netherlands did so in 1849. In Italy, Piedmont became a permanently liberal state in 1848, and it imposed that liberalism on the rest of the peninsula between 1860 and 1870.

While most of western Europe had liberal political systems by 1848 or 1849, this was not the case in other parts of the Continent. Austria did not establish a constitutional government until 1860, Sweden until 1864, northern Germany until 1867, and Germany as a whole until 1871.

The circumstances that produced liberal states in Europe have been the subject of long-standing and ongoing debates. The central issue undoubtedly has been the extent to which the revolutions that did away with the ancien régimes of Europe can be identified with a specific social class, the bourgeoisie. The marxist interpretation, which holds that liberal states were the product of bourgeois revolutions, has been particularly influential. In this view industrial development produced a bourgeois class that eventually seized power from the feudal aristocracy. The classic examples of bourgeois revolutions were England and France, and the influence of these interpretations was such that they became normative. Scholars assessed the histories of other countries in terms of how closely they matched these models. Those countries with significantly different patterns were frequently deemed "peculiar" or to have "failed." Moreover in countries such as Germany, Italy, and Spain the "failure" of the bourgeoisie to make its revolution was frequently asserted as the reason they succumbed to dictatorship in the interwar period. This was, for example, the central thrust of Antonio Gramsci's analysis of Italian unification, his concept of "passive revolution," and the thinking behind Germany's Sonderweg (special path).

After the 1960s and especially after the 1980s the concept of bourgeois revolution and the identification of liberalism with a specific class were increasingly questioned. In country after country historians were unable to locate an industrial bourgeoisie that seized power and recast state and society to its specifications. These changes were most striking in the French Revolution. The classic marxist view of Georges Lefebvre was challenged by historians such as Alfred Cobban, G. V. Taylor, and above all François Furet. Research uncovered not a new class tied to industry but a composite elite of nobles and commercial and professional bourgeois who were similar intellectually and culturally. Historians began to locate the causes of the revolution not in the economy but in the realms of politics, ideology, or culture. Similar trends have been present in the historiographies of England, Germany, and Spain. Perhaps the extreme example of this trend was Arno Mayer's controversial claim that, far from a bourgeois revolution, the aristocracy remained the dominant class across Europe on the eve of World War I.


The architects of Europe's liberal states had an expansive vision of the proper areas of state activity. The first continental liberal state was created in France during the Revolution (1789–1815). The revolutionaries quickly abolished the institutions of the ancien régime and replaced them with new ones that brought the state into a direct relationship with its citizens. War was the single greatest impetus to the construction of this new centralized state. The French pioneered many institutions and structures that were widely copied across Europe, and not just by liberals.


Under the ancien régime national territory was characteristically divided into units of significantly different sizes that, more important, enjoyed different relationships with the Crown. In France the pays d'état and in Spain the Basque Provinces and Navarre had special privileges regarding taxation and military service that were not shared by other parts of the realm. Such a situation offended liberals, for whom legal privilege of any sort was anathema and who sought to bring all parts of their country and all its citizens into equal relationships with the central state. Thus one of the first measures liberals undertook was the division of the national territory into new units of roughly equal size that did not enjoy any privileges.

A new division of the national territory into units of roughly equal size was considered a pressing need by early governments of the French Revolution. In January 1790 the country was divided into eighty departments, an arrangement retained by all the regimes that followed. France became the model for other countries. Portugal and Spain were divided into provinces in 1833, Piedmont divided in the 1850s, and Italy divided following unification in 1861. Where they existed, internal customs barriers were also eliminated.

In addition to the unequal division of national territory under the ancien régime, the individuals who lived there held unequal status. The liberal vision of equal citizens required elimination of all such privileges. Much was subsumed under the "abolition of feudalism," the elimination of seigneurial rights and legal jurisdiction and of special legal status for designated groups, such as the nobility and the clergy. Thus Spanish liberals abolished the Inquisition, and Piedmont's Siccardi Laws, passed in 1850, did away with church courts and legal immunities for the clergy, demanded government approval for donations of property to religious institutions, and eliminated penalties for nonobservance of religious holidays. This freedom also applied to the economy, including the destruction of the guilds. More significantly in societies that were still primarily agricultural, it removed privileged constraints on the use and sale of land, the most important of which was the expropriation of the lands of religious institutions.

The legal complexes of the ancien régime were replaced by rationalized legal codes that applied to all citizens. Again the model for much of the Continent was the French Napoleonic Code, established in 1804. Even before it established a constitution, Piedmont adopted a civil code (1837) and a penal code (1839) on the Napoleonic model. The 1837 code became the basis for the Italian Civil Law Code of 1865. Piedmont's 1859 criminal code was extended to all of Italy except Tuscany and remained in place until the approval of the Zanardelli Code in 1889. Portugal passed a penal code in 1852 and a civil code in 1867. Spain's first penal code, passed in 1848, was revised in 1870, but Spain had no civil code until 1889. Even then it did not supersede local civil laws in several parts of the country.

This division of the national territory was a prerequisite for the creation of a centralized, hierarchical administrative structure through which the policies of the central state could be transmitted to the provinces, towns, and villages of the nation. As Javier de Burgos, the architect of Spain's version of this structure, put it, the goal was to construct "a chain that starts at the head of the administration and ends with the last local policeman." The inspiration for this highly centralized administrative structure came from France and the figure of the prefect, the appointed agent of the state in each of the departments. In Spain, Burgos's creation of the provinces was accompanied by the creation of a new figure, the civil governor, who was the agent of the central government. These officials were invested with a wide range of responsibilities, including public order, education, welfare, statistics, and economic development. Similar developments took place in Portugal during the 1830s and in Piedmont during the 1850s as Camillo Cavour sought to build a state capable of expansion in northern Italy. He created powerful provincial officials, known as prefects, and immediately imposed them on the whole of Italy after unification in 1861.

Typically provinces were further divided into counties and municipalities, each with its own local official subordinate to the civil governor or prefect. In some cases, such as in Portugal and Spain, appointed mayors formed the lowest rung on the ladder of centralized administration. The issue of appointed versus elected mayors was often a point of division between moderate and more radical liberals.

Belgium and Britain took different paths. Belgium experienced centralized administrative systems under Napoleon and as part of the Dutch monarchy, but when the country achieved independence in 1830 it left cities and towns a wide degree of autonomy, including the power to impose local taxes, subsidize schools and churches, and control the police and the militia. Brussels, Liège, Ghent, and Antwerp had the power to call out the militia independent of central government approval. At the provincial level the key institution was the elected council, not the provincial governor. Appointed for life, governors chaired the councils but did not act as the local agents of the state administrations, as did prefects in the French model. As citizens made new demands on government, the Belgian government delegated tasks to local and provincial institutions or created new semipublic ones.

Britain developed a strong central state that left a number of functions to local governments or voluntary associations. As a result the direct presence of the central state in the lives of its citizens was much less apparent than elsewhere in Europe. This approach represented a continuity from the ancien régime, which relied on a range of indirect agents, such as chartered municipalities, justices of the peace, overseers of the poor, householder constables, and local associations.

The last decade of the eighteenth century and the period after 1815 saw efforts to make the central government more efficient while expanding the scope for the actions of individuals and free institutions. Included in this approach was an attack on customary rights and other long-standing constraints on economic freedom, such as the Assize of Bread, which permitted judicial control of bread and ale prices.

The 1830s and 1840s brought a significant expansion of the central state. The Anatomy Act (1832) created a central inspectorate to regulate the use of the dead for research, and the Factory Act (1833) created a specialized inspectorate staffed by professional civil servants responsible to the home office. These inspectors constituted a new species of central government agent. Over the next two decades analogous services were established to oversee poor law institutions, public health, mines, prisons, and schools. In 1836 a centralized system for registering births, deaths, and marriages was added. The government also began to regulate new areas, such as railways in 1842 and working hours in the Ten Hours Act of 1847.

Despite all these changes, local governments remained important and through most of the century affected more people directly than did the central state. A large number of new laws affecting areas such as baths, washhouses, lodging houses, public libraries, laborers' dwellings, and industrial schools left implementation to local authorities. The central government sought to achieve greater uniformity by creating the Local Government Board (1871) and by mandating local health authorities and medical officers of health (1872), but even in these functions it did not assume direct control.


Burgos was far from unique in seeing policing as an important feature of the new state apparatus. France obtained a national police force in 1798. The Gendarmerie Nationale patrolled rural areas and highways and reported to the war minister. It was complemented by the Sûreté Nationale, an urban police force reporting to the interior minister and responsible, among other things, for political intelligence. The Sûreté gradually took over the municipal police of the major cities. By the end of the century France had more than twenty thousand gendarmes. Spain's Civil Guard was created in 1844 on the model of the Gendarmerie, and by 1880 it boasted almost two thousand posts and more than sixteen thousand men throughout the country, often in small rural towns. United Italy immediately was endowed with two highly centralized police forces, the Carabinieri, numbering 24,626 in 1889, for the countryside and the Guardia de Sicurezza Publica for the cities. Unsurprisingly both were extensions of Piedmontese institutions.

Policing and justice was another area in which the British government extended its reach, albeit gradually at first. Municipal governments lost to the lord chancellor the power to appoint magistrates, although they gained the right to establish watch committees to oversee the police. The County and Borough Police Act (1856) made the creation of police forces mandatory and, more significantly, made them subject to central inspection. The pace picked up after around 1870. A centralized criminal records system was established in 1869, and ten years later the newly created director of public prosecutions put criminal prosecution squarely in the hands of central authority. Special Branch, with a mandate to watch political dissidents, was created in 1884. The Prison Act of 1877 gave the state increased control of the prison system. Overall, expenditures on police rose from 1.5 million pounds in 1861 to 7 million in 1914.


The French Republic pioneered the mass mobilization of the citizenry as an emergency measure in 1793, but the principle of involving all the nation's young men in military service remained one of the hallmarks of liberal states, at least on the Continent. France introduced conscription in 1798 and retained it in various forms throughout the nineteenth century. The St. Cyr Law of 1818, the cornerstone, established a period of service of six years, but the term varied between five and eight years until 1889, when it was set at three years. People with enough money could purchase a substitute for their sons, but that practice was eliminated in 1873.

Spain introduced national service in 1837 but permitted the purchase of exemption with provision of a substitute until 1912. Immediately after unification Italy imposed conscription, one of the causes of widespread disturbances in the South in the early 1860s.


Education proved the most contentious area for state expansion. It almost always brought the state into direct conflict with powerful religious institutions, for whom control over the minds of the young was considered essential. For many continental countries France once again provided the model. The Guizot Law of 1833 required that every commune provide an elementary school, and two years later a corps of school inspectors was created. A child labor law in 1841 required education for all children under the age of twelve. The major expansion of the school system came with the Ferry Laws of the 1880s, which made public elementary schools totally free, instituted compulsory education, provided subsidies for school buildings and teacher salaries, and established an elaborate system of inspections. Between 1878 and 1885 the state budget for education increased by 250 percent.

Spain legislated a national school system in 1857, but the Moyano Law left municipalities holding the financial responsibility. In 1900 the central state created an Education Ministry and assumed the obligation of paying teachers. The Piedmontese school system was established by the 1859 Casati Law, and it extended to all of Italy after unification. The law created a powerful Ministry of Public Instruction that controlled public education and had oversight of private schools. The minister had direct control over all instruction and exercised it through an inspectorate. Local and provincial elective boards operated under the control of the prefects.

The British government had to tread lightly in the education field. Both the established Anglican Church and the Nonconformists opposed state intervention, and bills to create a national school system were repeatedly defeated in Parliament. The government could make only annual grants, beginning with a modest 20,000 pounds in 1833, rising to 189,000 by 1850 to 724,000 by 1860. After 1839 this grant was supervised by the Privy Council's education committee. The British experience was thus significantly different from those of many continental states, which early on created nationwide school systems, at least on paper. The British passed no equivalent of the Guizot, Moyano, or Casati Laws. Even the Education Act of 1870, which set out a commitment to a national system, did not overcome the religious issue. It created a situation in which, by the end of the century, the Education Department had to deal with over two thousand school boards and the management of more than fourteen thousand individual schools.

An integral part of education was the question of language, specifically the extension of the national language to all citizens. In 1863 about a fifth of the French population did not speak French, and under the Third Republic patois remained deeply entrenched in more than twenty departments. The pressure of an extended school system and universal military service steadily extended French. Italy faced a similar situation, but its dialects were more persistent. At the end of the century the Poles in eastern Prussia were forcibly educated in German.

In Spain, where the existence of Catalan, Basque, and Gallego made the issue particularly complex, the state attempted to legislate the use of Spanish. Catalan was prohibited from use in notarial documents in 1862, and five years later plays written in "dialects" were censored. Catalan was banned from the Civil Register in 1870 and from the justice system in 1881. In 1896 the government forbade speaking Catalan on the telephone, and in 1902 the state tried to require that priests teach the catechism in Spanish only. Austria, a multinational and multilingual empire, faced the most difficult situation. Its 1867 constitution permitted elementary schooling in the "language of the country," but this raised the question of minorities within each "country."


Liberal constitutions promised freedom of expression and freedom of the press, yet those freedoms were almost always immediately circumscribed by restrictive legislation. The Piedmontese Statuto, which became the constitution of Italy after 1860, contained a typical formula, promising a "free press subject to the constraints of the law." Liberal states exercised censorship throughout the nineteenth century, passing laws, establishing agencies, and appointing officials for the purpose. Commonalities existed throughout Europe. Theater and caricature were more rigidly controlled than printed material; printed material directed at the lower classes was more stringently censored than that aimed higher up the social scale; and the press of the organized working class was frequently a special target. Governments also regularly evaded their own laws with administrative measures. As new technologies generated new forms of communication, such as photographs and moving pictures, they, too, were subjected to state censorship.


Liberal states often actively legislated in the area of public health, although not always in the same way. Peter Baldwin has argued that two forms of state intervention controlled contagious diseases such as smallpox, cholera, and venereal disease. Germany and France responded with obviously interventionist measures, such as quarantines, compulsory vaccinations, and regulation of prostitutes. For example, Germany's Contagious Disease Law (1900) required that the sick be sequestered. In contrast, Britain and the Nordic countries opted for an emphasis on voluntary vaccinations and on controlling the environmental conditions that caused disease. Apparently less interventionist, this was a different form of intervention. As Baldwin wrote, the voluntary and environmentalist strategy "cost more resources and administrative muscle than many [states] could muster" (Baldwin).

In Portugal, health laws in 1835 and 1844 created a national network of health authorities to issue death certificates and enforce new rules on burials, for instance, requiring location of cemeteries at a minimum distance from populated areas. These measures were not always well received, especially by peasants who saw in them a new form of taxation and an attack on long-held customs.


In many parts of Europe the construction of the liberal state provoked resistance and on occasion even full-scale counterrevolutions. Opposition came primarily from the Catholic Church, whose temporal power, material assets, and internal management were targets of the liberal state's ambitions. But ecclesiastical opposition represented a danger to the liberal state only when it tied into significant popular discontent. Such discontent was most common in rural areas, particularly those characterized by the existence of a relatively egalitarian smallholding peasantry and numerous secular clergy who were well integrated into local life. If these peasants spoke a language other than the official one of the state, the possibilities increased further. Resistance was provoked by certain aspects of liberal state building, including the sale of local common lands, taxation, the imposition of military service, the assertion of greater control over natural resources, or the application of laws that, as with public health, threatened deeply held local customs. Local clergy frequently were influential in or even led resistance movements. The presence and extent of counterrevolution corresponded to the vigor and rapidity with which liberals built their new state. It was most significant in France, Portugal, Italy, and above all Spain.

The French Revolution was marked by numerous outbreaks of counterrevolution in a number of rural regions. There is no simple, overarching explanation for these movements, which were triggered by varying combinations of local landholding patterns and social conflicts, the effects of the intrusion of the new state apparatus into the countryside, the revolutionary abolition of feudalism, the imposition of conscription, and the attack on the church. Fourteen departments revolted in western France alone in March 1793, and further upheaval occurred in the north and the south. In the Vendée, where counterrevolution was most deeply rooted, a guerrilla war continued until 1796, followed by further outbreaks in 1799–1801, 1815, and 1832.

Counterrevolution outlived the revolution in other parts of France. The Forest Code of 1827 gave unprecedented power to a new, centralized forest administration. Some saw the activities of its local agents in controlling the use of forest resources as an attack on long-established use rights, especially in royal and communal forests, provoking resistance known as the War of the Desmoiselles in the department of the Ariège.

The clergy had a prominent role in generating popular support for the absolutist side in Portugal's War of the Brothers (1829–1834) and in the decade-long antiliberal violence that followed. New regulations requiring death certificates and the location of cemeteries at a minimum distance from villages were taken by many people, especially in the rural north, as a new tax and an attack on traditional practices regarding the dead, who, it was believed, should be kept close to the living. The 1845 Health Law was a primary cause of the Maria da Fonte revolt that spread across the north of the country in 1846 and 1847 and provoked British and Spanish intervention.

In Italy the imposition of the Piedmontese administrative system, taxes, conscription, and the sale of common lands provoked a massive wave of banditry across the south in the years immediately following unification. The imposition in 1869 of a new tax on grinding grain generated widespread peasant disturbances in the north and center of the country.

Counterrevolution was strongest and most persistent in Spain. Beginning with the "liberal triennium" of 1820 to 1823, peasants in various parts of the country, but especially in Catalonia, Valencia, the Basque Provinces, and Navarre, participated in anti-liberal movements. In the 1820s they were motivated by conscription, a prohibition on burials inside churches, tax increases, and what was seen as anticlerical legislation. These issues and a defense of regional privilege (fueros) were the mass base for the Carlist movement, which fought a seven-year civil war against the liberal state between 1833 and 1840 and a second, shorter one from 1874 to 1876. The anti-centralist legacy of Carlism carried on into the Basque nationalist movement that emerged in the 1890s.

Belgium had a very different experience. From the country's independence in 1830 the Catholic Church supported a liberal state that subsidized its activities and permitted religious schools and even lived with religious toleration. When liberals attempted to secularize the schools in the 1880s, the Catholic Church and its supporters reacted but not by challenging the existence of the liberal state itself. Instead, Catholics mobilized politically and successfully fought for power through electoral means.


During the last quarter of the century the liberal state responded to new circumstances by moving in new directions. On the one hand, the new intellectual trends were a reaction to the consequences of industrialization. On the other, the emergence of mass political movements, especially socialism, were encouraged by the granting of universal or near-universal male suffrage in Germany (1871), France (1875), Spain (1890), Belgium (1894), Norway (1898), Finland (1905), Sweden (1907), and Italy (1912). Liberal politicians in some countries, such as Germany, had trouble adjusting to the tumult of mass politics and were often outpaced by socialists or conservatives.

As a result new reform measures were almost as likely to be the work of conservative governments as of liberal ones. The first move came from the newly unified German Reich. Chancellor Otto von Bismarck's motivation was to preempt the rapidly growing Social Democratic Party, which he banned in 1879. Through the 1880s the German government introduced a series of social insurance measures unprecedented in their nature and scope that included sickness insurance in 1883, accident insurance in 1884, and disability and old-age insurance in 1889. Within the working class at least, Bismarck's laws mandated obligatory participation and income-related contributions, provided universal coverage, did not involve means testing, and were administered centrally. By 1913, 15 million Germans had sickness insurance, 28 million had accident insurance, and 1 million received pensions. These measures were accompanied by government regulation of a range of work-related areas, such as compulsory factory regulations, the creation of labor exchanges and industrial courts, the beginnings of arbitration, and legislation limiting the number of hours women could work each day.

These German initiatives were a model that was copied or at least appealed to elsewhere. Bismarck in turn claimed to have learned valuable lessons from Napoleon III's experiments with a national pension fund and an accident insurance fund. The German model became increasingly influential in Britain after 1905. It had a major impact on David Lloyd George and was specifically referred to as an inspiration for

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the landmark 1911 National Insurance Act. In France the German model was in the forefront of parliamentary debates of welfare bills both as something to be copied and something to be avoided.

In the twenty-five years before World War I governments across Europe moved into new areas of activity. The 1890s saw the creation in Britain of the Labor Department of the Board of Trade; the Conciliation Act (1896), through which the state became the arbiter of labor disputes; and the Workman's Compensation Act (1897). The real thrust of this new, social liberalism came after 1908, with the Liberal governments of Herbert Henry Asquith and Lloyd George. Old-age pensions were available on a means-tested basis to the elderly and very poor in 1908, and three years later the National Insurance Act introduced compulsory health insurance for all wage workers and some unemployment insurance.

Between 1892 and 1910 France introduced a series of social welfare measures. Early workplace legislation was either toughened or extended. In 1892 France placed limits on working hours of children, adolescents, and adult women and in 1900 set the working day for adult males in so-called mixed workshops at a maximum of ten hours. This was extended to all adult workers two years later. Insurance for workplace accidents was introduced in 1898, but it was not compulsory and excluded all agricultural workers and some industrial ones. Old-age pensions came in 1910. These carried some state financing and in theory participation was obligatory, although in 1912 only 7 million of 12 million eligible workers were involved.

In Italy this development began with the creation of a Labor Council composed of representatives of business, parliament, and organized labor to study labor issues and a commission to supervise emigration in 1902. The bulk of these new initiatives were associated with the governments of Giovanni Giolitti, including restrictions on the employment of children and the first protection of female labor in 1907 and the nationalization of the life insurance industry in 1912. Spain's Social Reform Institute, six of whose twelve members were Socialists, was created in 1883 to advise the government on labor issues, but the first significant legislation was slow in coming. Workers' compensation was established in 1900 and the eight-hour day in 1918.

The Scandinavian approach was the furthest removed from that of Bismarck. There political parties more associated with the right than the left promoted social welfare legislation, but the result was social programs that provided universal coverage and were financed entirely by taxes rather than by premiums. Denmark introduced such pensions in 1911 and Sweden did so in 1913.

Much of this social legislation fit within liberal conceptions of individual effort and responsibility, but that was considerably more difficult when the state began to intervene directly in family life. France was a pioneer. In 1889 the state claimed the authority to make abused and neglected children its wards. Over the next two decades the French state also intervened between husbands and wives, passing laws that limited husbands' authority over their wives and their earnings. The state also funded mandatory maternity leave for all wage-earning women after 1913 and instituted means-tested family allowances for dependent children once a family had its fourth child. The British government curtailed parental authority with the Children's Act (1908), which required medical examinations for all children and established a system of probationary and juvenile courts. As was true with other areas of social provision, the political support for intervention in the family varied. In Britain socialists and feminists were the strongest advocates for such legislation; in France conservatives, nationalists, and Catholics were the advocates.

At the same time that intervention in the lives of citizens increased, the liberal state faced the problem of reinforcing its legitimacy and generating identity and loyalty in the face of mass political movements on both the right and the left that rejected its basic tenets. A common response was, as Eric Hobsbawm has argued, to invent new traditions. The range of such practices was great, and the actual mix varied from country to country. For example, France's Third Republic eschewed the use of the historical past, while the German Reich embraced it.

At their literal flimsiest, such traditions included issuing historical postage stamps. The first appeared in Portugal in 1894 to commemorate the five-hundredth anniversary of the birth of Prince Henry the Navigator (1394–1460). Greece (1896), Germany (1899), Spain (1905), the Netherlands (1906), Switzerland (1907), Austria-Hungary (1908), Italy (1910), and Belgium (1914) soon followed. Nations created new holidays, such as France's Bastille Day, established in 1880, and Spain's Día de la Raza, commemorating the voyage of Columbus, in 1912, and new ceremonial occasions. The first, Queen Victoria's jubilee of 1887, was copied elsewhere and repeated in Britain and its empire. The Great Exhibition of 1851, which featured the Crystal Palace, quickly evolved into frequent international expositions and world's fairs that promoted both the host and the participating nations. Liberal states also built large numbers of public buildings, statues, and other monuments.


Universal male suffrage, mass parties, and state involvement in social welfare suggest that before World War I the liberal state was already turning into something else. The murderous effects of the war and the emergence of new forms of behavior, especially among women, exacerbated prewar concerns about the condition of the family and the level and health of national populations. Across Europe the relation between the state and the citizen changed significantly as the state became deeply involved in numerous areas that had previously been considered private life. In much of western and central Europe the liberal state was giving way to the welfare state.

The welfare state reached its full flowering in the first three decades after the end of World War II. But in contrast to the interwar years, the emphasis on collective health gave way to what Mark Mazower (1999) described as a concern to "expand opportunities and choices for the individual citizen." Fuelled by full employment and rapid economic growth, public spending, especially on social services, increased significantly, as did the taxation that funded it. Rather than a single model of the welfare state, considerable differences developed among nations. Probably the most famous internationally was the Swedish Social Democratic version, where the goal was to reduce inequality. The British approach used taxation to provide a basic minimum for all citizens, while Belgium, France, and Germany established voluntary insurance plans in which contributions were linked to earnings.

By the 1970s the welfare state was challenged by neoconservatives, who advocated monetarist policies, pruning the state, and a less-intrusive relationship between the state and its citizens. This movement was strongest in Britain, embodied by Margaret Thatcher, prime minister from 1979 to 1990. But even in Britain the state's share of economic activity, measured in public spending as a percentage of GDP, was not significantly reduced. Thatcherism weakened local government to the benefit of the central state. The ideological attack on the welfare state contributed to the changing position of some social democratic parties, which began to advocate approaches such as the "Third Way" of British prime minister Tony Blair or the "New Middle" of the German counterpart Gerhard Schroeder. In general, however, people on the Continent remained attached to the welfare state and resisted the lure of a return to something that was much closer to the liberal state of the nineteenth century.

See also other articles in this section.



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Doyle, William. Origins of the French Revolution. New York, 1999.

Furet, François. Interpreting the French Revolution. New York, 1981.

Gould, Andrew C. Origins of Liberal Dominance: State, Church, and Party inNineteenth-Century Europe. Ann Arbor, Mich., 1999.

Gramsci, Antonio. Prison Notebooks. New York, 1992.

Gray, John. Liberalism. Minneapolis, Minn., 1995.

Hennock, E. P. British Social Reform and German Precedents: The Case of SocialInsurance, 1880–1914. Oxford, 1987.

Hobsbawm, Eric. Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century, 1914–1991. London, 1994.

Lefebvre, Georges. The Coming of the French Revolution, 1789. New York, 1957.

Mayer, Arno. The Persistence of the Old Regime. New York, 1981.

Mazower, Mark. Dark Continent: Europe's Twentieth Century. New York, 1999.

Pedersen, Susan. Family Dependence and the Origins of the Welfare State: Britain andFrance, 1914–1945. Cambridge, U.K., 1993.

Riall, Lucy. The Italian Risorgimento: State, Society, and National Unification. London, 1994.

Sahlins, Peter. Forest Rites. Cambridge, Mass., 1994.

Sheehan, James J. German Liberalism in the Nineteenth Century. Chicago, 1978.

Shubert, Adrian. A Social History of Modern Spain. London, 1990.

Stone, Judith F. The Search for Social Peace. Albany, N.Y., 1985.

Weber, Eugen. Peasants into Frenchmen: The Modernization of Rural France, 1870–1914. London, 1977.

Edited Collections

Bellamy, Richard, ed. Victorian Liberalism: Nineteenth Century Political Thought andPractice. New York, 1990.

Flora, Peter, and Arnold J. Heidenheimer, eds. The Development of Welfare States inEurope and America. New Brunswick, N.J., 1981.

Goldstein, Robert Justin, ed. The War for the Public Mind: Political Censorship inNineteenth-Century Europe. Westport, Conn., 2000.

Hobsbawm, Eric, and Terence Ranger, eds. The Invention of Tradition. Cambridge, U.K., 1983.

Mommsen, Wolfgang, ed. The Emergence of the Welfare State in Britain and Germany, 1850–1950. London, 1981.

Chapters in Books

Gatrell, V. A. C. "Crime, Authority, and the Policeman-State." In The CambridgeSocial History of Britain, 1750–1950. Edited by F. M. L. Thompson. Vol. 3. Cambridge, U.K., 1990. Pages 243–310.

LeGoff, T. J. A., and Donald M. G. Sutherland. "Religion and Rural Revolt: An Overview." In Religion and Rural Revolt. EditedbyJános M. Bak and Gerhard Benecke. Dover, N.H., 1984. Pages 123–145.

Thane, Pat. "Government and Society in England and Wales, 1750–1914." In TheCambridge Social History of Britain, 1750–1950. Edited by F. M. L. Thompson. Vol. 3. Cambridge, U.K., 1990. Pages 1–81.