1848: The Year of Revolutions

Terms to know:

Classical Liberalism
Code Napoleon
Charles X
Louis Phillippe
The Second Republic
Louis Napoleon
Frederick William IV
Charles Albert
Giuseppe Mazzini
Louis Kossuth
dual monarch
Ferdinand I

Discussion Question: In what ways were the various 1848 civil disturbances discussed in this lecture similar? Were the results of each similar as well? Why?


In 1848, the proverbial dam broke, spilling the water of Classical Liberalism and Nationalism into the courts of nearly every country in Europe. With varying degrees of violence, the subjects of European monarchs voiced their desire to participate in government. In areas where this was not forthcoming, nationalists and liberals took to the streets in protests that often turned bloody. The irony of these revolutions, though, is that they were all produced by combinations of different ideals, and their success almost inevitably sewed the seeds of their own destruction. Liberals, nationalists, socialists, and other groups who were able to cooperate in the common effort to unseat or change government found that they were unable to cooperate after they had become the government. In this way, the revolutions were, in almost every case, failures.

The pressure was earliest, and most intense in the first half of the century, in France. By 1829, it had become clear that the restoration of the monarchy, something the French had agreed to at Vienna, was not serving the interests of the middle class well. Louis XVIII had accepted the Code Napoleon, and though he reserved for himself important powers, he did subject himself to a constitution with laws that he, as well as his subjects, had to obey.

Louis was succeeded in 1824 by his brother, Charles X. Charles saw himself as an absolute monarch in the mold of Louis XIV, and refused to accept any limits on his power. In order to regain the power he felt had been lost since 1789, Charles began to appoint a ministry made up of people who were supporters of an extremely conservative agenda – one that might be characterized by the desire to return to absolute monarchy. When the legislature balked, refusing to support his choices for ministers, he called elections, which confirmed the legislature’s stance – returning solid public opinion against the king’s program. Charles then promulgated a set of laws that narrowed the voting public to only a few landed rich who were his supporters. The middle class, watching its hard won privileges being swept away, took to the streets with guns, and barricaded themselves behind piles of rubble, chairs, tables, and doors. Their success at holding off the French army was such that Charles abdicated in 1830 and left France to go into exile in England.

Louis Phillippe, a member of the Orleans branch of the Bourbon line, replaced Charles X, and ruled until 1848. Louis Phillippe styled himself the "citizen king" – a politic idea given the context of his predecessor’s downfall. He accepted the terms of French citizenship, limits on his power, and the Code Napoleon. His support was behind the wealthy, and his conservative policies reflected that.

The social pressures created by a government responsive mostly to the wealthy since 1830 were compounded in 1846 – 47 with an economic depression. This caused a revolutionary explosion in which republican leaders set up a provisional government, and Louis Phillippe followed Charles X into exile in England. The provisional government re-established universal manhood suffrage, and became known as The Second Republic. It soon became clear that the government was split into a faction that wanted to maintain the status quo, and another that wanted radical social change. During a period known as the "June Days", the more radical revolutionaries became violent, and were suppressed by the moderates with the help of the army in bloody street fighting. With the June Days over, an election dominated by the middle classes chose Louis Napoleon, the nephew of the former Emperor, to be its president. This was at least in part due to the fact that Louis Napoleon’s was the only name recognized in every county of France due to the fame of his uncle.

Germany, 1848
In the area we now call Germany, the French revolution of 1848 brought radical change, but less violence. Nationalists began to demand unification of German states in local assemblies throughout the region. Prussian King Frederick William IV, by most accounts a rather weak and impressionable ruler, granted liberals concessions rather than risk violence in his state. Frederick William’s concessions prompted rulers of other German states to grant constitutions, legislatures, and civil rights. However, when an assembly at Frankfurt convened on May 18, 1848 to discuss how to go about unifying the German states into a single entity, disagreements over goals and methods of the various groups involved turned the meeting into chaos. Eventually, disgusted with the bickering, Frederick William IV, who was offered the crown of a united Germany, declined- apparently disappointed with the disorder, and not convinced of the legitimacy of a single country created by commoners. This set conservatives back into power throughout German territories, and prompted many of Germany’s best liberal middle class minds to emigrate to the United States.

Italy, 1848

Italy, which had been divided by the Congress of Vienna and placed variously under the rule of Austria, France, the Pope, or local kings, broke into rebellion as it caught the 1848 cold, too. The fractured state of the Italian peninsula led to a widely varied set of reactions by the governments there. Sardinia’s King, Charles Albert, granted a constitution that provided for a legislature and civil rights with little prompting. Most other states, including those run by the pope, granted constitutions. During this period, Giuseppe Mazzini was defining what a nation was, and linking the nation to the will of God in his political philosophies. Mazzini’s ideas popularized the national agenda throughout Europe, and helped define what the idea of nation should be for generations to come. Unfortunately, Mazzini was never able to have more than a minor impact on the course of Italy’s political realities. Inspirational as he was, he never achieved control of a major army, or motivated a popular revolution.

In response to the Italian movements toward liberal government, and Mazzini’s ideas of national unification, Austria began to reassert its power in key Italian states. Austrian defeats of Charles Albert forced him to abdicate in favor of his son, Victor Emmanuel II, in 1848. The pope refused to support Italian states against Austria in the same year, spelling death for Italian unity for the time being. This created the opportunity Mazzini had been waiting for, and he, with the help of the subjects of the papal states, drove the pope to run to France. He returned with a French army, crushing Mazzini’s movement, and was never again willing to consider reform of his government.

Austria, 1848
Perhaps the kingdom with the most to fear from nationalism and liberalism in the early 19th century was Austria. The Habsburg kings had ruled a polyglot kingdom for centuries, and were accustomed to multi-lingual, multi-ethnic populations. Within Austria in the 1840’s, Germans and Magyars (Hungarians), the two largest groups, each made up about 12 million in Austria’s population, but Austria also included Ruthenians, Poles, Ukranians, Serbs, Bosnians, and many other ethnic groups.

News of the French revolution reached the ears of Magyar leader Louis Kossuth in Budapest. Kossuth was a liberal who demanded that the Habsburgs establish a national legislature to rule the entire empire. This demand became extremely popular throughout the empire, and the public fervor forced the Austrian emperor to feed Metternich to the public, in the form of his resignation and exile.

The demands for a legislative assembly, however, had taken on a life of their own, even after the sacrifice of Metternich, and became revolutionary in nature, each ethnic group demanding the right to self-rule, not just to elect legislators.

The Austrian emperor, under extreme pressure, agreed to give the Hungarians autonomy, and became a dual monarch – that is, he ruled Hungary as the Hungarian king, and Austria as the Austrian emperor, with separate administrations, legislatures, and ministers. Hungarians, in a move they felt was magnanimous, offered civil rights to non-Hungarian people under their jurisdiction, but announced they would not support independence. This proved to be a powder keg, triggering Croats and South Slavs to violent action against the Magyar administration. The Austrian emperor named the Croat leader Joseph Jellachich an Austrian general, and he was sent to Vienna after defeating the Magyars, where he was able to defeat the liberals putting pressure on the emperor.

After taking over from his predecessor, the new Emperor in 1848, Ferdinand I, began to roll back all concessions made to liberal and national groups. The Magyars once again went to war over their independence, but Austria, with the aid of 100,000 Russian troops, was able to put down the revolt, and destroy Kossuth & the Magyars. Once again, internal divisions between the opposition forces allowed conservative forces to defeat them and return to near status-quo situations.