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Effects of the French Revolution - Europe page 3


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The address to the throne was not a mere echo of the speech. It was a firm and dignified assertion of constitutional rights. It contained one significant passage: "Honouring, as becomes faithful subjects, the power of our royal master, even when it moves its to grief, and out of respect abstaining from all examination of the speech from the throne, we will only recall the expression of your Majesty that the law of the 17th of January, 1820, relative to the debts of the State, gives to the States rights, and imposes upon them duties which could be exercised neither by provincial assemblies nor by committees. We also refuse to acknowledge that the United Diet can be lawfully replaced by other representative bodies which belong to it as an assembly of the States of the kingdom."

At the close of the session he delivered another exhortation under evident apprehension that war was about to break out in Europe, and that Prussia might be attacked in consequence of the French Revolution, which had occurred in the interval. He said that if an enemy dared to attack his territory, or that of his allies in the Germanic Confederation, then he would prefer the dangers of war to a shameful peace - then he would call his warlike people to arms. But the opening speech delivered in the previous autumn contained in it the seeds of revolution, which were germinating fast. There was a radical difference between the King and his people as to the very source of rightful political power. The events of the French Revolution gave confidence to the Prussians, and even in Berlin they dared to speak out and demand from their Sovereign something better than fair words and declamatory appeals to mediaeval prejudices. After a week's popular tumult in his capital, the King's eyes were opened, and he conceived the idea of putting himself at the head of the popular movement, with a view, no doubt, of directing and controlling it. On the 18th of March he issued an ordinance against convoking a meeting of the Diet which had closed its session only a fortnight before. In this document he stated that he demanded that Germany should be transformed from a confederation of states to one Federal State, with constitutional representation, a general military system after the Prussian model, a single federal banner, a common law of settlement for all Germany, and the right of all Germans to change their abode in every part of the Fatherland, with the abolition of all custom-house barriers to commercial intercourse, uniformity of weights, measures, and coinage, and liberty of the press throughout Germany. There was a special ordinance securing the last object, abolishing the censorship, and abrogating all laws against journalism.

Nothing could be better adapted than this appeal to win the hearts of his subjects, enthusiastic in the cause of German unity, and full of the spirit of a comprehensive nationality, including the whole German race. The people had accordingly assembled in great numbers in the square before the palace to express their joy and their gratitude to the King, who appeared on the balcony, and was received with enthusiasm. At this moment, most inopportunely, a troop of dragoons appeared, and assumed a position close to the people. Some of them were annoyed at this needless display, and made insulting remarks which provoked the colonel. He ordered his men to advance with sheathed swords. They were repulsed; they then drew their sabres and charged the people. This was the commencement of a general conflict between the military and the citizens, which was maintained during the remainder of the day, and continued at intervals during the night. Next morning appeared an address from the King, headed, " To my beloved Berliners," laying the blame upon foreigners, " a band of wicked men," who had concealed themselves for more than a week, and yet had filled the excited minds of his faithful and beloved Berliners with thoughts of vengeance for supposed bloodshed. The troops, he said, did not make use of their weapons till forced to do so, by several shots fired at them. He implored the people to confess their error, and remove the barricades which they had erected, in which case he pledged his royal word that the squares and streets should be instantaneously cleared of the troops, and the military garrisons should be confined solely to the most important buildings. The proclamation concluded thus: " Listen to the paternal voice of your King, ye inhabitants of my true and beautiful Berlin; and forget the past, as I shall forget it, for the sake of that great future which, under the peace-giving blessing of God, is dawning upon Prussia, and through Prussia upon all Germany. Your loving Queen, and truly your genuine mother and friend, who is lying on a sick bed, joins her heartfelt and tearful supplications to mine. Written during the night of the 18th and 19th March, 1848."

Royal concessions now came upon them in clusters. The Cabinet was dismissed, and a new one formed, consisting of the most popular members of the liberal party; and one of the new Ministers, Count Schwerin, addressed a great meeting of the students, in order to make known to them the wishes of the King - to them especially, because they had " so brilliantly shone in these days of glory." This manifesto furnished a strange contrast to the autocratic speech with which the first session of the United Diet was opened, and in which he solemnly declared that nothing should ever induce him to acknowledge the rights of the people. "It is," said the Minister, " his Majesty's intention to take the lead of constitutional Germany. He will have liberty and a constitution; he will originate and form a German Parliament; he will head the progress of the nation. The King, wearing the German colours, will appear in the streets of this town. He wishes the students to surround him in a body. Gentlemen, may God bless the German King Gentlemen, we are his Majesty's responsible Ministers; but it is the King who animates us. His thought is progress! his thought is liberty! God bless the responsible Ministers! " The next act of conciliation was the liberation of the Poles, who had been languishing in the prisons for political offences. Mieroslawski, the most distinguished of the captives, as soon as he breathed the air of freedom, was placed in a carriage, from which the horses were removed, and he was drawn in triumph by the people to the palace, followed by countless masses, cheering and shouting with the wildest enthusiasm. The Polish hero stood up in the carriage, holding in his hand a red, black, and gold banner, which he waved in acknowledgment of the popular ovation. The King submitted to the humiliation of appearing on the balcony as the procession passed the palace. Either his Majesty was playing a part like an accomplished actor, or the revolution had completely changed his nature in a few short months. Certainly, if another soul had been put into his body, the contrast with his former self would not have been greater. On the morning of the 21st, he appeared in the streets on horseback, with the German colours round his arm, and proceeded amidst cheering crowds to the University. Stopping before the monument of Frederick II., he addressed the students, saying - " I am truly proud that it is my capital in which so powerful an opinion has manifested itself. This is a great day. It ought never to be forgotten. It is decisive. Gentlemen, you carry a great future within you. The colours I wear are not my own. I do not mean to usurp anything with them. I want neither another crown, nor another dominion - I want liberty. I will have unity in Germany; I want good order; I swear it before God." Here the King raised his right hand to heaven.

But this was not all hypocrisy. The King was playing a deep game. He was inspired and carried away by a great ambition, and under its dominion ho was ready to sink the national existence and the very name of Prussia, to which his royal ancestors had given so proud a history. He aspired to be the Emperor of Germany. Accordingly a royal ordinance appeared on the same day on which he figured in the German colours. In this he said - " A new and glorious history begins for you this day. In future you will again be a united and a great nation, strong, free, and mighty, in the heart of Europe. Frederick William IV., of Prussia, relying on your heroic assistance and political regeneration, has, for the salvation of Germany, taken the lead of our common Fatherland. This very day you will see him among you on horseback, wearing the ancient and respected colours of the German nation. May the blessings of Heaven descend on our constitutional prince, the leader of the German people, the new King of the free, regenerated German nation! "

The following proclamation was also issued: - " From this day forth the brave Prussia is fused and dissolved into that of Germany. The Diet, which has already been convoked for the 2nd of April, in conjunction with my people, presents the ready medium and legal organ for the deliverance and pacification of Germany. It is my resolve to afford an opportunity to the Princes and States of Germany for a general meeting with the organs of this Diet, on a plan which will be proposed without delay."

Notwithstanding these tremendous efforts, not only to maintain his position but to mount higher on the shoulders of the democracy, difficulties thickened daily about the King. His Cabinets resigned in rapid succession; there were no less than five of them between March and October; till at last he got a man of nerve for Prime Minister, in the person of Count von Brandenburg. The Diet assembled, the Royal speech was read by the President of the Ministry. It contained a number of propositions, and promised a real constitutional charter, and calling upon the Diet to "perfect a great constitutional system for the whole of the German race." The reading of the speech was received with ominous silence; then followed the reading of several projects of law; after which an address to the King was voted by the Diet, in which they reminded him of his various proclamations and manifestoes, promising that various projects of law would be laid before them on the freedom of the press - the security of personal liberty - the full right of meeting in association - independence of the judges - abolition of hereditary jurisdictions - publicity of judicial proceedings - viva voce examination of witnesses - trial by jury in penal cases, and especially for political offences - equality of civil and political rights to all religious persuasions - a general arming of the citizens, with free election of their officers - a thoroughly popular law of election, representing all interests - a decisive operation by a simple majority of the popular assembly in the legislation and administration of the State - responsibility of the Ministers - the army to be sworn to the Constitution. They also intimated that, while desiring to change the Germanic Confederation into a German union with the real National Assembly, they were not prepared with him to merge the nationality of Prussia in a German empire, saying - " The nation will not, because it has raised itself to freedom, abruptly sever its present history from the past; it honours the monarchy under which Prussia has become great, and sees in the constitutional form of that system the surest protection of liberty, of public welfare, and the unity of the kingdom." The Ministry also addressed a document to the King for the purpose of disclaiming on his behalf the desire to become Emperor of Germany, stating that his assuming the German colours, and putting himself at the head of the movement for German unity, and proposing to summon a meeting of the sovereigns and states, did not justify the interpretation it had received; that it was not his intention to anticipate the unbiassed decision of the sovereign princes and the people of Germany, by offering to undertake the temporary direction of German affairs. Thus, the King was obliged to back quietly out of a position which he had rashly assumed. The United Diet acted as being itself only a temporary institution, having established the electoral law on the basis of universal suffrage, in order to prepare the way for a constituent assembly, by which means the revolutionary spirit penetrated to the very extremities of Prussian society.

The first session of the National Assembly was opened by the King in person, on the 22nd of May. He welcomed " with joyful earnestness an assembly proceeding from a general election of the people," whose mission was to unite with him in the formation of a constitution, which was to mark a new era in the history of Prussia and of Germany. He recommended the Assembly to secure to the people a large share in the government of the States. Referring to the Frankfort Assembly, which was sitting contemporaneously, he said he would have gladly awaited the result of their deliberations before he convoked the representatives of his faithful people. But, he added, "the urgent necessity of restoring public order in our more immediate country did not admit of such an adjournment. The unity of Germany is my constant aim; and this great end will, I am sure, be obtained by your co-operation." The draft of the new constitution, which had been prepared by a committee, was ordered to be laid before the Assembly for its consideration. It was one of an extremely liberal character. The following were its main articles: - It declared the equality of all citizens in the sight of the law, personal liberty in the highest degree, security of property, inviolability of private homes, freedom of religion, unless it endangered public tranquillity, the entire liberty of the press, the censorship being for ever abolished, the right of meeting and deliberating unarmed, the rights of association and petition, the inviolability of the King's person, and the responsibility of his Ministers, who were liable to be impeached by the Lower House and tried by the Upper, the division of the Legislature into two houses, the one elective, the other in part hereditary. The princes of the blood-royal and sixty peers were nominated by the King to form part of the Upper House, the remainder, consisting of 180 members, to be chosen by the people: when once elected the dignity to be hereditary in the first sixty, but the seat to be for eight years for the latter portion. The former required a property qualification of 8,000 dollars a year; the latter 2,500. The members of the Lower House to be elected for four years, and subject to no property qualification; but they were to be above thirty years of age. The sittings of the courts of law to be public, and the facts in criminal cases to be ascertained by verdicts of juries.

The Assembly did not conduct itself in a manner to recommend universal suffrage, or to make the friends of orderly government enamoured of revolution. Their proceedings were irregularly conducted, and they wasted their time in idle discussions. The great majority of its members consisted of local agitators, and were destitute of political experience and business habits; many of them but imperfectly educated. They received pay at the rate of three dollars a day; and each of them seemed to fancy that he ought to give value for the money in a certain quantity of speaking. The Assembly occupied two days in discussing the question whether or not the authors of the outbreak of the 18th of March, which was the result of an accident, deserved well of their country, and whether it was a revolution or a riot. Herr Behrend moved that it was a revolution. This the Ministers denied, declaring that it overturned nothing, that the established institutions of the country still existed, and that the affair was merely a " transaction " between the King and a portion of his subjects. On this question the two parties took issue. "Was it a revolution or a transaction? There was a majority in favour of "transaction," which led to violent popular demonstrations. The mob attacked the Ministers and other unpopular members as they left the chambers. They tore up the iron railings in front of one of the courts of the palace, carrying off the gates in triumph to the university. On the 14th of June they attacked the arsenal. The burgher guard was on duty at that post; some of them fired on the mob, killing and wounding several, which caused the assailants to retire. But a difference arose in the guard. Some blamed the others for firing. They disarmed both them and their commanding officer, and then marched off the ground. In the meantime the rioters had been marching through the town, and raising revolutionary cries. Learning that the arsenal had been abandoned, they returned to it, broke the iron shutters on the ground floor by means of a heavy beam of timber, which they used as a battering ram. Within there was a guard of 250 regular troops, who might easily have resisted till reinforcements came, but the commanding officer was told that revolution was triumphant; that all the troops had left the city; that the King himself had fled, and that nothing but the submission of the guard could save the monarchy. Believing these representations, the troops remained passive, and allowed the rioters to have their way, which caused the destruction of property amounting to 500,000 dollars. All the portable contents of the building were thrown out through the windows. Most of the muskets were broken and rendered useless. " Antiquities of great value, rare pieces of artillery, arms inlaid with silver and ivory, were stolen or broken into pieces. Trophies taken in the seven years' war, and in the campaigns against Napoleon, were torn in pieces or trampled under foot. It is said that it was not the love of arms that induced the populace to sack the arsenal, but the more vulgar love of plunder. Many of the arms were sold afterwards for a few groats apiece. The burgher (or national) guard in no instance did its duty, for maintained its post. The knowledge of this un- soldier-like quality stimulated the rabble to fresh atrocities. For eight months Berlin was in a chronic state of riots. The bonds of society were loosened, and the respectable parts of the population were mob-ridden." A motion was made in the Assembly to have a proper guard for its protection. This motion was rejected by a large majority, who declared that the Assembly needed no armed protection, but placed itself under the safeguard of the people of Berlin. This had the effect of tranquillising the people for a time; but it caused a break up in the Ministry. At length the Cabinet was reconstructed. About this time General von Wrangel was appointed to the command of the troops, and the King, awakening from his fond illusions about being placed at the head of United Germany, and feeling his throne to be in imminent danger, began to think of measures of repression. This change in the King's mind was indicated by the tone of the general's address to the troops. He declared that he would establish order when disturbed, and support the laws when they were infringed. " The burgher guard," he said, "is primarily charged with this duty; but when I find it fail in discharging it, we will advance, and we shall succeed. The troops are stanch, their swords are sharpened, and their muskets are loaded. It is not against you, men of Berlin, that this is done, but to protect you - to protect the liberty given us by the King, and to defend the laws. For you, and with you, we shall act. No re-action! But protection for order, for the laws, and for freedom. How melancholy does Berlin now appear to me! Grass is growing in your streets; your houses are empty: your shops are full of goods, but void of purchasers. Your industrious citizens are without work, without wages, and without profits. This must be changed, and it shall be changed. I bring you order, and its attendant blessings. Anarchy must cease, and it shall cease. I swear it to you; and a Wrangel never yet failed in keeping his word."

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