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The Progress of Liberty in Europe

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The French revolution - interrupted and abortive as it seemed - rendered for ever impossible the continuance of the despotism which had heretofore governed Europe. Napoleon - himself one of the most extreme of despots - sowed revolutionary principles broadcast over Europe. His judicial code taught the equality of man before the law. His overthrow of multitudinous princes inculcated a lower estimate than had hitherto prevailed of the sanctity of crowned heads. His consolidation of the petty German states awakened the desire for a united Germany and paved the way for its accomplishment. His administration of Italy taught the excellence of unity and self-government - lessons which the people effectively learned and never forgot. He gave constitutional government for a time to Naples, Westphalia, and Spain. He weakened the temporal power of the pope; he dealt fatal blows at the immunities of the old feudal nobility. His rude assault shook to its foundation the whole fabric of privilege and unjust preference of one class over its fellows, and led the lower orders of the people to entertain new ideas regarding their own rights. Never before had influences so powerful been brought so widely into operation over vast multitudes of men. The results were quickly apparent. When Napoleon fell the desire for self-government had silently overspread Europe (Napoleon himself was the first to appreciate the change. On his return from Elba he intimated that as the people wished for liberty and constitutional government he was ready to grant their wish).

And the anxiety which distressed monarchs evinced to please their subjects, and thus gain their help against the arch-oppressor began to disclose to the people the secret of their own strength.

To all this the Congress of Vienna was absolutely blind. A consciousness of irresistible military force possessed its members and pervaded all their decisions. It is told that when the King of Piedmont was restored to his throne he called for an old court almanac, and restored the ceremonial which formed so large a portion of his existence, in strict accordance with pre-revolutionary models. In a similar temper the congress reconstructed Europe. It regarded the revolution and all that flowed from it as a series of exceptional violences now happily suppressed. Its aim was to restore to authority what revolution had torn away. Its concern was for the interests of princes. It dreamed not of the new forces which had been silently waxing strong underneath the tumult and confusion of universal war. The old world was reproduced, with only the trifling modifications which were plainly indispensable. When the great settlement was complete, all the interests of Europe were given over to the absolute control of a few families. Britain indeed enjoyed constitutional government, the privileges of which were confined to a very small class. France had received in gift from the restored Bourbon king a charter, according to which that monarch promised that he would conduct his government. Everywhere besides, the will of the king was the law of the European people. Everywhere the people desired and expected free institutions in fulfilment of promises which their sovereigns had made to them; everywhere these promises were violated. The struggle by which, during the succeeding half century, the nations of Europe vindicated their liberties and won back their inherent right of self-government is unsurpassed in interest, as the victory gained is unsurpassed in grandeur and beneficence.

The impulse which first broke a hollow and insincere tranquillity issued from the insurrectionary movements in South America, The American possessions of Spain had risen against the despotism under which they had long suffered, and successfully asserted their independence. Their success kindled a democratic ardour in Spain herself. Some years before, while the French occupation still existed, the Spanish Cortes had adopted a constitution, of which universal suffrage and biennial parliaments were prominent features. When the exiled Bourbon king was sent back to his throne he hastened to subvert the constitution and restore congenial despotism. But now an insurrection burst out and overspread a large portion of the country. The king was obliged to yield, and the constitution of 1812 was proclaimed. The movement extended into Portugal on the one hand, into Naples and Piedmont on the other. Everywhere the insurgents demanded to be governed according to the Spanish constitution, and everywhere they gained for the time complete success. In England, in France, in Germany there were many evidences of popular sympathy with the liberals of the southern peninsulas; but the impulse was not yet of such strength as to result in the disturbance of public order.

Across the Adriatic, Greece took encouragement from the energy of her neighbours to assert the liberty of which Turkish oppression defrauded her. Helped by Europe, she succeeded, and was enabled to establish herself as a free state. No other gain for liberty was secured at that time. The French Bourbons, with appropriately despotic sympathies, sent an army into Spain and silenced the demand for constitutional government. Austria performed the same congenial office in the Italian peninsula. The liberal agitations of the south were calmed by the slaughter of their authors.

But the interest which the Greek war of independence awakened throughout Europe was a powerful factor in dispelling political apathy. It was felt especially in France, where it hastened the revolution of July. The influences of that great outburst reached all the states of western Europe. It turned men's minds everywhere to political thought and discussion. It quickened the efforts of the Swiss to overthrow the undue authority of the ruling families in the cities; to gain equal rights for the rural districts; and to consolidate the central government on a purely democratic basis. It roused the unhappy Poles to the revolt which was so ruthlessly suppressed. It strengthened in England the desire for parliamentary reform. In Italy it encouraged the subjects of the pope to a rising which the Austrians easily trampled down. In Germany it kindled political excitement which led to the very verge of insurrection.

The events of 1830 may be said to mark the complete political awakening of Europe. For fifteen years the despotic governments had been able, with little effort, to repress the liberal tendencies of their people. Now the conflict entered a new phase. The free spirit drew from the movements of this year reinforcement so powerful that the task of despotism became year by year more hopelessly difficult. Secret associations of rapidly growing strength and determination overspread Europe. (Secret combination is the natural and necessary method of resistance re sorted to by men whose just liberties are invaded by despotic power. Prussia furnishes a curious and perhaps unique example of a despotic monarchy forced by a despotism stronger than itself to seek defence in secret association. When Prussia lay crushed under the merciless tyranny of Napoleon, Baron Stein, the prime minister of the day, bethought him how he could rouse the German spirit and unite the country against the invader. He devised the Tugendbund, or League of Virtue (1807), which spread rapidly over the country and soon numbered in its ranks the flower of the people, including the very highest rank. Its organization and discipline were perfect its authority unbounded, although the source of that authority was veiled in the deepest secrecy. One of the motives by which Stein kindled to white-heat the enthusiasm of the people was the hope of representative institutions and a free press; but the king did not hesitate to violate his royal promise when its purpose was served. The Tugendbund contributed powerfully to the resurrection of German national life in 1813, and to the overthrow of Napoleon.

The Society of the Carbonari (whose authentic history goes no further back than to 1814) was an agent of inestimable value in the regeneration of Italy. In default of good government by those who had assumed the function of governing, this society instituted a code of civil and criminal law different from that of the state, and inflicted penalties for the infringement of its laws. Its aims were, however, political and not judicial. It overspread the country so entirely that in some districts the whole adult male population were in its membership. It was tempted by its strength into premature and unsuccessful assaults upon the despotisms which it hated. Many of its members fell in battle; many of its chiefs perished in the dungeon or on the scaffold. But its incessant activity weakened the power of despotism and nourished into constantly growing strength the spirit of freedom and unity among the Italian people.

Some years later, Guiseppe Mazzini, one of the most purely self-devoted of Italians, deeming that the efforts of the Carbonari were unsuccessful because ill-directed, founded a new society under the designation of Young Italy. The avowed aim of this society was revolution and the unity of Italy under republican institutions. It sought these results by means of education and insurrection. To the latter Mazzini resorted with a frequency whose wisdom may well be doubted; but it admits of no doubt that his labours helped the great cause and hastened the deliverance of Italy.

In Germany, in Austria, in Russia, in Poland, in Greece, in France, in Spain, the oppressed people combined in secret to overthrow methods of government which had become intolerable. When their purpose was attained by the establishment of representative institutions, there was no longer a necessity or a desire to continue this irregular form of political action. The European nations having now a decisive voice in the creation of governments, have no motive for seeking their destruction. Self-government has brought progress and contentment, and the secret societies of western Europe have passed away or sunk into insignificance. Only under the great despotism of the 'east are intelligent men still compelled to plot secretly against their government. The Russian secret society of "Nihilists" has, during the last ten years, gained much strength even among the educated classes. The aim of a portion of its membership seems to be the universal overthrow of institutions political and social - the throne, the military system, the church, property, marriage. There will then remain "pure humanity," with all its possibilities of an improved future. How profoundly must the minds of thinking men be affected by existing evils before suggestions so wild can gain support! It is not, however, to be supposed that such views as these are entertained by the majority of Nihilists. The generally prevailing desire points to nothing more objectionable than the establishment in Russia of those free institutions which western Europe has now gained.) On the surface prevailed the submissive calm which absolute governments love j underneath, forces were mustering which were destined ere long to trample absolutism in the dust.

Throughout the non-Germanic provinces of Austria a new political life manifested itself. The Hungarians and the Slavs began to dream of national independence, and a spirit of resistance to the existing order of things spread silently over the empire. The Germans, powerless against the bayonets of the associated despots, cherished in secret a constantly growing desire to be united and free. Italy was a vast network of political societies, in which, notwithstanding the energy of the police, the insurrectionary spirit perfected its organization and waited for its opportunity. The people of Great Britain quelled the obstinate resistance of their privileged class, and entered on possession of their right of self-government. The provinces of Turkey felt the universal impulse; Egypt and Syria sought to throw off the hateful yoke. France alone, under the corrupting influences of the citizen monarchy, seemed to enter upon a period of reaction; but this was apparent rather than real.

When in 1848 a French revolution flung out for the third time its terrible summons to the European people, it became at once evident how largely the cause of freedom had gained in strength. Liberalism could now venture everywhere to try conclusions in battle with the forces of absolutism. The Hungarians asserted their independence of Austria by well-organized military operations which rose to the dignity of a great war, and would have gained success but for the intervention of a foreign power. Italy had been able to lay a solid foundation for her long-desired unity. The Sardinians had obtained constitutional government, and their king was in some measure prepared to give expression to the national demand. Everywhere the Italian people rose in arms, and strove in regular and not extremely unequal battle to drive the Austrians out of the peninsula. The liberals of Vienna took possession of the capital, and maintained it for a time against the royal forces. In Prussia and the smaller German states the people exacted by force a temporary fulfilment of the broken promises which had been made thirty years before. France expelled her king and hastened back to republican government. Even English Chartism - then a mere reminiscence of injustice which had ceased - was roused by the impulses of the time to an expiring effort in the direction of a wider liberty than was yet enjoyed.

In so far as their immediate object was concerned, all these efforts failed. A Russian army set up again the despotism which the patriots of Hungary had overthrown. In the Italian peninsula Austria restored such order as her government loved; at home she quelled with terrible slaughter the insurrection of her capital. In Prussia and the minor German states the governments found themselves strong enough to annul liberal concessions made in moments of weakness and fear. France relapsed into the degradations of the empire. In Britain - happier than any other European state - those who would have made a revolution without any sufficient basis of unredressed grievance were baffled by the contentment of the people with the institutions under which they lived.

Liberalism fell once more, crushed by the military strength which absolute governments commanded. But even in its fall it triumphed. A spirit now prevailed which it was impossible to resist. Despotism exists only by sufferance; it cannot continue when nations have determined that it shall cease. The absolute princes felt themselves now under constraint to make peace with their people by the grant of free institutions. In Prussia representative government was firmly established, although its exercise was modified by the power of the executive, to which the people submitted willingly, in the belief that thus only could the unity of Germany be reached. Austria consoled her people for the defeats of Magenta and Solferino by the gift of parliamentary government. Constitutional Sardinia absorbed one Italian state after another, until at length final success crowned the protracted struggle, and the peninsula formed one free and self-governing kingdom. Spain dismissed her queen, and organized a government based on universal suffrage. Great Britain widened the basis of her electoral system, and admitted her labouring classes to their just influence in the direction of public affairs. France - the birthplace of Continental liberty - was among the last to gain the privilege for herself. But the fall of the empire restored the self-government of which she had been robbed twenty years before; and she received ample compensation even for the horrors and humiliations of a shameful war.

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