Long Live the Republic
So last week we made a brief thumbnail sketch of the five great powers of Europe which, with a few small changes in borders and names, will be at the heart of our story of the First World War. Today, we will cover the opening stages of the great revolutionary explosion that rocked…most of the kingdoms of Europe in the year 1848. Which, if all you know about 1848 is, “yeah, I’ve heard the word revolution thrown around a lot when that year is mentioned,” then oh man, are you in for a wild ride.
Although before we start on that ride, I want to mention something that, while it does not affect the show per se, I think needs to be said. These first few episodes, and indeed the style of this whole podcast, are very much indebted to the work of Mike Duncan. I assume that most people listening to this are well aware of who Mike Duncan is, but if you’re not, he’s a podcaster who has produced two major works in the medium: “The History of Rome”, a show about the history of the Roman Empire which started way back in 2007, and “Revolutions”, his current show about the great political revolutions throughout history. Among the revolutions Mike Duncan has covered in his show are the Revolutions of 1848, and he covered in more than 30 episodes what I am going to cover in just three. I highly recommend you check out his work, it’s really great and a big influence on me, especially if you want more detail on what we are about to cover here. But as I said last week, I want to in these first few episodes quickly set up the context of the First World War, rather than talk about 19th century European history on its own merits.
Also, I once again have to start this week with a mea culpa regarding my hubris. My intention in this first arc was and is to quickly set up the political and military groundwork upon which the First World War would break out. Specifically, I really, really wanted to cover the Revolutions of 1848 in a single episode, but once again this attempt at brevity was folly on my part. This is just too big a topic to cover in a single episode in a way that will make clear why it was such an important milestone for European history, and why the issues that were largely unaddressed by the end of this event will be reexamined during the First World War. All I can say is that from now on I will do a better job planning out and outlining future episodes. So, rather than covering the entirety of the Revolutions of 1848 in a single episode, today we will discuss how and why these revolutions broke out when they did, as well as discussing the first great revolutionary wave that erupted in France at the beginning of that year. Next week we will get to how the people of central Europe, specifically the people in the German Confederation and the larger Austrian Empire, reacted to that lightning revolution by joining their brethren in France with their own revolts, and the week after that we will close this mini saga by detailing how the revolutions that were not outright quashed nonetheless failed to achieve their goals. Alright, with that business said and done, here we go.
As we have covered in some detail, most of our great powers in the 19th century, and indeed most of the other minor powers of Europe, were governed by absolutist monarchies, which allowed for little if any participation in the running of the state from the people it governed. Now there are a few exceptions to this general rule: as we saw last week, France had since 1814 been governed with a so-called Charter of Government, which was amended in 1830 to both be slightly more representative and, more importantly, acknowledged the principle (at least in theory) that the basis for legitimate sovereignty was rooted not in the divine authority of the king, but in the people. There were also a few smaller states throughout Europe, in particular Belgium and the Netherlands as well as a few of the minor principalities in the German Confederation, which had constitutions of one kind or another. Then there is also the case of Great Britain, which is usually described as being a constitutional monarchy just as it is today. Now, some of you may be raising your eyebrows at that, since after all Britain did not then and does not now have a written constitution. How can you be called a “constitutional monarchy” if you don’t actually have, you know, a constitution?
You see, this word “constitution” is today used to describe a single document that strictly lays out the form of government and usually guarantees to the people under its jurisdiction certain explicit rights and freedoms. But this idea of a single document that all other laws and ordinances must defer to is a fairly modern one. Although not necessarily the first document of this kind, I think it’s fair to say that the document that popularized this idea is the current United States Constitution, first written in 1787 and officially ratified in 1788. This constitution, which is remarkably short and often maddeningly vague, is based on the principle that all laws enforced by the country must be confined within certain spelled out (if sometimes broad) limits. As Article VI, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution states: “This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby, any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding.” This obviously makes clear not just how the government will be structured, but that laws made by any legislative body or interpreted by any judge must be subordinated to the constitution, and if they aren’t, then they will not be considered valid.
This is essentially the definition that those in Europe calling for constitutions in their own countries were working from. The British “constitution,” meanwhile, is not based on any single document, but rather a series of documents, laws, and charters written over the course of almost a thousand years. These would be things like the Magna Carta of 1215, the Act of Habeas Corpus of 1641, the English Bill of Rights of 1689, and frankly, the simple existence of a representative parliament which writes all laws that are in theory (though not really in practice by this time) conditioned on the consent of the monarch. In essence, Britain’s status as a “constitutional monarchy” is derived from the fact that the power of the king is clearly subordinated to a legislature, and that the power of that legislature is not absolute, but must abide by certain principles.
This is all important to keep in mind as we discuss why massive revolutions broke out in many, but not all, countries in Europe in 1848. You see, barring the few exceptions we mentioned, everyone living in Europe in the middle of the 19th century was under the rule of absolutist monarchies with effectively unlimited power. And even in those countries that did have some kind of a constitution, and France we are looking at you here, many if not most people were frustrated by the weak and pro-forma nature of those constitutions. After all, what good is it to have a document that spells out the limits of the king’s powers and the rights of the people, if those spelled out limits on the king and guaranteed popular rights are so few and far between? With the ideas of popular government, nationalism, and individual liberty and civil rights all swirling around in the minds of these millions of people laboring under despotic monarchical rule, Europe only needed a spark to be set alight. And that spark was furnished in 1844 and 1845 when a massive agricultural disaster began to sweep throughout Europe.
The most famous result of this crisis was of course the Irish Potato Famine, over the course of which perhaps as many as one and a half million Irish people starved to death or died from starvation related illnesses, while many more emigrated to, among other places, the United States. But this was not merely an Irish problem. The period from roughly 1844 to 1846 saw massive crop failures throughout Europe, not just potatoes but virtually all staple grains such as wheat and barley. Ireland was the hardest hit from this catastrophe, but no one was spared from hardship. In France the death toll from the famine stood at about 10,000, in Prussia and other areas of northern Germany some 42,000 people succumbed to starvation and related illnesses, while in tiny Belgium alone perhaps 40-50,000 died. And those were just the people who were felled by the famine. Obviously, with so much less food available, the price of basic food staples began to skyrocket, with for example bread prices in France rising by nearly 50%. This whole period in the second half of the 1840s was in fact later remembered as simply “the hungry forties.”
This, of course, meant that those people who didn’t simply starve to death were forced to spend almost all their money on food alone, without being able to spend anything on any other goods. And since nobody could afford consumer goods besides food, the nascent manufacturing and consumer goods industries of Europe were crippled, as industrialized mass production was only just now starting to take off. This of course led to mass layoffs and unemployment in the cities and towns of Europe, making it even harder to scrounge up enough money for food, and by now the agricultural and economic crisis was so bad that bank runs and, for lack of a better term, a stock market crash in the economic circles of the wealthier classes, added further fuel to the crisis.
Now the governments of Europe, at least most of them, did in fact try to alleviate this crisis. Though I would be remiss if I did not mention that the famine in Ireland, by orders of magnitude the area worst hit by the crisis, was exacerbated by British government policy. It is impossible to know how many people may not have died had the British government acted even a little bit more humanely. But the cold fact of the matter is that during this, one of the worst famines in modern history, Ireland was actually a net exporter of food, with grains and food of all kind that could have been used to feed at least some of the starving masses instead being shipped off by the landlords (who were mostly English, not Irish) to be exported abroad and sold for profit.
But most of the other governments in Europe instituted public charities, relief efforts, soup kitchens, and other ways to at least try to feed their people. In all of the capitals and major cities of continental Europe, as well as several smaller cities and towns, thousands if not tens of thousands of people lived partly or exclusively off of public charity set up by the state. Yet as noble as these efforts were, they simply were never going to be enough to solve the problems caused by the agricultural and economic crisis.
And, more than that, it was hard for the people in Europe to give their governments the benefit of the doubt in all of this, as all of these countries were either directly ruled by the monarch and their aristocratic advisors, all of whom of course continued to wear ostentatious clothing and sleep on feather beds with nice full bellies, or by “representatives” who were elected by the most elite men of the country. I mean, more elite even than the “one percent” of today’s politics, remember last week we saw that the July Monarchy of France gave only about one half of one percent of the population the right to vote, and even fewer men were legally allowed to be elected into the government due to even stricter wealth requirements. There is in fact a charming little story about the famous Prime Minister of the July Monarchy François Guizot, whom we will discuss more in a minute, being presented with a petition of relatively rich bourgeois men who could still not qualify for the vote, asking for suffrage requirements to be lowered. Guizot is alleged to have sneeringly replied, “enrichissez-vous,” or “enrich yourselves.” If Guizot were a politician today, pundits of all stripes would no doubt comment upon the “optics” of this comment.
If I could make a general assumption, I would say that if you are living under a despotic system of government, and that is the only kind of government you know of, it’s safe to assume that you will probably go along with the decrees and laws of that government so long as you and your family are able to survive. If you are living under a despotic system of government but you are aware of, or at least starting to become aware of, alternate forms of government wherein you have a direct voice and interest, you will probably grumble and complain under your breath when and where you can, but not necessarily try to violently overthrow the system, since the chance of success is usually tiny and the punishments for failure usually severe. But, if you live under a despotic form of government, with some basic knowledge of the idea of popular representative government, and the country is suddenly hit with a disastrous economic crisis that is literally starving you to death? These are the circumstances from which revolutions are born.
So fast forward to February of 1848. The worst of the crisis has largely passed, people are no longer literally starving to death, but the economies of Europe are still shaky as hell and the people of Europe are understandably pretty shell shocked. Middle class shopkeepers, urban artisans, even peasants and day-laborers can be heard wondering aloud about what could be done about the corrupt fools running their countries, and the rulers of those countries are quite justifiably petrified of this sentiment blossoming into something more than idle talk.
Into this incredibly tense atmosphere stepped a relatively minor incident, that would wind up exploding into one of the largest revolutions in the history of the world. You see, France at this time was still ruled by a now aging King Louis Philippe I. By virtue of the electoral laws he had helped establish in 1830, and the ministers such as the aforementioned François Guizot that he surrounded himself with, Louis Philippe could, on the surface, look with comfort at the fact that the people and their elected Chamber of Deputies firmly supported his policies. Though formal “political parties” did not really exist at this time in the way that we would understand them, it was well known how most deputies would generally vote for a given bill, and the “Party of Order,” a shorthand to denote those deputies who voted in favor of Louis Philippe’s programs, always outnumbered the so-called “Party of Movement,” which were made up of more left-leaning deputies who wanted to institute more democratic reforms. For example, in March of 1847 a bill was proposed that would cut in half the tax requirement needed to qualify for suffrage from 200 Francs annually to 100, which would raise the voting population of the country from around 200-250,000 to 400-450,000. But this bill was easily defeated in the Chamber of Deputies by a resounding vote of 252 to 154.
To King Louis Philippe, this made it appear that his government and its policies were based on solid and stable foundations. After all, look at the huge margins of victory his preferred policies always got in the Chamber of Deputies. But this “mandate” was incredibly deceiving. After all, we’re talking about a body elected by less than one percent of the total population of the country, and the electoral map of this body was riddled with the same “rotten boroughs” that plagued the British government before the Great Reform Act of 1832. By one estimate, of the 459 total constituencies in France, only 143 contained more than 500 eligible voters. Enabled by this system François Guizot had made a regular sport of buying off both voters and the deputies they elected with cushy government jobs, thus making sure they would always vote in favor of the policies of the king and his ministers.
Now, as we saw, there were men in the government who desired more democratic reforms, if for no other reason than to alleviate popular pressure on the government so the people did not resort to revolution. So, during most of 1847 the French countryside saw the so-called “Banquet Campaign,” organized by, among others, two prominent left(-ish) politicians: Odilon Barrot and Alphonse de Lamartine. Barrot was the leader of the so-called “dynastic left” of the Chamber of Deputies – politicians who supported and wanted to maintain the monarchy, but who desired at least somewhat more liberal reforms to the government. Lamartine, on the other hand, who was one of the most famous writers and poets of his day, was an out and out republican who wanted to do away with the monarchy and institute a government based on universal suffrage (which is to say universal manhood suffrage). While these two men were ideological rivals, they found common cause in advocating for the liberalization of the monarchy – with Barrot hoping this would strengthen the monarchy, and Lamartine hoping this would undermine it.
The Banquet Campaign was designed as a way of holding political meetings advocating for liberalizing the monarchy while skirting laws that forbade public political gatherings. Rather than billing these meetings as, say, conventions of a new left-wing political party, these would be merely private banquets where people could come together and “spontaneously” give speeches wherein they gave their personal political opinions. For the rest of 1847 the government of King Louis Philippe and his prime minister François Guizot let these banquets slide, figuring that letting a few liberals impotently blow off some steam would be better than to provoke a confrontation. But one final banquet scheduled for February of 1848 would not only wind up leading to an armed insurrection but also, kind of absurdly, toppling the July Monarchy.
This banquet was organized by radical working-class leaders in Paris, with admission tickets set very low and the event itself to be held in a radical working-class neighborhood in Paris. The left-ish opposition leaders, who wanted to keep the government’s feet to the fire but did not want to condone a popular insurrection, took over the agenda of this event, doubling the admission price from three to six francs, relocating the banquet to the more urbane neighborhood around the Champs Élysées, and pushing the event back to February 22. But the government under Louis Philippe and François Guizot, frightened by the apparently more radical leanings of this last gathering, declared that this banquet would not be given permission to be held, and the leaders of the left-ish opposition decided to back down. But this would not be the end of it.
The more radical working-class leaders of the banquet, furious at the cowardice of the more respectable left leaning deputies, decided to go ahead and hold a mass protest march down to the Palais Bourbon (the building where the Chamber of Deputies met), funnily enough almost exactly 172 years ago to the day. But they were stopped by a contingent of the National Guard just before crossing over from the right to the left bank of the Seine River.
Before we move on to this clash that will fell the July Monarchy, I’d like to briefly discuss this thing called the National Guard, as the idea behind it will be important to our other revolutions in 1848. The National Guard was essentially a citizen’s militia with roots that go back as far as the original French Revolution of 1789. Though the structure and formation of the National Guard obviously fluctuated a lot during its tumultuous history, it was traditionally made up only of local bourgeois citizens who paid some amount in direct taxes; which is to say that the average National Guardsman was far richer than the average Parisian. This idea of a “citizen’s militia” not only to protect the country from external invasion but to maintain internal law and order did not just emotionally resonate with the French, but people around Europe had been clamoring for decades for a similar system of their own, to have local citizens police themselves rather than having hardened troops of the line do it. Louis Philippe I considered the loyalty of the National Guard critical not just to his being able to seize power in 1830, but the maintenance of his position during the myriad attempted revolts of the last 18 years.
Now here’s the critical thing: Louis Philippe loved the National Guard because they both represented the idea of popular sovereignty (as they were made up of local citizens, rather than regular soldiers or foreign mercenaries), but because they were all of essentially middle class bourgeois extraction, and could be counted on to support the regime in times of crisis. Except that the wealth requirements that qualified a man for service in the National Guard fell well short of the wealth requirements to vote in national elections. This was, obviously, incredibly insulting to the men of the National Guard, and they no less than the working-class Parisians were growing awfully sick of the government.
So, when these demonstrators on February 22 got into a shoving match not only with the National Guard but also members of the more elite “Municipal Guard,” made up of men who did qualify for suffrage, and the Municipal Guard in frustration drew their sabers and began slashing at the people in the crowd, the National Guard was horrified. The writer Marie d’Agoult [Marie da-GOO] who was present at this clash wrote of the event, “The elite corps [by which she means the Municipal Guard], composed of experienced men who remained attached to the government thanks to high pay, aroused the jealousy of the troops of the line [by which she means the National Guard] because of its privileges and was detested by the people because of its policing duties.”
As the first blood of this riot was drawn and the first bodies hit the ground, the people began to erect barricades along the streets of the city from which to fight against the government, while the National Guard experienced a moment of moral crisis. Were they really going to serve as the iron fist that smashed this revolt which they mostly sympathized with, all in the name of a government who did not respect them? Over the next two days, as shootouts broke out between Parisians on the one side and the forces of the government on the other, the National Guardsmen for the most part did not take part in the squashing of this revolt, but instead physically placed themselves between the two sides to stop the shooting. They declared that they would not fight against the people of Paris unless the King immediately dismissed the hated Guizot as Prime Minister. Most chilling of all to the King was the implicit “or else” threat that came along with this demand from the men he entrusted to protect his regime.
And so the King caved. In the late afternoon of February 23rd Guizot was dismissed as Prime Minister and the King began to assemble a new ministry that would be acceptable to the Parisians generally and the National Guard specifically. But now, with the fighting and dying that had gone on over the last two days, that was no longer good enough. Throughout the city, where once the rallying cry had been “down with Guizot!” shouts of “long live reform!” could be heard instead. Yet even at this moment it did not appear to anyone that the monarchy was about to be overthrown.
Then came the breaking point, not just of the French Revolution of 1848, but of the July Monarchy. On the night of February 23rd, a group of Parisians marched down the streets singing in jubilation about the downfall of Guizot. This crowd unintentionally walked right into a line of about 200 regular soldiers who were guarding a critical intersection. After a tense heartbeat an errant shot rang out; nobody knows whether it was fired by a jumpy soldier or by someone in the crowd of demonstrators. But whoever it was the line of soldiers let out a mass volley of their 200-odd muskets, and within seconds some fifty people lay dead.
Louis Philippe, who really wasn’t some bloodthirsty monster but just a man who believed that as king his word should be final in mattes of state, was appalled by this massacre. While some battalions of regular troops were called in to reinforce the royal garrison, the King refused suggestions that he vacate his palace, gather up a massive army, and smash this insurrection with brute force. Rather, the King hoped that by sending out word that he was caving into demands of reform and orders that the fighting and killing should stop, the people would stand down. But again, none of this would satisfy the people. Where once cries of “down with Guizot!” were followed by cries of “long live reform!” now a final cry was heard erupting from the throats of the people of Paris, a battle cry that would end the reign of the last King of the French: “long live the republic!”
Louis Philippe was done, and he knew it. The mobs were ready to storm his palace and the only way to stop them would be to call in all available troops and crush them by force. This was a step he was unwilling to take. So, on February 24, King Louis Philippe I formally abdicated the French Throne in favor of his grandson, the ten-year-old Philippe, known as the Count of Paris. And with that, the July Monarchy which had ruled France for 18 years was undone.
Now, we will get to the quote-unquote “reign” of this child king in a minute, but before that I’d like to quickly take a look at why this government, which not only was fairly well established but had survived multiple attempted coups and revolutions, was toppled in just three frantic days. For while the fall of the July Monarchy was old, old news by the time of the outbreak of the First World War, in its failure we can see many of the bedrocks upon which the French Republic that would fight in that war was based, as that government clearly learned from the failure of the July Monarchy.
I think there are three big reasons that explain why the July Monarchy was able to be so easily overthrown. First, was the general unpopularity of the regime going back to the moment it was first instituted in August of 1830. This was a government that was proclaimed after an urban revolution of lower-class street fighters had overthrown a despotic monarchy. And to honor the courage and sacrifice of those people who had risked their lives to topple the Bourbons, a clique of “liberal” politicians had gotten together and elevated a new king, based on almost exactly the same form of government as the old king had ruled under. The only changes made from the old government were that the miniscule voting population of the kingdom was very slightly enlarged, and, what, the preamble of the new Charter grudgingly acknowledged the dignity of the people? Sure, that was maybe a step in the right direction, but how did that meaningfully improve the lives of the people? How can a government even claim to represent “the people” when only a tiny fraction of them can legally participate in politics? Clearly, the people of France had no deep love for the July Monarchy, at best they can be said to have tolerated it. And while surviving multiple attempted coups and revolutions perhaps speaks well of the regime’s stability, the fact that it even had to fight off so many attempts to overthrow it in less than twenty years clearly does not.
Second, there was the great famine and economic crisis that had rocked Europe in the previous few years. Any government that oversees a catastrophe of that magnitude, wherein tens of thousands starved to death, millions were unemployed or underemployed, and everyone else was hanging on by the skin of their teeth just to stay afloat, is not going to be swimming in popularity. Add to that the fact that the regime was clearly not beloved from the beginning, and that the vast majority of the people had no way to officially express their discontent, and it’s not at all surprising that resentment of that level bubbling over years would eventually boil over. And don’t you worry, this economic (and, frankly, humanitarian) disaster will not stop at felling the July Monarchy of France.
Third, were the big policy mistakes of Louis Philippe and his ministers just before and during the crisis. Despite the fact that he and practically everyone else in the government considered the loyalty of the National Guard to be crucial to the regime’s survival, the King refused to grant to these men the simple right to vote in national elections. And this “citizens militia” was not made up of the dregs of society, but by men who only qualified for service because that they did possess some level of wealth. The men of the National Guard would have been an easy-peasy constituency for the July Monarchy to convince to vote for its policies. Yet instead of granting this minor concession the regime decided to, in effect, spit in the faces of tens of thousands of armed men stationed in the capital. This was, to use a technical term, really really stupid. The other big policy failure that the regime made was in being unable to crack down on this revolution, and instead give in after a relatively small amount of fighting. I call this a failure rather than a mistake because, first, had the regime been better at cultivating some level of popular support they would have no need to smash an mass uprising like this, and second because I am personally entirely sympathetic to Louis Philippe’s unwillingness to stomp the people beneath the boot of the army, and thereby killing hundreds if not thousands of people.
So, King Louis Philippe I had abdicated the throne, but in a last feeble attempt to maintain the institution of monarchy he specifically abdicated in favor of his grandson. (For the record, the reason Louis Philippe’s grandson was next in line for the throne was because his son, Ferdinand Philippe, had died in 1842). In the wake of this totally unexpected turn of events, the politicians of the left wing of the Chamber of Deputies scrambled to come up with a new government that would appease the people of Paris. The left-leaning monarchist Odilon Barrot briefly attempted to recognize the legitimacy of this child King Philippe under the regency of his mother Helene the Duchess d’Orléans, but as he was advocating for this more “stable” and “sensible” course of action, the floor of the Chamber of Deputies was flooded by the same Parisian streetfighters who had just overthrown one king and were not about to recognize another. So, the republican writer and politician Alphonse de Lamartine rose and read out a list of names (privately written by him and some of his republican buddies) that would be called to form a “provisional government,” and led the crowd to the Hôtel de Ville, Paris’s ancient municipal center and heart of the Revolution of 1789. Finally, in the early morning hours of February 25, Lamartine walked out onto the balcony of the Hôtel de Ville and cried out to a roaring crowd, “The Republic has been proclaimed!”
Before we go this week, I’d like to briefly mention that I recently made a new and (I hope) improved website for the podcast. The old buzzsprout hosting server is still there, but you can now find the show at seminalcatastrophepodcast.com, that again is seminalcatastrophepodcast.com. There you can find me and all episodes of the show, and listen as next week we discuss how the rest of Europe reacted to this shocking revolution in France. With the last kingdom in French history now dead and buried, and the Second French Republic now proclaimed, next week we will watch as old Prince Metternich would see his greatest nightmares come to life before his very eyes.
Coogan, Tim Pat. The Famine Plot: England’s Role in Ireland’s Greatest Tragedy. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.
Fortescue, William. France and 1848: The End of the Monarchy. New York: Taylor and Francis, 2005.
Jenkins, David. From Unwritten to Written: Transformation in the British Common Law Constitution. Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law, Vol. 36, Issue 863.
Rapport, Michael. 1848: Year of Revolution. New York: Basic Books, 2010.
The Constitution of the United States of America. https://constitutionus.com/
Dictionary of the History of Ideas. https://web.archive.org/web/20060623044421/http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/cgi-local/DHI/dhi.cgi?id=dv1-61
French Charter of 1830. https://oll.libertyfund.org/pages/1830-french-charter-of-1830
St. John, Percy. Modern History Sourcebook: the French Revolution in 1848. https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/mod/1848johnson.asp