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Liberalism and the Breakup of Sea-borne Empires

Liberalism and the Breakup of Sea-borne Empires

DICTIONARY   TIME-LINES

LEARNING OBJECTIVES

In this section, you should learn to identify and discuss the following names and terms:

You should also become familiar with the following issues:


TEXT

The era from about 1775 to the close of the eighteenth century has been called variously The Age of Romanticism, The Era of Liberalism, and The Era of Revolution. All of these names describe the period reasonably well, but require that we look at it from several different aspects. Let's take Romanticism first.

Romanticism is known primarily as a literary movement, but, like many literary movements, its ideas were reflections of deep changes within Western society. It was a revolt against the Enlightenment concept human society can be constructed in accordance with natural law on the basis of rational principles. The attempts to create such societies during the era of the Enlightenment had been characterized by moderation, had proceeded with glacial slowness, had appeared to favor mediocrity in all things, and had produced societies not all that much unlike earlier ones. This was not true of course, but change was so slow as to be missed by all but the careful observer. To many, it seemed that the principles of the Enlightenment had led to a sedate, stuffy, and stultifying world that allowed little play for human individuality, passion, genius, and creativity. It is perhaps for this reason that the principles of Romanticism, which exalted exactly those qualities, and was fascinated by things that were strange and exotic as well as the dark side of human nature should have been best exemplified in authors and artists. The Romantics sought to create a new world one more conformable to the complexities of human beings that the world envisioned by the rationalists of the Enlightenment, and they believed that it could be created as an act of human will, by force if necessary. They looked to heroes, men of destiny, individuals bigger than life who would rise about the trammels of their society to seize the world and re-shaped it according to their heart's desire.

Perhaps the ideals of the Romantic Era were nowhere so completely displayed as in the works of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832). For the sake of everyone's peace of mind, you won't be far off if you pronounce "Goethe" something like "guhr' tuh". In 1774, while the North American colonists were reaching the point of open rebellion, Goethe published a novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther. This was the story of a young man hopelessly in love with a girl incapable of feeling the sort of passion that has taken hold of him and who is married to a respectable and uninspiring middle-class chap. Werther keeps hoping that the girl will rise above her humdrum life and throw reason to the winds, leave her husband, and run away with him. When he finally realizes that she is incapable of raising to such heights, he kills himself. This may seem a bit humdrum itself,, but it was sufficient to spark a wave of suicides among young men in Europe and a tsutsumi of indiscretions by young ladies. The Sorrows of Young Werther touched a responsive chord in the hearts of many and was as much responsible as anything else for the transformation of Romanticism from a literary movement to a social phenomenon.

Goethe's greatest work, however, was his drama, Faust. Goethe worked on Faust, which was published in 1831, throughout his life and the play in many ways epitomizes the path of the Romantic movement. It, to, was a rather simple story. Faust, a scholar, is full of knowledge, but can do nothing with it. He makes a pact with Satan, in which he will agrees to give up his soul if the devil will grant him his every wish. Faust soon finds that the pursuit of personal pleasure brings him no happiness. He begins to use the power that Mephistopheles (the Devil) to remake the world, and to remake it into a better place for mankind. With this, Mephistopheles loses power over him and Faust is completely free.

This emphasis upon "The Man of the Hour" or "The Man on the White Horse" led the Romantics to create heroes about them. It was the age of George Washington, Lafayette, Horatio Lord Nelson, Wellington, Thomas Jefferson, Lord Byron, Kutusov, and, above all, Napoleon Bonaparte. This tendency was seized upon by Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) [pronounced "nee'chuh"], who popularized the idea of the "superman", rising so far above the human norm that he becomes the source of, rather than subject to, law and morality. Nietzsche saw this ideal as being produced by the tensions and yearnings of the age, and led him to announce that "God is dead".

The Romantic ideal, which some have proclaimed as the most significant development in Western culture, is still very much with us. Romanticism rejected rational thought, something which can be shared and bring individuals closer to common understanding, in favor of "feeling," emotion, and personal experience, things that are by nature private and cannot be shared, communicated, or modified by civil discourse. Such a view of human nature exalts the individual, but at the price of the society. Romanticism in the early nineteenth century had given an impetus to those seeking the cultural origins of whatever group they were members. It was the century in which the Grimm Brothers gathered Black Forest fairytales of the Celtic revival in Wales, Ireland, and Brittany, of the Catalan Renaixenca in Spain, of composers and scholars seeking folk music, and many other such activities. This emphasis upon the revival of ethnic origins led smoothly into the rise of a nationalism, the belief that a common national heritage divides to world into "us and them." It also provided the foundation for the concept of Cultural Relativism pioneered by Franz Boas (1858-1942), which holds that the values and traditions of all cultures are equally valid, as well as Noam Chomsky's (1928- ) view that languages are an expression of culture and that all are therefore equally valid. Perhaps the most pervasive of the modern embodiments of Romanticism, however, is Post-Modernism, the view that holds there humans carry such "cultural baggage" that it is impossible for them to observe objectively. This means that it is impossible to reach any objective truth and that the "principles" upon which "rational thought" is based are merely the means by which those with the power to do so attempt to impose their views upon others. This leads to the ideas that there are no universally valid moral or ethical principles and that politics is the pursuit of power for one's self or one's group (for which you may read "constituency" if you wish) rather than the pursuit of a common good. It would appear that Romanticism is still very much with us.

Returning to the early nineteenth century, however, we also find ourselves at the beginning of the Age of Liberalism. Liberalism was a curious combination of Enlightenment Rationalism and the individualism of the Romantics. It consisted of the belief that humans were rational creatures and, if not interfered with, would behave in accordance with Natural Law. As Adam Smith held in The Wealth of Nations, governments should not engage in economic regulation for the sake of controlling the economy. The French Rights of Man and the Citizen (as well as the American Declaration of Independence) proclaimed that governments had no right to interfere with the individual's pursuit of "life, liberty, and property." Finally, as Thomas Jefferson put it, "The government that governs least, governs best."

None of the authors of these words could foresee the effect of the combination of Capitalism and the coming Industrial Revolution. The nineteenth century saw the steady accumulation of greater and greater wealth in the hands of fewer and fewer individuals, a movement that reduced the mass of the people into an increasingly powerless state. In fact, the wealthy wielded so much power that, when the working classes attempted to organize to better their condition or at least level the playing field, governments were easily led into protecting the interests of the rich. Generally speaking, this meant that governments came to play a conservative role in limiting the growth of democracy and upholding the power and privileges of a new ruling class.

This situation led many to formulate programs for transferring ownership of wealth (for which, read "the means of production") from private hands to public ownership. Various means were advocated. Some proposed a gradual and peaceful transfer, or sharing, to be accomplished through governmental action. Others proposed cooperative movements among workers and farmers through which they might create their own common wealth. Others were less pacific. The Anarchists advocated doing away with governments entirely and so stripping the wealthy of their protection. Their wealth would them be taken from them by force if necessary. Most programs were less direct, however. By 1826, the term Socialist had been coined to cover all such movements, whether revolutionary or evolutionary in intent. A focus was given to Socialist movements by a little-recognized author of the time, Karl Marx (1818-1883). In 1867, the first of the three volumes of his massive and complex historical-economic treatise Capital was published. In Capital, Marx turned to a rationalist argument worthy of the purest of the traditional Realist/Rationalists. Surveying the history of the world, Marx, like Adam Smith before him, argued that economics is governed by natural laws. Like Charles Darwin, he saw these natural laws of economics as the engine driving a process of evolution in human society. The economies of ancient imperial societies, he argued were founded on classical slavery and were overthrown by aristocratic (or, sometimes, slave) revolts. New societies ruled by feudal lords and based upon serfdom emerged and survived until they were overthrown by the middle class. The nineteenth century in Europe, he suggested, was at this stage of history and was based upon an exploitation of the working class that he called "wage slavery". This society would be overthrown, he predicted, by a revolt of the working class. When this occurred, all property would be owned by the people in common, governments for which there would no longer be any need would disappear, and a society would emerge in which each individual would contribute according to his ability and would take according to his needs.

The entire twentieth century was an era of world conflict, much of which was involved with capitalist nations trying to defeat those countries having accepted at least the trappings of Marxist doctrine. During those conflicts, Capitalist countries attempted to secure the continued loyalty of their people by adopting many socialist policies, such as workers' compensation, minimum wages, the right to collective bargaining, national old age pensions, national health care, mass education, and the like. At the close of the century, however, with the immediate dangers over, it would seem that those same governments were reducing or, on some cases, actually withdrawing such benefits and returning to the laissez-faire economic policies advocated by the first Liberals.

In the realm of politics, the nineteenth century was an Age of Revolutions. It is so common in the United States to separate American and European history that it is difficult for students to see, for instance, that the Revolutionary War of the British colonists of North America and the French Revolution, as well as the revolutionary wars of South and Central America were all intimately related.

The Seven Years' War (French and Indian War) of 1756-1763 left France and her allies the Netherlands and Spain defeated and exhausted. Great Britain was victorious, but almost bankrupt. She (Britain) had gained extensive new lands, including Canada, the lands between the Alleghenies and the Mississippi, and Florida in North America. She now had to govern and defend these lands but was unwilling to tax her people further to do so. The British government decided that the North American colonists, who would be protected by the large army they intended to station in these new lands, should bear the cost, and so they levied taxes upon the colonists to raise the necessary revenue. The colonists were only too aware that their own economies had been so structured as to provide Britain with as much profit as possible, and they were unwilling to be subjected to heavy taxes in addition. After a great deal of negotiating and bickering, the colonists finally issued a declaration of their independence from Great Britain in 1776 and rebelled.

The war went poorly for the colonists at first. In 1777, however, they won a clear victory in the battle of Saratoga, and the French government saw that the Americans could win. They allied themselves with the Americans in 1178 and, in 1779, were joined by their old allies, the Spanish and Dutch. By 1781, the British forces in North America had been defeated, and the Treaty of Paris was concluded in 1782.

The French government has expended the immense sum of $250,000,000 in aiding the Americans and was now bankrupt. A series of finance ministers tried to engineer a recovery, but all failed, and, in 1788, King Louis XVI took the extraordinary step of calling for a general assembly of the realm (the Estates-General). Once having assembled (1789), the members of this assembly demanded a complete reorganization of the government. The king ordered the assembly dissolved, but the members continued to meet. On 14 July, 1789, a crowd attacked a royal prison, seized it, and released its prisoners. With the storming of the Bastille, the French Revolution had begun. Lafayette (fresh from America) took command of a people's army and The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, issued in 1789, established the new government.

About fifty years ago, the American historian Crane Brinton published a work entitled Anatomy of Revolution in which he examined three revolutions to see if there was a similar pattern to them. He found that they all started out as moderate movements but grew steadily more radical until there was a reaction, a "counter-revolution". These counter revolutions eliminated radical leaders and established stable, but more conservative forms of government.

The French Revolution followed Brinton's pattern reasonably well. (Which is not surprising since it was one of the movements from which he derived his pattern.) In 1790, the French accepted a new constitution that embodied sweeping reforms, but was, at least in form, a constitutional monarchy. A radical party, the Jacobins, soon began gaining support in its demands for further changes. At the same time, groups loyal to the old governments formed armies and began to stage revolutions in the provinces. Finally, other conservative European states attacked a France that threatened the power and privilege of their own monarchies and noble classes. The French government adopted still more radical reforms to gain the support of the mass of the people and, in 1793, executed the king. The radical Jacobins gained power, and then began to eliminate the more moderate of their members until power finally rested in the hands of Robespierre, the most radical member of that radical group. Robespierre began an administration (1793-1794) that has gone down in history as The Reign of Terror, the period in which Charles Dickens' famous story, A Tale of Two Cities, was set. Moderate leaders, representatives of the old regime, suspected spies, and Robespierre's political opponents were executed, the entire male population was called to arms, the worship of God was abolished, and mobs throughout France set about to destroy every monument or reminder of the Church and kings of the past. Robespierre finally went too far, and members of his own group arrested and executed him.

For the next few years, France had to fight against a coalition of monarchies determined to restore monarch and aristocracy in France. Successful generals gained more power under such circumstances, and none of them was more successful than Napoleon Bonaparte. In 1799, with the support of his army, Napoleon dissolved the national government and seized control. He then beat off the powers attacking France and, by 1802, had gained France a measure of security. In 1805, the French, who had been bent on destroying every vestige of France's royal past, overwhelming approved Napoleon as their new emperor.

Although much of his time was taken up by wars in which he seized most of continental Western Europe and set up his relatives and generals as kings and dukes, Napoleon initiated a remarkable series of lasting reforms, including the metric system of weights and measures that has now become the world standard (except in the United States). Another achievement was the formulation of the Napoleonic Code, a legal system that influenced all of the world except for those parts controlled by the British. Education was reformed, scientific institutes established, cultural initiatives begun. If Napoleon had been content with pursuing peaceful works, he would be regarded as an unalloyed blessing to the world. This was not to happen, however. He had been engaged in a continuing conflict with Great Britain and was frustrated in an attempted to invade the islands. In 1812, he turned to attack Russia, having gathered an army of 500,000 men, the largest force ever assembled in Europe, for the purpose. The invasion was a disaster, and only about 20,000 of the army managed to make their way back to France. By 1814, France's enemies were entering Paris, and Napoleon abdicated.

That was not quite the end of the story, however. In 1815, he escaped exile and returned with a few men to France to try once again. Within a couple of months, the imperial army had been reassembled with new recruits, and Napoleon made ready to fight the allied armies of Great Britain and Prussia. He was defeated in the decisive battle of Waterloo (located in what is modern Belgium) and was sent off to exile on the isolated island of St. Helena in the South Atlantic.

The victorious allies -- Great Britain, Spain, Prussia, Russia, Austria, and others -- joined in the Congress of Vienna and formed a new alliance for the purpose of suppressing liberal movements throughout Europe and keeping their own more conservative government in control. During the long period of the Napoleonic Wars, and immediately after, the European powers had been unable to stem the wave of revolutions that had swept through their empires. Now that peace had been restored, the European powers, particularly the Netherlands, France, and Great Britain, faced the problem restoring their economic power without far-flung colonies to exploit.


ASSIGNMENTS

REQUIRED ASSIGNMENTS

There are a number of sites on the French Revolution, but you may have the most fun naviagting your way through one called BLAKE'S BASTILLE. In adition to being ingeniously constructed, this site offers a great deal of useful material on the French Revolution and its era. You will find Life and Times of Napoleon Bonaparte to be an interesting view of the dominant figure of the period.

RECOMMENDED ASSIGNMENTS

You will find that, despite its title, The Napoleonic Wars Page covers much more than military history.

This text was produced by Lynn H. Nelson,
Department of History,
University of Kansas.
12 January 1998
Lawrence KS