Liberalism and the Breakup of Sea-borne Empires
Liberalism and the Breakup of
In this section, you should learn to identify and discuss the following names
- The Age of Romanticism, The Era of Liberalism, The Era of Revolution,
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, The Sorrows of Young Werther, Faust,
Friedrich Nietzsche, Cultural Relativism, Noam Chomsky, Post-Modernism,
Anarchists, Socialist, Karl Marx, Capital, Jacobins, Robespierre, The Reign of
Terror, Napoleon Bonaparte, metric system, Napoleonic Code, Waterloo, Congress
of Vienna, Napoleonic Wars
You should also become familiar with the following issues:
- What were the ideals of the early Romantics?
- In what ways do Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther and
Faust exemplify these ideals?
- Why did Romanticism lead to "hero-worship"?
- What is the connection between Romanticism and Cultural Relativism?
- What were the views of government and economy held by the early Liberals?
- What factors caused the rise of Socialism?
- What is the essence of Karl Marx's theory of the evolution of societies?
- How did the Seven Years' War lead to the American Revolution?
- How did the American Revolution lead to the French Revolution?
- What problems faced the governments of Europe following the Napoleonic
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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,
University of Kansas.
12 January 1998