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The Age of Revolutions

Society in
Post-Napoleonic France

Keith Tankard
The Time Traveller
Updated: 14 December 2009
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The fall of Napoleon marked the beginning of a new era for Europe. The people had witnessed 25 years of warfare. Old boundaries had been eliminated or altered. New political and social systems had arisen. New ideas and opinions had spread throughout Europe.

The history of Europe after 1815 is therefore characterised by a struggle between revolutionary and reactionary forces. The struggle would, however, not be conducted merely in the political arena. A new economic factor was evolving in European life, namely the Industrial Revolution. Europe would therefore move in new directions, unheard of only a century earlier.


Despite their widespread acceptance amongst certain sectors of the European population, the ideals of the French Revolution and the political settlements dictated on greater Europe by Napoleon Bonaparte could not entirely eradicate the institutions of the Old Order.

The monarchies were far more deeply rooted for that. Indeed, after Napoleon's final defeat, the people of Europe were weary of warfare and tended to look upon the monarchy as a symbol of unity and peace. The reactionary monarchies tended, therefore, to retain the support of the Church, the nobility and the great land-owners.

In France the Revolution had attacked the Church quite as much as it had done the royal houses and the nobility. The fall of Napoleon tended, therefore, to be regarded as a victory for the Catholic Church.

Because the Church was one of the more powerful forces in restraining the powers of the Revolution, it was natural that every effort would be made after 1815 to restore the Church to its traditional position. The Church therefore became a rallying point for reaction and the forces of continuity.

In 1815 Europe generally was merely on the verge of the Industrial Revolution. Land therefore remained the chief source of wealth. As a result, landowners continued to be one of the paramount figures in determining social status and political power.

On the other hand, because of the nationalisation of land belonging to both Church and aristocracy, a new landowning class had come into existence. This was particularly so in France. In essence, however, although differing considerably from the older order of landowner, the new class modelled itself on the old and remained extremely conservative.

The widespread longing for peace created the atmosphere in which reactionary governments were able to introduce repressive measures against the revolutionary forces. Britain, for instance, (arguably the most liberal of states) brought in measures suspending individual rights and freedoms, prohibiting public gatherings and introducing press censorship.

Similar proclamations were issued in France and Germany in 1819. Suppression by military force, use of secret police, control of universities and press censorship became the order of the day throughout Europe.

The process of urbanisation had already long started in Europe. With the sudden evolution of the Industrial Age, however, a new industrial proletariat was suddenly created, totally different to the conservative agricultural community.

These were people who had an axe to grind because often they had been rendered unemployed by that very revolution. They would therefore be ready followers of any radical political philosopher which promised them better conditions.

There was also the new and steadily growing class of industrial bourgeoisie who were using their wealth and power to press for the abolition of obsolete laws and demanding greater political recognition.


New political philosophies were taking root during this period: Liberalism. Democracy. Socialism. Communism. Nationalism.

One must also be careful not to confuse the liberalism of 1815 with democracy. Liberalism was the political system advocated by the wealthy financiers, merchants and industrialists who formed the backbone of the bourgeoisie. The movement aimed at breaking the political monopoly of the landed nobility.

Liberal thinkers urged that birth was not the criterion of political power. Power had rather to depend on land-ownership, intelligence and education. The liberals were certainly not in favour of universal franchise. They did, however, believe in a free economy (laissez faire). To achieve this, they advocated limiting the activities of the state, especially in the economic field.

Democrats, on the other hand, believed that political equality was a basic principle. Universal franchise was the basis for this political equality. The democrats therefore tended to be the political rallying ground of the lower classes, especially the petit bourgeoisie. As such they were feared by conservatives and liberals alike.

Socialism at the beginning of the 19th century derived its inspiration from Rousseau and the ideals of the French Revolution. While the liberals stressed liberty and the democrats equality, the socialists stressed fraternity. As a result, socialists tended to be regarded as anti-national in character.

The socialists were mainly interested in problems of poverty and social inequality which they blamed on the capitalist system of private ownership and production. Since socialism aimed at overthrowing the existing order, it threatened the liberals, the democrats and the conservatives.

The nationalism of 1815 must not be confused with the nationalism of the 20th and 21st century. First, it was less militant than modern nationalism. It tended to focus on loyalty to the king rather than on loyalty to the state. It was also more cultural than political.

Nevertheless, the Napoleonic Wars had given nationalism a new turn. The French armies had been national rather than mercenary. Napoleon had therefore given his people the desire for national prestige.

His conquests in Europe, on the other hand, fostered a national desire amongst the conquered nations to resist. Nationalism, rather than any other political philosophy, would in fact become one of the greatest threats to the European state system after 1815.

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