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Europe (1815-1848)

Battling Ideologies (1815-1830)

Metternich and his Congresses (1815-1822)



The years between 1815-1830 saw the rise of a number of related and competing ideologies, each holding a powerful influence in their own time. That influence often extended well into the future, continuing to the present day. This section will outline those ideologies.

Classical Liberalism

Beginning in Spain and France during the 1820s, liberalism soon spread to England. Consisting of businessmen and professionals, the liberals wanted modern, efficient self-government, although they were not always for universal male suffrage. They wanted freedom of the press and freedom of the assembly. They wanted constitutions, and Laissez Faire economic policies, such as free trade and low tariffs. They were generally against unions.

Radicalism and Republicanism

Radicalism appeared in the 1820s in England as the "Philosophical Radicals". This principled and unconventional group, consisting partially of workers and partially of industrialists, had its greatest leader in the colorful Jeremy Bentham. The Radicals were anti-church and anti-monarchy, and generally opposed the old ways. They were a force unto themselves until 1832, after which they merged with the British Liberals. The European counterpart to Radicalism was usually referred to as Republicanism, which grew out of the French Revolutionary tradition. Republicanism sought complete political equality in the form of universal suffrage. Republicanism opposed monarchy and the Catholic Church.


Counter to liberalism was Socialism, which sought economic equality for all, and was very much against the Laissez Faire ideal of liberalism. Socialism looked at the free-market economies of Western Europe in the midst of the Industrial Revolution and saw exploited workers leading miserable existences while manufacturers profited enormously. Socialists felt that with the rich profiting so much, the poor should get some of the benefits, since worker's labor supported the entire system. Socialists, therefore, wanted to nationalize parts of the economy, such as industrial and financial sectors, giving these areas of the economy over to government control. Thus, the benefits could be distributed more equally to the various members of society. For example, Robert Owen, a manufacturer in Manchester, grew upset at his worker's living conditions and began paying higher wages then other manufacturers did, and he treated his workers well, counseling them against drinking and other vices. In fact, Owen did fairly well in business despite giving his workers a higher than ordinary wage. Owen wanted to continue reform, and eventually he became frustrated with the slow pace of change in Britain. In 1825, he founded New Harmony, Indiana, an experimental socialist community in the United States. Other leading socialist thinkers included the Frenchmen Saint-Simon and Charles Fourier. Fourier wanted to organize society into groups called "phalansteries", in which everyone would be able to do whatever work they wanted and all be paid the same wages. Some phalansteries actually were set up in the United States.


Nationalism was the most powerful of all the "isms" in this period. France and Great Britain's strong nation-states had inspired jealousy throughout the rest of Europe; other nations, disorganized as they were, wanted to unify. German intellectuals living in (and hating) the loosely organized Bund provided much of the vocabulary for nationalism, stating that each nation had a particular Volksgeist, or national spirit. Soon, just about every European language group wanted to have their own nation. Quickly outlawed by reactionary forces, nationalist groups formed secret societies such as the Italian Carbonari and German Buschenschaft. These societies distributed propaganda leaflets and plotted rebellions. Often, nationalism combined with other ideological issues, from liberalism to socialism.

In 1831, Joseph Mazzini founded "Young Italy" as a nationalist group, which soon tried to organize a coup in the Italian state of Sardinia. Soon exiled, Mazzini remained a leading writer on nationalist issues. Nationalism, though pushed underground by the Carlsbad Decrees, was still very much alive in Germany in the 1820s and 1830s.

In Eastern Europe, the Poles wanted their own state, and in Austria, the Magyars wanted their own kingdom of Hungary. Throughout the Austrian Empire, the various language groups revived the study of their languages and hoped to carve their own nations out of the empire. A particularly potent nationalist force known as Pan-Slavism began to circulate among various Slavs in Russia, Poland, and Austria. All of these Eastern European groups began a renewed interest in their own cultures.


The final important "ism" of the period was Conservatism, a reactionary philosophy supporting monarchy and the old ways. Championed by Edmund Burke, who had been horrified by the French Revolution, Conservatism argued for prudent and gradual change to be made as slowly as possible.


The period from 1815 to 1848 saw an explosion in new ideologies. These various "isms" are still around today. Largely, the "isms" were reactions to or products of Enlightenment thinking, although they all went in a variety of different directions. Many of the new movements therefore dealt with ideas that had been around for a while; but it was only in this period that the ideas gained formal, coherent structure. As new doctrines were born, the question arose: which would ultimately win out? The competition of "isms" still has not been entirely resolved today.

Liberalism in the early 19th century is not the same from what we think of as "Liberalism" today. In fact, much of what was liberal in the 19th century (free trade, keeping government out of business) is today considered conservative. Really, liberalism then was the ideology of the bourgeoisie (the business and professional class), and was geared towards protecting bourgeois interests. Still, the liberals invariably argued that what was for their benefit was actually to the benefit of everyone. The liberal tradition of the 19th century has confusingly become what is "conservative" today in the United States.

Jeremy Bentham, the figurehead of the British Radicals, targeted various reforms in Britain, and did not care at all about customs or traditions. He argued against the preference given to the Anglican Church and opposed monarchy in all forms. He wanted fair treatment of the poor, and wanted to redistrict the Rotten Boroughs. The ultimate unconventionalist, Bentham had his body preserved and placed in a cabinet at University College, London, where it remains to this day.

The socialist experiments of Owen (New Harmony, Indiana) and Fourier (his "phalansteries") in the United States were too marginal to have very much effect on events in Europe. Isolated and comprised of very committed socialists, these socialist experiments ended up, essentially, as dead ends. However, socialism itself helped give rise to one of the most powerful ideological forces of the twentieth century. Some German exiles in France, especially Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, combined the socialist ideas of Owen, Fourier, and Saint-Simon with Republicanism in the 1840s to give rise to "Communism", an ideology aimed against the power of the liberal bourgeoisie.

The idea that each language group should have its own nation, to express its own volksgeist, especially frightened the Austrian Empire, of which Metternich was foreign minister. Since Austria contained dozens of subjugated language groups (including the Magyars, Czechs, Slovaks, Slavs, Rumanians, Serbs, Croatians, etc.), the upsurge in nationalism threatened to tear Austria to pieces. The Austrian government's position as prime reactionary was certainly due in lart part to its fear of dissolution were nationalism to win out.

Today, we often think of nationalism and patriotism as something that "just makes sense". "Of course everyone loves their country," we think, "it's always been that way." Not true. Modern nationalism on the wide scale it is seen today is actually a fairly new phenomenon, especially in Eastern Europe. The numerous ethnic groups there had been more or less happy to live under Austrian Hapsburg rule for hundreds of years, and their languages and histories were being forgotten. Only the advent of the ideology of nationalism led to the creation of "national identities" and a "desire for self-government." Today, it is easy to think that people everywhere have always wanted their own countries for their own ethnic groups. In fact, this modern conception of nationalism developed in large part between 1815 and 1848.

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