Reform and Revolution

At the time of the Romantic Movement, nationalism and socialism often created conflict with conservative forces. While in many areas, change occurred gradually and peacefully, a veritable explosion of change occurred in Greece, Great Britain and France, culminating in the Revolutions of 1848.

Greece: The Greek people had been ruled by the Ottoman Turks for over four hundred years, but had survived with a national identity. They were united by a common language and a common religion, Greek Orthodox. National aspiration seemed almost a logical conclusion. A series of secret societies developed and ultimately a revolt erupted in 1821, led by Alexander Ypsilanti, a Greek patriot and general in the Russian army.

The great powers of Vienna refused to support the Greeks, even in opposition against the Turks. They were opposed to all revolution in any form. Yet the Greek independence movement soon became caught up in the Romantic Movement. It drew the attention of Americans and Europeans who still revered the history of ancient Greece. Russian people also were inspired by the Greeks, who they considered religious soul mates. Artists often depicted the Turks as cruel oppressors who prevented history from going forward. An example is from Delacroix: Massacre at Chios.

In 1827, in response to popular pressure, the governments of Great Britain, France, and Russia directed the Turks to accept an armistice with the Greek revolutionaries. The Turks at first refused, and the three major powers destroyed the Turkish naval fleet at the battle of Navarino, and Russia declared war on Turkey. Russia frequently entered into wars of expansion against Turkey, dating back to Peter the Greatís attempt to seize Turkish lands, so this was a convenient excuse to do so again. As a result of the war, a Russian protectorate was declared over present day Romania; and the three powers declared Greece to be independent in 1830. A German prince was installed as King of the nation of Greece.

Great Britain: English society in the eighteenth century had been dominated by the landowning aristocracy, although the ability to own land was not limited to the upper classes. Business and professional people could and did buy land and become members of the "gentleman" class. Although the "rights of Englishmen" were guaranteed by the Bill of Rights, there was still the tradition of deference to oneís social superiors. Parliament was hardly a democratic institution; it was dominated by the King, and only about eight per cent of the populace were entitled to vote for its members.

The French Revolution sent shock waves throughout England. The Tory party, which was controlled by the aristocracy, was particularly concerned about radical movements, either at home or abroad. The same conservatism which had dominated the conference of Vienna motivated the Tory party to defend its position and resist any form of popular protest. Members of the upper class were not opposed to forcing legislation through Parliament to protect their own self interests.

An example is the modification of the Corn Laws, which had been passed earlier by Parliament to restrict the importation of foreign grain, and thereby keep up the price of British grain. During the previous wars with France, the Corn Laws were unnecessary, since Britain could not import grain anyway. The end result had been shortages, high agricultural prices, and increased rent payments to the landlords. However, with peace, the possibility of imports loomed once more, and the price of grain dropped. This benefited everyone except the aristocracy, of course, who then forced through Parliament revisions to the Corn Laws which prohibited the importation of foreign grain unless the domestic price reached eighty shillings per quarter ton (a price that had not been seen except in times of extreme harvest failure in the eighteenth century).

"Corn" in British parlance, is any form of grain: wheat, oats, barley, etc. The good stuff we enjoy and call corn, the Brits call "maize."

The modification of the Corn Laws led to widespread unemployment followed by protests and demonstrations. Radical intellectuals supported the protesting laborers, and demanded reform of the House of Commons. Their position was that the Commons should protect the welfare of the nation as a whole, not just the aristocracy. The Tory government responded by suspending the right of peaceable assembly and the writ of habeas corpus. A protest movement broke out at Saint Peterís Fields in Manchester, but was put down savagely by armed cavalry. It became known as the "Battle of Peterloo," a play on "Waterloo," but which demonstrated Parliamentís determination to suppress popular dissent. In 1819, Parliament passed the infamous Six Acts which placed controls on the press and virtually eliminated mass meetings.

By the 1820ís, the upper middle class, which had gained some political clout by reason of its wealth acquired in the Industrial Revolution, demanded reforms, specifically reform of town governments, organization of a new police force, more rights for Catholics and dissenters, and reform of the Poor Laws. The Tory government finally gave in, and lifted the prohibition against foreign imports of grain, but imposed a heavy tariff instead. The success of the middle class in badgering the Tories to respond led to further action for reform.

The "loyal opposition" of the Tories had been the Whigs. In 1830, the Whigs proposed "an act to amend the representation of the people of England and Wales." The Bill was at first defeated by the Commons, but later passed. The House of Lords refused to pass it for several years, until 1832 when the Whigs secured a promise from the King to create new peers. The King was motivated by widespread popular protest which he could not ignore. Since the new peers would come from the merchant business class, not the aristocracy; the Lords passed the bill rather than see their cozy little arrangement invaded by the riff raff.

Parliament consists of two houses: The House of Commons, in which the common folk are represented, and the House of Lords, in which all members are aristocratic landholders. Since they are technically all equal, the Lords refer to each other as Peers. In modern times, the Lords have lost the power to veto acts of the Commons, but its membership still clings stubbornly to tradition. Its members attend wearing wigs and robes. The most important function of the House of Lords today is that it is the British court of last resort, similar to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Reform Bill of 1832 set an important precedent. Should the House of Lords attempt to obstruct the work of the Commons, the Commons would simply persuade the king to create new peers. The threat of that happening normally would bring the Lords around. Also, electoral districts which had few voters and had been bought and sold by the aristocrats, so called "rotten boroughs," were eliminated. Over time, the industrial areas of Britain gained more and more representation in the Commons. The total number of voters increased by fifty percent; although this meant that only twelve percent of the populace could vote.

The changes brought about in Britain were monumental. A more significant fact is that they were achieved without revolution or civil war. Problems were solved through legislation, not through bloodshed.

Radicals in Great Britain instituted a program known as the Peopleís Charter in 1838, which called for universal male suffrage. Only landowners could vote for members of the Commons; the movement proposed that all men in England could vote, specifically those who were too poor to own property. This Chartist Movement received the support of thousands, but their petitions for the vote were rejected three times by Parliament. The working poor failed to gain the vote, but they learned a great deal about mass politics.

In 1839, a movement known as the Anti-Corn Law League secured mass support for repeal of the hated Corn Laws. The movement was fired by fiery orators who whipped up crowds. Among them were liberals such as John Bright and Richard Cobden. The argued that only by repealing the Corn Laws could Britain sustain lower food prices and produce more jobs for industry. The movement was immensely popular with the working class. Parliament was unmoved, however until 1845, the first year of the Irish Potato Famine. With the likelihood of famine food prices, if not famine itself, Parliament relented and the Corn Laws were repealed. The Prime Minister, Robert Peel, joined with the Whigs in supporting the repeal. As a result, free imports were allowed and famine was averted. More importantly, the doctrine of free trade became sacrosanct in Britain.

The Tory Party took the hint, and began supporting programs to support the working class. Suddenly, the votes of the working class were important to both parties, each of which competed for their loyalty with the Middle Class Whigs. One result of this was the passage of the Ten Hours Act in 1847 which limited the work day for women and young people to ten hours.

Ireland was the sad exception to reforms and progress. The Irish were still considered by the British to be a "conquered people." (Henry VIII, some years before had even considered a campaign of genocide to eliminate the Irish, but decided against it simply because it would cost too much.) Most Irish were Catholic who rented lands from British Protestant landlords who were usually absentee. The Irish depended heavily on the potato crop, but even then were able only to secure subsistence living. The potato crop was unpredictable, and the time required to grow and harvest them made it impossible to plant other crops should the potatoes fail. Because its economy operated at a subsistence level, the infrastructure in Ireland was also poor; there was no system for distribution of food should the crop fail.

Needless to say, the crop did fail in 1846, 1848, and 1851. Young potato plants were destroyed by potato blight, and the entire crop was a failure. While the crop failure resulted in exorbitant prices in Europe, sometimes even leading to social unrest, in Ireland it was an unmitigated disaster. Over 1.5 million people died or were stillborn because of the disaster. Another million emigrated to the United States or Britain. The British government offered precious little aid, and in fact vigorously supported the landlords who ruthlessly evicted tenants who could not pay rent; even burning their homes on occasion. The British were determined that Ireland would retain its status as a conquered province.

The Revolution of 1830 in France: Following his restoration and the final defeat of Napoleon, Louis XVIII granted a Constitutional Charter in 1814, which protected intellectual and artistic freedom, and created a genuine parliament with upper and lower houses.

Louis was succeeded by Charles X (r.1824-1830) who was an unrepentant royalist and determined to restore the monarchy to its original state. When his deputies in the Parliament blocked him, he repudiated the Constitutional Charter in an attempted coup, and issued decrees stripping the middle class of its right to vote. A revolt broke out almost immediately, and Charles was forced to flee. The middle class succeeded in seating his cousin, Louis Philippe on the throne. Louis Philippe accepted the charter as well as the red, white and blue flag of the revolution, and admitted that he was merely the "king of the French people." Still, little was changed. The upper middle class continued to protect the status quo, and the poor and social reformers of the country realized little gain.