The Divided Legacy of Democracy: The Transformation of the Liberal Political Tradition in the Nineteenth Century

This post is a part of our “Challenging Democratic Revolutions” series, which explores the ways in which democratic ideologies challenged Old Regimes and how revolutionaries challenged notions of democratic liberty.

By Pamela C. Nogales C.

The political opposition to the Holy Alliance was an essential feature of the liberal tradition in the post-Napoleonic period. In 1815 a pact led by Tsar Alexander I, the “Holy Alliance” of the Austrian, Prussian and Russian empires, combined their imperial, military might against the spread of republican ideas— the “republican menace.” Liberals battled the internationalism of despots through interconnected groups of political thinkers and actors who waged a military and ideological battle against the Vienna settlement of 1815. This “liberal international” was composed of networks of political thinkers and actors working in opposition to the military intervention of the Restoration powers, but the term also applies to their vision of an expansive civil society that superseded national and imperial boundaries. Counterpoised to these liberal ideals, conservative thinkers in the Era of Restoration valued the continuity of historical tradition, patriarchy, and divine justification—all three were in marked opposition to the most radical traditions emanating from both the American and French Revolutions of the eighteenth century.

The revolutions of 1830 marked the end to the Era of Restoration and a turning point for liberal thought. After this first wave of revolutions, a moderate liberalism triumphed in France, Britain and Belgium. Reformers in these territories were spared the repressive treatment of the political opposition east of the Rhine, where German and Italian revolutions had been crushed by (or with the support of) the Austrian empire; or, in the case of the Polish uprising, defeated—repeatedly—by the Tsar’s troops. The political differentiation between Europe’s liberals—e.g., into “social democrats,” national romantics, and republicans—was thus possible only under democratic regimes, where political associations could engage in open debate, collaboration and even public denunciation. As we move eastward, toward the repressive regimes of the Austrian and Russian empires, these distinctions among the opposition are barely apparent or non-existent.

After 1830, traveling to Paris or London was similar to making a leap through time into a political future. Here, we find the critical splits in the liberal tradition between the moderates’ defense of order and the radical opposition outside of government.

Within the new testing grounds for democracy, the radical political opposition faced a new force of law: modern liberal regimes. Moderates in Paris like such as François Guizot, Victor Cousin, Prosper de Barante and Auguste de Staël rejected the key revolutionary argument that sovereignty resides in the people. After 1830 as a leading statesman, the once opposition leader Guizot denounced the renewed calls for democracy as too risky: “There is no longer legitimate cause nor specious pretext for the maxims and the passions so long placed under the banner of democracy” because “What was formerly democracy, would now be anarchy; the democratic spirit is now and long will be nothing but the revolutionary spirit.” Similarly, in London, liberal Whigs and Benthamite Radicals made a distinction between “pure” and “constitutional” democracy and concluded that pure democracy would threaten the gains of a liberal democratic government. In both Paris and London, the liberal tradition split and stood divided against itself: moderate liberals in power, the self-professed gatekeepers of a new democratic order, now faced a radical opposition outside of government who carried a disparate memory of revolutionary history.

Unlike liberal statesmen, the radical opposition welcomed the march of revolution. Radicals conjured up the memory of Graccus Babeuf, the legacy of “radical equality” and the Constitution of 1793. They denounced property requirements for voting and many—among them, cosmopolitan Chartists in London, German Communists, Polish reformers and French Blanquist insurrectionaries—demanded a reconfiguration of property relations. They read Filippo Buonarroti—Babeuf’s fellow revolutionary, lead conspirator against Austria’s imperial forces and founder of the insurrectionary secret society of the Carboneria. And they critiqued democratic regimes for orphaning or outright betraying independence movements. Thus, in the period after the revolutions of 1830, new ideological demarcations between liberal reformers and their radical offshoots were integral to the transformation of the liberal tradition.

Differences between nineteenth-century radicals fluctuated in response to the movement of events—the success of the revolutions of 1830 was a key turning point. Among long-lasting divisions between republicans and “social democrats” (inclusive of both anarchists and socialists) were contrasting ideas about the nation and solutions to the “social problem”—mainly the declining condition of laborers and the emergence of systemic unemployment. However, socialists and anarchists held substantial disagreements on the nature of these political means, including disagreement within both the socialist and anarchist traditions. 

Republicans and national romantics sought a harmonious unity grounded on imagined cultural connections, while social democrats emphasized existing tensions in civil society between the interests of capital and those of working people—peasant farmers, a mix of artisans (journeymen and masters) but also unskilled laborers and an emerging industrial workforce. Republicans on the other hand, saw the educated elite as the ideal citizenry of the nation and imagined themselves as the natural leaders of a sensible government. Republicans aimed to “assure for the middle class a preponderant influence over the state,” according to the president of Frankfurt’s parliamentary assembly, Hesse-Darmstadt’s Heinrich von Gagern. For republicans, property ownership was a necessary precondition for political participation. While emphasizing the unity of the various social classes in one body politic, they actively excluded propertyless workers from the franchise.

National romantics overlapped intellectually with republicans on the notion of a culturally unified nation but parted ways on its governmental form. For example, while the national romantic Giuseppe Mazzini agreed that middle-class men would play a critical role in the unification of the Italy, he rejected the imposition of a republican government. Instead, he imagined that a series of world-wide national congresses would employ the will of the people to determine the types of government suitable to each nation. Religious narrative was dominant among national romantics. The Polish poet and activist Adam Mickiewicz, a messianic-Romantic nationalist and ally of Mazzini, was influenced by the Lithuanian mystic Andrzej Towiański. While both Mazzini and Mickiewicz rejected the authority of the Roman Catholic church, they spoke of national liberation in terms of regeneration, redemption and ultimate salvation.

The so-called “rabble,” the uneducated working population, was a socially and politically divided lot. It was from this unruly group that emerged radical leaders like the French printer and anarchist, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and the tailor, Wilhelm Weitling—one of the most notorious German socialists of his time. Weitling traveled to France, Switzerland, and the United States as a member of multiple clandestine associations calling for the self-organization of working people and an overhaul of property & production relations. However, the great majority of these radical associations were made up by middle-class reformers, whose political perspectives were thus in no meaningful way an expression (or “reflection”) of their “class experience.” Middle-class socialists such as Karl Marx, were vying for influence by providing an interpretation of a previous revolutionary history.

Disagreements in these circles centered on the legacy of key Enlightenment thinkers, including John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Babeuf and Saint-Simon, whose names were often invoked in radical pamphlets and speeches. Throughout the 1830s, London radicals argued about the meaning the French Constitution of 1793; English Chartists placed the flag of the American republic at the front of their meetings; French insurrectionaries defended the merits of eighteenth-century French liberals; and German tailors in Paris read Babeuf aloud in their workshops. In 1848, parliamentarians in Paris and Frankfurt requested the founding documents of the United States. These uses of history demonstrate how the debates among liberals and their radical offshoots employed a common language of freedom, which drew its hermeneutic force from the legacies of the English (1688), American (1776) and French (1789) revolutions.

Radical political thinkers of the nineteenth century carved out a standpoint on which to critique the moderate stance of liberals in power. They did so by providing an interpretation of the democratic revolutionary legacy, emphasizing a vision of “radical equality” (Babeuf) and the “world republic” (Thomas Paine). They aimed to create a global society organized on the principles of universal human freedom: a society without war, slavery, or patriarchy, where all would have the “time to think” (Thomas Jefferson) and engage in free, self-enriching activity. Despite the short-comings of previous generations and the military defeats of revolutionary upheavals, radicals did not reject the democratic ideals of previous centuries but, rather, sought to realize their highest aspirations. After 1830, they found themselves smackdab in the contest within democracy: that is, within the struggle for political power that corresponds to the conscious, political articulation of a socially divided demos.


Pamela C. Nogales C. is a Ph.D. candidate in American history at New York University, working on radical political thought on both sides of the Atlantic, with a special interest in the mid-nineteenth century crisis of democracy, the social question, and the contributions by nineteenth-century European political exiles in the United States. She is currently working on her dissertation, “Reform in the Age of Capital: The Transatlantic Roots of Radical Political Thought in the United States, 1828–1877.” She is currently a Fulbright scholar based in Berlin and can be reached at pam.nogales@gmail.com.

Title Image: Lamartine rejects the Red Flag before the Hôtel de Ville, Paris, on 25th of February 1848 by Henri Felix Emmanuel Philippoteaux

Further reading:

Brian Vick, The Congress of Vienna: Power and Politics after Napoleon (Cambridge, Mass. [ua]: Harvard University Press, 2014)

Maurizio Isabella, Risorgimento in Exile: Italian Émigrés and the Liberal International in the Post-Napoleonic Era (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009)

Salvo Mastellone, Mazzini and Marx: Thoughts Upon Democracy in Europe (Westport, Connecticut; London: Praeger, 2003)

Jonathan Sperber, The European Revolutions, 1848-1851 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994)

Eric Foner, Tom Paine and Revolutionary America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976)

Peter Onuf, The Mind of Thomas Jefferson (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2007)

Alexander Bevilacqua, “Conceiving the Republic of Mankind: The Political Thought of Anacharsis Cloots”, History of European Ideas (2012), pp. 1–20.

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