Feeling Safe and Secure in 1815

By Beatrice de Graaf

For many years, I have been fascinated with questions regarding how countries, states, and societies exit a war and attempt to restore peace and security. If works such as Paul Schroeder’s The Transformation of Europe or, more recently, Brian Vick’s The Congress of Vienna, declare the post-1815 period as an epoch of “landmark diplomatic agreements” and “liberal and conservative reforms,” what does that mean on the ground, to the people at the time? These questions are especially challenging to answer in situations where we do not have access to photographs or film footage and have to rely on written records. In order to understand what the Congress of Europe meant to contemporaries, we must ask what security meant for people in 1815. 

Many books in the field of international relations and diplomatic history focus on treaties, power constellations, and systemic orders to the exclusion of the cultural or social elements of these transitions. Many of these books, moreover, apply modern day analytical categories and schemes to the historical situation at hand, theorizing in depth, but often without much anchoring of their categories in the vernacular of the times itself. 

With new developments in political history, including more attention to cultural aspects and the “emotional turn” in history, the question has become even more pertinent: what did the Congress of Europe mean for individuals back then, and how did they, in their language, analyze and perceive the new state of affairs after the wars ended?[1] How tangible at the time was the pivot that we now recognize as the transformation from the ancien régime to the emergence of modern, unitarian states? One way to address this question is to approach these times of transition from the perspective of security. Today, security implies more than the absence of war. It also includes public order and the freedom to move around without being assaulted. At the very least, security means that people can rely on strict and fair rules and regulations that protect them as much from interference by fellow citizens as by rogue regimes. But a concept like security is not transhistorical. 

The memoirs of American first-lady-to-be Louisa Adams—magnificently narrated by Michael O’Brien—was my starting point for answering these questions in my new book. In her case, security was not only about ending the war, but equally about being able to travel safely on the roads. It meant being able to pass toll gates, procure banknotes, find a decent inn, and change the horses on your carriage. Louisa Adams travelled from St. Petersburg to Paris over the course of six weeks in the later winter of 1815. While she was travelling the paved roads in Germany by carriage, in the company of her seven-old son and one veteran soldier as her security detail, the drums of war began to beat again as the final battles of the Napoleonic Wars broke out. But she arrived safely and wrote about how she defied forests ridden with veterans, deserters, highwaymen, and vagabonds on her way to the French capital. 

Yes, I thought when reading these memoirs, this was security in 1815: a lady on the road, being protected by her international passports, her transnationally guaranteed financial papers and left unscathed by mobilizing and demobilizing troops. But how was that security managed, implemented, rolled out, and discussed? Was it something that arose spontaneously, or rather intentionally, and if the latter applied, was it locally enforced by regional overlords and masters, or coming from higher up? Who directed the immense armies of the Sixth and Seventh Coalition, turning these more than 1.5 million troops into a reasonably coherent and well-behaved army of occupation after 1815? And what about the French and their Grande Armée? Although they were not exiled, they were demobilized, raising the questions of how and under what conditions. And during this time of demobilization and troop displacements, who made sure that passports were in order and that women like Louisa Adams could be identified and kept safe? Indeed, what did a passport actually mean in this unruly era, in a situation of occupation and inter-allied rule? 

Passport of Justus von Gruner. (GStA PK, VI. HA, Nachlass Gruner, J. K., No. 27).

Following the material history approach meant looking out for the props that supported the new, post-1815 scenery of peace and security. Interestingly, I found some clues in another woman’s memoirs. Embarking on a grand tour in 1815 and again in 1816, Francis Lady Shelley, a close friend of the Duke of Wellington, described how during her second journey, the roads had been repaired and, throughout the Low Countries and the German Lands, fortresses and fortifications were being repaired, expanded, and constructed. 

I decided to follow the administrators and managers who forged and facilitated this new transnational security system and the material elements of that system. It is one thing to speak about “the balance of power,” but another to actually understand how that balance was upheld not by schemes and speeches, but by a physical band of fortifications, the Wellington Barrier. And indeed, after 1815, much money, talk, and work were spent on creating a “boulevard de l’Europe” (a bulwark of Europe) in the form of a string of physical fortifications along the northern and eastern border of France.  

Moreover, I wanted to know to what extent this experiment in creating a new order worked, and, even more germane, for whom it worked. That meant that I not only needed the official side of the story, but also to understand how it was perceived and received by the general population further down the social ladder. In addition, I could not rely on national accounts alone but needed to keep my eye on the ball internationally and transnationally. Too many history books (with those of Schroeder and Vick as outstanding exceptions) have been written on the 1815 security order from a strictly national viewpoint, stressing either British, or Russian/Austrian/Prussian efforts to create peace and prosperity. Yet the post-1815 peace and security order was a truly international arrangement.

Only when I held on to that premise and set to work was I able to find, in archives scattered throughout Europe (Berlin, Nantes, Paris, London, and Amsterdam), the records of the Allied Council, which convened more than 300 times between July 1815 and December 1818. It was this Council that developed, operationalized, monitored, and enforced what British Foreign Minister Castlereagh (who, together with the Duke of Wellington, presided over the Council) called the four “principles of salutary precaution,” undergirding the construction of the new security order.  

“The Congress dissolved before the cake was cut up,” cartoon depicting the return of Napoleon. By George Cruikshank, 1815. Detail showing Napoleon trampling on a card entitled “A Plan for the Security of Europe.” (© The Trustees of the British Museum).

The Council was bound together and deeply inspired by the trauma of a two-pronged war against terror. The first was the terror of the revolutionary and Napoleonic regimes and their invading armies; the second was the terror by revolutionary, non-state groups in their own societies who were bent on toppling the existing order elsewhere. To prevent this specter of what Metternich called “Armed Jacobinism,” the principles of precaution were discussed in detail and put into practice. France had to be demobilized, stabilized, “debonapartized,” and be made to pay “dédommagements,” or war indemnities, for the damage inflicted upon the countries of the Sixth and Seventh Coalitions. In my book, I devote a chapter to each of these principles. 

While the narrative of terror and security, including the precautionary principles after 1815, may sound eerily modern (and almost pre-echo the Potsdam Conference after 1945), it arises in the sources themselves.[2] In line with the Koselleckian Begriffsgeschichte, my book follows the paper trail that leads us to these concepts, their associated discourse, and the ways and means these notions were used in treaties, declarations, intelligence reports, newspaper articles, letters, and inscriptions in stone (on memorials and fortified gates, for example).

Map of the Wellington Barrier, 1815–30. (Erik Goosmann © 2020, Mappa Mundi Cartography).
James Ensor, Fort Wellington, Ostend, 1876.

And indeed, the Council’s work did mean greater stability for most, on the roads, along the borders, and in the fortified towns. Being free to live, trade, and travel without the constant fear of being summoned to new military campaigns every spring was an immense relief for most of the citizens of Europe. Bandits in the forest were prevented from roaming and robbing at will by the newly implemented transit and border controls in Bavaria and Hesse. Cities and governments across Europe (except in France) were relieved from the yoke of having to pay heavy tributes to occupying armies. And the Allied Council issued ample orders in an effort to create a security culture where all of the above was the norm. 

Yet, with the heavy death toll, the bad harvests, and pandemics sweeping Europe in the years leading up to and immediately after 1815, recovery and reconstruction was a slow and uneven process. The post-1815 period was not a mere restoration or rewinding of the clock. But many reforms and innovations supported the coalition of unitarian (nation) states, empires, their commerce, and expeditions rather than individual citizens and their liberties as such. The post-1815 security order was rolled out in a very hierarchical, imperialist, repressive, and divisive fashion. Upper class ladies like Adams and Shelley benefited from this new system, as did the financiers and bankers who underpinned the European security order with a new kind of rentes—securities inscribed in the public ledger of France, but unofficially guaranteed by the Allied Army of Occupation and purchased by the wealthy elites of the financial capitals of Europe. Others, without access to protective signatures and laisser-passez’s, felt far less protected. The Allied Council’s archives contain, for example, lists of people who were considered Bonapartists or radicals that needed to be expelled, and would not be granted protection.

The fact that in the preceding years so many sovereigns, princes, their ministers, officials, bankers, and other experts had fought a war together, met each other in military headquarters on the march, and sat together at the green baize tables in Paris and Vienna, instilled a new kind of transimperial security order. More ministerial conferences took place in the years after 1815 than in the two centuries after the Peace of Westphalia. New networks of experts, engineers, lawyers, and traders from all over Europe were increasingly involved. Alongside David Todd, I underline the importance of identifying patterns of cooperation and deliberation amongst empires after 1815, not just in Europe, but also on the open seas and in overseas territories and colonies—as contentious and competitive as this cooperation sometimes may have been. After the Anglo-Dutch treaty of 1824 was concluded, for example, the British and Dutch partly assisted each other in policing their zones of influence in and around the strait of Malacca, to the detriment of the seafaring peoples of maritime Southeast Asia. And Erik de Lange has described in detail how similar inter-imperial European ventures took place in the Mediterranean, directed against North-African “pirates.”[3]  

Security always entails the dichotomy of those who receive protection and those against whom the protective shield is held up. Indeed, after peace in Europe was concluded, joint naval squadrons set out to bring the barbary corsairs to heel. “Terrorists” and Bonapartists suspected of involvement in attacks—such as those on the Duke of Wellington or on the Duke de Berry—were exiled and put under joint European surveillance. “Aliens,” “radicals,” students, and other alleged enemies of the new order were put on blacklists. 

That is why I use the tragic story of another lady on the road, Hortense de Beauharnais, with her sons, as a mirror image to the account of Louisa Adams. Hortense was Napoleon I’s stepdaughter and sister-in-law. Estranged from her husband, Louis Napoleon, she was expelled from France with her sons, and summoned to put herself under surveillance by one of the first rank powers (preferably Austria, given the reach of Metternich’s security apparatus). The security Hortense received was very much Janus-faced: she was protected by the allied powers and was given an escort on her way into exile. But her security details went with her to monitor her every step. In the short run, the Allied Council indeed succeeded in putting her safely away in a Swiss chateau near Thurgau. In the long run, she used her confinement to further educate her son Louis Napoleon, the future Napoleon III, and keep Bonapartist ideas alive. 

Beatrice de Graaf is distinguished professor at Utrecht University and holds the chair of History of International Relations. Her monograph, Fighting Terror after Napoleon: How Europe became secure after 1815, was published with Cambridge University Press in 2020.

Title Image: “The Congress dissolved before the cake was cut up,” cartoon depicting the return of Napoleon. By George Cruikshank, 1815. 


[1] Compounding this trend, Christine Haynes was working along similar lines, and published her insightful monograph on the cultural, political, and social impact of the allied occupation on the French population after 1815 in 2018: Haynes, Our Friends the Enemies: The Occupation of France after Napoleon (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2018).

[2] See the inspired interventions by Mitzen, Bell, Vick, etc. in the H-Diplo roundtable on my book.

[3] Erik de Lange, From Augarten to Algiers: Security and ‘piracy’ around the Congress of Vienna. In Beatrice de Graaf, Ido de Haan & Brian Vick (Eds.), Securing Europe after Napoleon – 1815 and the New European Security Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019), 231-248.

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