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Civil Liberties and the 1848 Revolutions

Civil Liberties and the 1848 Revolutions The first reactions of the rulers of Europe to the revolutionary outbreaks of 1848 were panic and loss of nerve. The general atmosphere is well captured by the reported remark of the feeble-minded Emperor Ferdinand of Austria, who stated, "Tell the people that I agree to everything." Although the exact demands made by the demonstrators and, at least initially, conceded almost everywhere by panic-stricken governments, differed somewhat from city to city and state to state, almost invariably they had common civil liberties themes. In particular, the most frequently repeated demands made across Europe, from Spain and France to the Habsburg Empire and the Danubian Principalities (Romania), were for constitutional rule where it did not exist, expansion of the suffrage where it only included a tiny fraction of the population, and demands for freedom of the press, freedom of association and freedom to form trade unions and to strike.

In modern terms we would summarize these as demands for basic human rights. There are in fact many striking similarities between the general stage of political and economic development in Europe in 1848 and the conditions of the third world today, so it is not surprising that similar demands are generated under similar circumstances. Fundamentally, in both mid-19th century Europe and the contemporary third world, as a result of modernizing advances in such areas as education, transportation. communications and urbanization, the potential for mass political dissatisfaction and mobilization reached levels previously unknown, which is to say people started demanding and expecting things they had never even thought about and certainly never considered themselves entitled to before, including social and economic reforms and basic political rights such as those mentioned above. At the same time, the governments of 19th century Europe, like many governments today in the third world, China, and at least until recently, in the less developed regions of Europe such as Iberia and the Balkans, were not willing to allow opposition to organize and express itself. Under these conditions, quite naturally a key demand of dissatisfied elements, and especially those of the rising urbanized middle classes, became the cry for civil liberties and human rights, especially those which would allow organization and expression without facing reprisals.

The importance of the civil liberties reforms which were demanded in 1848 can be easily grasped by reading accounts of the celebrations which followed their concession. For example, after Sardinian King Charles Albert announced that he would grant a constitution, a parade was held in Turin on February 27, 1848 to celebrate, during which, "In all, some 50,000 men marched in a procession that took five hours to pass before the king....Every city of Piedmont was represented, every guild, every procession and division of laborers and peasants.... In the arcades along the way no one could move, so great was the crowd, and at every window and balcony were cheering people." Similarly, in Prague, in the Habsburg Empire, "The announcement [of Metternich's fall and the granting of a constitution] loosed a wave of merriment and wild enthusiasm such as Prague had probably never witnessed before....Thousands milled about in the streets; strangers embraced....Within hours, the term 'constitution' hitherto proscribed, became a magic word....Special 'constitutional hats,' low and wide-brimmed, were introduced and promoted vigorously. One enterprising merchant began to sell 'constitutional parasols;' another peddled 'constitutional rolls'."

Altogether, demands for constitutional government were granted during the early days of the 1848 revolution in the Austrian Empire, throughout the German and Italian states where it had not existed before, in Wallachia, and in Denmark, while existing constitutions were significantly liberalized in France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and many German states. Except in the Netherlands, wherever constitutions were liberalized, the suffrage was expanded, often significantly. Thus in France, those enfranchised increased from about 250,000 to over 8 million with the March 5 proclamation of manhood suffrage, in Hamburg the electorate mushroomed from 1,500 to 30,000 and in Belgium 25,000 new voters were added to the previously-eligible 55,000. In many areas where constitutions or popular voting were implemented for the first time, strikingly liberal suffrage laws were introduced, as in Denmark where over 15% of the population was enfranchised under the 1849 constitution and in Austria and Prussia where constituent assemblies were elected by universal male suffrage. On the other hand, in Sardinia the royally-decreed 1848 constitution limited the suffrage to about 2% of the population (typical of most pre-1848 constitutions).

The other standard civil liberties demands granted in the Habsburg Empire, most of the German and Italian states, Denmark, the Netherlands, France and Wallachia were freedom of the press, assembly and association. These concessions led to an explosion of newspapers, caricature journals, political clubs, petitions, meetings, and, in the more economically developed areas, trade unions. The spirit of the times was captured by a goldsmith named Bisky, who noted while addressing an outdoor meeting of thousands in Berlin on March 26, 1848, "Until now we were the big zero in the state. Finally we have a chance to speak up."

In Paris, for example, an estimated 450 newspapers (many of them ephemeral) sprang up in the aftermath of the February 1848 revolution, and the combined daily press run of Parisian newspapers skyrocketed from 50,000 to 400,000. One observer spoke of an "infinite number" of newspapers in Paris, while another recalled the "pele-mele of multicolored titles," the "hubbub of criers in the streets and on the boulevard" and the "varied hopes and formulas thrown to the winds of the sky!" In Vienna, Rome and Venice, the granting of press freedom led to the emergence of a hundred new newspapers each. There was also an explosion of political caricatures and caricature journals, which almost everywhere in pre-1848 Europe had been subjected to especially harsh censorship, since their visual images were viewed as more threatening than printed words, particularly since many of the feared lower classes were illiterate and thus relatively immune to subversive words, but not blind and thus able to see and understand simple and clever political drawings. In Italy and France, at least eight major caricature journals sprang up in 1848, while in Germany thirty five illustrated satirical journals were established in Berlin alone, with the most popular such journals selling a then-astounding four hundred copies in a single day. The collapse or abolition of theater and opera censorship in France and some of the Italian states fostered a new freedom for the stage also.

With the lifting of restrictions on political assembly and organization, tens of thousands of Europeans joined politically-oriented clubs and scores of thousands attended political meetings and demonstrations. Paris was the center of the political club movement, with over four hundred such groups formed in the immediate aftermath of the February revolution. The most popular Parisian clubs regularly attracted audiences of up to five thousand for their meetings; novelist George Sand later recounted that when she found herself locked out of her Paris apartment one evening in March 1848 all three locksmiths she tried to summon could not be reached as each was attending a club meeting! Political clubs were also extremely popular in Rome, Vienna, Prague and other cities, especially in Germany, where the largest such group, the liberal middle-class Central March Association, attracted almost a half million members belonging to over a thousand affiliate branches within a few months of its organization in late 1848.

Mass meetings and demonstrations and popular petitions, previously virtually unknown in continental Europe, became a normal and accepted form of political discourse in many countries. Mass meetings were a regular occurrence in major urban centers, often attracting crowds of ten thousand or more in Berlin, Paris, Vienna Budapest, Rome and elsewhere. In Germany, the Frankfurt national assembly, popularly elected to draft a new constitution for the German confederation, received almost ten thousand petitions that called for various reforms during the year it met in 1848-49, one of which was signed by one hundred twenty thousand citizens. In the small German state of Mecklenburg, fifty thousand people signed petitions calling for the abolition of feudal vestiges.

In Germany and France, and to a lesser extent in other countries, the revolutionary ferment and politically free atmosphere of 1848 was also reflected in the most significant trade union movements yet to appear in continental Europe. In Paris, an estimated three hundred workers' associations attracted about fifth thousand members. National trade unions were formed by German printers, tailors and cigar makers, and regional and national workers' congresses were held throughout Germany. The most ambitious attempt to form a national German workers' organization, the fraternization, attracted an estimated twenty thousand. Printers organized the first national strike in German history, and altogether more strikes occurred in Germany in the spring of 1848 than had occurred in the previous fifty years.

In many cases, the ultimate military repression of the 1848 revolutions was accompanied and followed by extremely harsh repression. Everywhere leftist organizations and newspapers were suppressed and revolutionary activists were subjected to harsh reprisals. In the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, over fifteen thousand were jailed; in Paris about three thousand suspected participants in the June 1848 workers' rebellion were slaughtered in cold blood after it had been put down, and another twelve thousand were arrested; in Lombardy-Venetia the Austrians executed almost a thousand for political offenses; and in the Habsburg core lands of Hungary and Austria almost two hundred were executed and another five thousand or so received long prison sentences.

Despite the harsh repression, the 1848 revolutions were not a complete failure from a civil liberties perspective. While constitutional government was abolished in the Hapsburg Empire and in most of the German and Italian states as the revolutions collapsed, constitutions, albeit of a highly-limited nature, survived in formerly absolutist Prussia and Sardinia, liberal constitutional reforms (usually including such reforms as press freedom and an expanded suffrage) survived in Switzerland, the Netherlands, Denmark and Belgium, and universal manhood suffrage was maintained in France (although rendered rather nugatory until after 1860 by election-rigging). Finally, in many ways the 1848 revolutions established a civil liberties agenda that was to play a major, and sometimes dominant role in European domestic politics for the next seventy years.

Robert Goldstein


Peter Amann, Revolution and Mass Democracy: The Paris Club Movement in 1848 (Princeton University Press: Princeton, N.J.,1975).

Robert Justin Goldstein, Political Repression in Nineteenth - Century Europe (Croom Helm: London, 1983).

_______. Political Censorship of the Arts and the Press in Nineteenth-Century Europe (Macmillan: London, 1989).

P.H. Noyes, Organization and Revolution: Working-Class Associations in the German Revolutions of 1848-1849 (Princeton University Press, Princeton, N.J., 1966)

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