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Great Britain And The Revolutions of 1848

Among all the European governments of the nineteenth century by far the most liberal was Great Britain's. The British constitutional monarchy had long stood in stark contrast to the autocratic systems prevalent on the continent. Many European thinkers claimed to have been influenced by such British philosophers John Locke, Thomas Paine and Adam Smith. Great Britain had therefore served as a source of inspiration to many generations of European liberal and might have been expected to show considerable sympathy to the revolutionaries in 1848. In fact, however, the British government viewed the revolutions with alarm and did its best to preserve the status quo in Europe on the selfish ground that the so-called continental balance of power was a paramount British interest.

The main personalities in charge of British diplomacy in 1848 were the prime minister, Lord John Russell, and the foreign secretary, Lord Palmerston. They were mainly inspired by a profound fear of France and Russia, then Britain's most dangerous commercial rivals. They aimed mainly to check French ambitions in the Rhineland zone and in Italy and to halt Russia's expansion in eastern and central Europe. Both agreed that European stability could best be maintained by domestic programmes of mild reform and they often (albeit vainly) advised European rulers to grant moderate political constitutions.

Neither Palmerston nor Russell much regretted the collapse of the French monarchy in February 1848, since they had had many disagreements with Louis Philippe, who had ruled that country since the revolution of 1830. But they feared that the new republic, initially led by Alphonse de Lamartine, might become unduly aggressive. Palmerston expressed himself ready to acknowledge the legitimacy of the new regime so long as it was prepared to respect existing treaties. Once that assurance was given, the British government simply regarded the immediate results of the February Revolution in Paris as a fait accompli.

More complicated was British policy with respect to the other upheavals which occurred on the continent. By early summer, several changes had been wrought in every major European capital, with the exception of Brussels, London and St. Petersburg. These revolutions threatened the peace and stability of the continent and were therefore resisted by Great Britain. The Victorians were by nature a conservative people and did not believe in the idea that governments could be dissolved by threats and violence. They felt that constitutions should be conferred from above and not extracted by force from below. Hence their violent reaction to the Chartist challenge in 1848. The parliamentary leaders emphasized the need for protecting private property and threatened to suppress that demonstration by force. Not surprisingly, therefore, in responding to the revolutions on the continent, Great Britain resolved to remain neutral in every instance and to insist on the preservation of law and order.

Within Britain itself there was, nevertheless, considerable sympathy for some of the liberal movements on the continent. The liberal-nationalists in Greece, Italy and Poland, for instance, had consistently won the moral support of the British public. But in 1848 the government was disturbed by the spread of revolutionary fervor in Italy which seemed to present France with a golden opportunity for extending her influence into the northern Italian provinces, some of which still formed part of the Austrian Empire. Palmerston had long held that disaffection in these areas could have been assuaged by intelligent concessions on the part of the Austrian monarchy.

Palmerston did not advocate Austrian reforms in Italy because he was himself a revolutionary. He was, in fact, opposed to radicalism even at home and viewed the continent from the vantage point of a pragmatist. He wanted mild constitutional changes in Italy to forestall the republican aspirations of Giuseppe Mazzini and to maintain the good health of the austrian Empire in central Europe. He saw Austria as an essential element in the continental system, capable of serving as a buffer both to French designs in the west and Russian ambitions in the east. He was convinced, however, that Austrian possessions south of the Alps were a basic source of weakness to the Habsburg monarchy.

Great Britain gave little material support to the Italian cause during 1848-49 because she did not favor a united Italy which could ultimately pose a serious threat to her considerable interests in the Mediterranean. Nor did she believe that Italy could accomplish her unification without the aid of France and subsequently becoming a French satellite in a very important strategic zone. British policy in Italy therefore was a curious mixture of bluster, mediation and procrastination in the hope of frustrating the Austrians, French and Italians alike. Had Britain chosen to give material assistance to the Italian revolutionaries in 1848, the Austrians would assuredly have been expelled at once from that peninsula.

There was consequently much ambivalence in Britain's approach to the 1848 revolutions. On the one hand, she was governed by a basic conviction that the autocrats had brought their misfortunes upon themselves: and on the other, she was motivated by the profound fear that the upheavals would undo the Vienna Treaty of 1815 to her own disadvantage. A friendly neutrality was the most that the Italian nationalists could be offered in the circumstances.

This was a great deal more than the Hungarian revolutionaries received in 1848-49. Palmerston explained to the Magyars that he had "no knowledge of Hungary except as one of the component parts of the Austrian Empire" and therefore could not support their claims to independence. He felt that Austria, bereft of Hungary, could not survive as a Great Power. Hence his considerable relief when Russian troops restored order there in 1849. His greatest concern was whether the Tsar entertained ulterior designs upon Hungary. Son long as the Russian soldiers did not linger after accomplishing their task, he was satisfied.

To appease the liberals at home, Palmerston was prepared to do no more than protest the brutal treatment of the Hungarian leaders after the revolution was suppressed by the combined might of Austria and Russia. He then persuaded Turkey, as ostentatiously as he could, not to extradite the refugees who had fled thither to escape Austria's wrath.

None of the German revolutions received moral or material support from Great Britain in 1848. Palmerston was pleased to see so many constitutions being granted in central Europe, only because he thought that they could preserve the German monarchies intact. He tended to view Prussia as another important buffer against France and Russia, and was willing to contemplate a Germany of many princedoms since he did not think that British interests would be well served by an overly strong combination of German states. Nor did he have any confidence in the ability of the Germans to achieve their own unification. Towards the idea of German nationalism, he remained lukewarm at best. In the case of Schleswig-Holstein, he denounced the claims of the German liberals altogether and did his best to preserve the status quo in the Baltic. He thought that Denmark was a crucial factor in the European constellation of powers and should not be threatened by Prussia with the prospect of dismemberment.

This was a source of chronic dismay at the Court, where Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were consistently offended by Palmerston's lack of respect for their German relatives. The discord between the foreign secretary and the sovereign often undermined British policy in the middle of the nineteenth century and the situation was compounded by the fact that the Cabinet itself was seldom united. These factors have conspired to make British foreign policy much harder that usual to analyze.

It is clear, however, that the whole British approach to the European revolutions was ambivalent and selfish in the extreme. Great Britain did not welcome revolutionary change, either at home or on the continent, and did her best to frustrate the Chartists as well as their European counterparts. If, in the end, she had some small part to play in the achievement of Italian unity, it was less because she cared mush for that ideal than because she remained suspicious of the French and contemptuous of the Austrians.

Keith A.P. Sandiford


Bell, H.C.F. Lord Palmerston. (London, 1936).

Bourne, K. The Foreign Policy of Victorian England 18 30-1902 (Oxford, 1970).

Prest, J. Lord John Russell (London, 1972).

Seton-Watson, R.W. Britain in Europe, 1789-1914 (Cambridge, 1937).

Southgate, C. The Most English Minister: The Policies and Politics of Palmerston (London, 1966).

Sproxton, C. Palmerston and the Hungarian Revolution (Cambridge, 1919).

Temperley, H.W.V. & Penson, L.M. Foundations of British Foreign Policy 1792-1902 (Lon don, 1938).

Ward, A.W. & Gooch, G.P. The Cambridge History of British Foreign Policy, 1815-1866 (Cambridge, 1923).

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