Nation States in the Nineteenth Century - The Great Powers and the Holy Alliance

By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Feb 3, 2012

Nation-States in the Nineteenth Century: The Great Powers and the Holy Alliance

In the wake of the French Revolution, the more conservative among the Great Powers were united in their feeling that future popular uprisings should be suppressed. In September 1815, just after the Congress of Vienna, the three most conservative Great Powers—Austria, Prussia, and Russia—formed what became known as the Holy Alliance. Leaders of these three nations agreed to assist one another in stamping out any attempt to threaten what they saw as the peace and stability of the new European map of 1815. As conservative monarchies, they viewed popular rebellions and insurrections as serious threats to political stability. As it turned out, the three nations would frequently have to send troops to put down such rebellions. Their superior military strength led them to success in most cases, but ultimately the tide of history was against them.


Officially founded in 1804 although it had existed as a monarchy for some time before that, the Austrian Empire found itself threatened by the forces of nationalism. The empire was not culturally homogeneous, but instead was made of several ethnic groups, each of which fought for independence and self-rule in the nineteenth century.

Hungarians and Italians both rebelled against the empire in 1848 and 1849. In each case, the goal was independence from the empire. Austria went so far as to grant Hungary a separate constitution, but then revoked it. When Hungary retaliated by declaring independence, Austria called on its Russian ally for military aid and defeated Hungary in 1849.

The Austrian army forcibly put down the Italian uprising in July of 1848. It also intervened to destroy the newly created Roman Republic, formed when the pope was forced into exile for political reasons. France, which agreed with Austria on the undesirability of Italian unification, marched into Rome and occupied it until 1870.


Britain began the nineteenth century much farther along the road toward republicanism than any continental European nation; it already had a constitutional monarchy and a powerful legislative assembly. However, there was plenty of discontent among the working class, as social reforms to date had not improved factory conditions. The Industrial Revolution had certainly provided employment for many, but such employment was little better than industrial serfdom.

Although Ireland was represented in Parliament, the Catholic Irish (the vast majority of the population) were barred from office by a law that restricted membership in Parliament to Anglicans. During the 1820s, the Tory majority in Parliament passed two major bills repealing religious restrictions on eligibility for office. These bills were by no means popular with the balance of English- men, and in the elections of 1830 the Whigs gained the majority. They passed the Reform Act of 1832, which adjusted the number of seats per borough, giving the larger populations in urban boroughs more representatives. The Whigs also passed labor laws that barred women and children from working in the extremely dangerous and unhealthy conditions in Britain’s coal mines. The liberals hoped that this would enable children to attend school and women to take care of their families.

England still had laws that restricted suffrage to men who owned a certain amount of property. In the 1830s, only about ninety thousand of England’s 6 million adult men could vote. In 1867, the Conservative (formerly Tory) leadership in Parliament passed a reform bill that extended suffrage to most homeowners and renters. This immediately doubled the number of eligible voters.

In 1849, Prime Minister Robert Peel repealed the Corn Laws, which had maintained high import duties on grain. Benjamin Disraeli, prime minister in 1867 and from 1874 to 1880, saw a number of domestic reforms through Parliament. In 1875, the Public Health Act and the Artisans’ Dwelling Act helped urban workers by improving sanitation and providing public housing for those in need.

Late in the nineteenth century, the Whigs and Radicals combined forces and formed the Liberal party. Its leader was William Gladstone, who served as prime minister both before and after Disraeli’s second term in office. Gladstone oversaw these numerous important social reforms:

  • promotion in the military governed solely by merit, not social rank
  • reform of the civil service
  • introduction of compulsory free public education
  • introduction of the secret ballot
  • extension of voting rights to farm workers
  • second redistribution of seats in Parliament to make representation proportional
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