Political Parties and Struggles During the European Revolutions
Political Parties and Struggles
Politically, the nineteenth century can be defined as the age of “-isms.” These were political movements, ways of thinking that crossed national borders. They were not formal political parties but political philosophies that could be found in several European nation-states.
Most influential Europeans espoused one of two political philosophies; today we would call these the “mainstream” political trends of the era. These were conservatism and liberalism—words that, in nineteenth-century Europe, meant something quite different from their contemporary American definitions.
Conservatives can be defined by their distrust of the people. They did not accept Enlightenment ideas about equality; rather, they believed that a strong executive—preferably a hereditary monarch—should run the government, with some participation by the wealthiest citizens, especially the hereditary nobles. The conservatives opposed freedom of the press, believing that the monarch was the best judge of what should and should not be published. Merchants, aristocrats, and clergy, especially high-ranking clergy, were usually conservative.
The conservatives did not want to return to the days of autocracy or despotism along the lines of Louis XIV. Instead, their ideal was an absolute but benevolent monarch, one who used his or her powers for the good of the people and who worked with other monarchs to maintain a balance of power among nations.
The most important difference between nineteenth-century liberals and conservatives was that liberals looked ahead toward an age of representative government, while conservatives looked backward to an age of absolute monarchy.
Liberals disapproved of absolute monarchy because history had shown them that too many monarchs were arbitrary, tyrannical, weak, or incompetent. They were, however, willing to accept a hereditary constitutional monarchy. An ideal liberal government would have a written constitution, perhaps a constitutional monarch, an elected legislative assembly, and separation among the government’s branches. This last was important because it would prevent the executive from becoming a tyrant; the legislative and/or judicial branches would step in to protect the people.
The liberals supported individual rights such as the right to private property, freedom of speech, and freedom of the press. They even supported the right to vote, although they believed it should be limited to men who owned property; property owners were generally better-educated and thus, according to the liberal view, deserving of more rights and privileges.
Neither conservatives nor liberals imagined a place in the political system for the lower classes. Although the workers, farmers, and common people comprised the majority of the population of Europe, they lacked what both conservatives and liberals believed to be the main qualifications for participation in government: high social position, wealth, property, and education. Conservatives believed that a benevolent monarch could be trusted to take proper care of the nation’s workers because it was his or her duty as the servant of the state; liberals urged the legislative assemblies of Europe to specific action on workers’ rights, such as regulation of factories.
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