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Democracy and Nationalism 1815-1848

WHILE THE Industrial Revolution was transforming England and creating a new kind of society, the continent of Europe seemed to be going backward instead of forward. After Napoleon’s defeat in 1815, the monarchs and aristocrats brought back the principle of “legitimacy.” Legitimacy meant that only kings, aristocrats and the established church had the right to rule and that the people must obey them without question.

The American and French revolutions had been fought to overthrow the principle of legitimacy. The idea behind these revolutions was that governments were created by the people. As the Declaration of Independence put it, all men were born equal and had the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”– and governments were set up to help them secure these rights. Legitimacy and the ideas of the revolutions were completely opposed to each other.

At first it looked as though legitimacy would win out, at least in Europe. In 1814, the four nations that had defeated Napoleon — Austria, Russia, Prussia and Britain — met in a peace conference called the Congress of Vienna. They gave the throne of France to Louis XVIII. They changed the map of Europe to produce a balance of power that is, groupings of states that were roughly equal to each other in strength. They saw to it that Germany and Italy were divided and did not become great and united nations.

To carry out their agreements and keep down revolution, Austria, Russia, Prussia and Britain formed what was known as the Quadruple Alliance. Later, in 1818, they became allied with France and formed the Quintuple Alliance. The British, however, did not support all the policies of the alliance; they believed that every country had the right to change its form of government. The result was that Austria, Russia and Prussia began to act on their own, forming what was called the Holy Alliance. It was the Holy Alliance, under the leadership of Prince Metternich of Austria, that became the strongest supporter of legitimacy.

There were mighty forces at work in the world, forces that would prove too strong for the Holy Alliance. The growth of industrialism was putting more and more power and wealth into the hands of the middle class — the rising business and professional men. They wanted to take part in the government; they wanted laws that would protect their property and open up further opportunities for wealth and power. so the middle class became the class that brought about change.

Out of the Opposition to the Holy Alliance and legitimacy came two great movements. One was democracy, rule by the majority of the people, with equal rights for all. The other movement was nationalism, which stated that the nation as a whole was more important than any of its individuals, groups or sections. Democracy and nationalism grew side by side in the early nineteenth century. They both emphasized the ability of people to govern themselves and led them to form independent states and to make large states from several small ones.

The effect of the two movements was felt not only in Europe, but in the New World as well. In fact, the success of the American experiment in self-government had a great effect on the development of democracy and nationalism in Europe. The experience of the United States from the Revolution through the Civil War helped shape history for years to come.

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