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The Unification of Italy 1831-1870

ITALY HAD long been divided into small states. All their governments, except that of the Kingdom of Sardinia, were unpopular and continued to rule largely because they were supported by Austria. Italians had a special reason for wanting freedom and unification. They could remember that once the Roman Empire had ruled the world and that later Italy had been the home of free republics. For three hundred years Italy had been invaded and plundered again and again. The last of the invaders was Austria and before the Italians could form one nation they would have to free themselves from the Austrians.

The leaders of the unification movement in Italy were all liberals — that is, they wanted a constitutional government controlled by the middle classes rather than a democracy controlled by the common people. Among them was Giuseppe Mazzini. He had been a member of a secret society, the Carbonari, which attempted to win freedom by revolution in 1820 and 1830. Each time the revolt was put down by Austrian troops. In 1831, Mazzini openly organized a society called Young Italy. Through it he was able to reach the great mass of Italians and he urged them to rise up and throw off their native and foreign kings. All kings were bad, he said; Italy should unite and establish a republic. During the Revolutions of 1848, Mazzini and the famous revolutionary fighter Giuseppe Garibaldi set up the Roman Republic in the Papal States, but French forces sent to protect the Pope overthrew the new republic. The truth was that Mazzini could stir the people with his speeches and writings, but he had no practical plan for achieving unification.


Far more practical was Count Camillo Cavour, who became prime minister under Victor Emmanuel, King of Sardinia, in 1852. Earlier, through a newspaper he published, Cavour had been able to persuade the king to grant the people a liberal constitution. Italian patriots turned more and more to the example of the Kingdom of Sardinia. It had a liberal government, an Italian king who was not under the influence of Austria and a prime minister who had a practical plan for winning independence and the unification of Italy.


Cavour had no faith in revolution. His plan was simply to drive Austria out of Italy and then unite all the Italian states under Victor Emmanuel, who would serve as king of all Italy. To win the confidence of liberals, he reorganized the Sardinian government so that it was similar to that of England. The king and his cabinet were responsible to a parliament, which was elected by middle-class people of property. Cavour persuaded the government to pass laws to improve business and he saw to it that everyone enjoyed freedom of speech, press and religion. For seven years he also did everything possible to build up the army so that it could take the field against Austria.

Cavour did not intend to fight Austria alone. He expected to have the help of France and had gone out of his way to win the favour of Napoleon III. The two leaders met secretly in 1858. Napoleon agreed to help Sardinia drive out the Austrians from Lombardy and Venetia. In return, Sardinia agreed to give France the province of Savoy and the city of Nice, both of which were more French than Italian. Cavour secretly hoped that victory over Austria would prompt other Italian states to revolt and join in the liberal movement to unify Italy. Napoleon, on the other hand, had secret hopes of his own. He hoped that once the Austrians were driven out, Italy could once again be brought under French influence.

Since Napoleon had agreed to aid Sardinia only if she were attacked, Cavour schemed to provoke war with Austria. He had the king announce in a speech to parliament that Sardinia could not “disregard the cries of grief that arise to us from so many parts of Italy.” This was like saying that Sardinia would go to the defense of all Italian states. Cavour massed the Sardinian army on the Austrian border, as though he were about to launch an attack. The emperor of Austria warned that if the Sardinian army was not pulled back within three days, the Austrians would attack — which was exactly what Cavour wanted.


On June 4, 1859, French and Sardinian forces defeated Austrian troops in the battle of Magenta. Twenty days later they won a second victory at Solferino, near the border of Venetia, but the Austrians then withdrew in good order to four powerful fortresses guarding the entrance to Venetia. Napoleon was not at all pleased when he saw that it would take months to win the war. Even more disturbing, the people of Modena, Parma and Tuscany were so encouraged by the victories over Austria that they had revolted and sent their leaders into exile. Napoleon finally realized that more victories over Austria would only serve to unite Italy and he did not want a strong, united Italy on France’s border. Suddenly, before the war was more than half won, he made peace with Austria. It was agreed that Austria was to keep Venetia and that Lombardy would become part of the Kingdom of Sardinia.

As a result of this war‚ Sardinia won the province of Lombardy and was joined by the Duchies of Parma, Modena and Tuscany, all of which voted to become part of Sardinia. This represented Cavour’s first big step toward a united Italy.

In southern Italy, the people had been so encouraged that they broke out in rebellion against their king, Francis II. Garibaldi came out of retirement and organized an army of revolutionary adventurers called the army of “One Thousand.”

Loading his army on two small steamers, he sailed from Genoa to fight Francis II and his army of 124,000 troops. In a few weeks he had conquered Sicily, where the people and the soldiers were happy to join in the rebellion against their unpopular king. Garibaldi then crossed over to the mainland of southern Italy and entered Naples, where he was greeted as a liberator.


From the north, King Victor Emmanuel led his Sardinian army against the Papal States. Avoiding the city of Rome, which was guarded by French soldiers, he continued south and Garibaldi turned over southern Italy to him. In this way Cavour was able to join the northern and southern parts of Italy. On March 17, 1861, the parliament of greater Sardinia established the kingdom of Italy and Victor Emmanuel was declared to be “by the grace of God and the will of the nation, King of Italy.”

Cavour died at the age of fifty-one, leaving the unification of Italy almost complete. When Bismarck of Prussia launched his war of German unification against Austria in 1866, Italy attacked Austria from the south. The war ended in a Prussian victory and Austria was forced to return the province of Venetia to Italy. Then, in 1870, during the Franco-Prussian War, France withdrew her troops from Rome. The Italians quickly took possession of the city and declared it to be the capital of the new Kingdom of Italy.

The angry pope insisted that Italy had no right to take the Papal States or the city of Rome. He refused to agree to any peace terms. He excommunicated the officials of the government and ordered all Catholics not to vote or to hold office in the new government. To make clear to the world that the Church was being wrongfully treated, the pope called himself a prisoner of the Italian government.

Mazzini, Cavour and Garibaldi, the three founders of the Kingdom of Italy were liberals, but the government they helped establish was not democratic. The fact was that the Italians had had no experience with democracy. The great mass of people could neither read nor write and were not ready to take an interest in government affairs. There was much confusion among the inexperienced office holders, bribery and graft became common. Furthermore, the right to vote was limited to the middle and upper class, so that only about 600,000 persons out of a total population of 20.000.000 could vote.

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