[Fairly thoroughly revised 10/09 and 10/2013]

The Age of Progress?

For each century we've talked about in this course, I've chosen a particular theme to emphasize.  I presented the 17th century to you as an age of particularly rapid and troubling changes.  The 18th century I described (as do most textbooks) as the “Age of Reason” or the “Age of Enlightenment.”   For the next century we deal with, the 19th century, it's pretty easy to come up with a general theme.  The 19th century is almost always labeled “The Age of Progress.”

In some ways, this is an excellent name for the 19th century.  Certainly in science and technology it was in fact an age of progress.  This was the age of....

Bessemer (steel)
Roentgen (x-rays)
Baeklund (plastics)
Eastman (the camera)
Edison (all sorts of electrical things)
Dunlop (pneumatic tires)
Diesel (the diesel engine)
Bell (the telephone)
Marconi (wireless communication)
Pasteur (progress against germ-born illness)
Lister (antiseptic surgery)

Clearly, the 19th century was an age of progress in science and technology.  It seemed also like European society was making progress of a different sort as well.  The 19th century was an age of relative peace and prosperity for most of the countries of Europe.

Now how did this happen?  How did European society make so much progress in the 19th century?  It seems to me that this progress came about, in part at least, as a result of a combination of liberal and conservative ideas.

During the first part of the 19th century (well, at least after the Napoleonic wars were over in 1815), conservative ideas had the upper hand in Europe.  Particularly important were the conservative principles enunciated at the Congress of Vienna in 1815.

The Congress of Vienna was a series of meetings held to decide what would be done to tidy up after the Napoleonic wars.  It involved representatives of the Quadruple Alliance nations (Britain, Prussia, Russia, and Austria), the countries that had combined to defeat Napoleon.

The task facing these representatives was enormous.  Napoleon had totally redrawn the map of Europe, and he had introduced radical changes wherever his troops had had control.  How would the Congress of Vienna restore order?

Well, before getting down to the details of the solution, they agreed to certain general principles, conservative principles designed to create lasting peace in Europe.

These principles included:

1.  The return to legitimate authority
2.  The balance of power
3.  The concert of Europe

Who would rule the various areas of Europe?  As much as possible, the Congress of Vienna returned control to the traditional ruling houses of Europe (the Bourbons, the Habsburgs, etc.).

Also, in order to prevent any single country from attempting to dominate all of Europe (as France had done under Napoleon), the Congress of Vienna insisted on a balance of power.  The settlement was designed to insure that there would be a number of strong countries, with no one country so strong that it could dominate.  On the continent, Russia, Austria, and Prussia would all have considerable strength.  But to ensure balance, even defeated France was left with a considerable amount of power: necessary, so the Congress thought, to the balance of power.

Finally, the representatives of the Congress of Vienna agreed that they would not act unilaterally in addressing European problems.  Instead, they would consult with one another, agree on a solution, and act “in concert” to resolve the situation.

[In class I read some selections from Klemens von Metternich, an Austrian representative to the Congress of Vienna, and a great example of the conservative point of view.]

Now, although these were good principles, by themselves they could not have ensured peace in Europe.  What made these principles work is that they had the support of the strongest power in continental Europe, Russia.

The Russian Czar, Alexander I, gave his full support to the Congress of Vienna settlement. Further, Alexander proposed that the nations of Europe adopt a set of higher principles in their relationships to one another.  Alexander proposed what he called The Holy Alliance, an agreement of the major leaders of Europe to abide by Christian principles in their dealings with one another.

Many European rulers refused to have anything to do with the alliance.   However, Austria, Prussia, and (of course) Alexander's own Russia signed on.

Did this Holy Alliance make any difference?  It's hard to say: but it is certain that Alexander's commitment to use his military forces for the general good of Europe rather than for Russian conquest was a key factor in European stability.

Alexander's successor and brother, Nicholas I (1825-1855) was even more willing to use Russian troops to maintain the status quo in Europe.  Whenever the “legitimate authorities” of Europe were challenged, Nicholas could be counted on to send in Russian troops to make sure no revolution was successful.

But why would anyone want a revolution?  Hadn't Europe learned anything from the French Revolution?  Well, maybe.  But there were still many people in Europe who wanted to see major political changes.  In particular, what is called liberalism was an important force for change.

Now liberals in the 19th century were very different from the people we call liberals in American politics today.  They were nothing like Ted Kennedy, Barbara Boxer, or Barack Obama.

Probably the easiest way to understand 19th century liberals is to associate them with liberty. Basically, what 19th century liberals wanted was, not more government (which is what today's so-called liberals generally want), but more freedom.

19th century liberals wanted, first of all, political freedom.  They wanted to see established representative governments, governments like that of Great Britain.   In addition, 19th century Liberals believed that political freedom would increase with the victory of what they called nationalism.

Nationalism is an important movement, not just in the 19th century, but in the 20th century as well. Essentially, nationalists believe that people with a common culture (especially, people who share a common language) belong together in the same country.  On the one hand, Nationalists wanted to see some of the smaller European political units united.  They wanted a unified Italy and a unified Germany.  On the other hand, Nationalists wanted to see the great multi-ethnic empires broken up into separate nations.  This obviously meant challenging the Congress of Vienna settlement.  But no matter: representative government wasn't thought possible without the relative homogeneity of the nation-state.

In addition to political freedom, the liberals of the 19th century wanted personal freedom.  They wanted guarantees of freedom of speech, freedom of the press, etc.

Finally, 19th century liberals wanted economic freedom.  They were great champions of what they called laissez-faire economics.   They wanted government to quit interfering with business.  In particular, they called for the elimination of tariffs and other restrictions on trade.

In many respects, 19th century liberals are far closer to today's conservatives than they are to the people we call liberals in American politics today.  This makes things confusing for students, so be careful as you study this material!

In any case, the liberals were not going to get their way on any of these issues in the first part of the 19th century.  In 1830 and again in 1848, liberals in many places  rose up in attempts to create nations and to establish representative governments.  But these revolutions (the Revolutions of 1830 and the Revolutions of 1848) failed everywhere except in France.  The key factor: Russian troops, sent in to quell the revolutions and to keep the “legitimate authorities” in place.  And as long as Russia was willing to play policeman of Europe, it didn't seem likely liberals or nationalists would get very far.

But Russia stopped playing policeman as a result of the Crimean War.

The Crimean War (1854-1856) came about as a result of Russian attempts to police the southeastern corner of Europe, an area dominated by the Ottoman Turkish Empire.  The Turks had held this region for four centuries, and, at one time, their empire had been one of the strongest around.  By the 19th century, however, the Turkish empire was showing signs of real instability.  It was called (often enough) “the sick man of Europe.”  The empire was sick: and eventually it was going to die.  And what would happen then?  Well, the Russian were afraid that this would be a disaster for the thousands of Orthodox Christians living within the empire. Consider past Moslem conduct toward the Christians, genocide was a very real possibility.  And so in 1854, the Russians began to move into the Black Sea region, preparing (if necessary) to take over themselves if that was the only way to protect their Orthodox Christian brothers and sisters.

Russia's move into the area alarmed the British and the French, however.  They were afraid Russian expansion into Turkish territory would upset the balance of power.  So they moved into the Black Sea themselves, trying to prevent any Russian annexation of territory.  The result was the first major European war in forty years: The Crimean War.

There are lots of fascinating stories connected to this war.  Tennyson’s famous “Charge of the Light Brigade” is based on a Crimean War incident.  Also, this is the war that inspired Florence Nightingale to put together her team of nurses [Another fascinating story I don't have time to tell in class.  See this short biography of Florence Nightingale.  Yet another mathematician!] .  But for this course, the main thing to remember is that Russia lost, and that, as a result, the Russian attitude changed.

Russia was, of course, angry with France and Britain.  But they were also angry with their “friends,” people Russia had helped again and again, but who refused to lift a finger to help the Russians.  One Austrian ambassador commented on his nation's refusal to aid Russia, “The world will be astonished at our ingratitude.”  And, truly, the ingratitude of Russian friends was astonishing.   In any case, Russian attitude now changed, and instead of playing policeman of Europe, the Russians determined to let their so-called friends fend for themselves.

This gave the Liberals and the Nationalists their chance: the dominance of conservative ideas was, temporarily at least, over.  The Conservatives had brought some measure of progress to Europe: forty years with no major wars is quite an achievement in Europe!  Peace, stability, and prosperity were not quite enough, however, and now it was time for progress of a different sort.

Now, actually, Liberals and Nationalists had won a few victories even in the first half of the 19th century.  Greece, for instance, had broken away from Turkey and become an independent nation in the 1820's.

In France, also, liberals had made some progress.  In 1830, for instance, the French replaced their Bourbon monarch (Charles X) with the far more liberal Louis Philippe.  Louis Philippe is often called the “citizen king” or “the bourgeois monarch,” both very appropriate names.  LP worked with an elected legislature.  He supported basic rights (freedom of speech, etc.).  Best of all from the liberal point of view, he moved to laissez-faire economics.

For a while, LP’s policies seemed successful.  But an economic downturn (and LP’s backing away from his commitment to free speech) created problems, and, in 1848, the French held another revolution, deposing LP.  In place of the monarchy, the French established another republic: “The Second Republic,” as the French call it.  The president of this new republic: Louis Napoleon, a relative of the great Napoleon Bonaparte.

The new republic got off to a good start.  Louis Napoleon made reforms in the education system and in the French bureaucracy.   He became a very popular figure in France. And then he had a brilliant idea.  “Yes, I have done much for you,” he told the French people, “but I can do still more.  Give me more power, and I’ll make France truly great once again.”  In 1852, Louis Napoleon proposed making France an empire once again.  And the French people overwhelmingly supported him!  The Second Republic came to an end, and France now embarked on its Second Empire.

But notice.  During the great French Revolution (1789-1815), the French had moved from rule by a Bourbon monarch to more limited monarchy to a republic and then to an empire.  The result had been a disaster: the reign of terror, civil war, thousands of deaths.  Between 1830 and 1852, the French make similar transitions.  They again move from rule by a Bourbon monarch to more limited monarchy to a republic and then to an empire.  But this time, there is very little bloodshed. Certainly, the fact that even the French could make relatively peaceful political transitions is evidence of a certain kind of progress in the 19th century!

Other countries in Europe also saw what might be considered progress.  One example is Italy.

For much of European history, Italy had been the political, cultural, economic, and spiritual leader of Europe.  However, by 1600, Italian greatness was a thing of the past, and Italy was playing a rather insignificant role in European affairs.  Many Italians believed that the key to restoring Italian greatness was simply unity: the creation of an Italian nation.

It bothered Nationalists that Italy was not a nation like Britain or France, that, instead, Bourbons ruled southern Italy, Hapsburgs much of northern Italy, and the Pope controlled a good chunk of central Italy.    In 1848, they tried to create an Italian nation: but the attempt failed.  At last, however, the work of two great Italian patriots, Cavour and Garibaldi, led to an Italian nation.

Cavour was the prime minister for Victor Emmanuel, the King of Piedmont-Sardinia, an independent monarchy in NW Italy.   Cavour’s plan was to create a nation in north Italy by driving the Hapsburgs out and expanding Victor Emmanuel dominions.  To do this, he figured he would need French and British help.  Consequently, he persuaded Victor Emmanuel to send Piedmont troops to aid the French and the British in the Crimean War!

The strategy paid off.  In the 1850's, Cavour was able to secure French help in driving the Hapsburgs out of Lombardy and Venetia.  And then an amazing thing happened.  All over northern Italy, the Italians rose up in support of Victor Emmanuel, and soon Cavour had managed to engineer the creation of a north Italian nation with Victor Emmanuel as its king.

Meanwhile, in southern Italy, Garibaldi had created a resistance movement that was creating real problems for the Bourbon rulers.  His red-shirted patriots eventually succeeded in driving the Bourbons out.  Garibaldi then showed himself a true patriot.  Although he could easily have become king of southern Italy, Garibaldi believed his people would be better off if there were one united Italian nation.  Consequently, he negotiated with Cavour to add southern Italy to Victor Emmanuel expanding kingdom.

The Pope maintained his control of central Italy for a short time, but caught between Cavour’s forces in the north and Garibaldi’s in the south, he eventually had to cede secular power to Victor Emmanuel, and by 1870, all of Italy was united.  Further, Victor Emmanuel agreed to work with an elected legislature and to guarantee his people specific rights like freedom of speech and freedom of the press.  It looked in 1870 that Italy, too, was well along the path to real progress: certainly the liberals would have thought so.
At roughly the same time as the Italian nation was born, Germany too became a nation–and through a somewhat similar process.  They key figure here was Otto Von Bismarck, chancellor of Prussia.  Bismarck’s role was much like that of Cavour in Italy.  But unlike Cavour, Bismarck was no liberal.  He had little use for elected legislatures or guarantees of rights.  Instead, Bismarck believed progress would come through “blood and iron.”

Bismarck engineered wars with Denmark and Austria, wars which made Prussia the dominant power in the German-speaking areas of Europe.  But Bismarck’s most important war was a war against France.  Realizing that France was a major obstacle to German unity, Bismarck decided to provoke a war.  He didn't have to work very hard: the French were eager for war.

When the war (the Franco-Prussian War) broke out in 1870, enthusiastic Frenchmen rushed into the streets of Paris shouting “Viva la guerre!”–“Long live the war!”

They weren’t shouting for long.  Prussian artillery was much superior both in accuracy and range to that of the French, and, in next to no time, Prussian troops had pushed all the way to Paris.

Now Bismarck didn't make much in the way of territorial demands.  It was enough to take the Alsace-Lorraine region.  But what happened is that, all of a sudden, the Prussians were exceedingly popular in the German-speaking areas of Europe.  Everyone loves a winner, and the Prussians had now taken out the heavy-weight champions of the world.  So when Bismarck proposed the creation of a German nation under Prussian leadership: well, everyone was ready to jump on the bandwagon.  And so Prussia’s king (William/Wilhelm) got a new title: Kaiser of Germany.

And once Germany was united, it was time for the rest of the world to look out.  In short order, Germany became the world’s leader in science and technology.  They became leaders in...

The manufacture of arms

At the same time, they were rapidly catching Britain as a leading industrial power.   And for the average German, life was good.  Wages went up.  Diet improved.  Everything looked good: real progress, so it seemed.

But there was one problem.  While Bismarck gave Germany one liberal dream, the dream of a German nation, Bismarck was no liberal.  Neither was he a conservative.  Bismarck was a man of no fixed principles, a master of what's called realpolitik--doing whatever it takes to ensure success. 

Here's realpolitik at work.  Bismarck wanted support from the liberals, but he didn't really want to give them what they most wanted: guarantees of personal and political freedom.  Instead, he tried to get them on his side by attacking the people they didn't like.  And who didn't 19th century liberals like?  Why, Catholics.  Bismarck started what he called the "Kulturkampf," the struggle for culture, the Kulturkampf was an attempt to undermine the influence of the Catholic church.  Bismarck later decided he wanted Catholic support and called off the Kulturkampf--but, not before a lot of damage was done.

Bismarck simply didn't believe in the kind of personal freedoms (e.g., freedom of religion), that we take for granted.  Neither did he have much faith in representive government.  "The great questions of the day will not be decided by speeeches and parliamentary decisions, but by blood and iron."   The Germany Bismarck created had an elected legislature (the Landtag): but it had no real power.  Real power was in the hands of the Kaiser and his advisors.

Likewise, Bismarck had no use for liberal laissez faire economic ideas. While not in ideology a socialist, he adopted many socialist ideas to gain himself (and his Kaiser) support among the working class.  Bismarck's programs were the first major steps toward the welfare-state and the welfare state mentality.

In view of Germany’s economic prosperity, this hardly seemed important.  But it turned out to be a very unfortunate thing that, in the areas of personal, political, and economic freedom, the Germans did not make as much progress as they might have in the 19th century.

Now the story of European progress would not be complete without talking at least a little bit about what was going on in Britain during the 19th century.

At the beginning of the 19th century, the British already had much of what liberals in other countries could only dream of.  They already had an elected legislative body.  They already had guarantees of fundamental rights.  In addition, Britain had the strongest economy in the world. They were the first nation to go through the “industrial revolution,” and, as a result, they had a huge economic advantage over every other nation in the world.  In addition, Britain controlled the largest empire the world had ever seen, an empire “on which the sun never set.”

What more could one want?


The industrial revolution had brought with it all sorts of problems:

–long hours, unsafe working conditions
–family break-up with women and children working long hours along with the men
–crime and disease as a result of urbanization
–very high rates of prostitution and illegitimacy
–low wages (those who produced enormous wealth saw little of it themselves)

British liberals had an answer to all these problems.  The solution?  Laissez-faire economics!

Eliminate restrictions on trade.  Cut back taxes (particularly tariffs on imports and exports).  And what will happen?  The economy will grow.  The pie will be bigger, and everyone can get a bigger piece.

Amazingly enough, this solution worked: or it seemed to.  Britain moved to a laissez-faire economy during the course of the 19th century, and the pie did get bigger.  Iron production tripled in one thirty-year period.  Exports increased 500 per cent as Britain moved to laissez-faire policies.  And, what’s more, even working class people shared in the larger pie.  Real wages for working class people doubled!

And at the same time, factories became safer. The use of child labor decreased.  Slavery was eliminated in the empire.  Crime rates plummeted.   Prostitution became rarer.  Illegitimacy rates plummeted.

All as a result of laissez-faire economics!

Well, not quite.  Other factors played an important role.

The 19th century was a time of religious revival in Britain.  The missionary movement got its start in the 19th century, as did the Sunday school movement.  John Henry Newman
(the guy Newman Centers are named for) helped bring revival among the well-educated protestants with what was called the Oxford movement.  Then--after his conversion to Catholicism-- John Henry Newman  helped revive Roman Catholicism (see his Apologia pro Vita Sua).  At the same time, the Salvation Army brought revival to the slums [see William Booth's In Darkest England and the Way Out]. All this was very likely key to the kinds of progress made in England.

But there was another important factor–the leadership provided by Queen Victoria.  Victoria ruled from 1837 to 1901 (!), and these years in English history are often referred to as the Victorian Era.  Unfortunately, students only hear the word “Victorian” as a derogatory adjective, and rarely do they have any idea of how positive an influence Victoria was on her country.

Now it is true that the Victorians did on occasion go a bit far.  Their laudable concern for modesty, for instance, was taken to a ridiculous extreme.   Not showing one’s legs in public might be understandable,  but to go beyond this and put skirts on pianos so one wouldn’t see the piano’s legs–well, that’s going a bit far.

But there was another side to Victorian morality.  “Victorian morality” was concerned with a lot more than sex.  It involved treating others well, being concerned, especially, with those who could not protect themselves.  The Victorians aimed at creating  a society that would produce what the utilitarian philosophers called “the greatest good for the greatest number,” and, in many ways, they succeeded.

It is a bit hard to figure out whether or not the morality of the Victorian period is conservative or liberal.  It derives in large part from traditional Christian morality, and the emphasis on the Bible and on Church tradition is (in general terms) conservative.  In his reaffirmation of Christian tradition, a figure like John Henry Neumann is conservative.  But the "greatest good for the greatest number" recipe is a formula from liberal thinkers (e.g., Bentham and Mill) who aren't so grounded in tradition.

Likewise in the political sphere, Victoria's policies ended up shifting between the Tory (conservative) leader Benjamin Disraeli and the Liberal leader, William Gladstone.

The British recipe for progress?  Laissez-faire economics, religious revival, and ethical standards and political policies that drew from both liberal and conservative positions. The formula worked well in the 19th century.  Who knows?  It might work today as well.