The History of Conservatism, Liberalism & Libertarianism (Part 6 – Conservatism, Liberalism & Nationalism in Mainland Europe)

Unlike Great Britain or the United States, mainland European countries faced an array of unique issues, giving the ideas of conservatism and liberalism their own unique colors and political ramifications, similar in some ways to that of the island just off their northwest coast or the fledgling thirteen states across the Atlantic, but also very different in many other ways.

But first, make sure you’re caught up:

We’ll come back to both the United States and Great Britain in the upcoming posts, but a neglected Europe certainly deserves a bit of our attention. This is especially true because of the unique way that movements there will ultimately have global impact.

What Was Going on in Europe?

Sadly, many of our teachers overlooked (or breezed through) European politics from the French Revolution to World War I. So a solid historical review of the narrative seems in order.

As Medieval Europe ebbed into the early modern period, many nations across Europe experienced a great deal of centralization of power. Certainly this was true of France, Spain and England, major players on the world stage for centuries. Germany and Italy would take longer to unify, and those people groups of modern Eastern Europe were, by and large, under the control of various other powers, such as Russia, Austria or the Ottoman Turks.

In England, as we’ve already explored, the autocratic power of the monarch had long since been whittled away as constitutionalism – the idea that a system of law supersedes the king and government – became more secure. Quite the opposite in France. Various measures used by the Cardinal Richelieu in the early 1600s help to launch King Louis XIV, nicknamed the “Sun King,” into a position of absolute power, a position envied by King Charles I in England (who was executed by Parliament in 1649, as discussed in part 3).

Maximilien Robespierre (1754-1793)

Two kings later in France, young King Louis XVI faced the guillotine as the line of monarchs was (temporarily) ended during the French Revolution, which began in 1789. It is important to note that the French Revolution did, in fact, have roots in Enlightenment thought, at least parts of it. What started as both a manifestation of the aggrieved (and some nearly starving) poor and middle class of Paris and the more liberal rhetoric of lawyers like Maximilien Robespierre (who at first called for free press and free speech and other liberal goals) soon became an all-out bloodbath. The atrocities of the French Revolution and the thousands murdered cannot be attributed simply to a sort of “mob-mentality,” though certainly the terror it induced was a self-feeding fire. But there was a deeper worldview behind the revolution that sought the entire remaking of society and even of human nature.1 What that remaking was to be fell to the interpretation of whoever was in power. Even Robespierre soon abandoned his liberal beginnings and called for an all-out slaughter of anyone who did not show ready and active support of the “new society” that the French Revolutionaries sought to create. In place of a subject whose existence was to meet the demands of the king was now a citoyen (citizen) whose existence was to promote the “virtue” of the new civic society. Individual dignity or independence had little or no place in either system.

I dedicate more description to the French Revolution, as this will be important to understand both now and when we get to Progressivism.

In the wake of the revolution, Napoleon Bonaparte was able to work his way to the top (as consul) after military campaigns in Italy and Egypt. He would eventually declare himself emperor of the French Empire that he would rapidly expand across Europe, nearly reaching Moscow in 1812 before suffering a serious defeat in his trans-European conquests.

The Congress of Vienna by August Friedrich Andreas

Napoleon’s dominance would radically change Europe, and when European leaders met in 1814 at what has become called the Congress of Vienna, they would seek to undo much of his changes. But there was only so much they could do. Napoleon’s codes of law had replaced many of the old legal codes handed down from medieval Europe, land arrangements within the many Germanic kingdoms (there were around 300) had been rearranged, and dynasties had been overturned.

The Congress of Vienna was more of a series of informal meetings between diplomats and leaders of the five major powers of Europe than it was a formal assembly. The powers? Great Britain, France, Prussia, Austria and Russia. During these meetings, these leaders embraced distinctly conservative goals: the restoration of old monarchies overthrown by Napoleon, the return to old borders (with some changes), and the restoration of the old order in other various respects. To be sure, there were innovations, such as agreements to open up rivers for universal use, but by and large, the Vienna meetings were notably conservative.

And this takes us to our topical discussion.

Europe after the Congress of Vienna, 1815 (Photo credit to

Conservatism in Mainland Europe

Stick with me for a moment as we revisit England. Recall that Edmund Burke (discussed in part 3), Whig and the Father of Modern Conservatism, had aptly predicted the terrors of the French Revolution. His fear of and resistance to any such radical revolutions sparking like events in England was the predictable result of his conservative views.

In mainland Europe, conservative was defined in part by the desire to “conserve” the old order and avoid such drastic revolutions. The difference here was, however, that in England, constitutionalism and natural law traditions had been foundational in England for so long that retention and expansion of these concepts was fundamentally a part of British conservatism. In mainland Europe, conservatives were primarily concerned with the retention of the monarchical dynasties and the church structure and authority. Both of these institutions, they believed, were divinely sanctified by God.

Joseph de Maistre (1753-1821)

Joseph de Maistre from Piedmont-Sardinia (a kingdom in the north part of what is today Italy), a key continental conservative thinker, saw the French Revolution as God’s judgment for their embrace of Enlightenment ideas. As more of an anti-Enlightenment ideologue, Maistre argued that because governments and the church are both divinely ordained, neither can nor need be justified through rationalization or logic; people must be submissive and not question either. On a practical level, he and many other conservatives called for the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy in France—the family of the executed King Louis XVI.

This conservative bent dominated the Congress of Vienna, as I already mentioned. Austrian foreign minister Klemens von Metternich, a major diplomatic player until 18482, also played a pivotal role in the restoration of old dynasties. In addition to the restoration of the Bourbon family to the throne of France, he and the diplomats in Vienna ensured that the Hapsburgs remained on the throne of Austria, and that France remained a major player in the European theater, despite war between Austria and France virtually from 1792 to 1814.

Klemens von Metternich (1773-1859)

This latter point was fundamental to conservatism, as well, because it helped maintain order and stability. Conservatives would do what they could to ensure balance between the five major powers of Europe in hopes of avowing conflict and the potential revolutions that could be sparked in such conflicts. To this end, they also established multiple alliances, such as the “Holy Alliance” between Austria, Prussia and Russia, or the Quadruple Alliance between those three and Great Britain (and later France).3 At times, alliance members would provide financial and military support to suppress uprisings within member countries’ borders.

Liberalism & Nationalism in Mainland Europe

Liberals in Europe would, like mainland conservatives to their English counterparts, share some traits and be distinct in others. By and large, the liberals of mainland Europe supported movements and even revolutions that held within them the promise of greater individual liberty, freer range of motion in commerce, greater freedom of religion, more limited government (and expanded democracy), et cetera. All ideas espoused by the liberal social, political and economic theorists discussed in part 4. In the German kingdoms, as discussions ramped up about drawing the 30 member states (the 300 prior to the Congress of Vienna consolidated them into about 30) into a closer union,  liberals were pushing for a German constitution that would guarantee these principles. Likewise, in France, where political leadership changed semi-frequently, liberals pushed for more power in their representatives (as opposed to the king or emperor, when they had one) and stronger guarantees of individual rights.

But notable here is that many liberals began to latch on to notions of nationalism. Nationalism can mean many different things in many different contexts, but there are two of pertinence in this discussion. The first is a sort of tribalism—an active support or favoring of those among one’s cultural, racial and/or language-based heritage.  A second sort of nationalism was based not on tangible differences, but based on an invented nation-state. For example, the inhabitants across the Italian boot spoke numerous languages and shared little by way of a common culture. The Piedmontese were different than the Milanese who were different than the Sicilians. But a nationalist in this context, as was a very prolific Giuseppe Mazzini, promoted “Italian Nationalism”—that is, that people should embrace the national identity of “Italian” (something that had not existed prior) rather than Milanese or Venetian. Even in France, where numerous languages can be found across the nation, was the sense that everyone ought to think of themselves as “French” first, and whatever their local culture and language is second.

Many liberals promoted both types of nationalism.

In addition to the nationalism already mentioned, in Germany, liberals would actively promote union on college campuses.4

Why? A modern observer would probably be quick to warn that the centralizing nature of nationalism—especially of the invented kind—would risk more vast abuses of power. That is, the exact opposite of what they sought. But without the benefit of hindsight, such changes offered the opportunity for new constitutions favorable to their goals.

Frédéric Bastiat

Claude Frédéric Bastiat (1801-1850)

We should certainly mention one other key liberal figure in the continental tradition: Frédéric Bastiat. While Bastiat was not known for major innovations, his writings helped to popularize economic liberalism: the advocacy for private property, free markets and limited government. An astute observer of trends in his native France, Bastiat understood the growing demand for popular redistribution of wealth and property as the ideas of socialism were becoming more popular. One of his most-well-known books, The Law (full text linked), exposed this reality by claiming that when the majority used the power of the state to acquire and redistribute wealth and property, this was sanctioned theft, or what Bastiat called “legal plunder.” Furthermore, he argued, free market voluntary exchange between individuals was the best way to preserve economic harmony. Among other works was Bastiat’s What is Seen and What is Not Seenin which he makes the point that for any government intervention, it is important to understand and look for the consequences–what is foregone in the implementation of some policy. This would form a cornerstone of works by later economists like Henry Hazlitt and Thomas Sowell.5  Today, many libertarians see Bastiat’s writings as essential readings in classical liberalism and libertarianism.

1848: Year of Revolution 

I will not comment on this extensively, but it must be mentioned that 1848 was a profound year in Europe. Of the major powers, France, Austria and Prussia, along with most other smaller nations, experienced revolution (or attempted revolution). Who led these? Interestingly enough, they were often two-fold. Liberals orchestrated movements to seek their own goals, often pushing for national unification (as in Italy and Germany) en route to those goals. But another major movement mentioned above had also taken root in the early 1800s in mainland Europe: socialism, rooted deeply in the writings of people like Karl Marx. Many of these socialists also had their agendas behind many of the 1848 revolutions. Although the title of this series indicates its emphasis on conservatism, liberalism and libertarianism, socialism (in its many facets) would have perhaps more widespread impact in the 20th century than any other ideology during that century (until the 1980s). So we’ll most certainly have more to say about that in the future and in this series.

1848 would prove a turning point in European history. Though most revolutions failed, the second half of the 19th century would see major shifts in ideological alliances. Nationalism would be taken up by many conservatives. Socialism would be taken up by many who called themselves liberals.

And the world would feel the consequences.


1 This  idea that human nature can be “reformed” or even returned to a state of natural goodness, was, indeed, a part of many of the Enlightenment writers, as the full scope of the Enlightenment covered a great many areas of thought. For example, Enlightenment writer Jean Jacques Rousseau actually rejected many of the rationalistic Enlightenment ideas, embracing a more “emotion-driven” understanding of humanity and society. He would inspire both the leaders of the French Revolution and many in the Romantic movement of the early 1800s (which, ironically, appealed to many conservatives!).

2 Some historians call 1814-1848 the “Age of Metternich” in Western Europe. He would go on to coordinate major diplomatic events in the German Confederacy and Europe more broadly.

3 Those who remember their history well can probably see the beginning of a series of fateful alliance systems that will contribute to World War I. Participants in various alliances, however, would change over the course of the century.

4 In in 1848, the Frankfurt Parliament would propose a plan for a unified Germany, but this would ultimately fail. This plan, had it been enacted, would have unified Germany under a very liberal constitution. When Germany was finally unified in the 1860s, it was done so under Otto von Bismarck, who was far from a Lockean liberal.

I recommend books by both Hazlitt and Sowell on the Recommended Books page