In This Chapter
• The Revolutions of 1848
• Napoleon rises again
• Italy gets it together
• Bismarck unites the Germans
• Making Russia not quite so backward
The years beginning with 1848 saw more turmoil and change across Europe than perhaps any 50-year stretch in centuries. Though the year 1848 would become synonymous with revolution, it was the events and conditions leading up to 1848 that caused those in control to lose nearly everything during that fateful year.
Industrialization was spreading from one European state to the next. Liberals, nationalists, and socialists all wanted change. The conservatives, led by Metternich, resisted it for as long as they could.
The British Parliament, controlled by the conservative aristocrats, had the power to deal with liberal challenges. The conservative government began with changes to the longstanding Corn Laws, which regulated the import of foreign grain. While at war with France, British grain and bread prices rose because they couldn’t import grain. After the fall of Napoleon (see Chapter 15), imported grain brought down bread prices. In a selfish move, the aristocrats pushed through changes that allowed grain imports only after domestic prices reached a certain level, causing higher bread prices for the common Brit but more income for those who owned land. The law prompted protests, which Parliament controlled with the Six Acts restricting assemblies and the press.
The 1820s proved less oppressive but the real change came in 1832. The Reform Bill of 1832 did away with “rotten boroughs” or voting districts in which few or no voters actually lived. Some of the rotten boroughs were tracts of land where peasants once lived. After enclosure, many of the peasants left the land. It was not uncommon for rotten boroughs to be home mostly to sheep. Nevertheless, these boroughs still sent two representatives to Parliament. In the meantime, boroughs in heavily populated areas also sent two representatives. By redoing the boroughs, the Reform Bill increased the number of voters by about 50 percent. Middle-class citizens finally had a real vote in Parliament. The less conservative Parliament went on to repeal the Corn laws in 1846, but only after the Irish potato crops failed, and the Ten Hours act in 1847 (see Chapter 16). These liberal ideas were having a harder time taking hold on the continent, though.
Would You Believe?
The radicals in England at this time were the Chartists, who called for universal suffrage. Despite hundreds of thousands of signatures on petitions and a few protests, Parliament rejected the Chartists' pleas.