Conservatism is a political philosophy which embodies a desire to prevent change. 19th Century conservatives believed in the power behind absolute monarchy, the aristocracy and the Church. The conservatives of Europe succeeded in creating an era between 1815 and 1914 without war. They did so through repression of dissension and thought.
Enlightenment Changed Europe
Conservative thought evolved between 1750 and 1850 as a response to the changes which had overtaken Europe. The Enlightenment took place between the 1650’s and 1789. It was a time when European intellectuals attempted to open the minds of their peers. Conservatives were threatened by the successful results of the 1789 French Revolution, a period of social and political change throughout France and Europe. They were also influenced by the drastic growth of industry as well as the quest for universal male suffrage.
Influence of Edmund Burke
Edmund Burke (1729 – 1797) influenced conservatism by his defense of constitutionality from governmental mismanagement. In his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), Burke spoke against the French Revolution. He believed the bourgeoisie goals would fail because their beliefs were too philosophical and abstract.
Influence of Von Metternich
Another leader in the conservative movement was Prince Klemens von Metternich of Austria (1773 – 1859). He led Central Europe for 33 and created the “Concept of Europe”. This was a system where he encouraged the great powers to fight the tide of progressive thought and change. The Congress of Vienna took place September 1814 – June 1815 and was called after the downfall of Napoleon. Austria, Russia, Prussia and Great Britain united to join in Metternich’s concept and prevent the revolutionary thoughts of the past 25 years from taking hold again.
Initial Triumph of Conservatism
The conservatives initially triumphed in a reactionary manner during the century following 1815. There were no major wars for 100 years. In France, the Bourbon Kings were restored in the form of Louis XVIII who ruled 1814 – 1824. Louis issued a new constitutional charter in 1814 establishing a constitutional monarchy. The monarchy was in place for 10 years until Charles X became leader of France.
In Central Europe, Prince Klemens von Metternich was responsible for the initial triumph of conservatism. When Germany wanted to unite, Metternich passed Carlsbad Decrees in September. In so doing, he dissolved nationalistic gymnastic clubs and censored free thought at the nation’s universities. The Carlsbad Decrees required government watchdogs in all higher education classrooms and allowed for the removal of teachers who promoted nationalistic thought. Additionally, these decrees ordered press censorship. They were successful at repressing liberal and nationalist ideas in Germany until 1848.
Response to Agitation and Rebellion
Under conservatism, signs of agitation were met with repression. The repression created grievances and the agitation became worse, leading to further repression. The breakdowns of conservatism in France began with the July Revolution of 1830. The French Republicans battled against King Charles X who had censored the press and reduced the electorate. This led to the formation of the Second French Republic.
Conservatives have been around in many forms since the introduction of modern government, but the conservative ideas and beliefs of the 19th Century were a far cry from the way we view modern conservative thought.