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What caused nineteenth-century European states to adopt constitutions Essay

For many students of history the word “constitution” conjures images of the American Revolution and the breakaway from Britain. Fundamental in this was a written document in which the former colonists laid down the basic rules by which they sought to live in the newly formed republic. However, the word “constitution” is defined as being ‘the fundamental principles on which a state is governed’, or the ‘physical make-up’ (Collins Pocket Dictionary) of something, for example twelve people “constitute” a jury.

By taking the first view, it would be impossible to claim that Britain was constitutional and yet I propose to show how the major power played a significant role in helping to shape a “constitutional” Europe during this period. In addition, I will look at the changes, which were undergone by France and the German Empire, particularly Prussia-the pre-eminent German state in European history.

Poggi tells us that ‘every state exists…in the presence of and in competition with other states like it’ (Off prints, p.1). In this sense, as in the question, “state” should be defined as being the territory of a sovereign political power rather than the body that it has come to seen as in modern society. The importance of this in relation to the question can be seen from Emsley’s assertion that ‘drawing up and agreeing frontiers was one thing, but deciding how states were to be governed internally was another and it is the evolution of internal governance which is the key here.

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I have already referred to America in relation to the drawing up of a written constitution. However, of far greater importance and relevance to the European situation was the French revolution of 1789 since France was an important continental power rather than being removed by several thousand sea miles like America! Once again Emsley draws our attention to this with his assertion that Napoleonic France provided an ‘examples of legislative institutions formulating constitutions’ (Block 1, Unit 2, p.19) and ensured that the ‘idea of written constitutions stipulating…the rights…of citizens remained potent in…Europe’ (Emsley; Block1, p.19)

Britain, as I stated earlier, was seen by many Europeans as the liberal model on which to base their own future states since ‘sovereignty lay…with parliament’ (Block1, p.20) and although her constitution was unwritten the rights of her people were assured by the tenets laid down in “Habeas Corpus”, “Magna Carta” and the common law. In addition, the British monarchy was, unlike many of its contemporaries, ‘limited and constitutional beyond all possibility of denial’ (Anderson, p.63). This contrasts starkly with Anderson’s assertion that, to the French the events of 1789 had ‘shattered…the myth of monarchy’, although in the immediate post-Napoleonic period the ‘a moderate constitutional monarchy was the form of government which divided Frenchman least’ (Anderson, p.65)

Both Anderson and Prince Metternich, in his communication to Tsar Alexander I, note that ‘the generation Waterloo saw…a remarkable proliferation of written constitutions and an approach…to representative institutions’ (Anderson, p.67) and that the ‘agitated classes are principally compose of wealthy men……rallying cry…since 1815 has been constitution.’ (Metternich, Document 2, p.5). These changes would, it was hoped see them enjoy similar benefits to Britain, the ‘only state which possesses an ancient national representation takes “reform” as its object.’ However, it is worth noting that many of the changes for which Britain was being praised had been born in the events of her own Civil War over 150 years earlier!

One of the major consequences of this pressure for political reform was the nineteenth century saw an “explosion” in terms of the voting franchise, with many of the old restrictions being modulated to ensure that a greater proportion of the male population at last had some degree of political power. It could also be argued, perhaps with justification, that this in turn brought about the pressure at the end of the century and into the early years of the next, for women’s suffrage especially as Finland, at that time little more than a Russian satellite, had shown the way forward in this regard.

It would be wrong to overlook the fact that ‘for the first time universities had become…centres of political radicalism’ and that the student world was pressing for ‘liberalism and radical political change.’ (Anderson, p.76) Indeed, Anderson ascribes that it was observed of Germany that ‘the German thrones have been undermined by the German universities’ by observers of the movement for change in that part of Europe.

Further pressure for change came from the ’emergence…of significant public opinion on political issues’ resulting from ‘a growth of newspapers and periodicals and…a gradual increase in the amount of political information available to the ordinary man’ (Anderson, p.77). This was certainly the case in both the German states and France and was directly responsible for the introduction of press censorship in order to curb the movement. An important point here is the fact that we are told that, in France at least, press popularity was judged largely to support the anti-government forces since it was these which saw the widest readership throughout the period. Once again, the actions of the European states were in sharp contract to Britain where the inability of the government to exert its influence over the press is noted by Anderson. However, in contrast with France, ‘no British government was brought down by a press campaign’ (Anderson, p.79) whilst France was ‘the possessor of the most irresponsible, factious and…venal press…the continent could boast. (Anderson, p.80)

Perhaps one of the most important factors in this pan-European move for change can be traced to the fact that, mid-century, Europe had suffered from ‘a series of…disastrous harvests’ (Anderson, p.82) that had brought about high food prices forcing the peasant classes towards a state of destitution as a result of the economic strain they were under. This in turn lead to a ‘marked growth of emigration to North America from western Germany’ (Anderson, p.83).

In Britain the movement for change, with the Chartist movement to the fore, sought to be integrated into the existing system of government whilst those of the continental powers sought to overthrow the existing regimes and, in France especially, had some notable successes. However, it should be noted that although the weak European governments were brought down by the events of 1848, bodies that could hardly be said to be representative of the populace replaced them. This is indicated by the fact that the new assemblies were made up almost exclusively of the professional classes, in effect the new nobility.

In addition to the growing influence of the press, it should also be noted that the nineteenth century was significant for the fact that Europe enjoyed one of its most peaceful periods in history with no conflicts between its major powers for over four decades. At a time when communications were improving rapidly with the development of the railways, an emerging press and industrialisation creating an economic strength hitherto unknown it is hardly surprising that the dissenting voice of the masses should finally begin to make itself heard as they finally found themselves in a position of relative strength.

The major consequence of this was that popular fears were used to justify what must be seen as the first arms race of the industrialised nations with Germany seeking to build a navy to rival that of the world’s greatest sea-power, Britain and the response that this met with. This in turn caused grievances at the increase in the tax burden of the nation and, in conjunction with the increasing influence of the bureaucratic machinery saw a massive rise in the number of public sector employees, particularly in the German states where the autocratic rule of the King was usurped by the state machinery. Furthermore, this explosion of nationalism may also be regarded as being directly responsible for the horrors of the Great War, which broke out early in the following century. Finally, it was also responsible for the birth of the major political leader, with Bismarck ruling Germany in the King’s name and using the Landtag as little more than his own personal puppet.

As Anderson observes Europe was ‘advancing towards a society which would be unprecedentedly fluid and directed towards maximum economic efficiency’, in which ‘a man’s status…would be…determined by his own abilities.’ (Anderson, p.117). Perhaps the most notable example of this could be argued to be the civil service in which the corruption and abuse of only a few years earlier was being replaced across the continent by a more professional body in which merit was taking the place of money and influence. In addition, there was a far greater emphasis being placed on education with minimum entry requirements introduced and employment becoming ‘immune to economic cycles’ (Block3, p.53) and the introduction of old age pensions for state employees. Once again, Germany lead the way in this area.

When looking back over the nineteenth century it is almost impossible to exaggerate just how important the period was in terms of shaping the future of Europe and the world at large. The major states were at last moving towards democracy rather than the rule of “Divine Right” which had been the mainstay of life for so long. The growth of industrial power saw countries casting covetous eyes at the British Empire and determined to increase their own spheres of influence. This is especially true of Germnay which looked to Africa as a source of expansion.

In addition, the masses at last were finding a political voice and able to exert some benign influence on how their futures were being shaped through their use of the voting franchise which increased throughout the century to the point where there was almost universal male suffrage by the end of the century. However, these changes did not come without a price and for many this came in the form of the introduction of a secret police force which answered to the state machine rather than to the. Once more Britain showed her strength of purpose by introducing a publicly acclaimed and accountable police service whose aim was the eradication of crime rather than any political purpose.

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