World History 2 109 - 7.4.3 Conservatism

While liberalism and nationalism represented the continuation of Enlightenment ideals of natural rights and liberty, the rise of conservatism was a reaction against the ideological changes and increased freedoms associated with the revolutions of the eighteenth century. Realizing they could not return to the prerevolutionary era, proponents of conservatism instead sought to suppress the forces of nationalism and liberalism as a means of reining in newfound principles of democracy and republicanism. Based on the belief that sudden change in the form of revolution was illegitimate, conservatism advocated submitting to government authority and allowing religious doctrine to play a central role in maintaining social order and stability. Conservative theorists like Edmund Burke, moreover, asserted that individual rights were secondary to the rights of the community, and that the only acceptable way to generate political change was slowly and gradually rather than through revolution.

The central goal of conservative leaders in early nineteenth-century Europe, like the Austrian foreign minister Klemens von Metternich, was to prevent future revolutions and maintain a favorable balance of power, an equilibrium that prevents one nation from dominating others. In response to the Napoleonic Wars, during which Napoléon sought to create a Grand Empire that expanded French power over much of the European continent at the beginning of the nineteenth century, Metternich and his allies sought to contain France and restore order by establishing conservative political regimes.

In the wake of Napoléon’s defeat, Metternich and diplomats from Prussia, Russia, and Great Britain agreed to form a united front to maintain European peace and stability. To solidify their peace agreement, members of this Quadruple Alliance met at the Congress of Vienna in 1814–1815. Although it was in theory a collective effort, Metternich dominated the proceedings. He asserted that the only way to maintain stability in Europe was to restore the legitimacy of overthrown monarchs, who would reinforce traditional beliefs and institutions. By exercising a firm hand, moreover, monarchs would demand loyalty from their subjects and reverse the democratic principles of the social contract and individual liberty.

The powers at Vienna also hoped that restoring monarchy would maintain Europe’s political equilibrium and balance of power (Figure 7.17). To ensure that no single country could conquer others, they agreed to divide military and political power more equitably among themselves. For example, Russia, Prussia, and Austria all had claims to Polish territory. To ensure an equitable distribution of power, Prussia and Austria were permitted to keep some of their Polish lands, but others, such as the Duchy of Warsaw, were ceded to Russian control. Austria and Prussia were then compensated for the loss of their Polish lands with control of additional territories in the German and Italian states. France, moreover, was required to return lands it had acquired under Napoléon before the restoration of the French monarchy in 1814.

Several men are gathered in a richly decorated room filled with paintings, sculptures, and furniture. The men are all dressed in military style uniforms.
Figure 7.17 This 1819 image by French artist Jean-Baptiste Isabey shows the delegates at the Congress of Vienna, held five years before. Commissioned by the French delegate Charles Maurice de Talleyrand, it depicts the moment when the Duke of Wellington (far left, in profile), arrived to take over from Robert Stuart, Viscount Castlereagh, the head of the British delegation (seated at center with legs crossed). (credit: “The Congress of Vienna” by Unknown/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Although Vienna’s peace settlement of 1815 was intended to restrain the liberalism and nationalism of the revolutionary era, conservative leaders like Metternich underestimated the extent of popular support for these ideologies, which had become irreversible in places like the United States and France. Greek supporters of national sovereignty, for example, were guided by revolutionary principles to seek independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1821, and they gained it in 1830. Nevertheless, after 1815, conservatism continued to gain favor among those who supported the leadership and privilege of hereditary monarchs, organized religion, and the aristocracy.

In Their Own Words

Metternich on Revolution and Radical Change

In this excerpt from Klemens von Metternich’s political creed, taken from a collection of writings published after his death, he outlines the dangers of revolutionary upheaval and the influence of those who advocate radical change and revolution. As you read, consider the ways in which Metternich’s critique demonstrates his allegiance to a conservative political philosophy.

We consider it a fundamental truth that for every evil there is a remedy and that a knowledge of the true nature of the one must lead to the discovery of the other. . . . There is hardly anyone who is not subject to the influence of passions or constrained by prejudices and there are many whom evil leads astray in an even more dangerous way because of its flattering and often brilliant exterior . . . .

It is principally the middle classes of society who have been infected by this moral gangrene and it is only amongst them that are found the true, prime movers of this theory.

There is no way that it can ever take hold amongst the great mass of the people, who would not be able to accept it. This class, the genuine people, has of necessity to devote itself to labour which is too continual and too positive to allow it to throw its weight behind a vague cause born of abstract theories and ambition. The people know that the best thing for them is to be able to count on tomorrow, for it is not until tomorrow that they will be paid for the toil and the cares of the previous day. The laws which guarantee a reasonable protection for the prime asset which is the safety of individuals and their families and of property are in their essence simple. The people fear change, which harms industry and brings in its wake a constant stream of new burdens for them . . .

Men from the upper classes of society who throw themselves into the tide of revolution are either those who disguise their ambition or perverse, lost souls in the widest meaning of these words. This being so, their revolutionary career is normally short! They are the first victims of political reform and the role of the small number of them who survive is generally that of sycophants despised by their inferiors, upstarts to the great offices of state.

—Klemens von Metternich, Political Creed

  • What is the “evil” to which Metternich refers, and why does he associate it specifically with the middle class?
  • To whom does “the great mass of people” refer? Why does Metternich assert that the masses would not accept the evil he associates with the middle class?
  • How does Metternich’s vision in this excerpt align with the principles of conservatism?

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 2: from 1400 textbook by Openstax