Belgium in 1848: a country in political and economic transition was faced with massive unemployment and widespread threat of starvation; however, padoxically, during the turbulent revolutionary year of 1848, Belgium was remarkably stable. The forces of social, political and economic upheaval which emanated from France had a minimal effect on the small constitutional monarchy. Much of the reason for this may be found in the country's history during 1847. Belgium industry had been overdeveloped for its population during the French and Dutch regimes. Once its overseas markets were gone and protectionists barriers erected by others it was bound to face a serious crisis. The Belgian linen industry which still produced its goods largely by hand-looms could not compete in price or for that matter in cooled with the inexpensive products produced by steam in Great Britain. Between 1843 and 1847 the exportation of Belgian linen fell by one-half. The country's other great industry, metallurgy, was likewise severely hit. Unemployment in the metal industry can only partly be ascribed to loss of markets caused by independence and tariff barriers. In part it was caused by technological developments which utilized fewer workers and produced better products. An over-production occurred which coupled with the loss of markets forced prices down; some companies failed altogether thus producing even greater unemployment. In 1847, Belgian metallurgical production was valued at fifty million francs. In 1849, its value was lass than thirty-one million and the crisis continued until 1854.
Contemporaneous with the economic crisis, a political crisis of major proportions took place. The kingdom's constitutional problems was characterized by an ever increasing intensification of rivalries between the two major political parties, the Catholics and the Liberals, a factor which brought an end to the Unionism which had been established in 1828. Since the Belgian Revolution of 1830 the country had been ruled by coalitions, the most important being those of the Catholic (conservative) and Liberal parties. The system of government by neutral Unionist ministries which had always found favor with King Leopold I, who had taken advantage of the ambiguous power situation and, in foreign affairs especially, asserted his authority well beyond his designated functions according to the constitution. This coalition government ended with a general congress of the Liberal Party meeting in Brussels on June 14, 1846. It was attended by 320 delegates from all parts of the country. The meeting drew up an Act of Federation and a platform of reforms with which to appeal to the electorate. The strategy was successful, for in June 1847, a large Liberal majority was returned to the chambers. The Liberal ministry committed to reform took office on August 12, 1847, King Leopold having appointed a homogeneous ministry headed by Charles Rogier, one of the "heroes" of the Belgian 1830 revolution. Both the clergy and the crown had supported the Catholics in the election and when the Liberals won, a residue of ill-will remained.
In the midst of growing unrest, in 1847, a number of pacifists, humanitarians, socialist, and Christian democrats had founded the Association Démocratique and sought the solution to the country's problems in the democratization of society and the fraternalization of all people. To Brussels, its new residents, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, attracted numbers of German communists, the Deutscher Arbeiterverein. Marx was also in contact with the English Chartists. All of this activity is best understood against the background of the pathetic plight of the workers and peasants in Flanders. The discontent fed on a host of economic problems which had been by-products of separation from the Dutch economy, and in Flanders there was widespread destitution.
The new ministry energetically set about attacking the poverty in Flanders with a number of programs to stimulate the economy, especially stepping up rail and canal construction. Also plans to expand the franchise were formulated and efforts made to provide more widespread employment. In relations with the crown, the Liberals successfully asserted themselves in a showdown over two key appointments and Leopold became less strident in his opposition.
By February of 1848 the new government had introduced major elements of its reform program and there was a sense that the country was set on a new course. The political impact of the revolution in France was immediate, in Belgium as elsewhere. Leopold had earlier warned of the dangers to the monarchy which he saw developing in France. Now that Louis-Philippe had fallen, he was initially depressed and pessimistic. On February 26, 1848, he emotionally offered his abdication to the cabinet. Despite earlier friction the Liberal ministers refused to contemplate his leaving. The decision of the crown and the cabinet was to stand together and try to lead the new state through an expected period of disorder and danger. Nonetheless Leopold sent shipments of precious personal goods to Britain for safekeeping.
At the same time the whereabouts of Louis Philippe was a subject of widespread rumor, one account affirming that he was headed for Brussels. While speculation ran rampant, Victor Considérant travelled about the country at the beginning of 1848 trying to establish workers' communes. From Liège, where he was lecturing on Fourier's phalansterian system, Victor Considerant wrote to Rogier that he must at once lead Belgium into a republican form of government. This should be done in a matter of hours before crowds formed and far more radical changes occurred. In fact, Fourierism was strong and Brussels was a center for international socialism at the moment. Karl Marx himself was active in the Belgian capital. To Rogier, who was also minister of the interior, it was clear that the Liberal agenda had to be accelerated to ensure as much employment as possible.
Thus, the revolution in Paris of February 24 seemed to be a signal for a general uprising. It did momentarily produce a stupor and disarray in government circles and a run on the banks. Public funds fell by fifty percent. Yet Rogier remained calm. He was determined to take no alarmist measures and limited himself to requesting mayors throughout the kingdom to activate the civic guard. Several brochures appeared calling for universal manhood suffrage; the Association Démocratique sought to raise funds for the relief of the victims of Paris; and minor demonstrations occurred among some students at Louvain.
In addition to the danger of internal unrest the government worried about the prospect of a French invasion. With Louis Philippe gone, the new Provisional Government in Paris was regarded with particular apprehension and Belgian leaders agonized over what they saw as an obvious threat to Belgian security. While trying to gain fresh guarantees for their independence from Britain, Prussia and Austria (as well as France), they agonized over the question of recognition for the new French government, finally taking a stance amounting to practical recognition but a shade less than formal recognition. The diplomatic correspondence was feverish as Belgian leaders simply did not trust Lamartine's reassurances.
Internally a number of threatening problems concerned Rogier and his colleagues. The country's real independence only dated from 1839, less than ten years. Separatist elements were unhappy with the boundary arrangements finally accepted by 1839, largely arranged by diplomats in London. Most of the population of Marienbourg still regarded themselves as French. In the Belgian provinces of Luxembourg many felt they should be part of the Grand Duchy and others believed Belgium's boundaries should include the Grand Duchy. Further, the boundary with Holland seemed especially capricious. In addition to these identity problems, there were conflicts of opinion stemming from a long tradition of municipal liberties in many cities as well as long-standing antagonisms based on Walloon Fleming cultural differences. All in all, there was a potential that the new country could not survive a period of acute pressure and unrest.
At word of revolution in Paris, radical groups in Belgium proliferated and a host of radical newspapers suddenly appeared. Most called for a revolution following the French example, with the ousting of Leopold and foundation of a republic. In general these appeals proved ineffective but they were causes of concern for the government. The minister of war, General Chazal, gave assurances that the frontiers were secure and troops were moved from one domestic site to another, depending on local unrest. The greatest danger, as it turned out, was the consequence of a curtailment of credit and ready funds. Work stoppages became widespread and bands of unemployed workers, in France as well as Belgium, posed an immediate threat. The government responded by accelerating work projects and also keeping close surveillance on bands of the unemployed. While such measures proved adequate within Belgium, in France a different menace developed.
Over the years Paris had attracted large numbers of foreign workers. When the revolution occurred, these were among the first dismissed. Many were Belgians and the Provisional Government advised them to go home. They entered Belgium in small bands, many led by republican agitators. At first these groups posed no serious threat but from late March through June they were more militant and many bore arms. The local gendarmerie was reinforced as much of the frontier was in almost continual alert. Quiévra in was an especially sensitive area.
The most serious episode involving returning workers occurred late in March. A band, rumored at over six thousand, calling itself the Belgian Legion, was armed and had a military organization. At Lille it received its final organization and weapons. French officials implicated were Marrast, Caussidière, Ledru-Rollin and Delescluze. The Legion entered Belgium in two groups. The first entered by rail at Quiévrain on March 26. They were met by Belgian troops who disbanded them with little difficulty. The second group entered Belgium on March 29 at Risquons-Tout, headed for Brussels by way of Mouseron. Two Belgian companies of two hundren men repulsed the invaders who fled in scattered groups. Thus the invasion by the Belgian Legion was frustrated, and, while more bands came across the border, none were as large or posed such a potential threat. The Legion's goal had been proclamation of a republic in Belgium through a combination of invasion, burning and pillaging. The government braced itself for more such invasions (which never came) but now felt more secure and viewed its neighbor to the south with renewed apprehension. Of course, the next few months were rife with rumors of new legions being formed and sporadic incidents still occurred. As it turned out, the high water mark in terms of real danger had passed. With every passing week Leopold's confidence was enhanced and he spoke of himself as the one essentially responsible for Belgium's st ability amongst the sea of European upheavals. This created a smoke screen which almost completely covered the evidence that at the time of crisis he had in fact offered to abdicate.
After the February revolution in France, revolution and revolt appeared in much of western and central Europe, Austria and Prussia being the most important centers of insurrection. Belgium clung to a precarious basic stability but feverishly worked to maintain reasonable relations with the new French government and to get a binding British guarantee for her independence. These efforts were successful. An interesting bonus for her position was the decision of the Netherland's ruler, William II, to follow Belgian policies in the midst of the European upheaval. This was a surprising major thaw in what had been frigid relations between the Belgians and the Dutch. By the end of March Bavaria and Prussia had also given assurances of support if Belgium's independence were gravely in danger. To these diplomatic successes it must be added that persistent efforts to acquire financial assistance from Britain failed.
April and May were months of speculation and apprehension for the Rogier government. Lamertine's professions of ignorance and regret over the Legion's activities were distrusted. A complex correspondence over trade with Luxembourg, a member of Zollverein, was fruitless. Failure also came of efforts to negotiate a customs union with the Netherlands. However, commerce began to revive and government revenues even increased over the comparable figures for 1847.
For Belgium the June Days in Paris and General Cavaignac's coming to power was seen as a stroke of good fortune. Cavaignac had been a refugee in Belgium and was educated there. His father, like Chazal's, had been a Conventionnel. Domestically, elections on June 13 strengthened the Liberals, and Catholic representation was reduced to a group of that party's most distinguished spokesmen. They became a responsible opposition as men of integrity led both parties. The Catholics leaders now frankly admitted that the election of Liberals to power the previous year had saved Belgium. In retrospect, however, another important factor was the nature of the Belgian constitution. The system already provided much of what the French opposition wanted in early 1848.
By mid-summer the major focus of problems for France concerned unrest and revolt in northern Italy. This was a further guarantee of security for Belgium. Tensions relaxed and debates in the Chamber returned to the familiar discussions of budget problems and how to do more for the indigent in Flanders. At year's end the election of Prince Louis Napoleon to the presidency of the Second French Republic spurred apprehensions anew among Belgian leaders, but Belgium had survived the unrest and potential dangers from the fall-out of the February Revolution.
Satisfied with the liberty they had acquired in 1830, and with their progress under the sympathetic rule of a sovereign of their own choice, the Belgian people had maintained confidence in their future. An attempted invasion by a band of French revolutionaries had been easily dispersed by a body of Belgian troops at Risquons-Tout near Mouscron.
The crises had undoubtedly eased when the Rogier ministry set to work to redeem its pledges by carrying out a scheme of electoral and parliamentary reform. The qualification for the franchise was reduced to the minimum of twenty florins in direct taxes made applicable to parliamentary, provincial and communal elections. The chambers also voted money for relief and the government undertook a series of massive public works projects in canal, road, and railroad construction. A good harvest further calmed spirits in Flanders. The electorate had responded on June 13, 1848, by returning 85 Liberal candidates and 23 Catholics. It was a resounding victory in which Belgium showed Europe that she was prepared to resolve her problems at the ballot box rather than in the streets. Leopold was proud of his country, and much of Europe agreed that the experiment of 1830 had proven correct.
Brison D. Gooch and John W. Rooney, Jr.
Discailles,Ernest Charles Rogier (1800-1885) Bruxelles: Lebègue, 1893 1895.
Gooch, Brison Belgium and the February Revolution The Hague: Nijhoff, 1963.
Hymans, Paul Frère-Orban Bruxelles: Lebègue, 1905-1910, 2 vols.
Pirenne, Henri Histoire de Belgique Bruxelles: Renaissance du Livre, 1900-1932, 4 vols.
Riddler, Alfred de (CITE>La crise de la neutralité belge de 1848: Le dossier diplomatique Brussels: Kiessling, 1928, 2 vols.
jgc revised this file (http://www.cats.ohiou.edu/~chastain/ac/belgium.htm) on September 9,2004.
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