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Leopold I

Leopold I, King of the Belgians, fourth son of Francis, duke of Saxe-Coburg-Saafeld, was born on December 18, 1790. At age 18, he entered the military service of Russia. In 1813, he accepted from Alexander I the post of cavalry general and he fought in the major battles of 1813-14. After the Peace of Paris of May 30, 1814, he accompanied the tsar to England where he met Princess Charlotte, heiress-presumptive to the British throne. He married her in 1816 and remained in England after her death in childbirth in 1817. In the spring of 1830, he was offered the crown of the new Greek kingdom. Though personally inclined to accept, he refused the offer when the powers would not delineate Greece's frontiers prior to his acceptance. On June 4, 1831, the Belgian National Congress elected him King of the Belgians. Before accepting the offer, he successfully negotiated with the Conference of London for better terms (the Eighteen Articles) for his adopted country. The Belgian Congress accepted the changes, and Leopold entered Belgium and took the constitutional oath of office on July 21.

From the very beginning of his contacts with Belgium, Leopold had problems. He believed that the Belgian constitution left its sovereign too small a role, but having sworn to uphold its provisions, zealously and jealously guarded those prerogatives which it conferred upon him. Nevertheless, he sought to extend royal authority in areas in which the constitution had left ill defined or undefined. In March 1848, the French ambassador commented: "Her sovereign has always perfectly understood his role as a constitutional king who envisions royalty more philosophically than politically. He has always loyally and openly followed the march of public opinion and scrupulously respected the wishes of the parliament. She has no serious reason to desire a change in the constitution and nothing until now [March 17] suggest that she wants to do so."

Yet Leopold had a careful constitutional sense, he repulsed encroachment upon his acknowledged authority. For example: the constitution recognized the king's prerogative to choose his ministers. As a result Leopold played an active role in the appointment of each minister, rather than merely naming a premier whom he allowed to choose the remainder of the cabinet. On one occasion when a minister acted on a rather important matter without prior consultation with the king, he was reminded that he held his power from the fact of being the king's minister and therefore the king must be consulted prior to ministerial action. If a king could not act without a minister's signature, neither could a minister act without the king's previous knowledge and consent.

From 1831 to 1847 all ministries were unionist, that is they were made up of Catholics and Liberals. Leopold preferred this type of cabinet for it produced moderation and compromise. By 1846, the evolving political situation rendered this practice unfeasible. Leopold accepted the situation and thereafter appointed homogeneous Liberal or Catholic ministries depending upon who controlled the chamber of representatives.

Briefly after the February Revolution Leopold considered abdication, but his adopted country remained calm and he never publicized his thoughts on this matter. He supported the Liberal Party's initiatives on electoral reform, railway development, financial and tax reform. In all ways he supported his ministries and became proud of their calm administration of Belgium in the midst of the revolutionary storms which raged outside her borders. He was equally happy with their handling of a potentially volatile situation created by famine and massive unemployment. Leader, not of a party but of the nation, Leopold acclimated himself to the new exigencies of political life. Holding himself aloof from the domestic quarrels of his subjects, he devoted his attention to the proper functioning of a constitutional and parliamentary government.
John W. Rooney, Jr.


see Belgium

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© 1999, 2004 James Chastain.