Despite their obvious military and political importance to the revolutions of 1848-1849, the national guards of the preunita ry states have been largely ignored. The existing literature consists primarily of patriotic encomia dedicated to the exploits of local battalions against the Austrians and French during various campaigns. Although somewhat useful as military history, this approach has consistently overlooked the other important functions carried out by such amateur militias and the insights that they can provide into the revolutions themselves. Vital questions - such as who was allowed to join the guard, what were the e lite's expectations of the guard, how did the guard impinge on the political process, and how did the guard operate as a peacekeeping force - simply remain unasked and unanswered for most of the peninsula.
One exception to this rule is the Papal regime, where recent investigations have revealed the significance of the guard as more than a simple cog in the nationalist bandwagon that eventually led to Italian unity. The national guard in the Papal States found its roots in the Civic Guard which w as created in July of 1847. Not only did the guard assure the advocates of reform an instrument of coercion, but its reestablishment provoked Austria into acts of intimidation that would pave the path to war the following spring. Despite these far reaching consequences, however, the campaign for the guard by the country's elites was waged entirely in terms of crime prevention and the growing fear of disorder in the streets. Some moderate reformers may have desired its institution as a guarantee of the c oncessions promised by Pius against the reactionary elements of the Curia, which still held considerable power. There remained, however, pressing local problems that more than legitimized the campaign for the Civic Guard. Both urban and rural crime seemed to be on the increase, and elites perceived as well a growing threat of ideology aimed at the masses, specifically communist propaganda flowing in from Tuscany. Consequently Pius IX was bombarded with complaints and petitions that described in the most vivid and heart rending language the deterioration of public security in the provinces. This image was enhanced by the belief that the police, as the protectors of the old order, were now automatically enemies of reform and had given a free rein to criminals and brigands so as to discredit the new liberal tendencies of the government. The traditional political role of the police thus became another argument for the Civic Guard. In the end, events in Rome forced Pius' hand as the crowds and demonstrati ons became more frequent and threatening in the summer of 1847. Under these circumstances, the institution of the Civic Guard became reasonable if not imperative. If Pius could restrict recruitment to the upper and middle classes, its sanction would consolidate much of his popularity among the moderates, while augmenting the forces of order against the popular demonstrations. The keystone of this approach lay in limiting entrance to the guard to "reliable" subjects, a distinction that Pius determined by profession. While landowners, businessmen, professionals, clerks, and mastercraftsmen were required, along with their sons, to join the guard, servants, day laborers, braccianti, and anyone with a job "of a sordid and vile nature" were "exempt," a term that was intended to mean excluded. This professional exclusionary clauses remained in effect and the Civic Guard remained essentially an institution of the "reliable" classes.
The Civic Guard, as originally envisioned, would only h elp police the country for a few short months before war with Austria undercut its peacekeeping functions. As the war commenced various battalions marched off to the front to engage the enemy and this often left sadly depleted cohorts to maintain order at home. This division of duties, as well as the gradual "democratization" of the guard in Rome through the use of paid substitutes helped pave the way for radical politicians, who would eventually bring about the republic. Unfortunately almost nothing i s known about the guard under the republic. This example, however, should suggest the extremely complex and interesting history of the national guards in Italy, a history that still clearly remains to be written.
Holly Johnston revised this file (h ttp://www.cats.ohiou.edu/~chastain/ip/natguarp.htm) on March 11, 1997.
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© 1997 James Chastain.