The Conservative Narrative of Yesteryear: Observations of a Monday Morning Quarterback

Europe in 1848
Europe in 1848
History is a great reality check. Sometimes narratives unravel overnight. Sometimes they seem prophetic. 1848 was a difficult year for prophets of all stripes. In February, the turbulent French had given King Louis Philippe the hook and proclaimed a republic. Rebellion was sweeping Europe. In England, the conservative Tories were shaking in their boots, wondering when the revolutionary tide would sweep across the channel. Like good conservatives in all ages, they stood firm for the preservation of the old order against the day’s “liberal” cause, nationalism. Seen with the hindsight of a century and a half, some of their comments were amusing, some prophetic, and some downright delusional. Here are some examples from the December 1848 issue of the British Tory “Quarterly Review,” published as revolutionary chaos was still sweeping the continent.

We have already observed that the form of nationalism, which reposes on the basis of a common language, is, from the nature of that basis, aggressive in its tendencies.

Not much of a stretch there. They were referring to German nationalism.

…the supremacy of race is not the principle on which the Austrian empire has been built up, or can be maintained.

The Austrian Empire collapsed into pieces determined on the basis of nationality 70 years later. As for Italy, scene of some of the year’s most spectacular revolutionary eruptions, the editors were not sanguine about its population’s readiness for self-rule, and, like our own conservatives in the cold war, suggested that “anti-Communist” dictators were needed to save it from the forces of darkness:

No men have less political sagacity than the modern Italians, and it is the singular mixture of indolence and vanity of which the national character is compounded that has ever kept them in ignorance of political science, and which, on the downfall of their absolute governments, has exposed them to the seduction of French democracy, and plunged them into excesses that disgrace the name of Cristendom… The Socialist and Communistic party (my emphasis) – in other words, the Italian “liberals” – dreaded, above all things, the quiet establishment of a limited monarchy.

Referring to the murder of one of the Pope’s ministers, the staunchly Protestant editors of the Quarterly plead for the temporal government of the Pope!

With him fell the temporal government of the Pope – the last hope of social order.


On the possibility of intervention in Italy by Britain’s ally, Russia, to “restore order”:

What if Russia, who has hitherto been a watchful though inactive observer of these transactions, should, under such circumstances, offer herself as an ally… to the King of Naples? Is our Foreign Secretary prepared to advise his sovereign to unite in such an event, her fleet to that of France, and aid the spoliation of our ally?

Apparently so. Five years later the Russian ally had become the enemy in the Crimean War. Moving on to the question of Italian unity:

We are well aware of the cry for an Italy, one and indivisible, but that vision is older than the Treaties of Vienna themselves, and does not seem, even after all the efforts and all the successes of the Italian revolutionists, to be one jot more rational or more feasible than it originally was.

In fact, a dozen years later, the final unification of Italy was all but complete, although the capital could not be moved to Rome until 1871.

…the great powers who guaranteed the Treaty of Westphalia (ending the 30 Years War in 1648) had thereby indirectly declared the political unity of Germany to be inconsistent with the general interests of Europe… It was thus necessary… to avoid establishing in the heart of Germany, and in the person of any one of its members (German states) a State whose power of aggression would be out of all proportion to the means of resistance which the combined action of the other States could present.

That certainly would have sounded prophetic in 1940.

The fall of the throne of the Bourbons in France was, in a great degree, the penalty which they paid for having assisted the British colonists in North America, in violation of the law of nations, to emancipate themselves from the mother country.

I wonder when they finally stopped bitching about it?

It is to be hoped, however, that after the pursuit of German Unity shall have been abandoned, it will have served, like the pursuit of the Philosopher’s Stone, to produce indirect results of more value to the German people, than any which could have been directly achieved by the success of the experiments in the Frankfort Laboratory.

German unification, like Italian unification, was a reality less than a quarter of a century later. In retrospect, it seems they were inevitable. Yet the writers for the Quarterly were not stupid men. They were the best and the brightest that conservative thought had to offer in their day. The moral of the story? Perhaps that we are all fallible, and should not be too quick to accept popular certainties. Reality has a bad habit of intruding and making the certainties of yesterday the mockeries of tomorrow.

In a later post, we will consider whether the “liberals” of 1848 fared any better.

Author: Helian

I am Doug Drake, and I live in Maryland, not far from Washington, DC. I am a graduate of West Point, and I hold a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the University of Wisconsin. My blog reflects my enduring fascination with human nature and human morality.

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