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CHAPTER 5 - William Edward Hartpole Lecky, Democracy and Liberty, vol. 1 
Democracy and Liberty, edited and with an Introduction by William Murchison, 2 vols. (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1981). Vol. 1.
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The effects of democracy on the liberty of the world are not only to be traced in the changes that are passing over the governments and constitutions of the different nations, and in the wide fields of religious, intellectual, social, and industrial life; they are also powerfully felt in international arrangements, and especially in the growth of a doctrine of nationalities as the basis of a new right of nations, which has been one of the most conspicuous features of nineteenth-century history. It is essentially different from the old doctrine of the divine right of kings, which regarded great tracts of the world as the rightful dominion of particular dynasties; and also from the doctrine of the balance of power, which prevailed at the Peace of Westphalia, and governed most of the capital changes in Europe during the two succeeding centuries. According to the great politicians and political philosophers of the seventeenth or eighteenth century, the maintenance of European stability is the supreme end of international politics. The first object in every rearrangement of territory should be to make it impossible for one great Power to absorb or dominate over the others; and, by multiplying what are called buffer States, and by many artificial divisions and apportionments of territory, they endeavoured to diminish the danger of collisions, or at least to limit as much as possible their number and their scope. Territorial changes, in their view, should be regarded mainly with a view to these objects, and justified or condemned in proportion as they attained them. The more modern doctrine is, that every people, or large section of a nation, has an absolute and indefeasible right to the form of government it pleases, and that every imposition upon it of another rule is essentially illegitimate.
It is not here necessary to trace in much detail the genesis of this view. It was prominent among the original doctrines of the French Revolution, but it was not long consistently maintained. Popular votes taken under the pressure of an occupying army, and largely accompanied by banishments, proscriptions, and coups d'état, had, it is true, some place in the first conquests of the Revolution. The Convention proclaimed in the loftiest language its determination to respect the inalienable right of every people to choose its own form of government,1 and the Republic made much use of the doctrine of the rights of nationalities to kindle revolts; but it also made those revolts powerful instruments for effecting its own territorial aggrandisement, and it was speedily transformed into a military despotism the most formidable, the most aggressive, the most insatiably ambitious the modern world has ever seen. The strength and tenacity of the sentiment of nationality were, indeed, seldom more forcibly displayed than in the struggle of Spain and of the Tyrol against the Emperor who professed to be the armed representative of the French Revolution.
After Waterloo the rights of nationalities suffered a long eclipse. The Congress of Vienna and the arrangements of the peace divided countries and populations among the victorious Powers, with the most absolute disregard for national antecedents and national wishes. The old republic of Genoa was handed over to Piedmont, which it detested. The still older republic of Venice became a province of Austria. Saxony was divided, and a great part annexed to Prussia. Poland was again partitioned. Catholic Belgium was united with Protestant Holland, and the Catholic electorates on the Rhine with Protestant Prussia. The doctrine of the divine right of kings, and a formal repudiation of the right of nations to choose their forms of government, were the basis of the new ‘Holy Alliance,’ of the resolutions of the Congress of Laybach, and of the whole Policy of Metternich, and in accordance with these principles an Austrian army put down insurrection in Naples, and a French army in Spain.
There were, however, signs that the doctrine of nationalities was not extinct, and there were movements in this direction which excited hopes that were not fully justified by the event. The enthusiasm evoked by the emancipation of Greece, by the revolt of the Spanish colonies in America, and by the foreign policy of Canning, marks the turn of the stream, and the French Revolution of 1830 kindled a democratic and a nationalist movement in many countries much like that which accompanied the Revolution of 1848. There were insurrections or agitations in many of the States of Italy, in Germany, Denmark, Poland, Hungary, Belgium, and Brazil. Most of them were speedily suppressed. Russia crushed with merciless severity insurrection in Poland. An Austrian army put down revolt in the Pontifical States. In Germany and Austria and Italy politics soon moved along the old grooves, and the spirit of reaction was triumphant; but the separation of Belgium from Holland marked a great step in the direction of the rights of nationalities; the government of France now rested on a parliamentary basis; popular institutions were introduced into Denmark; the aristocratic cantons of Switzerland were transformed, and the Reform Bill of 1832 placed English politics on a more democratic basis. Neither Louis Philippe nor Lord Palmerston desired to propagate revolution, and their alliance was chequered and broken by many dissensions; but, on the whole, it served the cause of liberty in Europe, and still more the cause of non-intervention.
The French Revolution of 1848 again changed the aspect of affairs, and in a few months nearly all Europe was convulsed. The revolutions which then took place were essentially revolutions of nationality, and though most of them were for a time suppressed, they nearly all eventually accomplished their designs. I do not propose to relate their well-known history. It is sufficient to say that the French Government, in the manifesto which was issued by Lamartine in the March of 1848, while disclaiming any right or intention of intervening in the internal affairs of other countries, asserted, perhaps more strongly than had ever been before done in an official document, the legitimacy of all popular efforts for national independence, and clearly intimated that when such risings took place the Republic would suffer no foreign intervention to suppress them.
The doctrine of nationalities has been especially formulated and defended by Italian writers, who in this field occupy the foremost place. The aspiration towards a common nationality that slowly grew up among the Italian people, in spite of the many and ancient political divisions that separated them, may be probably traced to the traditions of the old Roman power. Dante and Macchiavelli at once displayed and strengthened it, and it has greatly coloured the Italian political philosophy of our century.
The first question to be asked is, What constitutes a nationality? Vico had defined it as ‘a natural society of men who, by unity of territory, of origin, of customs, and of language, are drawn into a community of life and of social conscience.’ More modern Italian writers, among whom Mancini, Mamiani, and Pierantoni are conspicuous, have employed themselves in amplifying this definition. They enumerate as the constituent elements of nationality, race, religion, language, geographical position, manners, history, and laws, and when these or several of them combine they create a nationality. It becomes perfect when a special type has been formed; when a great homogeneous body of men acquires, for the first time, a consciousness of its separate nationality, and thus becomes ‘a moral unity with a common thought.’ This is the cogito ergo sum of nations, the self-consciousness which establishes in nations as in individuals a true personality. And as the individual man, according to these writers, has an inalienable right to personal freedom, so also has the nationality. Every government of one nationality by another is of the nature of slavery, and is essentially illegitimate, and the true right of nations is the recognition of the full right of each nationality to acquire and maintain a separate existence, to create or to change its government according to its desires. Civil communities should form, extend, and dissolve themselves by a spontaneous process, and in accordance with this right and principle of nationality. Every sovereign who appeals to a foreign Power to suppress movements among his own people; every foreign Power which intervenes as Russia did in Hungary, and as Austria did in Italy, for the purpose of suppressing a national movement, is essentially criminal. On the other hand, any war for the emancipation of struggling nationalities, such as that of France with Austria, and Russia with Turkey, derives its justification from this fact, quite irrespective of the immediate cause or pretexts that produced it.2
Such, pushed to its full extent and definition, is the philosophy which, in vaguer and looser terms, pervades very widely the political thought of Europe, and has played a great part in the historic development of the nineteenth century. It may be observed that, though the idea of nationality is greatly affected by democracy, it is in itself distinct from it, and is, in fact, very frequently separated from it. The idea and passion of nationality blend quite as easily with loyalty to a dynasty as with attachment to a republican form of government, and nations that value very little internal or constitutional freedom are often passionately devoted to their national individuality and independence. It may be observed also, that the many different elements of nationality which have been mentioned rarely concur, and that no one of them is always sufficient to mark out a distinct nationality. As a matter of history, all great nations have been formed, in the first instance, by many successive conquests and aggrandisements, and have gradually become more or less perfectly fused into a single organism. Race, except when it is marked by colour, is usually a most obscure and deceptive guide, and in most European countries different race elements are inextricably mixed. Language and religion have had a much greater and deeper power in forming national unities; but there are examples of different creeds and languages very successfully blended into one nationality, and there are examples of separations of feeling and character, due to historical, political, and industrial causes, existing where race, creed, and language are all the same.
In the opinion of some writers, even the will of the people must be disregarded when questions of race, or language, or geography, demand an annexation, and in each country the prevailing theory of nationality is very manifestly coloured by national circumstances. Thus German writers, in defending the annexation of Alsace, have not contented themselves with arguing that this province was acquired in repelling an unjust invasion, and that its retention is essential to the security of Germany. While recognising fully that an overwhelming majority of Alsatian votes would be given in favour of France, they have justified the annexation on the ground of the doctrine of nationalities, as restoring to Germany an essentially German province, which had been torn from her in part by gross fraud, and which is inhabited by a population who, though not German in sentiment, were at least German in origin, in character, and in language. French writers have defended their designs upon the Rhine on the ground that the Rhine boundary is clearly the natural frontier of France, and that she is, therefore, only completing her nationality by annexing a territory exclusively inhabited by a loyal German population. Italian writers have demanded the absorption or annexation of Italian-speaking communities in Switzerland and Austria because they are Italian, entirely irrespective of all other considerations.
A more considerable section, however, of the upholders of the doctrine of nationalities maintain that annexations can only be justified, and can always be justified, by a plebiscite of the whole male population, and it was one of the great objects of Napoleon III. and of Count Cavour to introduce this principle into the public right of Europe. It was adopted when Savoy and Nice were annexed to France, and in the case of the different Italian States which, through their own spontaneous action, were incorporated in the Italian unity. When, after the War of 1866, the Austrian Emperor, in order to avoid the humiliation of treating directly with Italy, placed Venetia in the hands of Napoleon III., it was transferred by that sovereign to Italy subject to the consent of the population by a plebiscite. So, too, the invasion of Neapolitan territory in 1860, and the capture of Rome in 1870 by Piedmontese troops, without any declaration of war or any real provocation, and in violation of plain treaty obligations, were held to have been justified by the popular votes which shortly after incorporated Naples and Rome in the Italian Kingdom. In the Treaty of Prague, which was concluded in 1866, and which, among other things, made Prussia the ruler of Schleswig-Holstein, there was a clause promising that if the inhabitants of the northern parts of Schleswig expressed by a free vote their desire to be reunited to Denmark, their wish should be conceded; but, in spite of a largely signed petition for such a vote, this promise, to the great dishonour of Germany, has never been fulfilled.3 The last case, as far as I am aware, of the employment of a plebiscite to sanction an annexation was in 1878, when the little island of St. Barthélemy, in the Antillas, was ceded by the King of Sweden and Norway to the French Republic.4
Sometimes, as in Italy, the movement of nationality is a movement of sympathy and agglomeration, drawing together men who had long been politically separated. More frequently it is a disintegrating force, and many of its advocates desire to call into intense life and self-consciousness the different race elements in a great and composite empire, with the hope that they may ultimately assert for themselves the right of distinct national individuality.
Within certain limits, the doctrine of nationalities undoubtedly represents a real and considerable progress in human affairs. The best, the truest, the most solid basis on which the peace of the civilised world can rest is the free consent of the great masses of its population to the form of government under which they live. The increased recognition of this fact, the increased sensitiveness of the European conscience to the iniquity of destroying wantonly the independence of a civilised nation, or maintaining one civilised nation under the yoke of another, is a genuine sign of moral progress. At the same time there can, I think, be little question that the doctrine of nationalities has assumed forms and been pushed to extremes which make it a great danger to the peace of the world. It becomes the readiest weapon in the hands both of a conqueror and of a revolutionist, and, by discrediting the force of all international treaties, deepening lines of division, and introducing elements of anarchy and rebellion into most great nations, it threatens the most valuable elements of our civilisation.
Scarcely any one would apply it to the dealings of civilised nations with savages, or with the semi-civilised portions of the globe. It is, indeed, most curious to observe the passion with which nations that are accustomed to affirm the inalienable right of self-government in the most unqualified terms have thrown themselves into a career of forcible annexation in the barbarous world. Nor is it easy to obtain a true judgment of the opinion even of civilised communities. A plebiscite is very rarely the unforced, spontaneous expression of a genuine national desire. It is usually taken to ratify or indemnify an accomplished fact. It is taken only when there can be no doubt about the result, and a strong centralised government has, on such occasions, an enormous power of organising and directing. In all countries a great portion, in most countries a large majority, of the people take no real interest in political affairs, and if a great constitutional or dynastic question is submitted to their vote by a strongly organised government, this government will have no difficulty in dictating the response. Tolstoi, in one of his later works, has made some remarks on this subject which, though very little in harmony with prevailing ideas, contain, I believe, a large measure of truth. ‘I have always,’ he writes, ‘noticed that the most serious and the most respectable members of the labouring class show a complete indifference to, and even contempt for, patriotic manifestations of every kind. I have observed the same thing among the labouring class in other nations, and my observation has often been confirmed by cultivated Frenchmen, Germans, and Englishmen, when speaking of their own fellow-citizens. The labouring population is too intensely and too exclusively occupied with the care of providing for its own subsistence to take an interest in those political questions which lie at the root of patriotism. Such questions as Russian influence in the East, the unity of Germany, the restoration of France of her severed provinces, do not really touch the people, not only because they scarcely ever know the first elements of the problem, but also because the interests of their lives lie wholly outside the circle of politics. A man of the people will never really care to know what is the exact line of the national frontier…. To him his country is his village or his district. He either knows nothing of what lies beyond, or it is a matter of perfect indifference to him to what government these territories belong. If a Russian emigrates, he will not care whether his new home is under the dominion of Russia, or Turkey, or China.5
But even putting this consideration aside, can it seriously be maintained that a great and ancient nation is obliged to acquiesce in its own disintegration whenever a portion of its people can be persuaded to desire a separate political existence? If a popular movement can at any time destroy the unity of the State, the authority of the sovereign power, and the binding force of international treaties, the whole public order of Europe must give way. Some of the countries which play the most useful and respectable parts in the concert of nations, such as Switzerland, Belgium, and the Austrian Empire, would be threatened with immediate dissolution; and there is scarcely a great country in Europe which does not contain districts with distinct race and religious elements, which might easily be quickened into separate agitation. As in marriage the conviction that the tie is a life tie, being supported by all the weight of law and opinion, is sufficient in the vast majority of cases to counteract the force of caprice or temporary disagreement, and produce acquiescence and content, so, in the political world, the belief in the sovereign authority of the State, and in the indissoluble character of national bonds, gives stability and unity to a nation. Divorce in families, and revolution in States, may sometimes be necessary, and even desirable, but only under very grave and exceptional circumstances.
If the bonds of national unity are lightly severed; if the policy of disintegration is preached as in itself a desirable thing; if the constituent elements of a kingdom are encouraged or invited to assert their separate individuality, nothing but anarchy can ensue. The door will be at once opened to endless agitation and intrigue, and every ambitious, restless, unscrupulous conqueror will find his path abundantly prepared. It is the object of all such men to see surrounding nations divided, weakened, and perhaps deprived of important strategical positions, through internal dissensions. One of the great dangers of our age is that wars are likely to be carried on, in the French phrase, ‘à coup de révolutions,’ that is, by deliberately kindling democratic, socialist, or nationalist risings. It has been stated on good authority, that the decision of German statesmen to adopt universal suffrage as the basis of their constitution was largely due to the desire to guard against such dangers. From the French revolutionists, who begin their career of invasion by promising French assistance to every struggling nationality, to the modern Panslavist, who is often preaching the right of nationalities in the mere interest of a corrupt and persecuting despotism, this doctrine has been abundantly made use of to cloak the most selfish and the most mischievous designs. Those men are not serving the true interests of humanity who enlarge the pretexts of foreign aggression, and weaken the force of treaties and international obligations, on which the peace and stability of civilisation so largely depend.
Such considerations sufficiently show the danger of the exaggerated language on the subject of the rights of nationalities which has of late years become common. It will, indeed, be observed that most men use such language mainly in judging other nations and other policies than their own. One of the most remarkable test cases of this kind which have occurred in our generation has been that of the United States. This great nation is one of the least military as well as one of the freest and most democratic in the world, and its representative writers, and sometimes even its legislative bodies, are fond of very absolute assertions of the right of revolution and the inalienable supremacy of the popular will. Yet in its own acquisitions the American Republic has never adopted the principle of plebiscite. Texas was admitted into the Union by a treaty with a State which was considered independent; Upper California was conquered from Mexico; New Mexico was acquired by purchase; Louisiana was purchased from Napoleon in 1803; Florida was acquired by treaty with Spain in 1821; but in no one of these cases were the people consulted by a popular vote.6
But most significant of all was the attitude assumed by the Federal Government in dealing with the secession of the South. Long before that secession some of the best observers had clearly pointed out how the influence of climate, and much more the special type of industry and character which slavery produced, had already created a profound and lasting difference between the North and the South. Both Madison and Story had foreseen that the great danger to the United States was the opposition between the Northern and Southern interests.7 Calhoun was so sensible of the difference that he proposed the establishment of two presidents, one for the free, and the other for the slave States, each with a veto on all national legislation.8 Guizot9 and Tocqueville10 had both distinctly recognised the same truth. Though language and religion were the same, and though race was not widely different, two distinct nations had grown up, clearly separated in their merits and their defects, in character, manners, aspirations, and interests.
After the election of President Lincoln the long-impending disruption came. The Southern States proclaimed the right of nationalities, demanded their independence, and proved their earnestness and their unanimity by arguments that were far more unequivocal than any doubtful plebiscite. For four long years they defended their cause on the battle-field with heroic courage, against overwhelming odds, and at the sacrifice of everything that men most desire. American and indeed European writers are accustomed to speak of the heroism of the American colonies in repudiating imperial taxation, and asserting and achieving their independence against all the force of Great Britain. But no one who looks carefully into the history of the American revolution, who observes the languor, the profound divisions, the frequent pusillanimity, the absence of all strong and unselfish enthusiasm that were displayed in great portions of the revolted colonies, and their entire dependence for success on foreign assistance, will doubt that the Southern States in the War of Secession exhibited an incomparably higher level of courage, tenacity, and self-sacrifice. No nation in the nineteenth century has maintained its nationhood with more courage and unanimity. But it was encountered with an equal tenacity, and with far greater resources, and, after a sacrifice of life unequalled in any war since the fall of Napoleon, the North succeeded in crushing the revolt and establishing its authority over the vanquished South.
The struggle took place at a time when the recent emancipation of Italy had brought the doctrine of the rights of nationalities into the strongest relief. That doctrine had been accepted with enthusiasm by nearly all that was progressive in Europe, and nowhere more widely and more passionately than in England. It is curious and instructive to observe the attitude of English opinion towards the contest that ensued. At the opening of the war the secession of the South was very generally blamed, and throughout the war a majority of the population remained, I believe, steadily on the side of the North. With the great body of the working classes the question was looked on simply as a question of slavery. The North was represented as fighting for the abolition of slavery, which it certainly was not, and as fighting to prevent the extension of slavery to the new territories, which it certainly was; and the cause of democracy was deemed inseparably connected with the maintenance and the success of the great Republic of the West. But, on the other hand, a majority of the upper, and perhaps of the middle, classes soon came to sympathise decidedly with the South, and they were the classes who were most powerfully represented in the press, in society, and in Parliament.
Their motives were very various. Some were, no doubt, unworthy, or purely frivolous. There was the contrast, which was then often drawn, between ‘the gentlemen of the South’ and ‘the shopkeepers of the North.’ There was jealousy of the increasing power of the United States, and of the increasing attraction of its form of government. There was resentment excited by many unscrupulous acts and many insulting words of American statesmen and writers; and the ignorance of American politics was so great that few Englishmen realised that the aggressive side of American policy had been mainly due to Southern statesmen acting in Southern interests. The enmity which led the United States to declare war against England in 1812, at the time when England was engaged in a desperate struggle for her existence and for the liberty of Europe against the overwhelming power of Napoleon, was not wholly forgotten,11 and the more recent sympathy of America with Russia during the Crimean war, had, perhaps, still some slight influence. There were also powerful considerations of present English interests involved in the war. The North was strongly Protectionist, and had begun the war by enacting an ultra-Protectionist tariff, while the South was the fervent champion of Free Trade, and it was from the South that the English cotton manufacture obtained its supplies, while the Northern blockade was reducing to extreme distress the population of Lancashire. Nor should we omit that ‘sporting spirit’ which, it has been truly said, largely governs English interest in every foreign struggle. A comparatively small Power, encountering with consummate skill, with desperate courage, and for a long time with brilliant success, a gigantic but unwieldy and less skilful adversary, was certain to awake strong popular interest, quite irrespective of the merits of the case.
But it would be a grave injustice to attribute to such motives the great body of serious and deliberate opinion in England which desired the recognition of Southern independence and the cessation of the war. One large class emphatically condemned the original secession; but they either believed, with most experienced European statesmen, that the final subjugation of the South was impossible, and that the prolongation of the war was, in consequence, a mere useless waste of life, or that, if the South were finally subjugated, it would reproduce in America that most lamentable of all European spectacles, the spectacle of a subjugated Poland. Another large class believed that, on the principle of the American Constitution, the South was acting within its constitutional rights. They contended that when the separate States agreed on carefully defined conditions to enter into a bond of union, they never meant to surrender the right, which they had so lately vindicated against Great Britain, of seceding from it if the main body of their citizens desired it. This was the doctrine of Calhoun, and it was supported by a great weight both of argument and authority. There were some who, like Sir Cornewall Lewis, detested slavery, but who contended that the differences between North and South were so grave that separation was the only solution, and that it would ultimately prove a great blessing to America, as well as to the world, if the Northern States developed as a separate republic, untainted by the deteriorating influences of negro slavery and a tropical climate.12 But the strongest argument on this side was the doctrine of the rights of nationalities. I can well remember how the illustrious historian, Mr. Grote, whose political leanings were strongly democratic, and who, at the same time, always formed his opinions with an austere independence and integrity, was accustomed to speak on the subject, and how emphatically he dissented from the views of Mill and of a large proportion of those with whom he usually acted. He could not, he said, understand how those who had been so lately preaching in the most unqualified terms that all large bodies of men had an absolute, unimpeachable, indefeasible right to choose for themselves their form of government, and that the growing recognition of this right was one of the first conditions of progress and liberty, could support or applaud the Federal Government in imposing on the Southern States a government which they detested, and in overriding by force their evident and unquestionable desire.
The inconsistency was real and flagrant, and the attitude of the North, and of its supporters in Europe, could only be justified on the ground that the right of nationalities was not the absolute, unlimited thing which it had been customary to assert. In the Northern States public opinion never faltered. Before the war began, it is true, there were some men, among whom Horace Greeley was conspicuous, who maintained that if the Southern States generally desired to secede they ought not to be prevented; and there were many men who throughout the war tried to persuade themselves that a strong unionist sentiment was latent in the South. But the question of submitting the integrity of the Republic to a popular vote in the several States was never entertained, though there was a proposal, which was defeated by the Republican party, of submitting to a direct popular vote a compromise about slavery which might have averted the war.13 It was at once felt that the question at issue was a question of national preservation, to which all other considerations must be subordinated, and the best men maintained that, by preserving the integrity of the republic, even against the wishes of an immense section of the people, they were most truly serving the interests of humanity. Three fatal consequences would have followed the triumph of the South. Slavery would have been extended through vast territories where it did not hitherto prevail. A precedent of secession would have been admitted which, sooner or later, would have broken up the United States into several different Powers. And as these Powers would have many conflicting interests, the European military system, which the New World had happily escaped, would have grown up in America, with all the evils and all the dangers that follow in its train.
The judgment of the North was justified by the event, and this great struggle added one more to the many conspicuous instances of the fallibility of political predictions. The overwhelming majority of the most sagacious politicians in Europe believed, either that the North would never attempt to restrain by force the Southern States if they desired to secede; or that an armed revolt of many entire States, guided by their legislatures, could not possibly be suppressed; or that, if it were suppressed, it could only be through a general rising of the enslaved negroes, which they anticipated as one of the most certain consequences of the prolongation of the war. Each one of these predictions was signally and absolutely falsified. The speedy and complete acquiescence of the defeated South in the result of the war was no less surprising to European statesmen; while the fact that the cotton produced in the South by free labour greatly exceeds that which was produced by slavery,14 shows that the Southern belief that utter and imminent ruin must follow abolition was an absolute delusion. How different might have been the course of American history, how much bloodshed and misery might have been spared, if, even at the last moment, the policy proposed by President Lincoln in 1862 had been accepted, and the slave States had agreed to gradual enfranchisement, receiving Government bonds to the full value of their slaves!15
The regeneration of Italy had preceded the contest in America, and, more than any other event, it gave popularity to the doctrine of the rights of nationalities. It was one of the most genuine of national movements, and very few who were young men when it took place, still fewer of those who, like the writer of these lines, then lived much in Italy, can have failed to catch the enthusiasm which it inspired. Though some provinces sacrificed much, there was no province in which the Italian cause did not command the support of overwhelming majorities, and though two great wars and an overwhelming debt were the cost, the unity of Italy was at last achieved. The mingled associations of a glorious past and of a noble present, the genuine and disinterested enthusiasm that so visibly pervaded the great mass of the Italian people, the genius of Cavour, the romantic character and career of Garibaldi, and the inexpressible charm and loveliness of the land which was now rising into the dignity of nationhood, all contributed to make the Italian movement unlike any other of our time. It was the one moment of nineteenth-century history when politics assumed something of the character of poetry.
The glamour has now faded, and, looking back upon the past, we can more calmly judge the dubious elements that mingled with it. One of them was the manner in which the annexation of Naples was accomplished. The expedition of Garibaldi to Sicily consisted of so few men, and could have been so easily crushed if it had encountered any real popular resistance, that it scarcely forms an exception to the spontaneous character of the movement towards unity. But the absolutely unprovoked invasion of Naples by Piedmontese troops, which took place without any declaration of war when the Neapolitan forces had rallied at Gaeta, and when the Garibaldian forces were in danger of defeat, was a grave violation of international obligations and of the public law and order of Europe, and it can only be imperfectly palliated by the fact that similar interventions at the invitation of a sovereign and in the interests of despotism had not been uncommon.
Much the same thing may be said of the subsequent invasion of Rome, and in this case another and still graver consideration was involved. A great Catholic interest here confronted the purely national movement. In the opinion of the head of the Catholic Church, and in the opinion of the great body of devout Catholics throughout the world, the independence of the head of the Church could only be maintained if he remained the temporal sovereign of his diocese; and there was therefore a cosmopolitan interest of the highest order at issue. The possession of Rome and the adjoining territory to the sea would have met the Catholic requirement for the independence of the Pope, and it was urged by men who had a warm general sympathy with the right of nations to choose their rulers, that in this case the less must yield to the greater, and that, in the interest of the whole Catholic population throughout the world, the small population of Rome and the adjoining territory must be content with a position which was in most respects privileged and honourable, and forego their claim to unite with Italy.
Gioberti had taught that the true solution of the Roman question was an Italian federation under the presidency of the Pope, and at the Peace of Villafranca Napoleon III. and the Emperor of Austria agreed to do their utmost to carry out this scheme. It was, however, from the first doomed to failure. One part of it was the restoration of the dispossessed princes, which could only be effected by force. Another was the introduction of Austria, as the ruler of Venetia, into the confederation, which excited the strongest Italian antipathy. ‘The large measure of reform’ which the two Emperors agreed to use their influence to obtain from the Pope proved wholly unacceptable to that potentate, while the honorary presidency of the confederation, to which he did not object, was equally unacceptable to Italy. Italian feeling flowed irresistibly towards unity, and the great prestige of Rome, which alone could command an indisputable ascendency among the Italian cities, marked her out as the natural capital. It is, however, not altogether impossible that some compromise with the Catholic interest might have been effected if there had been any real intelligence at the Vatican. Unfortunately, in this quarter incapacity and obstinacy reigned supreme. The Pope had, it is true, a cardinal-minister who possessed to an eminent degree the superficial talents that enable a statesman to write clever despatches and to conduct skilfully a diplomatic interview; but neither he nor his master showed the smallest real power of governing men, of measuring wisely the forces of their time, and of averting revolution by skilful, timely, and searching reform.
The part which was played by England in these transactions was very remarkable. Though she had not sacrificed a man or a guinea in the cause, she intervened actively and powerfully at every stage of its development; she had always an alternative policy to propose, and in nearly every case this policy ultimately prevailed. Lord John Russell conducted her foreign policy, and he was warmly supported in the Cabinet by Lord Palmerston. He dissented strongly from the leading articles of the Peace of Villafranca, and clearly pointed out the impossibility of carrying them into effect. He urged persistently that the Italian people should be left to form their own governments freely, without the intervention of either France or Austria. He was the only statesman who officially approved of the Piedmontese invasion of Naples, which he defended by a quotation from Vattel, and by the part played by William III. in the English revolution of 1688. He steadily advocated the withdrawal of French troops from Rome, and the treatment of the Roman question as a purely Italian one. He exasperated foreign statesmen not a little by his constant lectures on ‘the right which belongs to the people of every independent State to regulate their own internal government,’ and on the iniquity of every foreign interference with their clearly expressed will. ‘With regard to the general question of interference,’ he wrote, ‘in the internal affairs of other countries, Her Majesty's Government holds that non-intervention is the principle on which the Governments of Europe should act, only to be parted from when the safety of a foreign State or its permanent interests require it.’16
At the same time, in the true spirit of an English Whig, he refused to lay any stress on the verdict of universal suffrage as expressed by a plebiscite, and regarded the regular vote of duly authorised representative bodies as the only decisive and legitimate expression of the voice of the people. Speaking of the annexation to the Italian State of Naples, Sicily, Umbria and the Marches, he wrote to Sir J. Hudson: ‘The votes by universal suffrage which have taken place in those kingdoms and provinces appear to Her Majesty's Government to have little validity. These votes are nothing more than a formality following upon acts of popular insurrection, or successful invasion, or upon treaties, and do not in themselves imply any independent exercise of the will of the nation in whose name they are given. Should, however, the deliberate act of the representatives of the several Italian States … constitute those States into one State in the form of a constitutional monarchy, a new question will arise.’17
It is probable that the emphasis with which Lord John Russell dwelt upon this distinction was largely due to the fact that the annexation of Savoy to France had been sanctioned and justified by a popular vote. The British Government treated this vote and the pretended popular wish with complete disdain, as a mere device of the two Governments concerned, for the purpose of veiling the character of a secret and dangerous intrigue; and Lord John Russell denounced the whole transaction in language which might easily have led to war.18
This policy undoubtedly represented the predominant public opinion of Great Britain, and it was eminently successful. In the very critical state of Italian affairs, and amid the strongly expressed disapprobation of the great Continental Powers, the steady countenance and moral support of England gave both force and respectability to the Italian cause, and broke the isolation to which it would have otherwise been condemned. The obligation was fully felt and gratefully acknowledged; and there is a striking contrast between the extreme unpopularity of France in Italy within a few months, it may be almost said within a few weeks, after Solferino. The promise that Italy should be freed ‘from the Alps to the Adriatic,’ and uncontrolled by any foreign Power, was falsified by the Peace of Villafranca, which left Austria the mistress of Venetia, and if its provisions had been carried out would have made her the dominant power in the peninsula. Imperious considerations of French interests might be truly alleged to justify this unexpected peace, but it is not surprising that it should have sent a thrill of exasperation through the Italian people. The claim of the Emperor on the gratitude of the Italians was still further weakened when he demanded Nice and Savoy as a payment for his services, and his attempt to support two great but essentially incompatible interests by maintaining with French bayonets the dominion of the Pope at Rome, while he acquiesced, though slowly and reluctantly, in the annexation of the other portions of Italy to the new kingdom, and in the abandonment of his favourite scheme of an Italian federation, had the very natural effect of exciting anger and distrust on both sides. England, on the other hand, had but one voice, and her simple policy of leaving Italy, without any foreign intervention, to construct her own government fully met the Italian desires.
History has certainly not said her last word about Napoleon III., a sovereign who has of late years been as extravagantly depreciated as he was once extravagantly extolled. More justice will one day be done to his manifest and earnest attempts, under circumstances of extreme difficulty, to reconcile a great and real Catholic interest, which was very dear to a large section of his subjects, with his earnest desire to free Italy from foreign control. The obstacles he had to encounter were enormous: the stubborn resistance of the Papal Court to the reforms and compromises he recommended; the furious indignation of French Catholic opinion at his acquiescence in the annexation of Romagna, Umbria, and the Marches; the irresistible torrent of Italian opinion impelling Italian policy in the direction of unity. The great continental countries disapproved of his policy as unduly liberal, while, on opposite grounds, English disapprobation greatly increased his difficulties. He desired manifestly and sincerely to withdraw his troops from Rome, if he could do so without destroying the temporal power. At one moment he had almost attained his end, and the evacuation was actually ordered, when Garibaldi's invasion of Sicily threw the South of Italy into a flame, and changed the whole aspect of affairs. Projects for establishing a neutral zone under European guarantee; for garrisoning Rome with Neapolitan troops; for reorganising the Papal army on such a scale that it might be sufficient to secure the independence of Rome, were constantly passing through his mind. At one time he proposed a congress to deal with the question. At another he authorised and inspired a pamphlet maintaining that the city of Rome alone, without any other territory, would be sufficient to secure the independence of the Pope. At another he ordered inquiries to be made into the government of the city of London by the Lord Mayor and Corporation, under the strange notion that this might furnish some clue for a double government at Rome. The secret despatches of his minister, which have now been published, furnish a curious and vivid picture of the extreme difficulties of his task, but also, I think, of the sincerity with which, amid many hesitations and perplexities, he endeavoured to accomplish it.19
History will also pronounce upon the policy of England during this crisis, and, if I am not mistaken, it will be less eulogistic than contemporary English opinion. It will scarcely, I think, approve of that strange and famous despatch in which Lord John Russell justified the Piedmontese invasion of Naples, and it may well pronounce the Roman policy of England to have been an unworthy one, though it was both popular and successful. This question was pre-eminently one on which a great and cosmopolitan Catholic interest had to be weighed against a question of nationality, and in such a dispute the intervention of a Protestant Power seems to me to have been wholly unjustifiable. The bitter resentment it excited among the Irish Catholics was, in my opinion, not without foundation.
Whether the unity of Italy has been to the Italian people the blessing that we once believed may also be greatly doubted. The political movements and combinations that make most noise in the world, and excite the largest measure of enthusiasm, are often not those which affect most deeply or most beneficially the real happiness of men. The elements of true happiness are to be found in humbler spheres, and are to be estimated by other tests. Italy has had many good fortunes, but the peace which left her with the acquisition of Lombardy, and the certainty before her of another great war for the acquisition of Venetia, was one of the chief disasters in her history. Proposals, it is true, were then circulated, with some authority, for the sale of Venetia by Austria to Italy, and if such a sale had been effected the whole course of recent European history might have been changed. Italy might have been saved from financial ruin, and the financial position of Austria would have been enormously improved. It would have been possible for Austria to have carried out both more promptly and more efficiently her transformation into a really constitutional empire; and as Italy would have had no motive for joining with her enemies, the war of 1866 might either have been averted, or have ended differently.
But a false point of honour, in which the Austrian Emperor undoubtedly represented the prevalent feeling of his subjects, prevented such a cession, and opened a new chapter of events almost equally disastrous to Austria and to Italy. In the terrible years of preparation for a great war the debt of Italy rose rapidly to unmanageable dimensions, and the dangers, the responsibilities, the gigantic army and navy of a great Power, soon created for her a burden she was wholly unable to bear. Most of the Italian States, before the war of independence began, were among the most lightly taxed in Europe, but no other European country, in proportion to its means, is now so heavily taxed as Italy. Those who have observed the crushing weight with which this excessive taxation falls, not only on the upper and middle classes of the Italian people, but also on the food and industry of the very poor, the grinding poverty it has produced, and the imminent danger of national bankruptcy that hangs over Italy, may well doubt whether her unity has not been too dearly purchased, and whether Napoleon's scheme of an Italian federation might not, after all, have proved the wiser. A very competent writer has computed that, in the years of perfect peace between 1871 and 1893, the taxation of Italy has increased more than 30 per cent.; that the national debt has been increased in twenty-three years of peace by about four milliards of francs, or 160 millions of pounds; and that the interest of this debt, without counting the communal debts or the floating debt, absorbs one-third of the whole revenue.20
It has been truly claimed, however, for Italy that she represents the triumph of the doctrine of nationalities in its best form. Nowhere else do so many elements of nationality concur—language, religion, a clearly defined geographical unity, a common literature, and common sentiments. In German unity genuine sympathy bore a great part, but in some portions of the Empire force alone carried out the policy. In some quarters race is represented as the most essential element of nationality, and the doctrine of nationality has blended closely with a doctrine of races which seems destined to be a great disturbing influence in the affairs of the world.21
The unity of the Latin race, to be established partly by absorptions, and partly by alliances in which France should hold the ruling place, was a favourite French doctrine in the time of Napoleon III., though it has now greatly faded, owing to the profound antipathies that divide France and Italy. Michel Chevalier, among others, powerfully advocated it; it was given as one of the chief reasons for the unfortunate expedition to Mexico; it gave colour to French aspirations to dominion both in Belgium and French Switzerland; and a school of writers arose who represented the establishment of an equilibrium between the great races as the true balance of power, the future basis of international politics. The unity of the Teutonic race has had corresponding adherents in Germany, and their eyes have been greedily cast, not only towards Austria and towards Alsace, but also towards Holland, towards the German provinces of Belgium, and towards the Baltic provinces. The Panslavist movement is the latest, and perhaps the most dangerous, on the stage, and it seeks the disintegration not only of Turkey, but of Austria. It must be observed, too, that in proportion to the new stress given to the claims of nationality comes an increased desire among rulers to extirpate in their dominions all alien national types, whether of race, or language, or creed, which may some day be called into active existence.
Few things are more curious to observe than the conflicting tendencies which are, in the same period of history, drawing nations in diametrically opposite directions. The tendency to great agglomerations and larger political unities has in our day been very evident. Railroads, and the many other influences producing a more rapid interchange of ideas and commerce, and more cosmopolitan habits and manners, act strongly in this direction; and the military and naval systems of our time throw an overwhelming power into the hands of the great nations. On the other hand, there has been in many forms a marked tendency to accentuate distinct national and local types.
It has been very clearly shown in national languages. As late as the days of Frederick the Great, French had a complete ascendency, even at the Prussian Court; and long after that date it seemed in many countries likely to displace all local languages in the common usage of the upper classes. Nearly everywhere this tendency has been checked, and national languages now fully maintain their ascendency. The late Queen Sophie of the Netherlands was accustomed to relate that, at the time of her marriage in 1839, some of her counsellors told her that it was scarcely necessary for her to learn Dutch, as the use of it was so rapidly passing away among the upper classes in Holland; but she lived to see that usage constant and universal. It was, I believe, only under Nicholas that Russian superseded French as the Court language at St. Petersburg, and, according to competent judges, the same change has in the present generation extended widely through all Russian society. In Belgium there has been a marked and most significant movement for maintaining the Flemish language and Flemish nationality; a similar tendency prevails in Bohemia and Hungary, and even at home it may be seen in the greatly increased stress laid upon the Welsh language. The war of 1870 strengthened it, and French has lost much of its cosmopolitan character as the language of diplomacy, while no other single language has taken its place. At no previous period, I suppose, has so large an amount of interest and research been devoted to the study of local customs, literatures, traditions, and antiquities. Education, if it widens interests, also contributes to kindle political life in small areas, and the extension of the suffrage and of a local government, and perhaps still more the growth of a local press, have all their effect in accentuating local divisions and awakening local aspirations. The vast military systems of the Continent may, perhaps, in some degree divert the minds of the great disciplined masses from internal and constitutional politics, and they weaken the lines of provincial differences, but they also bring into stronger and sharper relief national distinctions and national antagonisms.
Among the problems that weigh heavily on the statesmen of our age, few are more serious than those of reconciling local and particularist aspirations with the maintenance of imperial strength and unity, and with the stability of European peace. In all such questions many various, and often conflicting, circumstances must be considered, and no general and inflexible rule can be laid down. England, in 1864, made a remarkable concession to the rights of nationalities when, in response to a strongly expressed local wish, she abandoned her protectorate over the Ionian Isles and permitted their annexation to Greece. She certainly would not have acted in the same way if Malta, or Ireland, or some other vital portion of her Empire had demanded to be annexed to a foreign Power. Every great empire is obliged, in the interest of its imperial unity and in the interest of the public order of the world, to impose an inflexible veto on popular movements in the direction of disintegration, however much it may endeavour to meet local wishes by varying laws and institutions and compromises. Nations, too, differ very widely in the strength of their national types, in their power of self-government, in their power of governing others, in their power of assimilating or reconciling alien types. There are cases where the destruction of an old nationality, or even of a nationality which had never fully existed, but had been prematurely arrested in its growth, leaves behind it in large classes hatreds which rankle for centuries. There are other cases where, in a few years, a complete fusion is effected, where every scar of the old wound is effaced, where all distinctions are obliterated, or where they subsist only in healthy differences of type, tendency, and capacity, which add to the resources without in any degree impairing the strength and harmony of the nation. There are cases where an extension of local representative institutions will amply satisfy local aspirations and appease local discontents, and where such institutions are certain to be justly and moderately used. There are other cases where they would be infallibly turned into instruments for revolution, plunder, and oppression, where they would only increase dissension, and perhaps lead to civil war.
All these elements of the problem must, in each separate case, be duly estimated. On the whole, the doctrine of the absolute and indefeasible right of nationalities to determine their own form of government seems to me now less prominent among the political ideas of the world than it was in 1848, and at the period of the emancipation of Italy. Both England and America have learnt, from their own experience, the dangers that may spring from its too unqualified assertion; Eastern Europe has shown how easily it may be converted into an instrument of aggression and intrigue; and the institution of the plebiscite has been much discredited since the fall of the second French Empire. France was once the most ardent champion of this doctrine in its extreme form, partly, perhaps, because her own territory is singularly compact, homogeneous, and well assimilated; but since 1870 her aspirations and alliances have carried her in very different directions. At the same time, the movement towards international Socialism, which has spread widely through the working classes of the Continent, is wholly alien to the idea of nationality, appeals to a different kind of enthusiasm, and seeks to divide the world by other lines. The chief apparent exception has been the greatly increased importance which the Irish Home Rule movement has assumed since the Irish suffrage was so extended as to give an overwhelming power to the lowest orders, since Parnell organised his agitation, and since Mr. Gladstone accepted his demands. But the nation, in 1886 and 1895, condemned this policy with an emphasis that it is impossible to mistake; nor would the movement in Ireland ever have attained its formidable magnitude if it had not allied itself with motives and interests very different from the pure nationalism of Grattan and of Davis.
Sorel, L'Europe et la Révolution Française, iii. 154-55, 169-70.
An excellent review of the Italian school of writers on nationality, by Professor von Holtzendorff, will be found in the Revue de Droit International, ii. 92–106. See, too, a valuable essay by Professor Padeletti, ibid. iii. 464. M. Emile Ollivier, in his Empire Libéral, has discussed the French views on the subject.
Revue de Droit International, ii. 325-26.
See Les Annexions et les Plébiscites dans l'Histoire Contemporaine, par E. R. De Card (1880).
Tolstoi, L'Esprit Chrétien et le Patriotisme, pp. 88-9, 93. It is curious to contrast this judgment with the remarks of Goethe to Eckermann. ‘In general, national hatred has this special characteristic, that you will always find it most intense, most violent, in proportion as you descend the scale of intellectual culture. But there is a degree where it altogether disappears—where men rise, so to speak, above the lines of nationhood, and sympathise with the happiness or unhappiness of a neighbouring nation as if it consisted of compatriots.’
See an article by Professor Lieber on Plebiscites, Revue de Droit International, iii. 139-45.
Story's Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States, ii. 177.
Goldwin Smith's The United States, p. 184.
See a very remarkable passage (exceedingly creditable to the sagacity of Guizot, when it is remembered that these lectures were delivered between 1828 and 1830) in the Hist. de la Civilisation, XVIIIme leçon.
Démocratie en Amérique, tom ii. ch. x.
See some excellent remarks on this war in Goldwin Smith's United States, pp. 166-74.
See a letter by Sir Cornwall Lewis prefixed to his Administrations of Great Britain, p. 19.
This was the Crittenden compromise. See Rhodes's History of the United States, iii. 150, 254-67. See, too, on Greeley's opinion, pp. 140-42.
See some remarkable figures on this subject in Mr. Rhodes's History of the United States from the Compromise of 1850, i. 314. The annual average produce of cotton in the South between 1865 and 1886 exceeded that of the last twenty years of slavery by no less than 65.3 per cent.
Rhodes's History of the United States from the Compromise of 1850, iii. 634-35; Annual Register, 1862, p. 231.
See the despatches on Italy in the second volume of Lord Russell's Speeches and Despatches
Lord J. Russell to Sir J. Hudson, Jan. 21, 1861.
Walpole's Life of Russell, ii. 319–21.
Thouvenel, Le Secret de l'Empereur.
See Geffcken's article on the ‘War Chests of Europe,’ Nineteenth Century, August 1894.
See Revue de Droit International, iii. 458-63.