The Holy Alliance
From 'A History of the British Nation' by AD Innes, 1912
The custodianship of the fallen Emperor [Napoleon] was deputed by the European Powers to Britain. The dread he inspired could be allayed only by caging him in the remote island of St. Helena in the South Atlantic, whence escape was impossible. So closed the Titanic tragedy of Napoleon's career. The Emperor being disposed of, the Powers turned to the settlement of Europe.
Britain, the one Power which from beginning to end had fought against French aggression, had never been forced to make terms, had never withdrawn from a coalition, and had finally borne the whole stress of the great fight by which Napoleon was ultimately overthrown, claimed no very great share of the spoils. Malta and the Ionian Islands in the Mediterranean, the Mauritius and Ceylon in the Indian Ocean, some islands in the West Indies, and the Dutch colony at the Cape, she was fully entitled to claim by right of conquest; and these she took, although for Cape Colony she paid solid compensation in cash to William of Orange, on whom was bestowed the crown of a new kingdom of Holland, which included Belgium.
She did not succeed in her efforts to persuade the Powers to unite in suppressing the slave trade, though a general declaration condemning it was issued. What she had won was sufficient to secure her supremacy in the Mediterranean and the complete command of the ocean route to India, which could always have been threatened on the flank by a Power possessing the Cape or Mauritius. It may safely be claimed that no other Power entitled to so much would have been content with so little; but it was enough, for it assured the maritime supremacy which made her further expansion certain.
Moreover, apart from the treaty, the war itself had not only confirmed her commercial supremacy but had bestowed upon her an immense lead in the new industrialism of which she was the creator. Great as the strain had been, it had borne less heavily upon her than upon any other nation in Europe. In these islands alone the tramp of hostile legions had been unheard. Great as the waste of British lives had been, in every other country the waste had been far greater. Great as had been her expenditure of treasure, her commerce alone had expanded, while that of other countries had been almost destroyed. These were results of the war worth more than any other claims she might have endeavoured to enforce.
The Holy Alliance
In the general settlement of Europe she took prominent part mainly as a restraining influence. But for Wellington, France would have suffered more severely. The Duke, however, supported by Alexander of Russia, insisted that the country must not connect the Bourbon restoration with its own dismemberment, and it was given back its boundaries as they stood in 1791. British influence was exerted also to check vindictive action on the part of Ferdinand of the Two Sicilies. Britain and Russia also favoured the concession of constitutions, in other words, limitations of absolutism, which were promised by several rulers, since there was some disposition to attribute the comparative success of the United Kingdom in the great struggle to the superiority of its political system, or rather to infer the superiority of its system from its success.
But these promises remained unfulfilled. The Tsar's enthusiasm was diverted into a new channel by a new conception of his imperial duties; the claims of authority superseded those of liberty, and though Britain declined to enter the Holy Alliance which was conceived and shaped by Alexander, she offered no effective opposition to its activities.
The Holy Alliance was a very curious phenomenon, which compels us to some further consideration of the European programme at this period. There were two movements fundamentally associated, the first with French Revolution, and the second with the downfall of Napoleon - the democratic movement and the nationalist movement. Before the French Revolution the whole political and social system of very nearly every country in Europe rested upon privilege, upon the conception that certain members of the community were entitled by hereditary or by ecclesiastical right to rule over the rest and to rule in their own interest.
In Great Britain, in Holland, and in Switzerland a very much larger proportion of the community at large was permitted to exercise political rights than in other countries; the pressure of privilege there, though sufficiently heavy, was very much less than elsewhere. The French Revolution was primarily on its political side the issue of the demand of the masses of the people for the abolition of political privileges and for their own admission to political rights.
The early triumph of the French democracy had merged in Caesarism, but Caesarism had not restored the old system of aristocratic and ecclesiastical privilege. Within limits it confirmed instead of reversing the democratic movement. And it did so outside of France as well as within it. It had had this permanent effect - that it awakened the craving for political liberty throughout the classes hitherto excluded, and especially in those classes which had not been universally excluded.
The Nationalist Movement, on the other hand, was not the cause but the outcome of the long war. For centuries past nationalism had played a strong part in the histories of Britain, France, Spain, and Holland; and the same spirit had been awakened in Prussia comparatively recently by Frederick the Great. Even the French doctrine of natural boundaries had a nationalist basis, because the people within those boundaries were both by race and by language French rather than German or Italian. But outside these countries politicians paid no attention to nationalism; their consideration was bestowed not on nationality but on territory.
If one half of the Netherlands had achieved national freedom, the other half had fallen first under the dominion of the Spanish Hapsburgs, then under that of the Austrian Hapsburgs, then under that of France, and finally was transferred by the Congress of Vienna to the newly erected kingdom of Holland. German territories were tossed from one German prince to another. In Germany itself there was no solidarity, no sense of a community of German interests. In Italy principalities and dukedoms had been transferred from cone to another of the great Powers in almost every treaty signed during the last three hundred years; there, nationality was simply ignored.
But it had been ignored more flagrantly than ever before by Napoleon, and his treatment of Spain, Germany, and Italy had kindled national sentiment to a flame. Hence the phase of the war which followed upon the Moscow expedition was a nationalist uprising, an uprising of the peoples against a foreign tyrant. Throughout Europe the events between 1789 and 1815 had set in motion these two movements, the . democratic and the nationalist, which, acting sometimes but not always in combination, were at the root of half the political complications of the nineteenth century.
Now the Holy Alliance was the embodiment of the principle of resistance to both these movements. It was born in the brain of Alexander I, who had hitherto been an ardent advocate of liberal ideas. But behind the liberal ideas lay a rooted conviction of the divine authority which rests in kings. The king is responsible to God but not to his people for the righteous government of his realm. It is good for the people to participate in their own government; therefore the king will do well to allow his people as large a share in the government as they are fit for; but the share must be greater or less or non-existent as the king judges best, and the people have no right to call his judgment to account.
Absolutism and the Holy Alliance
They have no right to rise against the divinely constituted authority, or to question it; they have to accept it. Let the kings therefore enter into a Holy Alliance, forming a brotherhood pledged individually to act righteously towards their own subjects and mutually to support each other's authority and to act in concert. As the divine authority of the king has nothing to do with nationalism, it followed that the Holy Alliance became practically an instrument for enforcing absolutism without regard either to popular rights or to nationalism. Territories were defined by international compact between kings who were pledged to support each other's authority in those territories.
The princes of Europe all joined the league or expressed their sympathy with the exception of the Sultan of Turkey, who, not being a Christian, was so to speak not eligible. Britain however stood aloof. Neither the king nor the prince regent in his place could join, because such an action would have been absurd on any basis except an absolutist theory which the British constitution expressly rejected. The British people soon saw with displeasure that if, as it boasted, it had by its example saved Europe from the Napoleonic despotism, its victory was going to be turned to account in order to keep Europe under the heel of minor despotisms.
It increasingly resented the acquiescence of its Government in the policy of European monarchists; and it attributed that acquiescence to the absolutist sympathies of the Foreign Minister Castlereagh. For, however strong the reaction had been in England itself, the whole history of the country compelled it to sympathise both with constitutionalism as against absolutism, and with nationalism. What Britons had won for themselves they were willing to see other peoples win.
Nevertheless, in those classes at least which controlled the government the reaction still predominated. They would have resented a curtailment of their own powers, but they continued to be afraid of any extension of political liberty. The spectre of the French Revolution was not laid. Every reformer was assumed to be a covert Jacobin, and it was held that the safety of the state demanded the severe repression of all complaints. Such, too, was the attitude of the Government in an exaggerated degree. Criticism was an offence against order, and discontent a proof of the revolutionary spirit, and again Castlereagh was popularly fixed upon as the moving spirit in the repressive policy of the Government.