86 Revolutions of 1848

Course Syllabus for “HIST303: The Age of Revolutions in the Atlantic World, 1776–1848”

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This course will introduce you to the history of the Age of Revolutions in the Atlantic World from 1776 to 1848. You will learn about the revolutionary upheavals that took place in the Americas and Europe during this period. Each unit will include representative primary-source documents that illustrate important overarching political, economic, and social themes, such as the secession of the American colonies from the British Empire, the outbreak of the French Revolution, the dissolution of the Spanish and Portuguese Empires in the Americas, and the spread of revolutionary ideals throughout the Atlantic World. Running alongside and extending beyond these political revolutions is the First Industrial Revolution. By the end of the course, you will understand how an Atlantic World, dominated by European empires in 1776, was transformed through revolution into a series of independent states by 1848 and of the profound changes that Europe would experience, and continue to experience, through the development and consolidation of capitalism.

Learning Outcomes

Upon successful completion of this course, the student will be able to:

  • think analytically about the history of the revolutionary age between 1776 and 1848;
  • define what a revolution means, and describe what made 1776–1848 an “age of revolution”;
  • define the concept of the Atlantic world, and describe its importance in world history;
  • explain the basic intellectual and technical movements associated with the enlightenment and their relations to the revolutionary movements that follow;
  • identify and describe the causes of the American Revolution;
  • identify and describe the many stages of the French Revolution: the end of absolutist monarchy, the implementation of constitutional monarchy, and the rise of the Jacobin Republic;
  • compare and contrast the declaration of the rights of man and other major statements of the revolutionary period and enlightenment thinking;
  • identify and describe the impact of the first successful slave rebellion in world history—the Haitian Revolution;
  • compare and contrast the debate between Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine; and
  • analyze and interpret primary source documents that elucidate the causes and effects of the age of revolutions.

Course Requirements

In order to take this course, you must:

√    have access to a computer;

√    have continuous broadband Internet access;

√    have the ability/permission to install plug-ins or software (e.g. Adobe Reader or Flash);

√    have the ability to download and save files and documents to a computer;

√    have the ability to open Microsoft files and documents (.doc, .ppt, .xls, etc.);

√    have competency in the English language;

√    have read the Saylor Student Handbook; and

√    have completed all of the courses listed in “The Core Program” of the History discipline: HIST101HIST102HIST103, andHIST104.

Course Information

Welcome to HIST303. General information about the course and its requirements can be found below.

Course Designer: Mark Hoolihan and Concepcion Saenz-Cambra, PhD

Primary Resources: The study material for this course includes a range of free online content. However, the course makes primary use of the following resource:

– YouTube: Yale University: Professor Joanne B. Freeman’s The American Revolution Lecture Series

Requirements for Completion: In order to successfully complete this course, you will need to work through each unit and its assigned resources in order. You will also need to complete:

  • Unit 1 Assessment
  • Unit 2 Assessment
  • Unit 3 Assessment
  • Unit 4 Assessment
  • Unit 5 Assessment
  • The Final Exam

Note that you will only receive an official grade on your final exam. However, in order to prepare for this exam, you will need to work through all course materials, including the assessments listed above.

In order to pass the course, you will have to attain a minimum of 70% on the Final Exam. Your score on the final exam will be tabulated as soon as you complete it. You will have the opportunity to retake the exam if you do not pass it.

Time Commitment: This course should take you approximately 66 hours. A time advisory is presented under each subunit to guide you on the amount of time that you are expected to spend in going through the lectures. Please do not rush through the material to adhere to the time advisory. You can look at the time suggested in order to plan out your week for study and make your schedule accordingly. For example, Unit 1 should take approximately 18 hours to complete. Perhaps you can sit down with your calendar and decide to complete subunit 1.1.1 (a total of 5 hours) on Monday and Tuesday nights; subunits 1.1.2 through 1.1.5 (a total of 6.5 hours) on Wednesday and Thursday nights; etc.

Revolutions of 1848

The European Revolutions of 1848, known in some countries as the Spring of NationsSpringtime of the Peoples[3] or the Year of Revolution, were a series of political upheavals throughout Europe in 1848. It was the only Europe-wide collapse of traditional authority to date, but within a year, reactionary forces had won out, and the revolutions collapsed.

This revolutionary wave began in France in February and immediately spread to most of Europe and parts of Latin America. Over 50 countries were affected, but there was no coordination or cooperation among the revolutionaries in different countries. Five factors were involved: the widespread dissatisfaction with the political leadership; the demand for more participation and democracy; the demands of the working classes; the upsurge of nationalism; and finally, the regrouping of the reactionary forces based in the royalty, the aristocracy, the army, and the peasants.[4]

The uprisings were led by shaky ad-hoc coalitions of reformers, the middle classes and workers, but it could not hold together for long. Tens of thousands of people were killed, and many more forced into exile. The only significant lasting reforms were the abolition of serfdom in Austria and Hungary, the end of absolute monarchy in Denmark, as well as the definitive end of the Capetian monarchy in France. The revolutions were most important in France, Germany, Poland, Italy, and the Austrian Empire, and did not reach Russia, Great Britain, Spain, Sweden, Portugal, or the Ottoman Empire.[5]


These revolutions arose from such a wide variety of causes that it is difficult to view them as resulting from a coherent movement or social phenomenon. Numerous changes had been taking place in European society throughout the first half of the 19th century. Both liberal reformers and radical politicians were reshaping national governments.

Technological change was revolutionizing the life of the working classes. A popular press extended political awareness, and new values and ideas such as popular liberalismnationalism and socialism began to emerge. Some historians emphasize the serious crop failures, particularly those of 1846, that produced hardship among peasants and the working urban poor.

Galician slaughter (Polish: Rzeź galicyjska) by Jan Lewicki (1795–1871), depicting the massacre of Polish nobles by Polish peasants in Galicia in 1846.

Large swathes of the nobility were discontented with royal absolutism or near-absolutism. In 1846 there had been an uprising of Polish nobility in Austrian Galicia, which was only countered when peasants, in turn, rose up against the nobles.[6] Additionally, an uprising by democratic forces against Prussia occurred in Greater Poland.

Next the middle classes began to agitate. Working class objectives tended to fall in line with those of the middle class. Although Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels had written at the request of the Communist League in London (an organization consisting principally of German workers) The Communist Manifesto(published in German in London on February 21, 1848), once they began agitating in Germany following the March insurrection in Berlin, their demands were considerably reduced. They issued their “Demands of the Communist Party in Germany”[7] from Paris in March; the pamphlet only urged unification of Germany, universal suffrage, abolition of feudal duties, and similar middle class goals.

The middle and working classes thus shared a desire for reform, and agreed on many of the specific aims. Their participations in the revolutions, however, differed. While much of the impetus came from the middle classes, much of the cannon fodder came from the lower.[citation needed] The revolts first erupted in the cities.

Urban workers

The population in French rural areas had rapidly risen, causing many peasants to seek a living in the cities. Many in the bourgeoisie feared and distanced themselves from the working poor. Many unskilled laborers toiled from 12 to 15 hours per day when they had work, living in squalid, disease-ridden slums. Traditional artisans felt the pressure of industrialization, having lost their guilds. Revolutionaries such as Marx built up a following.[8]

The situation in the German states was similar. Parts of Prussia were beginning to industrialize. During the decade of the 1840s, mechanized production in the textile industry brought about inexpensive clothing that undercut the handmade products of German tailors.[9] Reforms ameliorated the most unpopular features of rural feudalism, while industrial workers remained dissatisfied with these and pressed for greater change.

Map of Europe, showing the major events of 1848 and 1849

Urban workers had no choice but to spend half of their income on food, which consisted of bread and potatoes. As a result of harvest failures, food prices soared[quantify] and the demand for manufactured goods decreased,[quantify] causing an increase in unemployment.[quantify] During the revolution, to address the problem of unemployment, workshops were organized for men interested in construction work. Officials also set up workshops for women when they felt they were excluded. Artisans and unemployed workers destroyed industrialized machines when their social demands were neglected.[10]

Rural areas

Rural population growth had led to food shortages, land pressure, and migration, both within Europe and out from Europe, especially to North America. In the years 1845 and 1846, a potato blight caused a subsistence crisis in Northern Europe. The effects of the blight were most severely manifested in the Great Irish Famine,[11] but also caused famine-like conditions in the Scottish Highlands and throughout Continental Europe.

Aristocratic wealth (and corresponding power) was synonymous with the ownership of farm lands and effective control over the peasants. Peasant grievances exploded during the revolutionary year of 1848.

Role of ideas

Despite forceful and often violent efforts of established and reactionary powers to keep them down, disruptive ideas gained popularity: democracyliberalismnationalism, and socialism.[12]

In the language of the 1840s, democracy meant universal male suffrageLiberalism fundamentally meant consent of the governed and the restriction of church and state power, republican governmentfreedom of the press and the individual. Nationalism believed in uniting people bound by (some mix of) common languagesculturereligion, shared history, and of course immediate geography; there were also irredentist movements. At this time, what are now Germany and Italy were collections of small states. Socialism in the 1840s was a term without a consensus definition, meaning different things to different people, but was typically used within a context of more power for workers in a system based on worker ownership of the means of production.


la Barricade de la rue Soufflot, Paris, Feb 1848, by Horace Vernet.

Italian states

Although little noticed at the time, the first major outbreak came in Sicily, starting in January 1848. There had been several previous revolts against Bourbon rule; this one produced an independent state that lasted only 16 months before the Bourbons came back. During those months the constitution was quite advanced for its time in liberal democratic terms, as was the proposal of an Italian confederation of states. The failed revolt was reversed a dozen years later as the Bourbon kingdom of the Two Sicilies collapsed in 1860–61 with the Risorgimento.


The “February Revolution” in France was sparked by the suppression of the campagne des banquets. This revolution was driven by nationalist and republican ideals among the French general public, who believed that the people should rule themselves. It ended the constitutional monarchy of Louis-Philippe, and led to the creation of the French Second Republic. This government was headed by Louis-Napoleon, who, after only four years, returned France to a monarchy with the establishment of the Second French Empire in 1852.

Alexis de Tocqueville remarked in his Recollections of the period that “society was cut in two: those who had nothing united in common envy, and those who had anything united in common terror.”[13]

German states

Cheering revolutionaries after fighting in March 1848

The “March Revolution” in the German states took place in the south and the west of Germany, with large popular assemblies and mass demonstrations. Led by well educated students and intellectuals,[14] they demanded German national unityfreedom of the press, and freedom of assembly. The uprisings were not well coordinated but had in common a rejection of traditional, autocratic political structures in the thirty-nine independent states of the German Confederation. The middle class and working class components of the Revolution split, and in the end the conservative aristocracy defeated it, forcing many liberals into exile.[15]


Denmark had been governed by a system of absolute monarchy since the seventeenth century. King Christian VIII, a moderate reformer but still an absolutist, died in January 1848 during a period of rising opposition from farmers and liberals. The demands for constitutional monarchy, led by the National Liberals, ended with a popular march to Christiansborg on March 21. The new king, Frederick VII, met the liberals’ demands and installed a new Cabinet that included prominent leaders of the National Liberal Party. The national-liberal movement wanted to abolish absolutism but retain a strongly centralized state. The king accepted a new constitution agreeing to share power with a bicameral parliament called the Rigsdag. Although army officers were dissatisfied, they accepted the new arrangement which, in contrast to the rest of Europe, was not overturned by reactionaries.[16] The liberal constitution did not extend to Schleswig, leaving the Schleswig-Holstein Question unanswered.

Danish soldiers return victorious


Schleswig, a region containing both Danes and Germans, was a part of the Danish monarchy but remained a duchy separate from the Kingdom of Denmark. Spurred by pan-German sentiment, Germans of Schleswig took up arms to protest a new policy announced by Denmark’s National Liberal government, which would have fully integrated the duchy into Denmark. The German population in Schleswig and Holstein revolted, inspired by the Protestant clergy. The German states sent in an army but Danish victories in 1849 led to the Treaty of Berlin (1850) and the London Protocols (1852). They reaffirmed the sovereignty of the King of Denmark, while prohibiting union with Denmark. The violation of the latter provision led to renewed warfare in 1863 and the Prussian victory in 1864.

Habsburg Empire

Proclamation of Serbian Vojvodina in Sremski Karlovci.

From March 1848 through July 1849, the Habsburg Austrian Empire was threatened by revolutionary movements, which often had a nationalist character. The empire, ruled from Vienna, included Austrian Germans, Hungarians, Slovenes, Poles, Czechs, Croats, Slovaks, Ukrainians/Ruthenians, Romanians, Serbs and Italians, all of whom attempted in the course of the revolution to either achieve autonomy, independence, or even hegemony over other nationalities. The nationalist picture was further complicated by the simultaneous events in the German states, which moved toward greater German national unity.


Battle of Buda, May 1849, by Mór Than

Hungarian hussars in battle during the Hungarian Revolution.

The Hungarian revolution of 1848 started on the 15 March 1848, when Hungarian patriots organized mass demonstrations in Pest and Buda (today Budapest) which forced the Imperial governor to accept their twelve points of demands. This resulted in Klemens von Metternich, the Austrian prince and foreign minister, resigning. In turn, Emperor Ferdinand promised Hungary a constitution, an elected parliament, and the end of censorship. The revolution grew into a war for independence from the Austrian Empire when Josip Jelačić, Ban of Croatia, crossed the border, in order to restore Habsburg control. The new government, led by Lajos Kossuth, was initially successful against the Habsburg forces, but eventually, after one and a half years of fighting, the revolution was crushed when Russian Tsar Nicholas I marched into Hungary with over 300,000 troops. Hungary was thus placed under brutal martial law, with the Austrian government restored.[17] On the long run, the passive resistance following the revolution led to the Austro-Hungarian Compromise (1867), which event marked the birth of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.


Switzerland, already an alliance of republics, also saw major internal struggle. The creation of the Sonderbund led to a short Swiss civil war in November 1847. In 1848, a new constitution ended the almost-complete independence of the cantons and transformed Switzerland into a federal state.

Western Ukraine

The center of the Ukrainian national movement was in Eastern Galicia. On April 19, 1848, a group of representatives lead by the Greek Catholic clergy launched a petition to the Austrian Emperor. It expressed wishes that in those regions of Galicia where Ruthenian (Ukrainian) population represented majority the Ukrainian language should be taught at schools and used to announce official decrees for the peasantry; local officials were expected to understand it and Ruthenian clergy was to be equalized in their rights with the clergy of all other denominations.[18]

On May 2, 1848 the Supreme Ruthenian (Ukrainian) Council was established. The Council (1848-1851) was headed by the Greek-Catholic Bishop Gregory Yakhimovich and consisted of 30 permanent members. Its main goal was the administrative division of Galicia into Western (Polish) and Eastern (Ruthenian/Ukrainian) parts within the borders of the Habsburg Empire, and formation of a separate region with a political self-governance.[19]

Greater Poland

Polish people mounted a military insurrection in the Grand Duchy of Poznań (or the Greater Poland region) against the occupying Prussian forces.

Danubian Principalities

People in Bucharest during the 1848 events, carrying the Romanian tricolor

Romanian liberal and Romantic nationalist uprising began in June in the principality of Wallachia. Closely connected with the 1848 unsuccessful revolt in Moldavia, it sought to overturn the administration imposed by Imperial Russian authorities under the Regulamentul Organic regime, and, through many of its leaders, demanded the abolition of boyar privilege. Led by a group of young intellectuals and officers in the Wallachian military forces, the movement succeeded in toppling the ruling Prince Gheorghe Bibescu, whom it replaced with a Provisional Government and a Regency, and in passing a series of major liberal reforms, first announced in the Proclamation of Islaz.


In Belgium, the uprisings were local and concentrated in the industrial basins of the Provinces of Liège and Hainaut. A more or less greater threat was coming from France, where among the seasonal workers Communism was spread by the small Communist clique of Belgium, basically the people were brought into a Belgian Legion, with the promise of a free ride home and money. The Belgian Legion would ‘invade’ Belgium by train and travel to Brussels where the government and monarchy had to be overthrown. Several smaller groups managed to infiltrate Belgium, but the reinforced Belgian bordertroops was successful in splitting up the larger groups of the Legion, and the invasion eventually came to nothing.[20]


The Young Irelander Rebellion of 1848 was a small, failed rebellion which broke out in BallingarryCo. Tipperary. It was led by the Young Irelandmovement, inspired by famine conditions in Ireland and the 1848 rebellions throughout Europe.

Other English-speaking lands

Chartist meeting on Kennington Common10 April 1848.

Elsewhere in Britain, the middle classes had been pacified by general enfranchisement in the Reform Act 1832; the consequent agitations, violence, and petitions of the Chartist movement came to a head with their peaceful petition to Parliament of 1848. The repeal in 1846 of the protectionist agricultural tariffs – called the “Corn Laws” – had defused some proletarian fervour.[21]

The Revolutions had little impact in British colonies, aside from a modest influx of immigration from German-speaking lands. In the United States, the main impact of Revolutions and their failure was substantially increased immigration, especially from Germany. This in turn fuelled the nativist “Know Nothing” movement in the years preceding the American Civil War. The “Know Nothings” were opposed to immigration, especially immigration of German and Irish Catholics and held the PopePius IX responsible for the Revolutions’ failure.

New Grenada

In Spanish Latin America, the Revolution of 1848 appeared in New Grenada, where Colombian students, liberals and intellectuals demanded the election of General José Hilario López. He took power in 1849 and launched major reforms, abolishing slavery and the death penalty, and providing freedom of the press and of religion. The resulting turmoil in Colombia lasted four decades; from 1851 to 1885 the country was ravaged by four general civil wars and fifty local revolutions.[22]


In Brazil, the “Praieira revolt” was a movement in Pernambuco that lasted from November 1848 to 1852. Unresolved conflicts left over from the period of the Regency and local resistance to the consolidation of the Brazilian Empire that had been proclaimed in 1822 helped to plant the seeds of the revolution.

Legacy and memory

. . . We have been beaten and humiliated . . . scattered, imprisoned, disarmed and gagged. The fate of European democracy has slipped from our hands.

Caricature by Ferdinand Schröder on the defeat of the revolutions of 1848/49 in Europe (published in Düsseldorfer Monatshefte, August 1849).

There were multiple memories of the Revolution. Democrats looked to 1848 as a democratic revolution, which in the long run insured liberty, equality, and fraternity. Marxists denounced 1848 as a betrayal of working-class ideals by a bourgeoisie that was indifferent to the legitimate demands of the proletariat. For nationalists, 1848 was the springtime of hope when newly emerging nationalities rejected the old multinational empires. They were all bitterly disappointed in the short run. 1848, at best, was a glimmer of future hope, and at worst it was a deadweight that strengthened the reactionaries and delayed further progress.[24]

In the post-revolutionary decade after 1848, little had visibly changed and most historians considered the revolutions a failure, given the seeming lack of permanent structural changes.

Nevertheless, there were a few immediate successes for some revolutionary movements, notably in the Habsburg lands. Austria and Prussia eliminated feudalism by 1850, improving the lot of the peasants. European middle classes made political and economic gains over the next twenty years; France retained universal male suffrage. Russia would later free the serfs on February 19, 1861. The Habsburgs finally had to give the Hungarians more self-determination in the Ausgleich of 1867. The revolutions inspired lasting reform in Denmark as well as the Netherlands.


Great Britain, the Netherlands, the Russian Empire (including Congress Poland), and the Ottoman Empire were the only major European states to go without a national revolution over this period. Sweden and Norway were little affected. Serbia, though formally unaffected by the revolt as it was a part of the Ottoman state, actively supported the Serbian revolution in the Habsburg Empire.[25]

Russia’s relative stability was attributed to the revolutionary groups’ inability to communicate with each other.[citation needed] In the Kingdom of Polandand the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, uprisings took place in 1830–31 (the November Uprising) and 1846 (the Kraków Uprising). A final revolt took place in 1863–65 (the January Uprising), but none occurred in 1848.

Switzerland and Portugal were also spared in 1848, though both had gone through civil wars in the preceding years (the Sonderbund war in Switzerland and the Liberal Wars in Portugal). The introduction of the Swiss Federal Constitution in 1848 was a revolution of sorts, laying the foundation of Swiss society as it is today. In the Netherlands no major unrests appeared because the king Willem II decided to alter the constitution to reform elections and effectively reduce the power of the monarchy. While there were no major political upheavals in the Ottoman Empire as such, political unrest did occur in some of its vassal states. In Serbia, feudalism was finally abolished in 1838 and power of the Serbian prince was reduced with the Turkish constitution.


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