Belgian independence



The union of Holland and Belgium under the Dutch king, William I, in 1815 had been one of the less successful parts of the Vienna settlement. The economic and strategic motives which had seemed to justify the union proved less potent than the religious and cultural sentiments which were offended by it. William I had shown a sympathy for Belgium’s economic needs, but neither he nor his officials could understand the claims of Belgian Catholics nor the enthusiasm of Belgian liberals. That short-lived movement, the liberal Catholicism associated with Lamennais in France, had encouraged a temporary union of liberals and Catholics in Belgium, and the 1830 revolution in Paris infected the citizens of Brussels with its spirit.

Belgian revolution

Charles Rogier leads the 250 revolutionary volunteers from Liège to Brussels (Charles Soubre, 1878)

Popular demonstrations in Brussels in August and September 1830 were led by the usual revolutionary types—the lawyers and journalists. Rioting quickly developed into armed revolution. The Belgian leaders in the old parliament of the United Netherlands—men like de Gerlache and de Brouckere—were seeking only administrative separation, and this the king granted late in September when the revolution had already established de facto separation. But the bloodshed already caused by the king’s attempt to reoccupy Brussels antagonized the Belgians to the point where only complete independence was acceptable. Crowds of miners and peasants had flocked into Brussels, while the middle-class leaders left. A more extreme group formed an ‘administrative commission’, which later assumed the title of ‘Provisional Government’. On 4 October 1830 they proclaimed the independence of Belgium and announced that a national congress was to be elected.

William I of the Netherlands

William I of the Netherlands

The Belgian Question had already become a major issue in European diplomacy. The declaration of Belgian independence constituted an infringement of the 1815 settlement. British and French interests were vitally involved. Metternich could congratulate himself for having abandoned claims to Belgium in 1815, but this was small comfort in 1830 when a revolutionary fever seemed to be again spreading across Europe. That the powers settled the Belgian Question without resort to war showed that the ‘Concert of Europe’ was not a wholly meaningless phrase. The Conference of London, attended by the five powers, was dominated by a new figure on the European scene—the English foreign secretary, Viscount Palmerston. The Conference sat throughout the Belgian crisis and passed through some dangerous phases. Palmerston was obliged to bully in turn the Belgian revolutionary congress, the French, the eastern powers and the Dutch. The settlement which emerged was very much to his liking.

Belgian rebels on the barricade of the Place Royale facing the Parc de Bruxelles in Brussels (1830)

Belgian rebels on the barricade of the Place Royale facing the Parc de Bruxelles in Brussels (1830)

Although William I was not to accept defeat until April 1839, the powers signed a treaty recognizing Belgium as an independent state on Is November 1831. The Belgian national assembly had already been persuaded to elect Leopold of Saxe-Coburg as king. He was uncle of the future queen, Victoria, and an intelligent and able man of forty-one. Belgian neutrality was guaranteed by the powers. An enthusiasm among many Belgians for a link with France had alarmed Palmerston, and he had persuaded the Belgian congress and the other powers to accept the idea of perpetual neutrality, to place Belgium once and for all beyond the ambitions of her closely related neighbour.

Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg and Charlotte, his wife

Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg and Charlotte, his wife

A new state, with a respectable constitutional monarchy, had appeared in western Europe. Its king, who reigned until 1865, quickly acquired throughout Europe a reputation for political astuteness. In the early years of his reign Leopold’s personal prestige was a source of unity to his kingdom, but as Belgian political parties grew in influence the king’s power declined and his attitude appeared increasingly conservative. The clerical-liberal coalition which had carried through the revolution ruled Belgium for the early part of Leopold’s reign, but a split soon started to appear. The liberal newspaper, L’ Independance, founded in 1861, took an anti-clerical standpoint.

Klemens Von Metternich

Klemens Von Metternich

With the common enemy defeated, Catholics and liberals became rivals for control of education, even while they could, for the time being, share the government of the country. The king of Holland had founded two state universities in Belgium—Ghent and Liege. The Catholics replied with the revival of Louvain and in 1834 a liberal university was founded in Brussels. That the Catholics and liberals continued to form coalition governments from 1831 to 1847 was mainly due to the deliberate policy of the king, who refused to summon a one-party government and so prevented the growth of ministerial responsibility to the assembly. Though essentially undemocratic, Leopold’s policy gave the country a sense of unity in its early years. But it did not give political stability: from 1831 to 1847 there were seven ministries; and his authoritarianism could not survive the liberal outburst of 1848.

Belgian revolution

Belgian revolution

With St Petersburg and London, Brussels was one of the very few European capitals to escape revolution in 1848. In the summer of 1847 the liberals won the election and Charles Rogier, a leader of 1830 and the most distinguished liberal statesman of the period, was made prime minister. For the first time the principle of ministerial responsibility was clearly recognized. After the February Revolution in Paris, Rogier acted quickly, mobilizing the army, expelling Marx, but at the same time wisely passing important electoral reforms. Satisfaction was felt at the increase of the electorate from 46,000 to 79,000. The deputy Delfosse expressed the general feeling in a declaration which was to become famous : ‘To go around the world the ideas of the French Revolution need no longer pass through Belgium’. From 1848 to 1880 Belgium enjoyed a two-party parliamentary system, very similar in most respects to the English system.

Charles Rogier, a leader of 1830

Charles Rogier, a leader of 1830

The liberals were in office for the greater part of the time, but with the Catholics always forming a strong opposition. The main issue remained control of education. The peasants in the northern, Flemish part of Belgium tended to support the Catholics, while the industrial classes in the southern, Walloon region tended to be liberal and anti-clerical. The liberal governments pursued a classic economic policy, in the 1860s freeing overseas trade and signing commercial treaties with France and Britain. Belgium had become the most highly industrialized part of the continent. Her coal production in 1841 was greater than that of France or Germany, though by 1871 Germany had rushed ahead. But the tax qualification for the vote kept the industrial working class out of political life until after 1880. Not until 1885 was a workers’ party founded, and no working-class members were to be returned to parliament until after the constitutional reform of 1893.

From ‘Europe in the Nineteenth Century 1830/1880’ by H. Hearder

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