Elliot Fernandez

Liberalism and nationalism in the 19th century

Liberalism and nationalism has been the two ideologies that marked the social, political, economic and cultural transformations throughout the nineteenth century.
Elliot Fernandez
Elliot Fernandez
He has a degree in History from the Autonomous University of Barcelona (2009) and a Master's in World History from Pompeu Fabra University (2011).
Post on 2019-06-13 | Updated on 2022-10-03

Liberalism and nationalism has been the two ideologies that marked the social, political, economic and cultural transformations throughout the nineteenth century.

Since the fall of the Old Regime and the establishment of parliamentary regimes in North America and Western Europe until the triumph of industrialization and capitalism, as well as the configuration of the new liberal states, liberalism and nationalism are the two ideologies that form part of the social, political, economic and cultural transformations throughout the nineteenth century.

During the first half of the nineteenth century the revolutionary waves of 1820, 1830 and 1848, instigated by the bourgeoisie, made these ideologies dominant. During the second half of the 19th century, revolutionary ideas became more conservative. The triumph of liberalism and the rise of the bourgeoisie to economic and political power, as well as its social and cultural leadership, liberated from their revolutionary character.

New ideologies, like Marxism and anarchism, questioned liberalism ideology.

The new ideologies of the nineteenth century: liberalism, nationalism and democratic radicalism (1815-1848)

During the first half of the nineteenth century, throughout Europe sprung up revolutionary movements, mainly in the years 1820, 1830 and 1848. These revolutions shared an ideological background that represented the ideas that will be predominant throughout the century: liberalism, democratic radicalism (democracy) and nationalism. But revolutions were different in each country.


Democratic Radicalism:



Liberalism rejected all absolute power. Hence, it proposed a set of measures to prevent absolutist powers: first, the need to draft a constitution that established rules to delimit the absolute power of monarchies.

Triumph of liberalism
The triumph of the 1820 revolution in Spain led to the Liberal Triennium

Liberalism also established the separation of powers between the executive, the legislative and the judicial as means to avoid the abuse of power. It defended the monarchy, but subject to a constitution (constitutional monarchy). The Parliament had to be composed of two chambers: the lower house (Congress) and the upper house (Senate). The Congress had to be elective, but the Senate did not. All those elected by male census suffrage (vote of wealthy men with property) could be representatives.

Liberalism defended public freedoms: freedom of opinion, freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, freedom of press...

Economic doctrine of liberalism

Liberalism was the expression of a concrete group, the bourgeoisie. During the first half of the nineteenth century, liberalism gained strength in those states where the bourgeoisie had a certain importance. Within liberalism, there was the industrial and commercial bourgeoisie.

The British historian Eric Hobsbawm claimed that within liberalism were comprised also the liberal aristocracy, and the upper middle class: the elites of society, rich and educated. Those who can benefit the most from the free and economic political game, from "non-intervention". It did not produce equality, but inequalities.

Liberalism did not manifest itself against inequalities. It was in favour of economic, political and religious freedoms. Liberalism posed a threat to the absolutist regimes. These liberal movements played an important role in ending the Old Regime.

Democratic Radicalism

Democratic radicalism was not prominent during the first half of the nineteenth century. It is defined by its opposition to the Old Regime, in a much broader version than liberalism. It meant an overcoming of liberalism in the economic, political and social fields. For the defenders of democratic radicalism political rights were not conceived without the right to vote of all citizens, the principle of popular sovereignty (effective right to elect their representatives in Parliament). It did not defend the constitutional monarchy, but the republican form of government.

Democratic radicalism
Democratic radicalism has as its historical background the movement of the "levellers" of seventeenth-century England and the defenders of natural rights during the French Revolution.

It considered the monarchy as a restrictive form of government for the fulfilment of complete freedoms. Opposite to liberalism, it contemplated the existence of a parliament with two chambers, both elective. For radicals, social inequality meant a real limitation to the exercise of freedom for all the people. There had to be intervention by the state to curb social inequalities.

Who entered the democratic radicalism? Sectors of the petty bourgeoisie and popular sectors. Working population, lower middle class, a part of the new manufacturers, the intellectuals and the discontented with the new liberal regime.


Within 19th-century revolutionary movements, nationalism is fed by a double source: the idea of nation burst during the French Revolution, and the idea of ​ nation of German origin, linked to Romanticism.

French Revolution and Nation idea:

German Origin of cultural nationalism:

Pre-unitary Italian nationalism:

In pre-unitary Italy, Giuseppe Mazzini (1805-1872) defended the alliance of nationalism, liberalism and democratic radicalism to carry forward his project of creating a unified Italian state. Mazzini and his group of followers elaborates a project of unification of Italy, based on democracy and republicanism. Italian nationalists asked for the liberation of some Italian states under the tutelage of Austria.

The Italian "Risorgimento"
The Italian "Risorgimento" is the movement that achieved the unification of the country

Two important representatives of nationalism:

How did a nationalism with political profile rise in Europe? Nationalism was favoured by the revolutionary and Napoleonic experience, beyond the borders of France. It acted within three directrices:

Against absolutism, there was a common front between the different ideologies. It acted without taking into account national borders. 
Between 1815-1848 the progressive disintegration of the common front is witnessed, as long as they are achieved: the satisfaction of the moderate interests of the liberals, in 1820; the development of the working class, 1830.