Elliot Fernandez

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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 Fernández

Elliot Fernández

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).

13/06/2019 | Last update:

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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, the triumph of liberalism and the rise of the bourgeoisie to economic and political power, as well as its social and cultural leadership, placed these ideologies in more conservative positions, they were liberated from their revolutionary character, and they will be questioned by other ideologies and new political currents, such as Marxism and anarchism.

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 were different according to which country they were produced, but they shared an ideological background that represented the ideas that will be predominant throughout the century: liberalism, democratic radicalism (democracy) and nationalism.


  • In the political sphere, liberalism rejects absolutism. It defended constitutional regimes, a monarchy controlled by parliaments, separation of powers, male suffrage and public freedoms.
  • In economics, he defended the non-intervention of the State (laissez-faire).
  • The social composition of liberalism was represented by the middle and upper bourgeoisie.

Democratic Radicalism:

  • In politics, democratic radicalism rejects the Old Regime. It defended the republican parliamentary regime, with separation of powers, masculine suffrage and public liberties.
  • In economics, it is committed to state intervention.
  • Its social composition is represented by the petty bourgeoisie and popular sectors.


  • Nationalism has its maximum reference in the French Revolution.
  • In Germany, the great representatives are Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762-1814) and Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1803).
  • Both authors are the founders of the spirit of “Volksgeist” (the national spirit). This movement represented the values ​​of German preRomanticism.


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.

El triomf de la revolució de 1820 a Espanya portà al Trienni Liberal
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…

Its economic doctrine was based on:

  • Defence of non-intervention by the state in economic matters.
  • Subjection of these matters to private initiative. Laissez-faire.

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.

El radicalisme democràtic té com a antecedent històric el moviment dels "levellers" de l'Anglaterra del segle XVII
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.

Nation – French Revolution:

  • Political conception linked to the fight for freedoms.
  • Identification of the nation with the state. The State is the sole depository of the national sovereignty, the only capable to build the new nation without any privilege, egalitarian and homogeneous.

Nation – German Origin:

  • Idea of ​​nation without political outlines.
  • The nation was only of a cultural nature and linked with Romantic idealism.
  • Why did this cultural nation arise? It did be the influence of the Enlightenment. Romanticism manifested itself as a response to the cosmopolitanism advocated by the Enlightenment.

Nation – Italian Origin : 
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.

El "risorgimento" italià és el moviment que aconseguí la unificació del país
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:

  • Revolutionary ideas: favoured the development of a nationalism composed by the Nation-State binomial.
  • Opposition to the French presence: in many of these sites there was an anti-French resistance. In 1813, the war against Napoleon was seen in some German states as a national war to get rid of French tutelage.
  • Huge frustration created by the Congress of Vienna. Anti-national Congress: it did not take at all into account the will of the people.

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.

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