The conquests of Napoleon had marvelously disordered the territorial arrangements of Europe. When the Revolution began there were between three and four hundred sovereign powers on the Continent. There were a few great and powerful States, and a multitude of very small ones each with its miniature court, and its petty army, and its despotic code of laws emanating from the will of the Prince, and conflicting vexatiously with the codes enacted by the surrounding Princes.
Italy was one of the countries thus unfortunately circumstanced. Italy had once been firmly compacted under the strong rule of ancient Rome; but when Rome fell, every barbarian chief possessed himself of what he could, and Italy sank into a multitude of petty states. Charlemagne for a space recombined the fragments, or most of them, under his own rule. The Tribune Rienzi dreamed of uniting Italy in a great federal republic, of which Rome should be the head. But the Eighteenth Century closed upon Italy still disintegrated and powerless for her own defense. Piedmont and Naples were independent Kingdoms. Venice, the oldest State in Europe, although grievously decayed, still maintained her precarious existence. Austria ruled in Lombardy. The Pope exercised paternal sway over 2,000,000 miserably governed subjects. Genoa was ruled by an aristocracy. There were several duchies; and some of the free cities which sprang up so vigorously in the Twelfth Century now swelled out into little states. There was no federation. The petty monarchs could enter into treaties to unite their toy armies for mutual defense, but there was no organization for that purpose, and Italy was practically at the mercy of any strong invader.
Germany was composed of nearly three hundred independent powers. There were princes civil and princes ecclesiastical; there were electors; there were free towns; there were some kings of secondary importance; there were also the great Austrian and Prussian monarchies. Over this constituency, the King of Austria exercised the authority of Emperor, representing in a shadowy way the old Caesars, Whose dignities he was supposed to have inherited. Each of the petty states might be required to contribute troops for the defense of the Empire. But it was only from the more considerable members of the federation that help could be obtained. The revenues of the smaller states could do little more than support the outlays of the Sovereign, with his train of unprofitable and burdensome dependants. Austria had for centuries pre-dominated in Central Europe. Her population numbered 25,000,000. In addition to her German territory, she possessed Flanders, Lombardy, Hungary, and the Tyrol. Prussia had as yet scarcely been admitted to the rank of a first-class power. Her population was only 8,000,000. But her military organization was effective; the victories which she gained under the great Frederick had given her confidence in her own prowess; strong national impulses pointed to aggrandizement at the cost of her weaker neighbors.
The national existence of Poland had recently been subverted by the arms of Russia, Austria, and Prussia, and her territory divided among the conquerors. She had not relinquished her earnest desire for unity and independence, nor for many years was she to desist from heroic efforts to regain them.
Holland was leading a quiet existence under a republican form of government. Her neighbor, Belgium, after centuries of vicissitude, was prospering beside her under the rule of Austria.
Switzerland was a federation of twenty-two little republics. Her whole population was only 2,000,000. For two centuries she had cherished her independence, and from a position of well-established neutrality looked serenely down upon the contests which desolated her neighbors. Over states thus circumstanced the tide of French invasion rolled for nearly a quarter of a century.
The great monarchs who had overthrown Napoleon had now to bring order out of the territorial confusion which he had created, and to make restitution to a crowd of dethroned princes. It was work of unexampled difficulty; on its wise performance hung the welfare of generations. Unhappily the monarchs who then held the destinies of Europe in their hands did not rise to the greatness of their opportunity. It was not a reconstruction of Europe which they sat down to accomplish, with a wise regard to the wants of the European people. , The Ambassadors met at the Congress of Vienna in September, 1814-June, 1815, to satisfy the demands of a horde of bereaved princes. They met in the spirit of a supreme regard to personal interests. Their avowed object was to restore to Europe as nearly as possible the political arrangements which existed before the war. They took no account of the vast changes which the war had caused. They were blind to the new impulses which had risen to unsuspected strength, and were henceforth to shape out the destinies of Europe. On every petty throne they would reseat the petty despot who had occupied it before. Certain weak states which lay near France were strengthened, the better to withstand the encroachments which that unquiet power might be expected to attempt when her strength returned. Otherwise, the worn-out system of the Eighteenth Century was to be faithfully reproduced. A reconstruction of Europe on this principle could not be lasting; but it cost Europe many years and much blood to undo it.
Absolute monarchy was about to enter upon a period of swift, almost sudden decay. But its splendors were yet untarnished. Indeed, absolute power never seemed so far beyond reach of decay as when four or five men sat down in Vienna to regulate the political destinies of the European people no other thought than that of submission presenting itself to any of the victims of their arrangements. The success of their arms had made the allied monarchs supreme in Europe. Neither they themselves nor the European people questioned their right to dispose of territories and races according to their own pleasure.
They had at the outset to deal with France, and they did so justly. France was at one stroke divested of territories which held a population of 32,000,000 the enormous gains of Napoleon’s unscrupulous aggressions. All that France had unlawfully acquired she was now compelled to relinquish. It was the design of the allies that she should resume the identical dimensions of 1792; and this substantially was effected, although several unimportant modifications in the direction both of increase and diminution left her to a small extent a gainer.
Italy awoke from her dream of unity. Lombardy was given back to Austria. Venice, humbled and indignant, was added to the gift. The Pope resumed his temporal sovereignty. The Bourbons quickly regained the throne of Naples. The dukes swarmed back to their paltry thrones, as dependencies of Austria. Genoa was handed over to Sardinia, with Piedmont and Savoy, amid the vehement but unheeded remonstrances of the people thus transferred. Italy was once more a mass of incohering fragments. But the desire for unity, although frustrated for half a century, was already enkindled in strength sufficient to compel fulfillment.
Germany, too, received back her innumerable sovereignties. Only they were knit together in a league, of which Austria and Prussia were supreme directors. The states forming this confederation were bound to afford mutual support against foreign attack. Austria, as the most powerful member of the union, naturally looked to be its head. But the rising strength and ambition of Prussia involved a perilous competition for the coveted supremacy.
Holland and Belgium were forced to unite into a Kingdom. Hanover, for the possession 0f which Prussia sinned and suffered so grievously, was restored to England. Norway was annexed to Sweden. Switzerland had a constitution bestowed upon her by royal hands, and, having meekly accepted it, resumed her independence. The old partition of Poland was confirmed, with some modifications in the interest of Russia, and a people numbering 15,000,000 were formally handed over to Russia, Austria, and Prussia. The poor King of Saxony had a hard fate. He had adhered too faithfully to the falling Emperor, and thus in the Congress he had few friends. Prussia claimed the whole of his territory. Ultimately she consented to accept something less than the half of her demand.
England came with credit and dignity out of this ignoble contest over the spoils of war. She gave back to France and her allies all the colonies which she had taken, with some inconsiderable exceptions. She asked nothing for herself but the glory of having contributed to the deliverance of Europe.
At length the settlement was complete. The monarchs were able to cherish the pleasing conviction that they had created a perfect and enduring political equilibrium. The European powers were now so happily balanced that perfect tranquillity would gladden the tormented nations. But they omitted from their calculations one most vital factor. They took no thought of the European people. Their ingeniously devised system was abhorred by the people who were required to live under it. For half a century to come many of the nations had to give their energies to the overthrow of the balance which the Congress of Vienna established.