Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Belgian Revolution

Tomorrow, of course, will be Belgium's National Day, commemorating the swearing-in of the first King of the Belgians, Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, 180 years ago. (Sadly, barring an overnight miracle, it will be Belgium's second National Day in a row without a government!) I can warmly recommend reading the New Advent article on the early modern history of Belgium. Here is an excerpt describing the Belgian Revolution of 1830, the fruit of a curious alliance between Catholic and Liberal opponents of King William I of the Netherlands, which gave rise to the new Kingdom of Belgium:
Soon after the victory of the Allied Powers, who became masters of Belgium, they established there a provisional government under the Duke of Beaufort (11 June, 1814). The new governing powers promptly proclaimed to the Belgians that, in conformity with the intentions of the Allied Powers, "they would maintain inviolable the spiritual and the civil authority in their respective spheres, as determined by the canonical laws of the Church and by the old constitutional laws of the country". These declarations roused hopes which, however, were destined to be disappointed; for by the secret treaty of Chaumont (1 March, 1814), confirmed by Article 6 of the Treaty of Paris (30 May, 1814), it had even then been decided that Holland should receive an addition of territory, and that this addition should be Belgium. The secret Treaty of London (23 June, 1814) furthermore provided that the union of the two countries was to be internal and thorough, so that they "would form one and the same State governed by the constitution already established in Holland, which would be modified by mutual consent to accord with new conditions". The new State took the name of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, and was placed under the sovereignty of William I of Orange-Nassau.
The object of the Powers in creating the Kingdom of the Netherlands was to give France on her northern frontier a neighbour strong enough to serve as a barrier against her, and with this aim in view they disposed of the Belgian provinces without consulting them. The State resulting form this union seemed to offer numerous guarantees of prosperity from the standpoint of economics. Unfortunately, however, the two peoples, after being separated for more than two centuries, had conflicting temperaments; the Dutch were Calvinists, the Belgians Catholics, and the former, although greatly in the minority, 2,000,000 as against 3,500,000 Belgians, expected to rule the Belgians and to treat them as subjects. These differences could have been lessened by a sovereign who would take the duty on himself; they were, however, aggravated by the policy adopted by William I. Arbitrary, narrow-minded, obstinate, and moreover an intolerant Calvinist, he surrounded himself almost exclusively with Dutchmen, who were totally ignorant of Catholic matters and of the Belgian character. In addition, he was imbued with the principles of "enlightened despotism" which made him regard his absolutism as the form of government best suited to the needs of his kingdom, and thus he was unequal to his tasks from the very outset. While still Prince of Fulda, he had persecuted his Catholic subjects until the Diet was forced to check him. As King of the Netherlands, he showed that he had learned nothing by experience, and imagined that he could effect the fusion of the two peoples by transforming Belgium into Holland as far as possible.
On the other hand, the Belgians, passionately attached to their national traditions, and even more to their religious unity, did not take sufficiently into account the profound changes which had taken place in the conditions of the two peoples. Forgetful of the French Revolution and the consequent upheaval of Western Europe they were convinced that past conditions could be restored even in the midst of a society that had outgrown them; nor did they grasp the fact that as the Treaty of London established freedom of worship in the Kingdom of the Netherlands they were under an international obligation which could not be put aside. They calmly demanded, first of the Allied Sovereigns, then of the Congress of Vienna, not only the restoration of the former rights of the Church, but the re-establishment of their old constitution in its entirety. Their disappointment was great when their sovereign, obeying the provisions of the Treaty of London, submitted for their acceptance the "Fundamental Law of Holland", with some modifications. Leaving out of the question the initial injustice in granting each country the same numerical representation in the States-General, despite the fact that the population of Belgium was almost twice that of Holland, it entirely overthrew the old order of things, suppressed the clergy as an order, abolished the privileges of the Catholic Church, and guaranteed the enjoyment of the same civil and political rights to every subject of the king, and equal protection to every religious creed. The Belgian bishops promptly made respectful appeals to the king. William having disregarded these, they issued a "Pastoral Instruction" for the use of the prominent Belgians summoned to present their views on the revised Fundamental Law. This condemned the Law as contrary to religion and forbade its acceptance. The high-handed course taken by the Government to hinder the effectiveness of these measures proved unavailing; of the 1,603 prominent Belgians consulted, 280 did not vote, 796 voted against the Fundamental Law, and only 527 declared themselves in favour of it. The Fundamental Law was therefore rejected by the nation; for, adding to the 527 favourable votes the 100 unanimous votes of the States of Holland, there was a total of only 637 votes. Nevertheless, the king declared the Fundamental Law adopted, because, according to him, those who did not vote were to be regarded as favouring it, while of the 796 who opposed it, 126 did so only because they misunderstood its meaning. Owing to this "Dutch arithmetic", as King William's computations were termed, Belgium found itself under a constitution which it had legally repudiated, a constitution too which proved to the Kingdom of the Netherlands a heavy burden during its brief, stormy existence.
The adoption of the Fundamental Law, by the king's decision, did not end the conflict between the civil authority and the Belgian conscience. Besieged with questions as to whether it was permissible to take the oath of fidelity to the Fundamental Law, the bishops published their "Doctrinal Decision", which condemned it (1815). In consequence, many Catholics in obedience to their religious superiours, refused to take the oath, resigned their offices and their seats in the legislature. On the other hand, the Prince de Méan, former Prince-Bishop of Liège, took the required oath, and the king immediately appointed him to the archiepiscopal See of Mechlin, then vacant. The king next had attempted to gain the Holy See for his side in his struggle with the Belgian episcopacy, by practically demanding of it Bulls of canonical investiture for his candidate as well as a formal censure of the "Doctrinal Decision". The pope replied gently but firmly, condemning the words of the oath of allegiance to the Fundamental Law, sending a Brief of commendation to the bishops, and refusing investiture to the Prince de Méan until he should have publicly declared that his oath had not bound him to anything "contrary to the dogmas and laws of the Catholic Church, and that in swearing to protect all religious communions, he understood this protection only in its civil sense". The condescension of the Holy See in this matter, instead of winning the king to moderation, seemed to make him bolder. Reviving the obsolete claims of the old Gallican and Josephinist governments, and determined to overcome the opposition of the Bishop of Ghent, he had the bishop prosecuted for having published the "Doctrinal Decision"; for having corresponded with Rome without authorization; and for having published the papal Bulls without approbation. The Brussels Court of Assizes condemned the bishop to be deported for contumacy (1817), and the Government, carrying the sentence even farther, had the bishop's name written on the pillory, between two professional thieves sentenced to be pilloried and branded. The clergy of the Diocese of Ghent who remained faithful to the bishop were also persecuted by the State. The conflict would have continued indefinitely had not the prelate died in exile, in 1821, after having had twice confessed the Faith in the face of persecution. After his death, the Government conceded that the oath should be binding only from the civil point of view, which set at rest the Catholic conscience and ended the difficulties which had beset the first six years of the Kingdom of the Netherlands.
If there had been any real desire on the part of King William to respect the conscience of Catholics, who constituted the greater part of the nation, he would now have inaugurated a policy, which would have set aside religious differences, and started the kingdom along lines leading to the frank and cordial fusion of the two peoples. This was not done. On the contrary, in his obstinate determination to treat the sovereign pontiff as an outsider, and to bring the Catholic Church under the omnipotence of the State, William in his blind fury continued his policy of oppression. Before the above-mentioned conflict, the king had created a State commission for Catholic affairs and had declared in the decree that "no church ordinance coming from a foreign authority — [i.e. the pope] could be published without the approval of the Government". This was equivalent to re-establishing in the full dawn of the nineteenth century the placet of the despotic governments of the former regime. Going farther, he instructed this commission "to be on their guard in maintaining the liberties of the Belgian Church", an extravagant formula borrowed from defunct Gallicanism, implying that the commission should take care to withdraw the Belgian Church from the legitimate authority of the pope. The men he had chosen to help him pushed their distrust and hatred of the Catholic hierarchy farther than he did. Baron Goubau, the head of the board of Catholic worship, and his superior, Van Maanen the minister of justice, by a system of petty persecutions soon made their names the most hated in Belgium, and largely increased the unpopularity of the Government.
In 1821 the Government began to be chiefly occupied with the suppression of liberty in the matter of education. Since the foundation, in 1817, of the three State universities, Liège, Ghent, and Louvain, higher education had been entirely under the control of the State, which now assumed control of middle inferior education (20 May, 1821) by a ministerial ordinance which allowed no free school to exist without the express consent of the Government. Lastly, a decree of 14 June, 1825, suppressed free middle superior instruction by determining that no college could exist without being expressly authorized, and that no one could teach the children of more than one family without an official diploma. A second decree of the same date declared anyone who made his studies abroad ineligible for any public office in the kingdom. The State having monopolized all lay education, there still remained the training of the clergy, which by the general canons of the Church, and those of the Council of Trent, in particular, belonged exclusively to the bishops. By a third decree, 14 June, 1825, said to be a revival of that of Joseph II, establishing the General Seminary, a State institution was erected under the name of Philosophical College (College philosophique), in which every aspirant for the priesthood was obliged to make a course of at least two years before he could be admitted to a grand séminaire.
On this occasion, the Archbishop of Mechlin, whose servility toward the king had till then known no limit, did not hesitate to make some respectful remonstrances to the Government, declaring that he could not in conscience accept these decrees. Goubau, in answering, repeated in substance Napoleon's gibe to the Prince de Broglie, "Your conscience will be regarded as a mere pretext and for good reasons". The other bishops, however, the capitular vicars of vacant sees, and the rest of the clergy, unanimously took sides with the Archbishop of Mechlin and joined in his protest. The Catholic Belgian deputies to the States-General protested; the Holy See protested in its turn. Nothing availed; the Government closed the free colleges one after another, thereby ruining a flourishing educational system in which Belgian families had absolute confidence; the Philosophical College was opened with great pomp, with a corps of instructors little thought of, either from a scientific or a moral point of view; students were drawn thither by bursaries or scholarships, and by exemption from military service. The Government becoming more radical than ever, then undertook to create schism in the Belgian Church by elaborating a plan, whereby the authority of the Holy See would be abolished and the bishops placed immediately under the Government.
But all these measures only increased the discontent of the Belgians and their passive resistance. To get the mastery, the Government conceived the idea of having recourse a second time to the sovereign pontiff, and broaching again the project of a Concordat, which had failed in 1823, on account of the king's inadmissible claims. The king counted, on the one hand, on wresting as many concessions as possible from the Holy See, and on the other, on gaining popularity among the Belgians through the arrangement he would make with the pope. These calculations failed, and once more the superiority of papal diplomacy was made manifest in the difficult negotiations which finally resulted in the Concordat of 1827. The Philosophical College ceased to be obligatory for clerics and became a matter of choice; in place of having the right of designating the bishops, the king was obliged to content himself with that of vetoing the choice made by the Chapters. The Concordat, which filled the Catholics with joy, excited the ire of the Calvinists and the Liberals, and the Government tried hard to quiet the latter by showing the worst possible will in the application of the treaty which it had just concluded with the Vatican. The Philosophical College was not declared optional until 20 June, 1829; vacant episcopal sees were provided with titulars elected according to the conditions laid down in the Concordat, but a royal decree rendered the recruiting of the clergy almost impossible save from the ranks of the old pupils of the Philosophical College. The Catholic opposition, headed by Bishop Van Bommel, the new Bishop of Liège, was so vigorous, and political complications so grave, that the king at last consented to permit the bishops to reorganize their seminaries as they wished (20 October, 1829). Then, as the crisis became more serious, he went farther, and on 9 June, 1830, entirely suppressed the Philosophical College, which had been deserted form the time attendance had become optional. On 27 May of the same year, the king even revoked his decrees regarding freedom in education; he thanked Goubau and committed to Catholic zeal the direction of matters concerning Catholic worship, and would have left no ground for grievance on the part of Catholics had he not, at the last moment, seen fit, in the negotiations with the Holy See, to demand the right of approving appointments to canonries. But all the king's concessions, which were really extorted from him by force of circumstances, and despite his dogged reluctance, came too late, and the negotiations in regard to the question of canons were still in progress when the Belgian Revolution broke out.
As to the causes of an event so decisive for the future of the Belgian people, it is highly improbable that if King William had given them grounds for complaint only in religious matters, the public discontent would have culminated in a revolution. The Catholics, faithful to the teachings of the Church and to the counsels of their pastors, had no wish to exceed what was lawful and knew that they should confine themselves to peaceful protests. But the Government had injured many other interests to which a great number were more sensitive than they were to the oppression of the Catholic Church, at which they would have been wholly indifferent if, indeed, they would not have rejoiced. It will suffice to recall the principal grievances. Although Holland's population was less than Belgium by almost half, each nation was allowed the same number of deputies in the States-General. Acquaintance with the Dutch language was at once made obligatory for all officials. The greater number of institutions of the central Government were located in Holland, and the majority of the offices were reserved for the Dutch. Taxes on corn and on slaughtering weighed most heavily on the southern provinces. The press was under the arbitrary control of the Government and the courts, and they vigorously prohibited any criticism of the Government and its deputies. The Government stubbornly opposed the introduction of the jury system, the verdicts of which, inspired by a saner appreciation of public feeling, would often have calmed opinion instead of inflaming it. Lastly, as if wishing to fill the measure of its blunders, the Government shamelessly hired an infamous forger condemned by the French tribunals, a certain Libri-Bagnano, whose journal, the "National", never ceased insulting and taunting every Belgian who had the misfortune of incurring the displeasure of the Government. There came a time when the Liberals, who, as late as 1825, had applauded the Government in its persecution of the Church, found themselves attacked in their turn, and began to protest with more violence than the Catholics had ever done.
Then the inevitable happened. Equally oppressed, the two parties forgot their differences, and joined forces. The fiery anti-clerical Louis de Potter, author of various historical works extremely irreligious in tone, was one of the first to advocate, from prison in which he was confined for some violation of laws concerning the press, the union of the Catholics and the Liberals. This union was made the more easy because the greater part of the Catholics, under the influence of the teachings of Lamennais and the pressure of events, had abandoned their stand of 1815 and had rallied to the doctrine of "liberty in all and for all". Once effected, the union of Catholics and Liberals soon bore fruit. Their first step, proposed by the Catholics who wished to employ lawful means only, was the presentation of petitions by every class of society in turn. Hundreds of petitions piled up in the offices of the States-General, demanding liberty of education, freedom of the press, and the righting of other wrongs. While these petitions were being circulated the perfect order that was maintained deceived the king. On a tour which he made through the southern provinces, to convince himself personally as to the state of the public mind, he received such demonstrations of loyalty that he persuaded himself that the petition was a factitious movement, and went so far as to declare, at Liège, that the conduct of the petitioners was infamous (1829).
This false step was his undoing. In the face of his refusal to initiate any reforms, the country became incensed, and the direction of the national movement passed from the hands of the peaceful Catholics into those of the impatient Liberals. The resistance soon took on a revolutionary character. The ecclesiastical authorities had foreseen this, and had for a long time opposed both the "Union", and the petitions which were its first manifestation. The Bishops of Ghent and Liège had come forward to remind the faithful of their duties to the sovereign; the Archbishop of Mechlin had assured the Government of the neutrality of the clergy; the nuncio had shown his disapproval of the "Union", and the Cardinal-Secretary of State had stigmatized it as monstrous. But the religious authorities soon found themselves powerless to control the movement. The Catholics, imitating the Liberals, had recourse to violent language; their most important periodical refused to print the conciliatory letter of the Bishop of Liège, which one of the Liberal leaders styled an episcopal-ministerial document; the lower clergy, in turn, allowed itself to be drawn into the current; the Government, wilfully blind, continued wantonly, in its imprudence, to pile up the materials for a great conflagration; at last nothing was lacking but a fuse. This came from France. The revolution of July, 1830, lasting from the 27th to the 29th, overthrew the government of Charles X; on 25 August, of the same year, a riot broke out in Brussels and brought on the revolution which culminated in the conflicts between (24-26 September) the Dutch troops and the people of Brussels assisted by re-enforcements of volunteers from the provinces. The whole country rose up; at the end of some weeks the Dutch army had evacuated the soil of the southern provinces, and Belgium was free.


Christina said...

Matterhorn, please forgive me for writing this as a comment but I can find no other means of contacting you. I am planning to
to set up a blog with about 10-12 respected contributors, all of whom are people whose books or blogs or knowledge I admire, which is aimed at presenting a different perspective on many people of the past whom history has misjudged or condemned in one way or another (e.g. Tsar Nicholas was weak, Queen Victoria was miserable etc. etc.) All contributors will be able to add links to their sites/other blogs.
The blog – which will be called ‘Lost in the Myths of History’ will be open to anyone to read but comments from non-contributors will be modified in so far as nothing offensive or derogatory will appear.

If you would be interested in participating as a contributor please let me know via a comment on my GD Elizabeth blog or by emaling me at and I will send you an invitation over the next few days when the blog is set up.


Matterhorn said...

Thank you, Christina, it is an honor to be asked to participate in this lovely new blog. I hope to be in touch with you about it soon.