Belgium History Beginning of 1800s

From 1804 to 1814, under the Napoleonic Empire, the Belgian Provinces, although thoroughly unified and centralized, were unscrupulously robbed. In no other period of her history had Belgium been so drastically transformed. Her government was radically modified. Her communal and provincial institutions were unified. Equality of rights among citizens of the various provinces was acknowledged and upheld. Class distinction was abolished, and the development of commerce and industry paved the way for the ascent of the "bourgeoisie." The proletariat, however, fell into increasing misery.

After 1809 grudges against the Emperor began to multiply until, in 1814, the French were forced to evacuate. The success of the Belgians in casting off the yoke of France was followed by abuses from their liberators, the Allies. Desirous of making Belgium a buffer state, they planned an "extension of territory" in favor of Holland. At the London Conference of June 20, 1814, it was decided that Belgium should be reunited with Holland. The following year, at the Congress of Vienna, the United Provinces and the Principalities of Liége were handed over to William I, King of Holland. The Grand Duchy of Luxemburg, as well as the territories which make up the present Grand Duchy, also was given to William in compensation for his losses to Germany. The Allies further despoiled Belgium of the counties of Eupen-et-Malmédy and St. Vith in favor of Prussia--thus, by a disastrous imprudence, establishing the latter in the Rhineland. Prussia would have liked to have obtained, if not the whole country, at least the right bank of the Meuse. England opposed this, and Lord Castlereagh pronounced these prophetic words: "The Prussians at Aix-laChapelle! What madness! Before a hundred years they will be in Antwerp."

In the meantime, having escaped from Elba, Napoleon again seized control in France. He immediately substituted force for diplomacy; but then came the great Battle of Waterloo, fought on Belgian soil, and the fate of Belgium, as well as that of Europe, was fixed for a century to come.

The Congress of Vienna would not take into consideration Belgium's long struggle for unification and independence. It thought only of using Belgium as a means of checking the power of France.

Belgium must be annexed to Holland and made a sort of European Boulevard--a line of demarcation beyond which the French could not expand.

Material resources were not lacking in the new state. The Belgians had fertile lands, a well-developed agriculture, some mineral wealth, and had exceptional skill for manufacturing. The Dutch, on the other hand, possessed a large fleet, colonies with a bright future, and commercial interests that had been established for centuries. But from a national point of view there existed no soul in that robust body. Since the time of Philip II, the Hollanders in the north and the Belgians in the south had been developing along divergent lines. Differing in temperament, religion, customs, and political habits, the two groups did not mix. Walloon Catholics disliked and feared the Calvinist tendencies of the Netherlanders, and Flemish merchants, also Catholics, were apprehensive of their competition. Both groups resented the humiliation of having been turned over to a Protestant power less extensive in range of territory and much less thickly populated. A broader and more understanding government would perhaps have realized the difficulties inherent in placing the Southern Provinces of the Low Countries under the dominion of the Northern Provinces. However, William I, the King of Holland, in spite of his qualities as organizer, like Joseph II, failed because he insisted on imposing his authoritarian ideas on a people whom he did not understand. He did not realize that Belgians could not be treated as though they were Dutch.

The news of the July Revolution in France aroused the Belgians. On August 25, 1830, disturbances began in Brussels. Within two months the Dutch were driven out of the territory. On November 10th, a National Congress was assembled under the presidency of Erasme Surlet de Chokier, a lawyer. A Belgian Constitution was drawn up, and was ratified on February 17, 1831.

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