When the news of the revolt of the people of Brussels reached the European courts in September, 1830, it touched the sensitive nerves of international organization and of political philosophy which were woven together in the history of the preceding forty years. Thus it is necessary to turn back to the year 1790 in order to grasp the exact character and the effect of this event, for the antecedents of the period of Belgian political independence show plainly the play of the forces which were to influence the course of the entire century to follow. The intellectual, social, and political movement known as the French Revolution had upset the ideas and the political order of Europe during a quarter of a century before its final collapse at Waterloo--in the heart of Belgium--on June 18, 1815. The coalition of England, Prussia, Austria, and Russia, not to mention other European states, prevailed over France and drove back her armies to Paris, crushing the revolutionary ardor which had inspired her conquests.
From about 1814 the Allies had agreed on certain fundamental principles. France was to be limited to the boundaries which she had held before her revolutionary expansion and placed again under the sovereignty of her legitimate dynasty. The region situated between the French boundary of 1790 and the Rhine--which river the French considered their natural and historic limit--was to be fortified as strongly as possible to serve as a bulwark against an eventual recurrence of invasion by France. Finally, the Allied Powers were to conclude a permanent alliance with a view to maintaining the political order, domestic and international, which they proposed to inaugurate.
It has been a constant principle of British policy that the territory at the mouths of the rivers Scheldt, Meuse, and Rhine, which empty into the North Sea opposite the mouth of the Thames, should never be incorporated into France or Germany. For this reason London has supported, during the whole course of modern history, the "independence" of the Low Countries--the low-lying rich lands of these river basins. During the Napoleonic Wars, British policy was directed toward the formation of a state which would include both Belgian and Dutch territory. A secret clause of the treaty signed at Paris on May 30, 1814, provided that "the establishment of a just balance in Europe demands that Holland be so situated as to make it possible for her to maintain her independence unaided." With this in view, the clause gave to Holland the territory included between the sea, the French frontiers, and the left bank of the Meuse--that is to say, the greater part of Belgium.
Many circumstances favored this disposition. England wished to recompense Holland for certain colonial territories which had come under English rule and which England intended to retain. Austria, whose Emperor had been sovereign of the Low Countries since 1714, had always considered the Belgian Provinces as a burdensome charge and so wished to be rid of them in order to direct her ambitions toward Italy and the East. There remained Prussia, whose desires were insatiable. Her generals had taken over the administration of the territory located between the Rhine and the Meuse and, showing for the first time a tenacious ambition, had laid claim to a permanent position on the latter river. On his side, however, the Prince of Orange, Stadholder of Holland, had lost his states of Nassau and wished to extend his domain as far as the Rhine. The Powers imposed a compromise: the eastern boundary of Belgium was drawn approximately along the linguistic frontier and the Prussians established themselves on the left bank of the Rhine, thus becoming the immediate neighbors of the Belgians. In 1815 the Treaty of Vienna sanctioned the existence of the Kingdom of the Netherlands and recognized the sovereignty of the Prince of Orange who had proclaimed himself king under the name of William I. In exchange for his Duchy of Nassau, annexed by Prussia, William was given the Grand Duchy of Luxemburg. The Duchy, however, became a member of the German Confederation, and Prussian troops were permitted to garrison its capital city.
Annexed thus to Holland, Belgium was established within her present territorial boundaries as far as they border on France and Prussia. The Powers had not even considered it possible to make the country autonomous. It must be said that, wearied of the frequent changes of regime, Belgium's mood appeared to be completely apathetic. However, with a view to the consolidation of the new structure and in hope of truly unifying it, King William had been obliged to pledge himself before the Powers, by the Treaty of the Eight Articles, to grant to Belgium political liberty, respect for her religious beliefs, and complete equality within the union. Furthermore, the new state was compelled to accept certain obligations which would sharply remind it of the role for which it had been cast by its founders. Wellington directed the construction of fortifications in 18 Belgian cities, and in 1818, by the Convention of the Fortresses, the Allies "recommended" that William permit the occupation of these defenses by English and Prussian troops in the event of impending danger from France.
It is of some significance to examine briefly this Dutch-Belgian union, for it reveals the outline of the national structure and the movements of thought which are visible throughout the century. The Powers had imposed on William the obligation of modifying the Dutch Constitution in order to adapt it to the needs created by this extension of territory. In 1813 the King had granted to Holland a Fundamental Law (Grondwet), the almost purely autocratic character of which was slightly tempered by some concession to the propertied classes. Two years later, the King seems to have believed that he could satisfy his obligations and the exigencies of policy by accepting the amendments made necessary by the Treaty of the Eight Articles--that is to say, provisions for freedom of religion and equality of right for the Belgian Provinces in national representation. Immediately, however, the Belgian clergy unleashed a violent campaign against the new constitutional arrangements regarding religion. Prominent representatives of Belgian opinion, who were consulted on the Constitution by the King, rejected it by a large majority, even though they had been chosen by the King's own agents. The opponents who came from the Flemish districts were men linked to the Dutch language, race, and geography, but were entirely devoted to the Catholic Church. The Walloons of the south, however, were less hostile to a regime which promised peace and material prosperity. Support for the regime developed, curiously enough, among those bourgeois elements which had been in sympathy with the ideas of the French Revolution, and which had also done very well for themselves both in industry and in administration, as had like groups in France under the Empire. By supporting the King, the Walloons hoped to stem the clerical reaction which threatened to compromise their gains.
However, a young liberal generation which did not share the anticlerical prejudices of its fathers was more aware of the political implications of the problem. It set the idea of popular sovereignty in opposition to the practice of royal absolutism, and, chafing under the restraint of arbitrary power, its enthusiasm was aroused by the hope of civic liberty. Young believers, on their side, were attracted by the liberal Catholicism which had been spread through the preaching of Lamennais. These parallel developments, remote from the causes of past discord, united men's spirits under the banner of the ideal of the century--liberty. The edifice built by the Treaty of Vienna began to crumble. It was difficult to make the Belgians agree that they could have only the same number of delegates in the States-General as the Dutch, although they were twice as numerous. The coexistence in the same state of two peoples equally advanced, though profoundly differentiated as a result of their religious cleavage in the sixteenth century, might have been possible, strictly speaking, if the King had not attempted to govern his new subjects in the interest of Holland and with Dutch functionaries, as though he were governing a conquered country. His despotism, exasperated by the resistance of the Belgians, found expression in annoying regulations and reluctantly yielded concessions. By 1828 he had succeeded only in binding together in the Union of the Opposition the two chief sections of opinion. Political agitation spread over the whole country and was not to be appeased until its final triumph.
During the "Three Glorious Days" ( July 27 to 29, 1830), the people of Paris overthrew the "legitimate" dynasty of the Bourbons, which had been reëstablished by the Allies, and thus cast down one of the pillars of the Restoration. The popular character of the revolution in Paris had alarmed the Belgian conservatives. Though there was calm for a time, and the Union of the Opposition had intended to limit its activity to a "legal, peaceful, and serious" resistance, still the spirit of agitation was at work.