Revolutions of 1848: Springtime of the Peoples

"The People at Tuileries", a lithography by Victor Adam showing the throne room of the Tuileries Palace being seized by a mob in 1848.
“The People at Tuileries”, a lithography by Victor Adam showing the throne room of the Tuileries Palace being seized by a mob in 1848. Public domain image.

The 19th century in Europe was an era of significant transformation, marked by a series of revolutions that reshaped the continent’s political and social landscape. Even though the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Era had been ultimately defeated, the liberalism espoused by them endured and represented a formidable challenge to the autocratic order of the Concert of Europe.

In the 1820s and in the 1830s, several countries had already lived through revolutions. In 1848, European populations rose in revolt simultaneously, in various places, in a decentralized manner. Because of this, the rebellions that took place that year came to be known as the Springtime of the Peoples.

Although the uprisings had social, national and class differences, they shared a few characteristics:

  • They were led by the middle class and the intellectuals, and the masses only took part in them in later stages.
  • They fought against a common enemy: absolutism. The revolutionaries would split only in later stages of the revolutions.
  • They followed the same internationalist tradition and they had the same aims: the promulgation of a constitution under a new government.
  • They were conceived in exile, where revolutionaries could escape from the political repression of their respective national governments.

These were the main revolutions in the context of the Springtime of the Peoples:

February Revolution in France

In the years preceding 1848, discontent with the rule of King Louis Philippe motivated private political meetings known as the “banquet campaign”. The moderate left-wing opposition organized these encounters, where the people criticized the economic crisis in the country and proposed a reform of the electoral law, so as to increase enfranchisement. However, the king and the government were vehemently opposed to these meetings, so the French cabinet began to prohibit them — much like it already prohibited public gatherings.

In February 1848, as a result of these prohibitions, the Paris population rebelled and quickly deposed Louis Phillipe, replacing him with a Republican government — the French Second Republic. The new leaders of the country implemented a constitution containing a series of left-wing reforms, including direct universal suffrage and the separation of powers. Nevertheless, a conservative backlash soon took place, essentially nullifying the progressive tendencies of the regime, such as disenfranchising factory workers. Because Frenchmen were divided into opposing factions, political turmoil ensued and the military had to resort to violence in order to stabilize the country.

In October, Louis-Eugène Cavaignac, one of the French generals that were in charge of political repression, ran for president against Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, nephew of the late Napoleon Bonaparte. The Bonapartist faction won with almost 75% of the votes, and Louis-Napoleon soon found himself at odds with France’s political establishment. He aspired to restore universal male suffrage and to abolish the constitution’s ban on presidential reelections. Being unable to do so democratically, in 1851, he staged a self-coup, later approved by a referendum, and stayed in power. The following year, he proclaimed himself Napoleon III and replaced the Republic with the Second French Empire.

Frankfurt Parliament in the German Confederation

All over the territory of the German Confederation, there were a series of loosely coordinated protests and rebellions. They were based on pan-Germanism, the notion that the Confederation should be transformed into a single country, rather than continuing to be a multiplicity of small states led by Austria and Prussia. In most cases, these revolts had little impact, because the governments quickly defeated them. However, an exception was the so-called Frankfurt Parliament.

In 1848, liberals from various parts of Germany called for free elections for a national parliament — the first of its kind in the region’s history. Each member of the Confederation held its own voting procedures, and the Frankfurt National Assembly convened in May. Even though all political tendencies had a seat there, the majority of the delegates were moderate liberals — teachers, professors, or undergraduates, motivating the moniker of “professors’ parliament”.

The parliamentarians appointed a Regent of Germany and engaged in discussions about the country’s territorial extent and political structures after unification.

The former issue concerned the inclusion of German-speaking regions of Austria, but the Austrians adopted a new constitution that demanded that either the whole of the country be included in a future Germany, or none of it.

The latter issue dealt with proposals for Germany to become a hereditary monarchy, to have an elected monarch, or to become a republic. The parliament decided to offer the German crown, including all states of the Confederation except Austria, to the king of Prussia, Frederick William IV. However, he refused this endeavor because it conflicted with his conservative worldviews.

Without the support of either Austria or Prussia, the Frankfurt Parliament would never succeed in unifying Germany, so the members of the German Confederation dismantled it.

The uprisings in the Austro-Hungarian Empire

In the years preceding 1848, the Habsburg monarchy had to deal with several mishaps: a mounting economic crisis, tensions related to land ownership, and the spread of liberal, nationalistic and left-wing ideologies. For instance, a fungus that causes potato blight arrived in Austria and contributed to widespread hunger, because potatoes were a staple food of poor segments of society.

In the context of the Springtime of the Peoples, the Austrians received news of the February Revolution in France and rose in revolt as well. They succeeded in sending the influential conservative statesman Metternich into exile, but the multinational character of the Austro-Hungarian Empire made things difficult for the revolutionaries. The various national groups that lived there did not see eye to eye, and the conservatives took advantage of this fact to regain power. Over the months of 1848, liberals and conservatives succeeded one another in the government and, for a brief time, even the Habsburg royals fled the country.

By the end of 1848, the counterrevolutionary forces prevailed, having executed the leaders of the radicals and dismissed a proposal for a constitution in liberal terms. King Ferdinand I regained full powers, but was convinced to abdicate in favor of his nephew, Franz Joseph I. Although the new monarch rejected the constitutional monarchy that had been established and attempted to restore absolutism in Austria, he maintained a few achievements of the revolutionary government — notably, the abolition of serfdom and the end of censorship.

Meanwhile, in the Hungarian part of the Empire, the population rose against the authoritarian rule by the Austrians. Under the leadership of Lajos Kossuth, the rebels instituted the March Laws (or April Laws): a collection of twelve measures that intended to inaugurate a parliamentarian democracy, prescribing many civil rights. For instance, the document supported the abolition of serfdom, the principle of equality before the law, and the freedom of the press. However, Franz Joseph I arbitrarily revoked the laws, what was the catalyst for a revolution.

The Hungarian calvary pursuing counterrevolutionaries in the battle of Nagysaló, April 19, 1849. Oil painting by Than Mór.
The Hungarian calvary pursuing counterrevolutionaries in the battle of Nagysaló, April 19, 1849. Oil painting by Than Mór. Public domain image.

While the followers of Lajos Kossuth defended the independence of Hungary, the local government of Lajos Batthyány proposed a reconciliation with the Habsburg dynasty. Batthyány ended up ousted and the Hungarians almost got their independence, but Austria managed to crush the revolution and impose a military dictatorship under Hungary with the assistance of Russia.

Sonderbund War in Switzerland

At the time, Switzerland was a confederacy divided into cantons (states) that were either mostly Catholic or mostly Protestant. In the early 1840s, the Protestants achieved a majority in the Swiss parliament (the Federal Diet), and profited from this to propose a new constitution for the country. Their goal was to centralize power, but the Catholics objected this because they believed it would run counter to their interests. Indeed, this is what happened soon after, when the Federal Diet adopted measures against the Catholic Church, such as closing monasteries.

In 1843, in an attempt to preserve their autonomy, the Catholic cantons formed the Sonderbund — a “separate alliance”. Yet the Federal Treaty of 1815 expressly prohibited such alliances, and the Protestant cantons enforced this rule by engaging in military action against their Catholic counterparts.

In 1847, a civil war ensued: the Sonderbund War. Even though both Austria and France wanted to intervene in support of the Catholics, Britain vetoed their intentions and no foreign intervention occurred. After a few weeks, the Protestant cantons defeated the secessionists and imposed the Swiss Constitution of 1848. This document provided that the country would become a federative state, with less autonomy for cantons, and that Jesuits would be expelled from its territory.

Constitutional Reform in the Netherlands

In 1848, news of revolutions in various European countries arrived in the Netherlands, where they prompted King William II to accede to the demands from the liberal parliamentary opposition. He set up a commission to devise a constitutional reform under liberal terms. Then, he negotiated with the majority of conservative politicians in order to secure support for the proposal. In the same year, the reform entered into force with the following highlights:

  • The responsibility for governing passed from the king to the ministers.
  • The common people would vote for provincial elections, and the provincial bodies would choose the members of the Senate.
  • The powers of the parliament increased substantially.
  • Several civil rights were adopted: freedom of assembly, freedom of association, freedom of education (parents could educate their children as they saw fit), religious freedom and the right to privacy of correspondence.

The main characteristic of the 1848 reform in the Netherlands is that, unlike in other European countries, changes were brought about pacifically.


The Revolutions of 1848 were the last tide of revolutionary sentiment in Europe before the unification of Italy and the unification of Germany. They continued the tendency of the 1820s and 1830s, helping to depose monarchical regimes, introduce civil rights, and ensure the independence of several countries. Because of that, these revolutions must be considered a major step in consigning European absolutism to the dustbin of history.

Check out a summary of the revolutions of the 1820s, the 1830s and 1848 in our dedicated article about it.




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