Liberal Revolutions of the 1820s in Europe

"The Taking of Pamplona", a painting by Horace Vernet depicting an episode of the French intervention against the Trienio Liberal.
“The Taking of Pamplona”, a painting by Horace Vernet depicting an episode of the French intervention against the Trienio Liberal. 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, happened the first wave of revolutionary movements since the defeat of Napoleon in 1815. According the historian James Billington, the movements of this decade happened in the peripheries of the continent, in traditional societies that had not yet begun the Industrial Revolution.

These were the main revolutions of the decade:

Trienio Liberal in Spain

During the Napoleonic Era, French troops had invaded Spain and had overthrown both King Charles IV and his son Ferdinand VII in the abdications of Bayonne, in 1808. Napoleon’s brother, Joseph Bonaparte, was installed in the Spanish throne.

Joseph attempted to rule the country with the Constitution of Bayonne, a document he crafted to secure power for himself while ostensibly conceding to political liberalism. Some Spaniards accepted the new regime, while others congregated in various governing juntas in Madrid, Aranjuez, and Seville. These opposing parties wished to expel the French invaders, but they were unable to do so. Nonetheless, they managed to evade Napoleonic troops and relocate to Cádiz under British protection, where they proposed the Spanish Constitution of 1812. The La Pepa constitution represented a significant shift towards liberal ideals, emphasizing constitutional monarchy, national sovereignty, and individual rights.

Yet, in 1813, Ferdinand VII was restored to the Spanish throne and he proceeded to implement an absolutist regime. In 1820, a military uprising led by Rafael del Riego forced him to reinstate the Constitution of Cádiz, marking the beginning of the Trienio Liberal (1820-1823). This period saw the establishment of various liberal reforms, such as civil liberties and the freedom of the press. However, the European powers articulated a response against the revolutionary government at the Congress of Verona, in 1822. French troops intervened and suppressed the Trienio Liberal, and Ferdinand VII once again ruled over Spain uncontested.

Liberal Revolution in Portugal

During the Napoleonic Era, Portugal had been invaded by French troops, what made the royal family flee to Brazil. The royals had left a British general, William Beresford, in charge of their continental affairs, and even after Napoleon was long gone, they did not want to return to Europe. Thus Brazil went from being a colony to being a part of the United Kingdom of Portugal, Brazil and the Algarves. This arrangement was highly beneficial to Brazilians, who ensured they would keep unfettered access to international trade. At the same time, the European subjects of the Portuguese Empire had much to complain about, for they were kingless and their economic dominance was being challenged by the former colony.

In 1817, field marshal Gomes Freire de Andrade led a conspiracy that aimed to oust Lord Beresford and introduce a constitution in the country. However, the movement was uncovered by the government and it ultimately failed.

In 1820, Portuguese discontent would motivate yet another rebellion — this time with far greater repercussions. Inspired by the Cortes of Cádiz and by the Spanish Constitution of 1812 (La Pepa) they drafted, the Portuguese staged a revolt demanding that King John VI ratify a constitution, return to Europe with haste, and reestablish the colonial pact — cutting off Brazil from foreign trade. In the face of such troubles, the monarch promptly accepted the demands.

Nevertheless, over the following years, some absolutist factions reacted against the proposed constitution, in the Vilafrancada and in the Abrilada revolutions, and Brazilians successfully fought for independence rather than recolonization. Portugal would only regain its political equilibrium in 1834, when the absolutists finally surrendered to the rule of Maria II under an authoritarian constitution.

Greek War of Independence

Since the 15th century, there was a growing national consciousness among Greeks that lived under the Ottoman Empire. It was encouraged by the ideals from the Enlightenment and by a romantic revival of classical culture, known as Philhellenism. This ideological and cultural renaissance ignited the Greek population’s desire for a sovereign nation-state that reflected its legacy.

In 1821, the Greeks initiated their revolt against the Ottoman Empire. This was the first significant act of separation from Ottoman rule, marking the beginning of the Empire’s fragmentation in the Balkans. The Greek struggle quickly transcended local boundaries, attracting attention and involvement from major European powers, each driven by its strategic interests and ideological inclinations.

Russia supported the independence, motivated by its strategic interests in accessing warm-water ports and weakening the Ottomans, even though it conflicted with the counterrevolutionary principles of the Holy Alliance. France viewed the Greek struggle through the lens of liberalism and nationalism, advocating for the redistribution of Ottoman territories for the greater benefit of European powers. Meanwhile, England’s approach was initially conservative, favoring the maintenance of the Ottoman Empire’s integrity but later shifting to support Greek independence under certain conditions.

From 1828 to 1829, Russia waged war against the Ottoman Empire and compelled its sultan to sign the Treaty of Adrianople. According to this pact, the Ottomans made significant concessions, including acknowledging Greek independence, granting autonomy to Serbia, and allowing a Russian protectorate over Romanian territories. However, with British influence, the London Conference of 1832 approved the Treaty of Constantinople, which ensured the independence of Greece and thwarted Russia’s ambition to secure a warm-water port, maintaining a balance of power among European nations.

The success of the Greek revolt, as historian Eric Hobsbawm noted, was due to a blend of popular mobilization and favorable diplomatic conditions. The widespread Philhellenism in Europe played a crucial role, as Greece became a symbol and inspiration for international liberalism.


The revolutions of the 1820s were the beginning of an tide in the direction of more republican or democratic forms of governance in Europe. In Spain, liberal advances were soon reversed by the authoritarian tendencies of King Ferdinand VII. In Portugal and Greece, on the other hand, liberalism ultimately prevailed — but not without some controversies, such as the independence of Brazil and the interference of foreign powers. All in all, the 1820s represented the first step towards consigning absolutist rule to the dustbin of history. In the 1830s and in 1848, new revolutions would emerge, continuing this tendency.

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




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