Beatrice de Graaf analyses the Duke of Wellington’s apparent liberal duality. by contextualising his political views, de graaf reveals the many-sideness of the duke of wellington.

Beatrice de Graaf

Beatrice de Graaf is a historian and a security & terrorism researcher. Her research focuses on how states and societies try to maintain high levels of security and how these attempts relate to core values and institutions.

On February 3 1825 a devastating flood swept over the North Sea coast, from Denmark via Germany to the Netherlands, killing 800 people. The population of the newly created United Kingdom of the Netherlands (established in 1815) mobilised their national sentiments and staged a tremendous fund-raising effort: more than 2 million guilders were collected. Interestingly, the solidarity with the flooded kingdom also stretched abroad. Foreign donors made generous contributions. The Duke of Wellington stood center stage among them, following directly after the Russian Czar (whose sister had married the Dutch Crown Prince), with the quite astonishing and very liberal amount of 1200 guilders, the equivalent of 14.250 euros nowadays.

Wellington’s generosity coincided with the unveiling of the Lion of Waterloo monument. There too, Wellington, the Prince of Waterloo, was commemorated for being one of the prime defenders of God, the Fatherland, and the Peace of Europe in times of great distress. In children’s books, he was venerated not only as a military hero, but also as a character of great moral valour. Remarkably, while Wellington would increasingly come under pressure in Britain from criticism on his domestic, and authoritarian policies, he was considered in a more benign light on the continent. It is therefore high time to put Wellington’s alleged illiberal rule at home in a more continental light.

Source: The Battle of Waterloo, public domain

Source: Wellington, watching from a cloud, public domain

Defining ‘liberal’

Why is a revisited view on Wellington’s foreign political and diplomatic activities warranted? Because in historiography on post-1815 restauration far too much attention has been, first of all, on his military achievements, seen through the lense of one sided nationalist narratives. Secondly, his domestic political activities are understood through a Whiggish interpretation, as a revival of the ancien regime dark ages. In the latter view, the UK and the continent are seen as pining for the ‘People’s Spring’ to blossom in 1848, waiting for the ancien regime rulers (Wellington included) to wither away.

            To counterbalance these one-dimensional caricatures, it may be more helpful to adopt a broader European perspective and recalibrate our perception of Wellington as a statesman. Then, elsewhere on the continent, Wellington sometimes even seemed to appear as the ‘l’homme de l’Europe’ that tried to exert a measure of moderation and a liberal influence on international and domestic politics: in the Netherlands, in France, in Portugal and Spain.

But first: what did ‘liberal’ mean back then? As a 1815 newspaper in the Netherlands described it, liberalism was oftentimes equated with radicalism, as in overturning all feudal privileges and implementing a government based on individual liberties. Yet, liberal could also point to a mode of governance based on constitutional rule. Hence, the authoritarian king of the Netherlands, put on the throne in 1813, could compliment his foreign minister Van Hogendorp with his ‘liberal’ sketch for a constitution, and, when Catholic reaction became stronger in Belgium, the king himself was applauded for his tolerance and liberal rule. In Britain, the label ‘liberal’ was reserved for the Whig Party, that turned into the Liberal Party later in the 19th century.

But again, as a mode of governance (as opposed to the full ideology or party) it could also be applied to certain reforms (abolition of slavery, catholic emancipation, repeal of the corn laws, abolishing censorship). Liberalism, then, was the art of balancing between ancient regime and reforms, between royal prerogative and accountability – by adopting constitutions. It was also a very subjective perception, an instrument of political discourse, an attribution, projected onto political friends or enemies. In the liberal British press, Wellington was always the bad copper, the nosey bully, while the Dutch papers praised him as ‘liberal and generous’.

More liberal abroad than at home?

In the international arena political appraisals were even more dependent on one’s point of view, time and situation. Here we can see how the dichotomy between Wellington’s domestic and foreign politics and perception could emerge. In my book Fighting terror after Napoleon, I pointed to Wellington’s influence in making king Louis XVIII, against the wishes of the ultraroyalists, accept the renewed constitution for France, the Charter. A similar discussion occurred a year later, in October 1815, when the Allied Council debated the fate of the Ionian Islands, conquered by British forces. To avoid excessive Russian and Austrian influence, Wellington and Castlereagh made sure that the new British protectorate had a legal administration, and oversaw the implementation of a liberal constitution and parliament (although it is of course questionable to what extent a governor such as Thomas Maitland kept himself within those constitutional confines).

Another remarkable period stood out soon thereafter, when Wellington was asked to mediate between the new Kingdom of the Netherlands and the Allied Council in the case of French radicals who had found a refuge in the Netherlands. Metternich was incensed when they started to produce pamphlets, diatribes and caricatures against the Bourbons and other sovereigns. The allied powers, gathered in Paris for the Allied Council asked Wellington to put a stop to this. They threatened the Dutch kingdom with military intervention. Wellington looked into the matter, and then defended Dutch liberties and press laws. In the end, the allies accepted Wellington’s exposé on the civil liberties of the Netherlands. Wellington’s role was all the more astonishing because in Britain, with the Spa Field Riots or the Peterloo Massacre, rioting radicals received none of this sympathy.

Liberal conservatives

Wellington used his extraordinary reputation to push for continental reforms, innovations constitutions and liberties with vigour. Obviously, he did that with all the power, finances, leverage and reputation that Great Power Britain brought into the field. Moreover, it is true that in defending British international and security interests abroad, he showed himself to be far more open and indulgent to new arrangements than he was in his own country where fear for revolution and mass uprisings clouded his intuition.

The Duke’s many-sidedness shows why we must contextualize epitaphs such as liberal or conservative, both in time and place. Statesmen, whom later generations considered conservative, could be more open-minded, cosmopolitan (in the best colonial tradition, that is), and innovative than their allegedly liberal opponents in politics were at the time. This may also provide some food for thought in rethinking, reconstructing international political thought in history. In some instances we could argue that with the rise of representative democracy and party rule, populist constituencies held their political leaders on far tighter reigns, urging them towards more colonial ambition (as the Belgian and French liberals after 1830 did), and pushing them in more expansionist  directions than the autonomous liberal statesmen and diplomat in the 1810s and 1820s had envisioned. As Wellington once confessed, ‘despotism in the hand of the mob is far worse than power in the hands of one’.

Source: Encampment of the British army in the Bois de Boulogne – public domain

COVER IMAGE: The Battle of Waterloo, public domain.

Opinion pieces have been published by the Security History Network for the purpose of encouraging informed discussions and debates on topics surrounding security history. The views expressed by authors do not necessarily represent the views of the SHN, its partners, convenors or members. 

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