The Congresses of Vienna (1815-20) and modern conservatism

As an ideology, conservatism, like liberalism,  was a modern product, the reaction to the French Revolution.  It consisted of two aspects: as a political program, and as an ideology/intellectual thought.  As a political program, it was decided at the  series of congresses held at Vienna to deal with post-Napoleonic France and redraw the boundaries of Europe which had been changed by the French Revolution and Napoleon.  At these congresses, the Concert of Europe (Quadruple Alliance, 1815) of Britain, Austria, Prussia, and Russia, started 1) the “balance of power” politics in Europe and 2) policed smaller European states.  

Britain, Austria, Prussia, Russia were the coalition that defeated Napoleon.  Although they differed greatly, Britain being a constitutional monarchy and seat of liberalism, while the others were all conservative monarchies, they shared the common goal of preventing another revolution in Europe through the conservation of traditional social and political order that had been disrupted by the French Revolution.  This especially catered to the interests of Austria, Prussia and Russia, which all freshly acquired new territories after redrawing the boundaries of European states, and did not want a popular uprising to topple their rule from the people they subjugated.   

The leader of the Congresses of Vienna was the Austrian foreign minister Clement Metternich.  Since Austria took the leadership in redrawing European boundaries, Austria also got the lion's share of new territories.

The restored conservative sociopolitical order in Europe was to be maintained with the twin policies of balance of power and big powers' policing of Europe.  The balance of power means the big countries, France, Prussia, Austria, and Russia, would be balancing against one another and prevent any one of them from becoming a hegemon, or another France (as during the revolution) and disrupt the rest of Europe.  These four big countries, on the other hand, were also to act as the policemen of Europe and stamp out any revolutions when they erupted in Europe, especially from the small countries that tried to rebel from these big powers, since at the Congresses of Vienna, these big powers were given much territory, often small European countries, that did not belong to the former.

On the other hand, the ideology of conservatism as an intellectual thought was best articulated by an Englishman Edmund Burke, hence it is often called Burkean conservatism, to indicate a belief in gradual and not radical changes, and a degree of respect to tradition or precedents.

Burkean conservatism

Edmund Burke (1729-97) was an English statesman.  Burke was disgusted by the radical nature of the French Revolution as early as 1790, when he wrote what later became a classical doctrine of conservatism: Reflections on the French Revolution. He was not against all revolutions, e.g. he was for the American Revolution.  Burke’s emphasis was on respect to tradition and not scientific principles to guide government.

Reflections on the French Revolution was especially written in response to the writings of Richard Price, a Welsh dissenting minister who defended the French Revolution and was one of the original members of the Unitarian Society. Price's sermon delivered on 4 Nov. 1789, celebrating ‘the ardour for liberty’ of the French, provoked Burke to write his Reflections on the Revolution in France.

Burke’s definition of the state was in light of his emphasis on historical continuity: the state bore responsibility to the living, the dead, and the yet to be born. Chief job of the state was to guarantee the passage of property from one generation to another. The implication was that changes had to be gradual so as not to disrupt the passage of property from one generation to another.  To him, a government that protected the propertied and was dominated by the propertied guaranteed moderate policies and prevented radical revolutions, because the propertied would be more cautious about radical changes than those without property.  

Besides historical continuity, Burke believes that a government will also use tradition to implement its duties to the people.  Not believing in teaching people their "natural rights", Burke thinks that the government needs to teach people there are limits to what they can have, to teach them to act within certain prescribed boundaries, again for fear of radical mass politics.  But again, such social constraints have to be implemented through traditional means.  To him, traditional practices often maintained a degree of civility and social courtesy.  Power relationships coated in tradition, such as the chivalry code, often softened and buffered the effects of power, whereas the French Revolution tore down all traditions and power was reduced to naked power, which also brought down the social code of respect,  allowing both kings and their subjects the people to transcend their proper boundaries and commit any form of violence without restraint.

Today, when we talk about the binary of conservatism and liberalism, we refer to the extent we want government to intervene in society, which is very different from Burke's argument that government should maintain stability, historical continuity, and rely on tradition to implement its tasks and exercise its power.  Yet almost all in this country, conservatives and liberals alike, share with Burke the preference for gradual and not radical changes, certainly not resolution of social problems through radical revolutions.  When a French nobleman Alexis de Tocqueville toured the U.S. around 1830, he observed that the U.S. is a land of the middle class.  May be because so many Americans have property, and the majority of the leaders in the U.S. government are members of the middle class, out of concern for their property and social interests, they want social stability and gradual changes, instead of radical revolutions to address social problems.