The Necessity of Choice: Nineteenth Century Political Thought


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For later developments in the history of nationalism, see 20th-century international relations ; European Union ; and Euroskepticism. Nationalism is a modern movement.

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Throughout history people have been attached to their native soil, to the traditions of their parents, and to established territorial authorities, but it was not until the end of the 18th century that nationalism began to be a generally recognized sentiment molding public and private life and one of the great, if not the greatest, single determining factors of modern history. Because of its dynamic vitality and its all-pervading character, nationalism is often thought to be very old; sometimes it is mistakenly regarded as a permanent factor in political behaviour.

Actually, the American and French revolutions may be regarded as its first powerful manifestations. After penetrating the new countries of Latin America , it spread in the early 19th century to central Europe and from there, toward the middle of the century, to eastern and southeastern Europe. At the beginning of the 20th century, nationalism flowered in Asia and Africa.

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Thus, the 19th century has been called the age of nationalism in Europe, while the 20th century witnessed the rise and struggle of powerful national movements throughout Asia and Africa. Nationalism, translated into world politics, implies the identification of the state or nation with the people—or at least the desirability of determining the extent of the state according to ethnographic principles.

In the age of nationalism, but only in the age of nationalism, the principle was generally recognized that each nationality should form a state—its state—and that the state should include all members of that nationality. Formerly states, or territories under one administration, were not delineated by nationality.

People did not give their loyalty to the nation-state but to other, different forms of political organization: the city-state , the feudal fief and its lord, the dynastic state, the religious group, or the sect. The nation-state was nonexistent during the greater part of history, and for a very long time it was not even regarded as an ideal. In the first 15 centuries of the Common Era, the ideal was the universal world-state, not loyalty to any separate political entity.


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As political allegiance , before the age of nationalism, was not determined by nationality, so civilization was not thought of as nationally determined. During the Middle Ages, civilization was looked upon as determined religiously; for all the different nationalities of Christendom as well as for those of Islam , there was but one civilization— Christian or Muslim—and but one language of culture— Latin or Greek or Arabic or Persian.

Later, in the periods of the Renaissance and of Classicism , it was the ancient Greek and Roman civilizations that became a universal norm, valid for all peoples and all times. Still later, French civilization was accepted throughout Europe as the valid civilization for educated people of all nationalities. It was only at the end of the 18th century that, for the first time, civilization was considered to be determined by nationality. It was then that the principle was put forward that people could be educated only in their own mother tongue, not in languages of other civilizations and other times, whether they were classical languages or the literary creations of other peoples who had reached a high degree of civilization.

From the end of the 18th century on, the nationalization of education and public life went hand in hand with the nationalization of states and political loyalties. Poets and scholars began to emphasize cultural nationalism first. They reformed the mother tongue, elevated it to the rank of a literary language, and delved deep into the national past. Thus, they prepared the foundations for the political claims for national statehood soon to be raised by the people in whom they had kindled the spirit. Before the 18th century there had been evidences of national feeling among certain groups at certain periods, especially in times of stress and conflict.

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The rise of national feeling to major political importance was encouraged by a number of complex developments: the creation of large centralized states ruled by absolute monarchs who destroyed the old feudal allegiances; the secularization of life and of education, which fostered the vernacular languages and weakened the ties of church and sect; the growth of commerce, which demanded larger territorial units to allow scope for the dynamic spirit of the rising middle classes and their capitalistic enterprise.

This large unified territorial state, with its political and economic centralization, became imbued in the 18th century with a new spirit—an emotional fervour similar to that of religious movements in earlier periods. Under the influence of the new theories of the sovereignty of the people and of individual rights, the people replaced the king as the centre of the nation. State became identified with nation, as civilization became identified with national civilization.

That development ran counter to the conceptions that had dominated political thought for the preceding 2, years. Thitherto, the general and the universal had been commonly stressed, and unity had been regarded as the desirable goal. Nationalism emphasized the particular and parochial , the differences, and the national individualities. Those tendencies became more pronounced as nationalism developed. Its less attractive characteristics were not at first apparent. In the 17th and 18th centuries the common standards of Western civilization, the regard for the universally human, the faith in reason one and the same everywhere as well as in common sense, the survival of Christian and Stoic traditions—all of these were still too strong to allow nationalism to develop fully and to disrupt society.

Thus, nationalism in its beginning was thought to be compatible with cosmopolitan convictions and with a general love of humankind, especially in western Europe and North America. The first full manifestation of modern nationalism occurred in 17th-century England , in the Puritan revolution.

England had become the leading nation in scientific spirit, in commercial enterprise , and in political thought and activity. Swelled by an immense confidence in the new age, the English people felt upon their shoulders the mission of history, a sense that they were at a great turning point from which a new true reformation and a new liberty would start.

In the English revolution an optimistic humanism merged with Calvinist ethics , and the influence of the Bible gave form to the new nationalism by identifying the English people with ancient Israel. Surrounded by congregated multitudes, I now imagine that…I behold the nations of the earth recovering that liberty which they so long had lost; and that the people of this island are…disseminating the blessings of civilization and freedom among cities, kingdoms and nations. English nationalism, then, was thus much nearer to its religious matrix than later nationalisms that rose after secularization had made greater progress.

The nationalism of the 18th century shared with it, however, its enthusiasm for liberty, its humanitarian character, its emphasis upon individual rights and upon the human community as above all national divisions. The rise of English nationalism coincided with the rise of the English trading middle classes. American nationalism was a typical product of the 18th century. British settlers in North America were influenced partly by the traditions of the Puritan revolution and the ideas of Locke and partly by the new rational interpretation given to English liberty by contemporary French philosophers.

American settlers became a nation engaged in a fight for liberty and individual rights. They based that fight on current political thought, especially as expressed by Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine. It was a liberal and humanitarian nationalism that regarded America as in the vanguard of humankind on its march to greater liberty, equality, and happiness for all.

The ideas of the 18th century found their first political realization in the Declaration of Independence and in the birth of the American nation.

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Their deep influence was felt in the French Revolution. The nationalism of the French Revolution was more than that: it was the triumphant expression of a rational faith in common humanity and liberal progress. Individual liberty, human equality, fraternity of all peoples—these were the common cornerstones of all liberal and democratic nationalism. Under their inspiration new rituals were developed that partly took the place of the old religious feast days, rites , and ceremonies: festivals and flags, music and poetry, national holidays and patriotic sermons.

In the most varied forms, nationalism permeated all manifestations of life. As in America, the rise of French nationalism produced a new phenomenon in the art of warfare: the nation in arms. In America and in France , citizen armies, untrained but filled with a new fervour, proved superior to highly trained professional armies that fought without the incentive of nationalism.

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The revolutionary French nationalism stressed free individual decision in the formation of nations. Nations were constituted by an act of self-determination of their members. The plebiscite became the instrument whereby the will of the nation was expressed. In America as well as in revolutionary France, nationalism meant the adherence to a universal progressive idea, looking toward a common future of freedom and equality, not toward a past characterized by authoritarianism and inequality. In Germany the struggle was led by writers and intellectuals , who rejected all the principles upon which the American and the French revolutions had been based as well as the liberal and humanitarian aspects of nationalism.

German nationalism began to stress instinct against reason, the power of historical tradition against rational attempts at progress and a more just order, and the historical differences between nations rather than their common aspirations.

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The Necessity of Choice: Nineteenth Century Political Thought

The two have in common the idea of 'light,'" wrote John Robertson, a professor of the history of political thought at the University of Cambridge in his book "The Enlightenment: A Very Short Introduction" Oxford University Press, In this so-called time of light, several major ideas became popular. There was growing skepticism toward monarchs, particularly the idea of an absolute monarch — one who could make laws on a whim.

There was also growing support for individual liberties and freedoms. Louis XVI and his ancestors had ruled France as absolute kings from the opulent Palace of Versailles , which served as an emblem of the French monarch's power. Skepticism of the monarchy also grew in the United States, which resulted in it becoming a republic after driving out the British during the U.

Revolutionary War Early in this period people were also growing weary of religious authorities having strong political power, and the idea of religious freedom was becoming more and more popular. The Peace of Westphalia, the series of peace treaties that ended the Thirty Years' War in , saw a reduction in the pope's power across Europe.

This reduction in religious power continued into the 18th century, particularly during the French Revolution. Additionally, when the U.

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This time period also saw a burgeoning interest in understanding and using science rather than religion to explain natural phenomena. Isaac Newton , Daniel Fahrenheit, Benjamin Franklin and Alessandro Volta are but a few of the scientists and inventors who flourished during the Enlightenment. Their discoveries — such as advances in understanding electricity — helped pave the way for the industrial revolution and the technologies used in the world we live in today.

The Necessity of Choice: Nineteenth Century Political Thought The Necessity of Choice: Nineteenth Century Political Thought
The Necessity of Choice: Nineteenth Century Political Thought The Necessity of Choice: Nineteenth Century Political Thought
The Necessity of Choice: Nineteenth Century Political Thought The Necessity of Choice: Nineteenth Century Political Thought
The Necessity of Choice: Nineteenth Century Political Thought The Necessity of Choice: Nineteenth Century Political Thought
The Necessity of Choice: Nineteenth Century Political Thought The Necessity of Choice: Nineteenth Century Political Thought
The Necessity of Choice: Nineteenth Century Political Thought The Necessity of Choice: Nineteenth Century Political Thought
The Necessity of Choice: Nineteenth Century Political Thought The Necessity of Choice: Nineteenth Century Political Thought

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