The Last Liberal Conservative Pt Deux: The French Connection

Liberal conservatism is most often associated with the United Kingdom, but liberal conservative political parties exercised power across Europe from the end of the Napoleonic Wars to the beginning of the First World War. In 1824, Louis XVIII’s successor and younger brother Charles X reneged on liberal conservative assurances in the French Constitution. By 1830 his rule became increasingly unpopular in all segments of society and in July of that year the citizens of Paris overthrew him and installed the July Monarchy led by Charles’ deposed cousin—the Duke of Orleans—who assumed the throne as King Louis Phillipe I. Pope Pius VIII, no friend of liberalism or revolution, nonetheless offered the new so-called citizen-king his support and allowed him to retain the title Most Christian Majesty used by the deposed Bourbons. When French bishops consulted with the Pope on whether they should take an oath to the new government, Pius VIII assured them the oath could be taken to the new king. Louis Philippe and his ministers routinely disappointed liberals hoping for democratization and secularization. Louis-Phillipe’s regime codified the rights of Protestants and Jews while maintaining the preeminence of the Roman Catholic Church in French society. The King championed Jews throughout his political career. When the comte de Rambuteau and other liberal conservative deputies moved to make Jews fully equal citizens of France the government introduced provisions that made Judaism a state supported religion along with Catholicism, Calvinism, and Lutheranism. In 1831 the French state wiped away any debts incurred by Jewish organizations before the French Revolution in 1789 and made the primary rabbinical college a state supported institution.

Political provisions emancipating Jews and incorporating them into French society complemented the July monarchy’s continued support for Roman Catholicism as the official religion of the French people. Jewish emancipation reinforced the conservative religious order.  Champions of Jewish emancipation like François Guizot saw the protection of Catholicism not only in France but also in the rest Europe as essential for the maintenance of a stable regime. When liberal revolutions swept over Europe in 1848, Louis Philippe and Guizot rallied to the Catholic cause and sent arms and munitions to Pope Pius IX for the defense of Rome against Italian nationalists. The July Monarchy’s press freedoms and broad toleration for Protestants and Jews made France’s politics more representative while simultaneously maintaining Catholicism’s preeminent place in French society. Liberal conservatism, far from creating a licentious regime, preserved a broadly conservative social order in France. When a revolution overthrew Louis Phillippe in 1848 his successor Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte maintained the Orleanist religious and social settlement.

Napoleon III’s regime gave the world modern imperial Paris. The arts and high culture of post-Napoleonic Paris—including the substantial rebuilding of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris—owe their existence to liberal conservatism and not to integralist Roman Catholic monarchy. The nominally Catholic French emperor delegated the resurrection of the capital of the “eldest Daughter of the Church” to a Protestant Huguenot, Georges-Eugène Haussmann. So the war between “Protestant” liberalism and “Catholic” conservatism that typifies the modern war between Ahmari and David French etc is largely contrived. Throughout the Nineteenth Century Protestant monarchs remained severely conservative, in ways that made Catholic liberals blush. In 1848 the Danish king, Frederick VII, worried that his Protestant faith precluded him from granting a constitution while Catholic priests in Sicily urged their representatives in Naples that the Roman Catholic Church in Italy’s Mezzogiorno needed a constitutional regime to remain loyal to its mission. Putting to bed the cartoonish stories of “liberal” “Protestantism” and “conservative” “Catholicism” or any combination thereof is necessary to understand these ideals in our own time.


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