A Liberal Century of Peace and Progress Began after Waterloo

Two hundred years ago today, on June 18, 1815, the forces of the self-proclaimed Emperor Napoleon were defeated near Waterloo by a multinational European army. The battle ended years of war in Europe and allowed the rising tide of liberalism to produce a century of relative peace and unprecedented economic and technological progress. As I wrote in The Libertarian Mind (do you have your copy?)

In both the United States and Europe, the century after the American Revolution was marked by the spread of liberalism. Written constitutions and bills of rights protected liberty and guaranteed the rule of law. Guilds and monopolies were largely eliminated, with all trades thrown open to competition on the basis of merit. Freedom of the press and of religion was greatly expanded, property rights were made more secure, international trade was freed….

After the turmoil of the French Revolution and the final defeat of Napoleon in 1815, and with the exception of the Crimean War and the wars of national unification, most of the people of Europe enjoyed a century of relative peace and progress….

This liberation of human creativity unleashed astounding scientific and material progress. The Nation magazine, which was then a truly liberal journal, looking back in 1900, wrote, “Freed from the vexatious meddling of governments, men devoted themselves to their natural task, the bettering of their condition, with the wonderful results which surround us.” The technological advances of the liberal nineteenth century are innumerable: the steam engine, the railroad, the telegraph, the telephone, electricity, the internal combustion engine. Thanks to the accumulation of capital and “the miracle of compound interest,” in Europe and America the great masses of people began to be liberated from the backbreaking toil that had been the natural condition of mankind since time immemorial. Infant mortality fell and life expectancy began to rise to unprecedented levels. A person looking back from 1800 would see a world that for most people had changed little in thousands of years; by 1900, the world was unrecognizable….

Toward the end of the nineteenth century, classical liberalism began to give way to new forms of collectivism and state power….

By the turn of the century the remaining liberals despaired of the future. The Nation editorialized that “material comfort has blinded the eyes of the present generation to the cause which made it possible” and worried that “before [statism] is again repudiated there must be international struggles on a terrific scale.” Herbert Spencer published The Coming Slavery and mourned at his death in 1903 that the world was returning to war and barbarism.

Indeed, as the liberals had feared, the century of European peace that began in 1815 came crashing down in 1914, with the First World War. The replacement of liberalism by statism and nationalism was in large part to blame, and the war itself may have delivered the death blow to liberalism. In the United States and Europe, governments enlarged their scope and power in response to the war. Exorbitant taxation, conscription, censorship, nationalization, and central planning—not to mention the 10 million deaths at Flanders fields and Verdun and elsewhere—signaled that the era of liberalism, which had so recently supplanted the old order, was now itself supplanted by the era of the megastate.

More on libertarian history in The Libertarian Mind. More on the peaceful 19th century from Jim Powell.