How is a new state built?


This question lingered in my head ever since I started being interested in the history of the long nineteenth century. Gradually my curiosity was growing: how do authorities produce a legal and political system in the case of new states? To what ideas, concepts and practices do they turn to legitimate their judgements and conduct? And how do they do so in the case of states that were born by way of revolution and secession from an empire, the legacy of which they seek to obliterate?

My book Liberalism after the Revolution: The intellectual Foundations of the Greek state, c. 1830-1880 that was recently published by Cambridge University Press is an attempt to answer these questions. By focusing on Greek liberalism and the ways in which it engaged in state-building and institutional reforms in the Greek state after independence from the Ottomans (from the 1830s and up to the end of the nineteenth century), the book is not only an attempt to explain the turbulent history of nineteenth-century Greece—ruled by a Bavarian-born monarch who had been installed in 1832 by agreement with the guarantor powers of Greek independence (Britain, France and Russia), the Greek state, initially in effect absolutist, was reshaped by two moments of revolt: 1843, when the king was forced to grant a constitution sanctioning a national parliament; and 1862, when a long revolutionary process went under way (until 1875) that featured a revolution, the abdication of the king, the convocation of a Constituent Assembly, the election of a new king, the promulgation of a new constitution and a prolonged crisis of authority.

More crucially, by focusing on the Greek case, the book addresses questions that have only recently been posed by historians: about the nature and origins of the nineteenth-century liberal visions of statehood and about the political and intellectual context – domestic and international – in which they flourished. At one level, then, this is a work of practical intellectual history that traces the formation and transformation of that cluster of ideas associated with liberalism, nationalism and state-building through which a society at the margins of Europe attempted to come to terms with the problems of modernity. Compared to other works, it discusses liberalism not so much as a corpus of ideas discussed by armchair scholars, but as an active political and administrative language that was used in a multiplicity of ways and underpinned the formation of the Greek state. At another level then, this is also a history of the processes by which a new state emerging from a premodern multi-ethnic empire was built. As such, the book weaves together and contributes to two flourishing historiographical fields that rarely meet: one explores the transition from empire to the modern territorial state, the other the history of liberalism.

The protagonists of the book are the ‘jurists’, or at least this is the word I use to designate an influential group of legal scholars who flocked to the new state after its establishment and took up important posts at the bar, the bench, the university, in the legislative committees, the Council of State, the civil service, the parliament, as well as in the government. Convinced as they were of their moral duty to forge the new state and educate the nation, and drawing on their experience and education in numerous cities and universities across Europe, these scholars contributed to the formation of a number of liberal concepts and ideas that served to define the social and political order, the role of the people in state and society, as well as sovereignty and the conditions of independent statehood.

By focusing on different aspects of the jurists’ theoretical and public interventions, the book engages with a growing body of literature that has enhanced our understanding of nineteenth-century political thought, and of liberalism in particular. It also pushes this literature further, not least because this latter has generally concentrated on the turbulent first decades of the nineteenth century, implicitly sometimes maintaining that after this period, when states were recast or had consolidated their power, and indeed when liberals gained power (as in France, Britain, Spain and Portugal in the 1830s), liberalism lost its critical edge, and became gradually more conservative.

By pushing the chronological boundaries so as to examine how liberals thought about and ‘did’ politics long after the 1840s, when institutionalisation and state-building were well under way, Liberalism after the Revolution tells a somewhat different story. As it shows, in the Greek case, liberalism did not retreat, nor did it lose its critical edge. In fact, its strength came from three features that, as I argue defined its nature throughout the period under study.

One was its syncretism. Indeed, as individual chapters on private law, political economy, constitutional, and international law show, Greek liberals were conversant with and fused creatively a wide array of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century intellectual and political currents – Montesquieu, the monarchiens, natural law, the German Historical School of legal science, the Doctrinaires’ and Benjamin Constant’s liberalism, Giandomenico Romagnosi’s jurisprudence, J. B. Say’s and Sismondi’s republicanism, to name but a few.

What is more – the second feature – liberals in Greece were more attentive to the revolutionary tradition, and had more positive views of the people and of popular sovereignty than many of their counterparts in Northern Europe. In fact, like many liberals in the periphery, including colonial and post-imperial settings, Greek liberals combined an emphasis upon individual rights, and in particular property, with equality and with liberties that were public oriented or ‘communitarian’. For them, these rights and liberties originated in law and political institutions and not against them. In doing so, they developed liberalism as a language of statehood, an idiom that legitimised the state and did not seek to place limits upon its exercise of power. That they did so, even after the 1840s when this conception was subject to more of a battering elsewhere in Europe, should encourage us to revise our view about the relationship between liberalism and the state.

The third feature of Greek liberalism was the way in which, as in very few other cases across the world, it was made into an alternative mode of practical statecraft that stood against the police state (Polizeistaat) espoused by the royal authorities. Indeed, as most individual chapters show, in light of changing political circumstances during the 1850s the jurists turned to a sort of juridical activism against the monarchical state. Not only did they lay the groundwork for a number of significant reforms that they themselves helped implement, but more crucially they paved the way for the ‘long revolution’ of the 1860s (1862-75). As I argue in chapter 6, it wasn’t just that the jurists were active participants in this ‘context-breaking liberal moment’. More important was the fact that most actors involved in it were building on the moderate liberal ideas that the jurists had developed in the preceding years.

Thus, the book shows that in the fluid circumstances of Greece, liberalism was endowed with a peculiar strength, rendering it a profoundly transformative force. In light of Greece’s domestic political context and its peculiar international standing—poised between being a protectorate and an independent state—, Greek liberals saw the state as the potential agent of an alternative liberal governmentality that would ‘produce’ laws, institutions and knowledge; in short, a technology of statehood. It was in light of their success in this project that I argue that liberalism provided the intellectual foundations upon which the modern Greek state was built.

Liberalism after the Revolution by Michalis Sotiropoulos

Enjoyed reading this article? Share it today:

About the Author: Michalis Sotiropoulos

Michalis Sotiropoulos is currently the 1821 Fellow in Modern Greek Studies at the British School at Athens. He is a historian of modern Europe specialising in the intellectual history of the Mediterranean and the Greek world in the long nineteenth century. His publications include studies of the Greek Revolution of 1821, on law and the formation of...

View the Author profile >

Latest Comments

Have your say!