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THE PERIOD OF 1848–1870


In 1848 the spontaneous wave of nationalism and democracy, which began with the February revolution in Paris and swept rapidly over Europe, gave to the subject peoples of Italy not only the inspiration for another trial for freedom but the method of securing it. The founding of the Kingdom of Italy on the voluntary wish of the people of each province, expressed by a popular vote by universal manhood suffrage, dates from this year. Once adopted, the method was followed undeviatingly. From the first uprising in 1848 in Lombardy until the unification of Italy, in its present form, was completed by the annexation of Rome in 1870, the statesmen working for united Italy never for a moment based the union on any other title than that of self-determination, nor did they at any time rest content with the mere assertion of the popular will for union, however obvious that will may have been, but in each case held the plebiscite to be an essential part of the title. Lombardy, Venetia, Modena, and Parma, in 1848; Tuscany, Emilia, Sicily, Naples, the Marches, and Umbria in 1860; Venetia, again, in 1866; Rome in 1870; each in turn was declared by Parliament, with a slightly different phraseology, to be an integral part of the Kingdom“ in view of the result of the universal vote of the people of the province for union with the Constitutional Kingdom of Victor Emanuel II and his successors.”

The revolt in 1848 of the northern provinces against Austria began with the “Five Days of Milan," on March 18. On March 20 the municipality of Milan assumed authority and instituted a provisional government, which, on April 8, was extended to the whole of Lombardy. On March 23 Carlo Alberto, King of Sardinia,' assumed the leadership of the revolt and declared war on Austria. The municipalities of Parma, Modena, and Reggio at once assumed power, as had already those of Venice and the cities of Venetia, and, except for Venice itself, set up provisional governments similar to that of Milan.

The question of the political destiny of these provinces had already caused a sharp alignment of parties, especially in Lombardy and Venetia. There were two important parties and several minor ones. The radicals, the party of “ Young Italy” under Mazzini, wanted a united Italy under a republican form of government and had made a beginning by declaring a Republic in Venice. The conservatives were in two parties, one party wishing to form a part of a united kingdom of Northern Italy under the constitutional monarchy of the House of Savoy, the other, the clerical conservatives, advocating union in a federation of independent States, under the presidency of the Pope. In some of the provinces there was a certain desire for autonomy. For the most part, these parties found their support in the cities; the country people appear to have been comparatively indifferent both to the struggle against Austria and to the question of the political future.

1 Throughout this study of the Italian plebiscites the terms Sardinia, Savoy and Piedmont will be used interchangeably to denote the Kingdom of Sardinia whose reigning family was that of Savoy and whose capital was at Turin in the province of Piedmont. The kingdom of Sardinia was erected in 1718 when the Dukes of Savoy were compelled to accept Sardinia in exchange for Sicily.

All parties had united to free Lombardy and Venetia from foreign rule on the agreement that the question of the political status should be postponed until after the war. Immediately upon its institution the provisional government of Milan had promised that the question should be postponed until all Italian territory should be free and should then be settled by a free popular vote. This promise of a free vote was repeated by Carlo Alberto on March 31. On the same day, word was sent from the King to the Milan government that recognition had been accorded it purely on its de facto standing and that as the question of the future should be settled by the people themselves, the King was most desirous that a representative assembly for all the insurgent provinces should be elected at once and on a very broad electoral basis, "in order that the decision may be really regarded as a most sincere expression of the common will." 2

The pledge of delay had been made to please the republicans who hoped by this means to secure a republic which should include all of upper Italy. The party for union with Sardinia was, however, gaining in strength through the prestige of Carlo Alberto who, of all the princes of Italy, had granted a liberal constitution, and who had made himself the champion of the Italian cause. There was also the dire need for greater military effectiveness which could only be secured by combination. To end the uncertainty, the central provisional government of Lombardy, on April 8, appointed a commission to investigate the best method of convening the primary assemblies in order to obtain a representative assembly by popular vote and with the least possible delay. As it was hoped that the resulting electoral arrangements could be used as a formula by the other states as well, if not for a joint constituent assembly, delegates were invited from the cities of Venetia, Parma, Modena, Reggio, and Piacenza, to join in the deliberations. The sessions of the commission lasted from April 11-28. Its report was in favor of a constituent assembly of delegates elected by the communes by universal manhood suffrage of all over twenty-one who had not been under judicial sentence.3

1 See Documents, post, p. 371. 2 See Proclamation and Confidential Communication. Documents, post, pp. 371 and 373.

3 The deliberations of the commission and the electoral law proposed by it are given in Le assemblee del risorgimento, vol. 1, pp. 133–196.

The proposition of an assembly, while having the sanction of Carlo Alberto, involved a greater delay than his partisans in Lombardy could tolerate. Petitions begging for an immediate popular vote were circulated. The citizens of Piacenza had already, on April 8, opened registers for a vote on the question of union and the cities of the Venetian mainland were begging Milan's aid in bringing pressure on the Venetian republic to vote for union. This impatience was reflected in Lombardy. It was argued that delay was inexpedient from a military viewpoint and that an assembly might enter into conflict with the Subalpine Parliament. The financial embarrassment of the provisional government and its failure to supply the military cooperation that the people wanted undoubtedly increased the impatience at delay, as endangering the cause against Austria. The warmth of the discussion and the pressure of the party for union finally persuaded the Lombard government to anticipate the holding of an assembly by taking a plebiscite on the question of whether there should be an immediate union with Sardinia or a delay of the decision.

The decree fixing the details of the election was issued on May 12.2 According to this decree, the electorate was to be composed of all male citizens over twenty-one, whether literate or not. Registers were opened in each commune from the date of the proclamation of the decree until May 29. In these the voters, in the presence of the parish priest, assisted by two election officials, were to indicate their choice of the two alternatives. Illiterates might make their mark. The soldiers with the army in the field were to vote at the headquarters of their corps, in the presence of their superior officers.

The Sardinian constitution of 1848 had established not manhood suffrage, but a suffrage based on property, business or professional standing. This was displeasing to the liberals of Lombardy. The vote for union accordingly contained a stipulation that a constituent assembly for the whole Sardinian kingdom, including the states adhering to it, should be convoked by universal suffrage, to establish a new constitution for the monarchy.

1 Carlo Alberto was anxious to postpone the discussion of the future as he feared the diplomatic complications which would arise from fusion, and, on the other hand, was anxious to prevent a republic.

2 Documents, post, p. 376. The idea of popular consultation to settle the question appears to have been proposed from various quarters. Viscount Ponsonby, writing from Vienna to Palmerston on May 12, 1848, transmits a draft of a proposition for a vote of the citizens of the Lombard-Venetian Kingdom as to whether they prefer to enter the projected Italian Confederation under the suzerainty of Austria, or whether they prefer absolute independence, some recompense to be made to Austria for the sacrifice of her rights. British Parliamentary Papers, Affairs of Italy, 1849, vol. 57 (1108), p. 444. The text of the proposal is in French. The name of the author is omitted from the dispatch, and one would feel safe in asserting that he was not an Austrian were it not that there is a statement on good authority that in June, 1848, the Austrian government presented to Lamartine, the head of the French executive, a project of mediation which consisted in leaving to Lombardy and the duchies of Parma and Modena full power to dispose of their own destinies, Venetia to remain a part of the Austrian kingdom. Luigi Chiala, Lettere edite ed inedite di Camillo Cavour, vol. 4, p. 251. The choice of method was, however, apparently spontaneous with the insurgent governments themselves, with the approval of Carlo Alberto.

Except for a popular demonstration which occurred on May 27, to demand the safeguarding of the freedom of the press, the right of association, and a national guard, and a reiteration of the stipulation for universal suffrage in the elections for the constituent assembly, all of which demands were agreed to by the government, the signing of the lists appears to have proceeded without disturbance. The result was an overwhelming defeat of the party of delay, and a corresponding victory for the Sardinian union. Out of the 661,226 qualified voters, 561,002 had voted for immediate union and only 681 for delay. 3

The proportion of those voting to the number qualified is amazingly high. The overwhelming majority may be accounted for in part by the fact that the republicans were divided and irresolute, many of their leaders being away at the war and the mass hesitating to oppose any movement for unity. Then, too, the prestige of Savoy and the influence of the fusionists had increased enormously on the news of the victories of Goito and Peschiera.

Before the lists were closed the republicans had brought charges of unfair action. On May 21 there appeared in the official newspaper of Milan, Il 22 Marzo, a letter signed by Mazzini and some twenty others, representing societies and newspapers, charging that the government was using indecorous haste in the hope of causing the triumph of one side, and protesting that the citizens were unprepared to decide such a momentous question without more information as to the vital issues, information which had been purposely withheld by the government. It was also impossible, they said, to ascertain the mature convictions of the people while the war was on. As to the method of voting by signing registers, they asserted that it was not only illegal but also contrary to the liberal program of the government itself, because it prevented discussion, the inalienable right of the citizen, and substituted a mute bowing before power for the free expression of the real will of the people which would have been secured by means of a constituent assembly. As to the petitions for holding the plebiscite, these, they said, were obtained by bribing the country people. The conservatives, on the other hand, objected to the conditions contained in the vote, being opposed both to universal suffrage and to a constituent assembly.

1 In one account there is found the assertion that the republicans attempted to overturn the government on the day that the polls were closed. Raffaele Giovagnoli, “Le risorgimcnto italiano,” in Storia politica d'Italia, vol. 9, p. 820.

2 These figures are from the report by the Minister of the Interior to the Subalpine Parliament on June 15, 1848. Le assemblee del risorgimento, vol. 1, p. 209. He gives the population in Lombardy in 1848 as 2,667,337.

3 In a dispatch of June 9, Abercromby, the British representative at Turin, gives the figures for the chief cities of Lombardy as follows (Parliamentary Papers (1108), p. 576):










The fusionists were charged by the republicans with carrying on an unscrupulous agitation. In order to neutralize the republican opposition, they said, royalist agents had been at work spreading the idea that the choice was limited in reality to the dilemma: Carlo Alberto or Austria. The bishop had issued commands that the will of the government should be supported and there were complaints that the peasants voted under the guidance of the priests. It was further asserted that foreigners voted, that the soldiers' votes were influenced by the presence of their officers, and that the condemned voted before the gallows.3

From the dispatches of Abercromby, the British representative at Turin, we get another contemporary view of events which makes no such charge of corruption or pressure. La Farina, who was in Lombardy at the time of the vote, speaking of these accusations, says that anyone who, like him, saw Lombardy in those days, was persuaded that the majority of the people of Lombardy were for the cause which won. King, in his history of the period, admits the truth of the charges, but says that, making every allowance for the unworthy acts of the one party and the disorganization of the other, the vote showed an overwhelming preponderance in favor of fusion.

The suggestion that many republicans abstained is hardly supported by the percentage of the vote to the number qualified. Registration was not a voluntary act. The names were placed on the registers by the election officials and we do not hear that they failed to enter the proper number of qualified votes. But, certainly, the method of voting by signing a register under the eyes of the priest offered every opportunity for pressure and coercion

1 See Le assemblee del risorgimento, vol. 1, p. 200 for text.
2 Bolton King, History of Italian Unity, vol. 1, p. 243.
3 Le assemblee del risorgimento, vol. 1, p. 96, quoting from Carlo Cattaneo.

4 The result was no surprise to him. In a letter to Palmerston dated from Turin, May 14, enclosing a copy of the decree for the plebiscite, Abercromby says, “There can be little doubt that a large majority will be found to have voted for immediate annexation.” Parliamentary Papers (1108), p. 457. It should be said, however, that this is the opinion of a representative of a government in favor of Italian unity and accredited to the Savoyard Court.

5 Le assemblee del risorgimento, vol. 1, p. 96.

6 King, loc. cit., adds that the dread of a socialist republic, sycophancy to a king and ambition to see Milan once more the seat of a brilliant court also entered in. ,


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