The Structures of Nineteenth-Century Government

The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were periods of tremendous changes in how European thinkers and political leaders defined the role of government and the individual's relation to it. As early as the seventeenth century, British political theorists such as Thomas Hobbes and John Locke developed new philosophies of government, responding to the English Civil War and Glorious Revolution. Locke, particularly, based his views on the importance of an informed citizenry. At the same time on the continent of Europe, a more efficient brand of monarchy, absolutism, was being developed under French monarchs Louis XIII and XIV, with their great ministers, Cardinals Richelieu and Mazarin.

In only a few generations these new ideas about the role of the state resulted in more rapid changes in the philosophy and practice of government. The English Glorious Revolution of 1688, the American Revolution in the 1770s, and the French Revolution of 1789 put the structures in place that set the stage for the modern bureaucratic state of the nineteenth century. The most common form of government in Europe after 1789 was still absolutism; more rare were systems involving constitutional or representative government, such as the English or Dutch parliamentary systems or American federalism. After 1815, however, it was increasingly difficult to impose absolutism on an urban and literate population, and France under Louis XVIII, Charles X, and Louis Philippe became a constitutional monarchy.


  1. To acquaint students with the major differences and similarities between the main forms of European and American government prevalent during the first half of the nineteenth century, i.e., after the major revolutions of the previous century.

    • These include the parliamentary (whether republican or as a constitutional monarchy) and federal systems of representative government, which were the results of English revolutions of the 1640s and 1688 and Enlightenment thought, and

    • absolutist monarchy, still prevalent in much of Europe, including Prussia, Austria, and Russia, before the middle of the century.

    Students should not only be able to understand the different organizations of each governmental structure; they should also be able to point out the advantages and disadvantages of each form of government.

  2. To familiarize students with the philosophical rationales undergirding each form of government, particularly the theoretical and practical relationship between the individual and the state.

    This serves the purpose of opening students up to the possibility of later political and social reforms during the second half of the century in England, France, Germany, and the United States. Because this lesson assumes that students have been exposed to the events of the previous century (particularly the Enlightenment and French Revolution), they should be able to connect those ideas to the forms of government in this lesson.

I. Comparing Forms of Government

Have your students examine why the different forms of government arose and what each component is designed to do. For instance, students should understand the purpose of a head of state versus a prime minister, the role of a cabinet, or why a unicameral or bicameral system of legislature was created.

In the British model, for instance, the House of Commons was open to non-nobles (of varying levels of property until 1884), while the House of Lords was open only to the ennobled. The French constitutional charter of 1815 and later French constitutions were similar, granting substantial control over one house to the king. In the American case, rather than basing power on class or nobility, the Constitution divided it on the basis of comparative population versus the rights of the minority, i.e., the House of Representatives and the Senate.

Specific reasons of political theory or historical evolution prompted these structures. For example, American politicians utilized Montesquieu's ideas on the division of power, while the British parliamentary houses evolved over time. Students should understand why and how representative government developed, or if it was based on the notion of popular government at all.


Preparatory Reports

Have your students consult one of the works listed in the Additional Resources section below, to get an introduction to one form of government after the beginning of the nineteenth century. Part of the class should look at absolute and constitutional monarchy, part at the British parliamentary system, and part at the U.S. federal system.

Ask students to construct a brief explanation of the different parts of each system. For the parliamentary system, this should include noting the importance of the head of state, who appoints the prime minister or premier, and either a unicameral or bicameral legislature. For the federal system, students should include the president, bicameral legislature, and supreme court. For absolutism, the important components are the monarch and conciliar bureaucracy, and perhaps students will be familiar with the church's role in absolutism, even in the nineteenth century.

This assignment, based on some outside or text reading, will give students a basis for an in-class discussion of the components, pros and cons, limitations, and potential of each system.

Creating a Nation

Especially if this lesson comes after an Enlightenment discussion or a lesson on the French Revolution, another possible assignment or topic for discussion could be a brief (500-750 words) essay or debate on the necessary or desirable components of a constitution. How would students go about creating a government?

Create a hypothetical European society based on Britain, France, or another state and have students create a constitution for that nation. What would they include? What powers would be given to whom? How would different communities be represented? This could be phrased in terms of the merits or perils of creating constitutions: What should be included to make them adapt to changing circumstances? What is difficult to regulate in a constitution? For instance, can class or social status be defended in a constitution? Can change be encouraged or repressed?

II. Constitutions vs. Absolutism

In addition to examining the structures of government, students should engage the issue of the individual's relationship to the state—in other words, whether government considers the individual a partner or a subject of governmental power. Given students' exposure to late-eighteenth-century ideas, it should not be difficult to prompt them to see the issue of a constitution as the sine qua non of nineteenth-century representative government.

Document Analysis Activities

Distribute selections from three constitutional documents: the French Constitutional Charter of Louis XVIII, the British Bill of Rights or Magna Carta, and the American Constitution. The best sections are the preambles or introductions, which lay out the basis of government and/or the distribution of power, and the sections on the rights of citizens, such as the Bill of Rights.

  1. Break the students into groups of five or six. Have students discuss how these documents are written. Who holds power? Why? What is the purpose of the state? Follow such questions or discussion with a deeper discussion on how this might prove to be a workable system.


  1. Assign students a section of the constitutional documents, either the preambles or different sections, such as those describing how the government is to divide its work (for example, in the French Constitutional Charter of 1814, "Form of the Government of the King" and subsequent sections, the English Bill of Rights, and the American Constitution Articles I-III). Have them construct a brief (500-750 words) essay on one or two specific points and how they were, or might be, able to accommodate later change or reform.


  1. Students should also be able to write brief essays, as an alternative assignment, on which parts of the various constitutions come from which Enlightenment or revolutionary ideas, and also which are specific or explicit rejections of older monarchical, absolutist ideological precepts.

III. The "West" vs. the Ancien Regime

Several European countries did not pursue representative government by 1815. One of the hallmarks of the period is the tension between a perceived "western" pattern and the persistence of the so-called ancien regime in Central and Eastern Europe.

Class Debate

If students are familiar with the ideas behind absolutism before the French Revolution, they can contrast its principles with those of constitutional government. One method of doing so is the debate.

Students may be divided either into small groups, individuals representing a side, or into two large groups. One side must defend the position of absolutists in the nineteenth century, and the other make the case for representative government on a constitutional level. A third group might attempt to defend the position of a semi-hypothetical constitutional monarch who rules without a parliament or other check on the royal prerogative, as Louis XVIII and the post-1848 Prussian kings attempted.

One potential issue for debate is that of stability or "order" (absolutism) versus the capacity for change, or "movement/progress" (representative government). This sort of debate will focus students on the extent to which non-revolutionary change was possible in the nineteenth century within the British or American context, particularly if the class is to spend time on the revolutions of 1848, Napoleon III, the attempt to reform Russia after the Crimean War, or nineteenth-century industrialization.

If students are not familiar with absolutist government, the class may find it profitable to examine constitutional government in light of absolutism as a possible alternative. Students could attempt to explain why constitutional, representative government was not more common in Europe until after 1870, or even 1918. This could be done either as class discussion, as an out-of-class assignment considering the possible weaknesses of representative government (mob rule, the tyranny of the majority, corruption, the need for an educated elite, and so forth), or even as a mock challenge to students: The teacher might spark discussion by attacking representative government with some of the common objections of the nineteenth century to voting, constitutions, or the other components of representation.

Additional Resources

[Note: This lesson plan is a logical extension of other topics in the nineteenth century. Students may find it useful to review documents or materials on the French Revolution, the Enlightenment, and the English Revolution of 1688. These materials are not repeated here.]


There are a large number of historical and legal sources on American and British constitutionalism. There are fewer on the French restoration.

Beer, Samuel H. Modern Political Development. New York: Random House, 1974.
This is a reliable, if dated, discussion of the major nineteenth-century constitutional and governmental developments in Europe.

Bertier de Sauvigny, Guillaume. The Bourbon Restoration. Translated by Lynn Case. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1966.
A survey sympathetic to the limitations and advantages of monarchical rule after the Napoleonic wars. Covers the constitutional charter and how Louis XVIII governed in accordance with it.

Lane, Jan-Erik. Constitutions and Political Theory. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1996.
This work on comparative government discusses constitutions and the federal and parliamentary systems, and it posits several questions about the utility and structure of constitutions. It does contain theoretical references students may stumble over, but in general it is accessible and very useful.

Maddex, Robert. Constitutions of the World. Washington: Congressional Quarterly Press, 2001.
A survey of different constitutions, with many fully reproduced. Not generally available except in reference collections.

Morgan, Edmund. The Birth of the Republic. Rev. ed. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1977.
Includes the debate over the Articles of Confederation. The later chapters, particularly, encapsulate the constitutional debates of the 1780s. Very useful for students.

Wright, Gordon. A History of Modern France: From the Enlightenment to the Present. New York: Norton, 1981.
An excellent text on France since the French Revolution, with a balanced discussion of French constitutional developments after Napoleon.


The Napoleon Series
The French Constitutional Charter of 1814 is available here as well as several items from the Revolutionary and Napoleonic periods.

Fordham University Internet Modern History Sourcebook
The section on "Constitutional States" contains the Commonwealth "Instrument of Government," the 1697 Habeas Corpus Act, the 1689 Declaration of Right, and the English Bill of Rights, as well as links to other sites and a considerable set of links on John Locke.

Library of Congress: Thomas Database
The United States Constitution is available free for download on this site.