Brabant Revolution

Brabant Revolution
   Brussels and the Belgian provinces enjoyed much economic prosperity and local liberties were left largely undisturbed for 80 years under the Austrian regime. However, the accession of Emperor Joseph II in 1780 and the sovereign's efforts to bring the rational, secular reforms of the Enlightenment to the country sparked resistance. Edicts of 1 January 1787 totally remodeled the system of government. The Estates of Brabant met on 29 January 1787 and admonished the emperor that the Joyeuse Entrée could not be changed without their consent. In April, Brussels lawyer Henri Van der Noot drafted a detailed history of Brabant privileges at the request of the Estates. Pamphlets and handbills appeared in Brussels in May 1787 stating that, unless Joseph rescinded his attacks on Brabant's rights and privileges, sovereign authority would legally pass to the Estates as the people's representatives. Rumors spread that Joseph planned to impose higher taxes and military conscription. On 4 June, the deans of the nine nations called for creation of a citizens' guard and volunteers from among the city's artisans and merchants assembled. Residents appeared wearing patriotic cockades and Austrian authorities contemplated moving the capital to Ghent.
   On the night of 20 September 1787, a fight erupted outside a café between a group of guardsmen and Austrian troops. At the funeral of one of the slain guardsmen at the church of Saint-Géry, the next morning Austrian soldiers advanced on the church and residents rushed to the Grand' Place. Paving stones from the streets were used to erect barricades at every entrance point, and fighting ensued. Austrian troops subsequently left the city and unpopular decrees were annulled. However, the emperor's refusal to rescind reforms abolishing religious orders and curtailing privileges drew the ire of the First Estate, hitherto hesitant to join the rebellious Third Estate. Three new edicts were issued on 17 December 1787, and troops under a new military commander, General Alton, fired into a crowd on the Grand' Place on 22 January 1788, killing several. The Third Estate refused to approve the tax levy; the emperor ordered troops to remain permanently in Brussels and forbade the nations to assemble, which they defied. In November 1788, the Third Estate relented and voted taxes. Pressing his advantage, the emperor decreed changes in the constitutional setup and ordered a troop buildup in Brussels. In spring 1789, Joseph proclaimed all provincial privileges, including the Joyeuse Entrée, abrogated, and he announced that he would rule alone without the Estates.
   A new revolutionary committee, Pro Aris et Focis, was formed and guns and ammunition secured. Antagonism emerged between this new committee, under the leadership of Jean-François Vonck, whose members supported broader democratic liberties, and the 1787 malcontents established now as a committee at Breda in the Netherlands under the leadership of Van der Noot, who favored restoration of traditional rights and maintenance of the old governing order. The two committees managed to merge in mid-October 1789. A declaration of revolution was issued on 24 October and an army marched from Breda. Artisans and manufacturers collected arms and held meetings in the Parc de Bruxelles, cafés, and meeting halls. Attacks by villagers around Brussels against the Austrian garrison occurred on 8 and 9 December and battles in the city's streets commenced on 11 December. The Austrians were driven out on the 12th. Revolutionaries returned in a celebratory procession on the 18th. For the first time in history insurrectionists called themselves "Belgians." The Estates-General proclaimed the United States of Belgium in Brussels on 10 January 1790, and a draft constitution establishing a republic was adopted the next day.
   However, disagreements soon surfaced. Democrats ("Vonckists"), advocating reforms along the French revolutionary model, clashed with traditionalists ("Van der Nootists"), who argued for restoration of the sovereignty of the Estates. Lawyers, bankers, the lower clergy, and elements among the petite bourgeoisie supported the former; the nations, nobility, and higher clergy backed the latter. The democrats were defeated and Vonck and his allies fled to France. Austrian troops reoccupied Brussels on 3 December 1790, but clashes between the opposing factions continued. A war of pamphlets ensued. Homes of democrats and royalists—the latter accused of supporting the Austrians—were pillaged, convents and monasteries were attacked, and members of the nations were assaulted. Despite the infighting, the Austrians alienated every political faction. Their expulsion by French troops, who arrived in Brussels on 14 November 1792, ushered in the ascendancy of democratic elements during the French regime.

Historical Dictionary of Brussels. .

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