The Belgian constitution came into force in 1831, and the oldest known Dutch translation (“Belgische Staetswet”) appeared alongside the French text in the Bulletin officiel (February 1831) | Brussels, Federaal Parlement


Borders, Language & Territory
1830 - 1831
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A Liberal Constitution

Belgium Independent

With the Belgian Revolution of 1830 the bourgeoisie gave expression to its aspiration for a national state with a liberal regime. That was embodied in the constitution which was approved in 1831 and remained unchanged for almost 140 years.

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Two days after the Belgian revolutionaries had proclaimed independence on 4 October 1830, a committee of fourteen predominantly young jurists was entrusted with the task of putting together a proposed constitution. The constitution must legally enshrine the basic rights of Belgians and the foundations of the new state.

The committee drew its inspiration from, for example, the Dutch constitution of 1815, French models and British parliamentary traditions. After five sessions their work was done. Belgians were to enjoy a great many individual freedoms. Belgium became a parliamentary monarchy. Power was no longer vested in a king, but in the people, represented by an elected parliament. After a few minor adjustments the National Congress (the provisional parliament) approved the Belgian constitution on 7 February 1831.

Gustave Wappers

Brussels, Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium

Gustaaf Wappers, Episode from the September Days of 1830 in the Grand-Place in Brussels, 1835.

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Belgium Independent

From 1815 to 1830 present-day Belgium and the Netherlands formed together the Kingdom of the Netherlands under Willem I. That kingdom was created by Great Britain and the other European powers which had defeated Napoleon. The new state was to serve as a buffer against future French attempts at expansion.

In the southern part of the young kingdom discontent quickly grew. The urban middle class wanted political accountability and freedom of the press, the Catholic church wanted less interference from government in education and the nobility wanted less taxes. Moreover, the Gallicised elite resisted the language policy of Willem I, who promoted Dutch in education and administration. When in 1830 food prices began to rise, the wider population also began to grumble.

In 1830 revolution broke out in Paris and a month later Brussels too revolted. The revolutionary flame spread like wildfire. A provisional government declared Belgian independence. The National Congress was elected to vote on a constitution.

In order to survive as an independent state Belgium needed the support of the great European powers, all of them monarchies. They were not keen on revolutionary experiments that would lead to a republic. For this reason the constitutional committee opted for a parliamentary monarchy. Since none of the great powers was to have too much influence over the new state, the German-British Leopold von Sachsen-Coburg took the Belgian throne as a compromise figure. But apart from that the constitution had strong liberal accents.

Focal points

La Sainte Alliance.

Private collection

The rapprochement between Catholics and liberals was the basis of the Belgian Revolution. This Dutch cartoon from 1828 predicted that this alliance of convenience would not last for long.

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Compromise between Liberals and Catholics

During the Belgian revolt two camps attracted power towards themselves: Liberals and Catholics. Both groups were represented in the National Congress and tried to give the young Belgium an ideal form according to their interests.

The liberal group consisted of professors, teachers, lawyers and journalists from the urban middle class. Inspired by the nationalism and liberalism that were gaining ground everywhere in Europe, they wanted via a parliamentary government to give as much political power as possible to the people. By ‘people’ they meant in the first place their own class. Giving the broad population a voice went too far for them. They also defended the rights and freedoms of the individual and as far as possible wanted to give short shrift to the old privileges of nobility and church.

The second – larger – group consisted of substantial landowners (noble and Catholic), rich entrepreneurs and church office holders. Their main objective was to preserve or restore their power. For example, they promoted the census suffrage, under which only those who paid sufficient taxes – the very richest – were allowed to vote. The Catholics insisted on freedom of religion so that the government could not interfere with their activities. Freedom of education allowed the church to educate future generations of Catholics in its own schools. Later Catholics and Liberals would argue about the interpretation of that freedom of education and that would lead on two occasions to a ‘school battle’ between government education (organised by the state) and free (often Catholic) schools.

Liberaal congres 1846.

Ghent, Liberas, litho M. Molenschot

On 14 June 1846 the first congress of the Belgian Liberals took place in Brussels town hall. The founding of the liberal party, under pressure from the freemasons’ lodges, meant the end of the liberal-Catholic alliance.

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Far-reaching Political Freedoms

For its time the Belgian constitution set out a far-reaching series of fundamental rights and freedoms. It guaranteed Belgians equality before the law, protection against legal arbitrariness, freedom of worship, freedom of education, freedom of the press and right of assembly. The text was a model for revolutionaries elsewhere in Europe.

At the same time the elites who sat at the table in 1830 anchored their privileges in the constitution, for example through the census suffrage. In this way a limited group of male citizens – some 2% of the four million Belgians – had all the political power. Votes for women would only be introduced in 1948.

The progressive principles of the constitution often clashed with practice. For example, the Civil Code – a legacy of Napoleon – denied married women full legal competence. The criminal law forbade strikes by workers, who as a result found it difficult to band together in trades unions.

The constitution included freedom of language, a reaction to the Dutch language policy of Willem I. That meant in practice not so much that citizens were free to use their language as they chose with those in authority, but that the latter had the right to choose French, even though the majority of the population spoke little if any French. That led to rapid Gallicisation of public life in the Dutch-speaking provinces. The Flemish movement was to oppose this tendency.

Willem I
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum, SK-C-1460

Willem I, King of the Netherlands: progressive in the economic and administrative field, reluctant to share power. Painting by Joseph Paelinck, 1819.

Onthulling standbeeld Willem I.
Wannes Nimmegeers

Even after the independence of Belgium there were circles in the south who regretted the separation from the Netherlands, for example in Ghent, which has Willem I to thank for its university. Supporters often stress how under the Kingdom of the Netherlands the Dutch language was encouraged. As late as 2018 a bronze statue of Willem I was unveiled on the Reep in Ghent.


Louis Potter.
Bruges, Musea Brugge, Groeningemuseum

‘Tant de sang pour si peu de chose’: the journalist Louis De Potter (1786-1859) withdraws from the Provisional Government when it is decided to make Belgium a monarchy instead of a republic.

Brussels, Regie der Gebouwen

The Congress Column in Brussels honours the work of the National Congress and the constitution. The four allegorical figures at the foot of the monument represent freedom of association, freedom of the press, freedom of education and freedom of religion.

Hippolyte Metdepenningen.
Wikimedia Commons, Donar Reiskoffer

Ghent was a bulwark of resistance against the Belgian Revolution. The lawyer Hippolyte Metdepenningen (1799-1881) and the Ghent freemasons were mostly for economic reasons fervent advocates of Willem I and the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Statue by Julien Dillens unveiled in 1886 in front of the Old Court Building on the Koophandelsplein in Ghent.

Wikimedia Commons, Spotter2

In 1840 pro-Flemish militants organised a petition criticising the Gallicisation of the Dutch-language provinces and demanding the use of the local language in public administration. One of those behind the initiative was the doctor and writer Ferdinand Snellaert (1809-1872). This is his monument in Ghent Sint-Amandsberg.

Het jonge België was door zijn liberale regime een toevluchtsoord voor tal van Europese revolutionairen, onder wie Karl Marx. In café De Zwaan aan de Grote Markt van Brussel schreef hij in 1848 in Brussel het Communistisch Manifest.
Wikimedia Commons

The young state of Belgium, with its liberal regime, was a place of refuge for many European revolutionaries, including Karl Marx. In 1848, in café De Zwaan in the Great Market-Place in Brussels, he wrote the Communist Manifesto.

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