Belgium and the Belgians
THE Belgians not less than the Swiss have reason to be thankful every day that theirs is a small country, without foreign policy or colonial ambitions, secure in a guaranteed neutrality, and at liberty to cultivate the arts of peace. The burdens and anxieties which the current régime of militarism and the constant menace of war inflict upon the people of France and Germany can be appreciated only after a sojourn among them. The Germans are obliged to live under a harsh and impoverishing military despotism, while the French are reduced to an unhappy state of foreboding and half-desperation. Little Belgium, lying like a wedge between France and Germany, is, fortunately, free from the more serious troubles of its greater neighbors. Here the citizen enjoys a much higher degree of real liberty than the citizen in either of these adjoining countries: his taxes are far lighter, his obligation of military service is less oppressive, his commerce is less shackled, and in all respects he receives more and sacrifices less by reason of membership in the body politic.
There has elapsed just half a century since the Treaty of London revised the boundaries and assured the perpetual neutrality of Belgium, and gained recognition for the new state from all the powers of Europe; and during this period it has been possible for the government to give almost undivided attention to domestic affairs. Nowhere else in Europe has constitutional government pursued so even and so consistent a course ; and Belgium has offered the other Continental powers many instructive lessons. The politics of Belgium, and the principles and forms of its administration in this century, have been affected so materially and directly by the French Revolution that all its political writers dwell upon 1789 as one of the cardinal dates in their country’s constitutional history. The fact that the recent centennial anniversary of the great Revolution coincides with the semi-centennial of the Treaty of London might well lend additional interest to a glimpse at the politique of Belgium. To the foreign student of political and social questions such a view of the working institutions of the country becomes infinitely more intelligible under the explanations of so wise and eminent a publicist as Professor Émile de Lavelaye, of Liege. It is not proposed here to present either a formal study of Belgian politics or a precise report of talks with M. de Lavelaye, but rather to combine in an informal way certain remarks and comments of the distinguished Belgian with the writer’s own observations.
Belgium is so famous for its close tillage, great number of small agricultural holdings, and dense population that the American visitor is surprised at the appearance of the country from the windows of his railway carriage. From the French frontier to Brussels, and from Brussels to the German frontier, — assuming that the traveler is going by the usual northern route from Paris through the heart of Belgium, on his way to Cologne and Berlin, — one finds slightly undulating plains stretching off to a horizon of low hills, the prospect at many points being unrelieved by a village or even by a single house. A more solitary landscape could now hardly be found on the prairies of Nebraska or western Iowa. — which in fact are constantly suggested, if one happens to be familiar with them. The air of solitude is of course greatest in winter. The farming customs of central and southern Belgium differ radically from those of Flanders, the northern provinces. In the north, the land belongs to peasants, who perform the labor themselves and subdivide estates. In the centre and south, the farmers are of a different class, and hold large properties, which they seldom subdivide. The empty appearance of the land results from the grouping of houses and farm buildings in villages. Subdivision of these farms would require the investment of new capital in additional buildings, machinery, and general outfit, and this is not deemed profitable. Accordingly, as M. de Lavelaye explains, there is an absolute end of the multiplication of holdings in Belgium, and, instead of dividing the land among heirs, the people of the farming class prefer to sell the land and divide the proceeds. In the discussion of Irish, English, and American problems of agrarian economics, the fact is too frequently overlooked that modern farming methods place a natural limit upon the size of holdings, and that the average area of separate exploitations is nowhere tending to decrease. Yet this assertion would seem to he emphatically contradicted by the statistics of Belgium itself. From 1846 to 1880 the number of separate farms had increased from about 580,000 to more than 910,000. But these figures bring the small peasant holdings of Flanders and the large farms of the other provinces into a common category, and are therefore liable to a mistaken interpretation. The economics of large farming, in which capital is the most prominent factor, and the economics of peasant proprietorship, in which labor has the chief place, are very different. Of the 910,000 " farms ” of Belgium, more than 710,000 contain less than two hectares, or five English acres each. It might be safe to estimate that less than 100,000 good-sized farms, according to English and American standards, occupy nearly two thirds of the cultivated area of Belgium, and that more than 800,000 small holdings make up the remaining one third. Subdivision is the tendency wherever that peasant proprietorship prevails ; and the multiplication of Belgian farms indicated by the statistics has been chiefly in Flanders.
M. de Lavelaye explains very satisfactorily why a different land system prevails in the two parts of Belgium. The land of Flanders was originally sterile, and great labor was required to redeem the sandy wastes. The feudal tenure of such soil was not profitable, and the feudal system was therefore abrogated in Flanders much earlier than in the fertile provinces lying further inland. By dint of great industry the peasants have made the land productive. It would have been a desert to-day under a landlord system, just as Ireland would be almost as barren as Sahara but for the extraordinary richness of the soil and the fertilizing effects of an abundant rainfall. It is highly instructive to compare the thrift of peasant owners in Flanders with the distress of peasant tenants in the west of Ireland. If land-lordism had been abolished in the rocky and boggy regions of western Ireland when it disappeared in Flanders, the Irish peasants would to-day be richer and more prosperous than the Flemish. A well-regulated landlord system, when applied to good land held in large farms, is not necessarily disastrous ; but wherever great labor is required to redeem and cultivate rocky hillsides or barren wastes, no system but that of peasant ownership is applicable. Of this fact Flanders supplies a striking illustration. It is interesting to note in passing that although so many hundred thousands of these farms now contain only about a hectare, it is not common to find them smaller. Subdivision stops at this line. M. de Lavelaye says that, to the peasant mind, the division of a hectare would be like cutting a good picture into halves.
But I had intended to dwell more particularly upon the Belgian constitution and government, and may first be allowed to recall a few general historical facts. The Belgian provinces with approximately their present bounds are very ancient, and were comparatively independent of one another until the House of Burgundy, in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, knit them together with a centralized administration which has from that time to the present day given them a common destiny. After the crumbling of the Carlovingian Empire, the Belgian provinces had come under the rule of feudal princes and barons, whose sway had in turn been broken down by the rise of the communes,” or townships, a movement beginning in the eleventh century. The communes reached a very high degree of prosperity, privilege, and local autonomy in the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth centuries. The great part which the feudal princes of Belgium played in the Crusades had enabled the communes the more successfully to assert themselves. Each commune, with its elected council and its college of magistrates, composed of a burgomaster and several echevins, formed in itself a miniature free state. The House of Burgundy superimposed a central administration upon provinces each of which had already its long-standing provincial organization and its highly developed communal system. In order to produce a larger unity, the measures which depressed and enfeebled the communes in the fifteenth century and subsequently were perhaps justified. We are accustomed to regard the superiority of AngloSaxon institutions as due in large part to the persistence of the old-time local units of government, the townships. It is, however, well to remember that the French and Belgian communes are almost as ancient and as worthy of respect as the Anglo-Saxon townships. Modern constitutional improvements in Belgium have been wisely grafted upon the ancient structure of provinces and communes.
Many dark pages in the history of the Low Countries are filled with the story of the Spanish domination, of the religious wars, and of the aggressions of Louis XIV., but recuperation was rapid under the beneficent administration of the Austrian House in the eighteenth century. M. de Lavelaye tells me that he well remembers how, in his boyhood days, the old people fondly recalled the good times of Maria Theresa. The economic character of the pre-Revolutionary régime in Belgium was far from being so bad as that of France. In Belgium, in the eighteenth century, the nobles and the Church bore their respective shares of taxation, and the masses were comparatively comfortable. The more violent phases of the French Revolution were fortunately not witnessed in Belgium, while the beneficent and just principles of the new political philosophy of France had free course and general acceptance in the neighbor country. In 1794, Belgium was annexed by the French republic, and it shared the fortunes of France until the downfall of Napoleon in 1814. Compared with the old France, the old Belgium was certainly an Elysium ; but its society was lethargic and unprogressive. The Revolution and the French intrusion made an awakening that was exceedingly rough and uncomfortable, but thoroughly beneficial in the end. As a primary-school summary of Belgian history quaintly remarks, " À la suite de la victoire de Fleurus, la Belgique passe à la France, dont le régime a ses rigueurs, mais nous procure de présieuses libertés.” The transformation wrought in a very few years is well summed up by a spirited Belgian historian : " 1789, c’est la vieille Belgique, la Belgique provinciale et communale, telle que l’ont formée les siècles. avec ses antiques priviléges, ses rouages compliqués, ses classes juxtaposées, ses trois états, son clergé tout-puissant, son esprit particulariste et conservateur — 1799, c’est la Belgique nouvelle, la Belgique unifée, telle que l’a modelée le clair génie de la France, avec son administration simple, sa égalité civique, son clergé fonctionnaire, son esprit centralisateur et progressif.” To this day, the civil and criminal codes, the machinery of civil administration, and the arrangements and procedure of judicial tribunals are essentially those introduced from France in the Napoleonic period.
The allied powers, convened at Paris in 1814 to arrange terms of peace with France, determined upon the fusion of Belgium and Holland, and the establishment of the Kingdom of the Low Countries, under the rule of the Prince of Orange as William I. The new power was erected upon the basis of a constitutional document known as “ the Fundamental Law of 1815;” and a very liberal charter it was, when one considers the mood in which the conquerors were, and their dislike of advanced and “ Frenchified ” political notions. It had been adopted by Holland in 1814, and its benefits were extended to Belgium by the fusion of the following year. The Fundamental Law recognized most of “ the rights of man,” gave the provinces and communes their own administration, and, in short, established modern representative institutions. But while the government of William was in the main advantageous and just, it was in minor respects exceedingly unpopular and obnoxious in the Belgian provinces. The Belgians for the most part talked French, and they disliked Dutch as the official language. Holland was Protestant, while Belgium was intensely Catholic, and the Church found itself uncomfortably fettered. Dutch views seemed to prevail in everything, to the growing exasperation of the Belgians, who felt themselves under a foreign yoke rather than an integral part of a self-governing country. The Belgians all admit that what they term the régime hollandais was highly favorable to the development of their industry and commerce, and notable for the great impulse given to education ; but the Dutch behaved themselves stupidly and offensively in various particulars, and the Belgians, while acknowledging and respecting the many superior qualities of the Netherlanders, found the union ill-assorted and incompatible. They admired the Dutch as neighbors, hut could not endure to keep house with them. In 1830, they pronounced themselves divorced from a union which had been forced upon them without their consent by the Treaties of Paris and the Congress of Vienna, and they succeeded in maintaining an independence which at first was viewed quite unfavorably by Europe and vigorously opposed by Holland. A provisional government declared Belgium an independent state, and called a national congress to adopt a constitution.
Few constitutional assemblies have ever been more thoroughly representative, and few have ever shown a higher degree of political sagacity, than that which assembled at Brussels in November, 1830, and completed its labors in the following February. Within a period of about forty years Europe and America had witnessed a series of most remarkable constitutional experiments. New principles had been developed, and what we term the modern era of constitutionalism had fairly set in. There were in this convention a number of able and brilliant men, and the discussions were of the most important character. Some of the two hundred members believed that the time had come to establish a republic ; and, with the House of Orange forever excluded by a formal vote, the question seemed to rest upon its pure merits. It was decided, after a discussion of the actual situation, domestic and foreign, that an hereditary constitutional monarchy, with ministerial responsibility, would be the best form of government for Belgium, and only thirteen votes dissented, although the republic was frankly avowed by many to be their ideal. The sovereignty of the people was, however, declared, and not a vestige of the divine right of kings was left in the reconstituted system. The nature and limitations of the monarchy were fortunately determined before the monarch himself was selected.
The Belgian constitution-makers of 1830 understood the nature of their task. It was theirs to preserve in unified and harmonious form the old institutions of the provinces and communes, and to weave into the new fabric those modern liberties, individual and social, which the French Revolution had rescued from the débris of feudalism, and which the French régime in Belgium had left as an imperishable souvenir in the political creeds, if not in the ordinary practice of the country. Then there was the very respectable constitution of Holland, which a joint commission of Belgian and Dutch notables had revised in 1815, and under which the people of the two countries had now lived for fifteen years. This document might well be taken as the basis of comparison, the point of departure. Good use, moreover, was to be made of English and American experience in constitutional government; and finally, there were, in the precise situation and in the causes that had led to the revolution of 1830, many things to tax the critical and the constructive faculties of the national assembly. The result was not only one of the clearest and most scientific instruments of organic law ever drafted by any man or body of men, but also one of the best in point of practical fitness. It has kept its place without a change to the present day. The revolutionary waves of 1848 and 1870 which swept across Europe were quite without effect in Belgium, where the people were already in the enjoyment of all the more substantial constitutional liberties. Of the larger powers of the European continent, not one has yet attained, through all the struggles of the century, the liberties which Belgium has enjoyed without a break for nearly sixty years. Full freedom of worship, of instruction, of the press and the theatre, of assembly and association, of petition, of language, — these social rights, only partly protected under the régime hollandais, were specifically guaranteed in the constitution of 1831, together with those individual rights of perfect equality before the law and of inviolability of domicile and property that have had more universal recognition.
The adoption of the English system of ministerial responsibility was the most important point of difference between the Fundamental Law of 1815 and that of 1831. If the ministers of William had been dependent upon the Chambers, it is not improbable that the agitations which culminated in the Brussels outbreak of 1830 would have taken the form of parliamentary controversies, and would have expended their force in that way. If the quarrel had lain between the Belgians and a responsible ministry rather than between the people and the king himself, the union with Holland might not have been sacrificed. For the dissatisfaction was with the administration much more than with the laws. With the new constitution, then, Belgium came under the form of government called by the French le régime parlementaire, borrowing from England a system which has since been adopted by Austria, Italy, and France, and about the merits and success of which there is to-day in Europe much discussion and wide difference of opinion. The system lias worked more evenly and satisfactorily in Belgium than anywhere else, because. as M. de Lavelaye points out, the conditions of party are more favorable. As for the system in general, I may remark here that M. de Lavelaye has been one of its most hostile critics, regarding it in France and Italy as a “veritable nuisance,” and even in England as distracting, inefficient, and wholly disappointing. The parliamentary system is that of government by the ruling party in the legislature. It presupposes two main parties of tolerably stable character, the one representing conservatism, and the other representing change and progress. Nowhere else in Europe are parties so sharply defined and so well balanced as in Belgium. In England, France, Italy, and Austria, parties are now either so numerous or so unstable that governments must depend for their existence upon the coalition of more or less discordant groups and elements; and the larger part of the energy and attention of cabinets must be devoted to the task of maintaining themselves in Parliament. M. de Lavelaye, whose long and close observation has given him a right to speak with more than ordinary authority, avows his great preference for the American presidential system, which separates the executive and the legislative departments, giving the cabinet ministers a safe and fixed tenure, and allowing them to pay undivided attention to their work. At best, as he justly observes, the parliamentary system is properly applicable only to a monarchy, and has no excuse in a republic like France, which could change the administration, if it so desired, by changing the President at stated periods.
I am tempted to present at greater length M. de Lavelaye’s criticism of the parliamentary regime in Europe, but I must not wander too far from Belgium. Here there are two parties, the Catholie and the Liberal. It is true that in municipal elections the radicals and socialists sometimes emerge as small party groups; but they cut no figure at all in general politics. There are no independents, there is practically no “ floating vote.” Every man is a pronounced partisan, and votes his ticket “ straight.” In Parliament the two parties are closely organized. Changes of ministry are expected, if at all, only in consequence of a regular general election ; and dissolution and appeals to the country are quite out of the usual order of things. Recent ministries have, like American cabinets, held office for four years. The parties are so nearly even that the result of the quadrennial parliamentary elections is always uncertain. Viewing the party history through considerable periods, it may be said that from 1830 to 1848 the Catholic party were more generally in power, and that from 1848 up to the present decade the Liberal element was sufficiently predominant, for the most part, to give its character to the laws and administration ; while the more recent situation has been Catholic and reactionary. Since Belgium is the most intensely Catholic country in Europe, — the masses in no other region, with the possible exception of the Tyrol, being so completely under the influence and control of the clergy, — it may well be asked how it happens that the Catholic party are not always in power, and that the anti-clericals, while invariably controlling the municipal governments of Brussels, Antwerp, Liege, Mons, and all the towns of any considerable size, are always very compact and strong in the Parliament. The answer to this question involves one of the most curious facts in current European politics. Liberals everywhere in Catholic countries owe whatever of power they possess to limitations upon the suffrage, while the clericals may truly charge all their curtailments of authority to the same cause. It is the wealthy and better educated people of the middle classes — the lawyers, engineers, bankers, and leaders in all sorts of modern activities — who have broken with the Church in Europe, and are the mainstays of Liberalism. There is, of course, an aristocratic element which holds to the traditions of the old regime, and which is in alliance with the clerical party. But when the docile and religious masses of the people are excluded, as in Austria and Belgium, from the exercise of political privileges, the " emancipated ” element of Liberalism finds itself nearly or quite as strong as the conservative Catholic party. Universal suffrage in these countries would, as M. de Lavelaye believes, and as leading Liberals in Vienna assure me to be their opinion, make certain a half century of reaction and Catholic predominance. Yet Liberalism everywhere, true to its faith in the people, has been demanding a broader basis for the suffrage; while Catholicism, deeply opposed to the principle of democracy, has preferred to be thwarted and sometimes flatly defeated rather than to win easy victory by invoking the vox populi. There is something decidedly anomalous and paradoxical in the situation upon its face, but each party is perhaps right, if one takes the broad view that looks into the next century.
Both parties regard the educational question as more critically vital than any other. In Belgium, as in Austria, the Liberal governments of two or three decades ago succeeded in establishing elementary education upon a national and unsectarian basis. In both countries, the Catholic party — now slightly in the majority in Belgium, and also, through coalitions, in power at Vienna — are determined to clericalize the schools, and to control the future by directing the education of the children. M. de Lavelaye believes that for his own country, as for Europe in general, the Liberal prospect is less auspicious than at any time in many years. He does not hesitate to predict a general reaction of Catholicism and aristocratic conservatism in a close alliance which is to sweep Europe. He holds that Liberalism, with its representative system and its much-vaunted parliamentary regime, has come far short of its promises of forty years ago, and that its extravagance, inefficiency, and tedious irrelevancies have excited distrust, in view of military exigencies, and especially in view of the rise of socialism. In Paris, Berlin, Vienna, and Rome, the most sagacious Liberal publicists and statesmen, whether agreeing or not with M. de Lavelaye’s condemnation of the parliamentary regime, share, as I have good reason to know, his apprehensions as regards the political future, and witness with alarm, from their own respective and immediate points of view, the growth of clericalism as a political force. M. de Lavelaye deems the French and Italian situations especially bad. He has little hope for the permanency of the French republic ; and he regards the religious question as at the root of things, the reaction against republican opposition to the religious orders being fraught with serious consequences, of which the end is yet to be seen. Nor does he see much encouragement for the government in the mortal struggle between the Church and the king in Italy. M. de Lavelaye takes the general view that Catholic predominance in a country is incompatible with the working of free representative institutions, from the very nature of the hold the priests keep upon the consciences of the people. Certainly the Belgian priests watch their flocks closely. One cannot fail to be impressed, in going from France to Belgium, with the astonishing difference in the devoutness of the people.
In Belgium, it is not the women alone who go to church on Sunday. The churches are packed with men, who are under priestly domination of a sort that is exercised in few other countries. In Liege, as I am told, the priests ascertain through the letter-carriers what members of their congregations receive copies of Liberal newspapers, and read out the names in church, refusing absolution unless the paper is discontinued at once. Protestantism is a very small force in Belgium, having only about fifteen thousand adherents in a population of six millions, one fourth of one per cent. As in France, a part of the salaries of religious ministers is provided by the government; and the ministers of the established Protestant Church, the Église Réformé, receive their share. There is also, as in France, a free Protestant Church, which receives no subventions, and is the more energetic for its independent position.
To an outside observer, one of the most seriously objectionable results of the political attitude of the Catholic Church in Europe is the making of religion a matter of party. To be a Liberal in Belgium or Austria is to be without the pale of the Church. The constitution accords every man freely the right of political opinion and association ; but the Church denies such right. Practically, therefore, in Catholic countries, the whole Liberal party is unchurched. If Protestantism were reinforced by the withdrawal of the great body of intelligent Liberals from the Catholic Church, the situation would be very different. But, as matters stand, the Church declares that Liberalism destroys all religious faith, and that as the religious sanction disappears morality declines and the very foundation stones of society begin to shake in their places. If the complete secularism of the Liberal party tends to social disintegration, it is hard to see why the major share of blame should not be laid at the door of a church which makes religion a close party monopoly.
In the constitution of the Belgian legislature there is much that resembles that of the law-making bodies of American States. The Chamber of Representatives has just twice as many members as the Senate, and members of both bodies are chosen by direct vote of the qualified citizens, in the same electoral districts. Senators are chosen for eight years, and Representatives for four years; but both bodies are divided into two classes, so that half the Chamber is renewed every two years, and half the Senate every four years. M. de Lavelaye is a warm advocate of this plan of partial renewal. He thinks that it greatly relieves the strain of parliamentary crises; and he regards its steadiness and continuity as of very high advantage. The French Chambers, in his opinion, might employ the plan with great benefit; and he would regard the adoption of a four years’ term, with the biennial election of half the members, as an improvement in the American House of Representatives. Under the Dutcli-Belgian constitution of 1814—15, the Representatives were elected indirectly ; but the convention of 1831 adopted the plan of direct election, after a spirited discussion.
However, the idea of a universal or even of a tolerably general suffrage found no favor in this assembly. The payment of direct taxes to the state was made the condition of voting, and the constitution provided that the sum should be determined by law, the maximum being one hundred florins, and the minimum twenty florins. At first a schedule was enacted, which made different rates for town and country, and also for different provinces, the average rate being much higher than the constitutional minimum. But in 1848, under the influence of the universal wave of democratic feeling, the differences were all abolished, and the minimum of twenty florins was made the uniform qualification, by unanimous vote of both Chambers. It should be remembered that this sum (42.32 francs, equal to about $8.50) is to be paid as direct taxes to the state, and that payment of provincial and municipal taxes does not count towards electoral qualification. In a total population of 6,000,000 there are only about 129,000 persons qualified to vote, or one thirteenth of the adult male population. So restricted a suffrage seems to us extremely illiberal; yet without it Liberalism would have been hopelessly buried. The present system is imbedded in the constitution; and it is well-nigh impossible to change that instrument.
Moreover, there is very little agitation in any quarter for an extension of the suffrage, and the system is likely to remain as it is until the intellectual emancipation of the masses has made much greater progress. Under the existing system of compulsory education the reproach of illiteracy is fast disappearing. In 1880, forty-two per cent, of the population above fifteen years of age was absolutely illiterate, while all but about twenty-nine per cent of the children between seven and fifteen could read and write. The statistics of 1890 will show a very marked improvement. In deference to the demands of a growing popular intelligence, there was enacted in 1883 a law establishing an educational qualification for the provincial and communal franchise. This new law adds to the electoral lists two classes of persons, irrespective of tax-paying: first, all persons exercising specified liberal professions, holders of diplomas from specified classes of institutions, occupants of important official, commercial, and social positions under specified conditions, and so on through a carefully elaborated schedule ; and second, those who pass successfully an electoral examination, the details of which are prescribed in the law.
Educational qualification has been much discussed theoretically, both in Europe and America, but has had very meagre practical trial anywhere. The Belgian experiment is the more interesting for that reason. The requirements are made to correspond in a general way with the amount and kind of knowledge included in the compulsory school courses, the intention being that the boy who has completed his school attendance shall be well prepared, with a little reviewing, to take the electoral examination. The programme of obligatory instruction in Belgian schools includes reading, writing, arithmetic, the legal system of weights and measures, the elements of the French, Flemish, or German language, according to the province or locality, geography, Belgian history and civil government, drawing, singing, gymnastics, and the principles of agriculture in schools of rural communes. The electoral examination embraces all these subjects except drawing, singing, gymnastics, and agriculture. As originally enacted, the law required the presentation of school certificates as a preliminary; but this demand has been modified. The candidate must be fully eighteen years old. (He is not, of course, to exercise the franchise until he is twenty-one.) He may have his examination in the French, Flemish, or German language, and may choose between an evening and a Sunday sitting. The examinations are held in March of each year in the chief town of every canton, and the state railways carry the candidates up to the ordeal and home again at half price. The examinations are conducted by " juries of three ” members each, named by the minister of the interior. Each jury is composed of a principal or leading instructor in a middle school of the state system, a like educator from a private middle school, and a third person not engaged in educational work, who acts as president. The answers are wholly in writing, and the questions to be submitted are selected by lot. in the presence of the candidates, from a very large list prepared and published by the government.
The current list is for the period 1889-93, and it is the privilege of the candidate to study all the questions at his leisure, in advance. Publishers issue the questions with answers annexed, to make " cramming ” as easy as possible. But the examination is, nevertheless, far from being a farce. The official questionnaire contains one hundred numbered passages, averaging about one hundred and fifty words each, from the writings of standard authors. A number is drawn, and the corresponding passage is slowly dictated to the candidates, to test at once their ability to read, write, and spell. To answer the questions on the history of Belgium (111 in the questionnaire) requires a remarkably thorough knowledge, involving also much of general European history from the time of Cæsar to the middle of the present century ; while the fifty or more questions on the principles of the Belgian constitution call for knowledge both accurate and mature. The geography questions number 168, and require a minute knowledge of Belgium, a very thorough acquaintance with the natural and political features of Europe, and a fair knowledge of the whole world. One hundred and forty-nine problems in general arithmetic are given, and 173 more deal with measures of length, measures of surface, measures of volume and capacity, weights, and money. Questions from each category are successively drawn. The precautions to insure fairness are many and effective. Resident electors are allowed to be represented by witnesses, who observe that all is done in the interest of fair play. The examination papers are collected, sealed in a package, and transmitted to the examining hoard of some other canton, selected by lot, to be read and marked. Reading and writing together count for ten points, and the other five branches for five points each. To pass the examination and receive a diploma it is necessary to have gained at least twenty-one points out of a possible thirty-five. The requirements seem rather formidable ; but they are open to a liberal construction, so that if the candidate is but able to write legibly, to spell respectably, to solve ordinary every-day problems in figures, and to use current weights and measures, he may fail in history and geography and still pass the ordeal. An examination system can never be free from all objections ; and Belgium’s has perhaps as few as any ever devised.
It is inevitable that the body of provincial and communal electors, now grown vastly larger than that of the legislative electors, must sooner or later demand and obtain the full franchise. At present, only those who pay fortytwo francs of direct state taxes vote for Senators and Representatives. For provincial elections the limit is reduced to twenty francs, and for the communal franchise to ten francs; direct taxes paid to the treasury of the state alone being reckoned. The enrollment of individuals by virtue of professions and positions (capacitaires de droit), and of those who have passed the educational test (capacitaires après examen), now reinforces the number of those possessing the property qualification (censitaires) as regards the provincial and municipal elections.
The Belgians have recently adopted an improved form of secret ballot, that is worthy the attention of England and the American States as being distinctly better in some respects than anything in use elsewhere. The ordinary French and American system of balloting was in vogue in Belgium prior to 1877. In that year the English system (commonly called in America the Australian system) was adopted, as a safeguard against prevalent bribery and intimidation. The English plan of ballots prepared by the authorities was found, of course, a great advance. But it did not secure absolute secrecy ; for instructed or purchased voters were required, in many cases, by those who controlled them to make the cross or mark in some prescribed and recognizable way, so that interested persons could know to a certainty whether pledges were fulfilled or not. All this has now been done away with by the substitution of gutta-percha stamps for pencils, in the alcoves of the polling places. The property qualification admits many illiterates to the ballot; and it is found practically objectionable to allow the president or any other official of the day to accompany such voters into the alcoves to read and explain the ticket. Different colors are used for the benefit of illiterates. Thus, in the legislative elections, the average district is entitled to choose several members. The Catholics prepare their list of candidates, and send it in to the authorities with the signatures of at least forty electors to constitute a valid nomination. The Liberals do likewise. The parties are so perfectly organized that the occasions are extremely rare when any other than the two regular lists are sent in. The authorities print the two sets of names in parallel columns on the voting paper, printing the Catholic list in red and the Liberal list in blue. At the head of each list is printed a device which incloses a blank white patch. The voter places the inked stamp in the Catholic or in the Liberal patch at his option, folds the ticket, and deposits his vote. He may vote a mixed list, if he chooses; in which case he affixes the stamp in a space left for that purpose at the end of each name. He can vote only for names printed on the ticket, and only for as many as the number of places to be filled. Sometimes it happens that more than two tickets are nominated. In a municipal election at Brussels, on one occasion, there were four parties in the field, — Catholic, Liberal, Radical, and Socialist. In such cases the additional lists are printed in still different colors on the same ballot paper. The instances are exceptional where voters do not adhere to the regular and complete party list. A man votes “ red ” or he votes “ blue,”and stamps his ticket accordingly. It will be observed that the requirement of so many as forty signatures to a nomination paper helps to maintain party discipline and to keep down random voting. In all its details the system would not be perfectly applicable for a country where parties are less rigid and omnipotent than in Belgium; but the use of the stamp is an improvement which might advantageously be adopted everywhere.
The nine provinces (Antwerp, Brabant, East Flanders, West Flanders, Hainaut, Liege, Limbourg, Luxembourg, and Namur) have each their elective assembly, known as provincial councils; these bodies varying in number, according to the provincial population, from forty-one in Limbourg to ninety-two in East Flanders. The assembly meets in a brief annual session at the chief town of the province, and deals with matters of purely provincial concern. Councilors are elected for four years, half of them retiring every two years. The most important work of the council is done by a standing committee of six members (la députation permanente), which acts as a governor’s administrative council. The provincial governor corresponds to the French prefect, being appointed by the king, and having executive authority in the name of the general government. But the Belgian province has a larger measure of autonomy than the French department.” For certain judicial and electoral purposes the provinces are divided into cantons and-arrondissements; but these are merely territorial circumscriptions, and have no corporate character. The essential internal divisions of Belgium are the ancient provinces and communes. There are about 2400 communes, each with its municipal government. Some of them are densely filled with an urban population, and others are petty rural townships ; but each has its elected council, its burgomaster, and its echevins. The size of these municipal councils varies with the population, from nine or ten members in the smallest to thirty or more in the large places. They are elected by the voters of the commune on general tickets for terms of six years, half being elected every three years. As the Liberal voters are in a majority in all the large towns, the general-ticket plan gives the Catholics very little chance ; and M. de Lavelaye, with other fair-minded Liberals, is now engaged in the advocacy of a system of minority representation by cumulative voting. The ward system does not seem to be advocated, the different parts of communes being recognized under the existing system in making up the lists. The communal lines are sometimes much more restricted than the area of a large town. Thus Brussels as a metropolis has about 400,000 people, while the commune of Brussels — the “municipal corporation,” as we should say — has only 160,000. The councilors in the larger communes are usually intelligent and active men, — barristers, engineers, manufacturers, and progressive citizens of various callings. The burgomaster, or mayor, is appointed by the king (that is, by the government of the day) from the members of the communal council, usually in concurrence with the known or supposed wishes of the majority, and he holds his place for an indefinite term. In all but the larger communes there are two eehevins, selected from the membership of the council, and having executive duties to perform as associates and assistants of the mayor. They hold for six years. In Brussels and Antwerp there are five eehevins, and in the other large towns there are four. These, with the burgomaster to preside over them, form a standing executive board, and control the ordinary police system, supervise municipal works, have charge of the sanitary administration as a board of health, and so on. The system is simple and efficient. The burgomaster presides at the sessions of the council as well as at those of the “ echevinal college,” and is at once a servant of the commune and a representative in the commune of the executive power of the state. The college of eehevins has control of the civil registers of births, deaths, and marriages, and is charged with the duty of executing in the commune all the laws and mandates of the superior governments of the province and the realm, thus having general as well as merely local functions. As M. de Lavelaye remarks, the burgomaster-ship becomes in some towns a sort of dynasty. In Antwerp, the burgomaster of forty years ago was succeeded by his son, who has now in turn been succeeded by his son-in-law, thus keeping the office in the family for three generations.
Those who regret the rapid disappearance of the quaint and old-fashioned in European cities must be shocked at the changes which a few years have made in the principal places of Belgium. Barts of these towns are now not unlike parts of Omaha, Minneapolis, or Kansas City, in their freshness and newness and in the general character of their architecture. There has been a great passion in Belgium for municipal renovation, and much has been done ondines similar to those by which New and Corporation streets were constructed in Birmingham. Some fifteen years ago, the Belgian law regarding ex-appropriation was altered to permit such improvements. The town of Liege, for example, bought up all the houses — old and poor, for the most part —lining a narrow but central and important street. The houses were demolished and the street was greatly widened. The building sites were then sold in toto to a company for an amount more than sufficient to cover the cost of original purchase and of demolition. The company built in part and sold lots in part, and the result is a magnificent modern street, now solidly built up. The beautiful broad boulevard, with double rows of splendid trees, that curves through Liege was once the course of the Meuse (or rather of one branch, the original town being upon an island). But the river was diverted into a straighter channel some seventy years ago, and a grand street was made of the other and longer channel. About 1879, a smaller island, as then unbuilt upon, was acquired by the government, and sold to the municipality of Liege for 1,000,000 francs. The town authorities laid out fine streets and sold building sites. Within two years the new “addition ” was splendidly built up with showy residence rows. The city’s speculation was a very lucrative one. But these things are not always carried out so smoothly. All recent visitors to Brussels must have been impressed with the broad and exceedingly handsome new business thoroughfare in which the Grand Hotel stands. This boulevard was made by the city a few years ago, upon the plan already described. The old buildings were all purchased and demolished at great cost, and the formerly narrow street was made straight and broad. The reconstruction was accomplished by a French company, which could not meet its obligations to the city, and failed. A large amount of the property fell into the hands of the municipal corporation, which is now a landlord on an extensive scale, and which, as perhaps most of the American guests do not know, owns the Grand Hotel itself. Antwerp has employed this same plan to rebuild and improve its central streets ; and so the old and picturesque is disappearing, and something like Parisian uniformity and universality is everywhere the new rule in municipal architecture.
Brussels, as a modern municipality and a growing commercial centre, has many points of interest. It is developing rapidly, and its ambition and courage are expanding in due proportion. It is one of the few large towns of Belgium or France that have gone into the business of gas supply on municipal account. Its gas-works are advantageously operated, prices have been reduced, and the net revenues are considerable. The tram-lines in all the Belgian towns are operated by private companies under strict regulations, and they pay mileage rates to the municipal treasuries for use of the streets. They are, as a rule, admirably managed, with low fares, graduated according to distance. Marked improvements are everywhere making in such matters as paving, drainage, building regulations, and municipal amenities of various sorts ; but in these undertakings the Belgian towns, like the French, are more conservative than the German and the British. Brussels has taken the notable example of Glasgow, and the still more recent example of Manchester, to heart, and is seriously agitating the question of a ship canal. This huge undertaking could not fail to enhance the importance of the Belgian capital, and as a financial project it seems entirely feasible. Every ambitious modern city has its future largely in its own hands, and Brussels is intent upon making itself great.
Although these Belgian cities are growing so handsome and Paris-like, one regrets to find the housing of the poor so inadequate. M. de Lavelaye assures me that while, in recent years, much new construction has added greatly to the average size and comfort of the houses occupied by the more fortunate classes, there has been little or no new building for the poor, and small improvement in the character of their habitations. As in the British cities, so in the Belgian towns, thousands of families live each in a single room. The condition of the ouvriers does not seem to M. de Lavelaye to be improving fast. He takes issue with Professor Leroy-Beaulieu, of Paris, and Mr. Robert Giffen, of London, upon this question, holding that the moneyed class is relatively growing in numbers and wealth as against the labor class. It is not that real wages have not increased, while interest on capital has decreased ; but that the total volume of capital has increased so enormously, and that the shares and evidences of this new wealth are in the hands of the rich, — the bourgeoisie. It was in this vein that the Belgian economist discoursed, as we inspected the handsome new rows in Liege, consisting of houses that cost about 100,000 francs to build, on lots valued at 20,000 francs, — such establishments renting for about 5000 francs. Incidentally, it may be said that many well-to-do people—perhaps nearly half of them — in Belgian towns own their houses.
So many things in the local administration of Belgium being like those of France, it is worth while to observe one great point of improvement. Belgium abolished the octroi taxes some twenty years ago, with the result of making some of the commonest articles much cheaper in Belgian than in French towns. One is impressed, indeed, with the cheapness of all small articles in Belgium. In France the smallest coin in common circulation is the sou piece* (five centimes, equivalent to one American cent, or an English halfpenny) ; but in Belgium copper coins of one and two centimes are in ordinary use. A newspaper may be bought for two centimes. The tram-line fares are six or eight centimes per kilometre. School-children buy pencils and other small articles at prices which only the small coins make possible. The relation of minor coinage to customary prices is worthy of more study than it lias received. The poor people of Belgium probably save in the total a large sum annually because of the fact that change can be made to the centime.
Although at present there is no party cleavage upon race lines, the two principal races of Belgium do not tend to merge their distinctions. The northern provinces remain Flemish and talk Flemish, while the middle and southern provinces remain Walloon and talk that dialect. The Flemish as spoken is a distinct dialect, but as written it is identical with the Dutch. The Walloon is a Latinic speech, resembling the French, yet different enough to be understood with difficulty by a Parisian. It is a written dialect, and a few obscure newspapers are printed in it; but French is the language of the schools and of the educated classes in the Walloon half of Belgium. The Flemish people have long stood strongly for their own language, and have it in their schools, although French is the official language of Belgium, so far as it is necessary to give one language the preference over the other. The Walloons are now asserting themselves against the Flamards, and neither element proposes to be absorbed by the other. The race talk involves new universities, new newspapers, and all sorts of agencies for the propagation of the cherished dialects. There is much duplicate printing, and signs and public notices are commonly written in both languages. In their own corner, chiefly in Luxembourg, the Germans are tenacious of their tongue, use it in the schools and as the official language of local administration, and succeed in making it hold its own. As M. de Lavelaye says, this strong assertion of race feeling in Belgium is but part of a general tendency that is one of the most conspicuous of recent political and social phenomena in Europe. The sentiments of race, speech, and nationality show everywhere a remarkable impulse. They are working with a somewhat alarming aggressiveness in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, where Germans, Czechs, Sclavs. Magyars, Poles, and Italians are asserting their respective race claims in a spirit that shows little regard for the permanence of the empire. Even in Great Britain, the Welsh, Irish, and Scotch elements are exhibiting in a wholly unwonted way the feelings of distinct nationality. With regard to Belgium, it is difficult to forecast the consequences of this persistence in race distinctions. At present, there is no serious friction between the Walloons and the Flamards, but it is easily conceivable that there might arise some quarrel as serious as that between the Belgians and the Dutch, that caused the separation of 1830.
For centuries France has regarded the Belgian provinces as properly hers ; and since the war with Germany, it is undoubtedly true that the French have looked towards Belgium with special longing, as compensation for the loss of AlsaceLorraine. If Belgium should ever be disintegrated on the lines of race and speech, the French provinces would gravitate naturally to France, while the Flemish provinces might be expected to fall to Holland, only to be absorbed with the whole of the Netherlands into the unsatisfied and ambitious German Empire. During the Franco-Prussian war, in spite of the guarantees of the treaty of 1839, Belgian soil was in imminent danger of violation. Neither Belgium nor Switzerland has an all-abiding faith in the international morality of the two great and turbulent powers between which it is their misfortune to lie; and while both regard their recognized position of neutrality as a great advantage and safeguard, yet each is also preparing with some nervousness to defend its territory and its lines of transit against military occupation in the great war which all Europe anticipates. Belgium has a standing army of more than fifty thousand men on the peace footing, which could be instantly increased to more than twice that size in war, besides having a garde civique of about fifty thousand men. So highly do the Belgians prize their independent position that they would fight desperately to maintain it. They want nothing but to be let alone; and they are so unanimous and determined upon that proposition, and so well prepared to enforce the modest claim, that their external position would seem to be tolerably secure. The treaty of 1839 lends at least great moral weight to their situation. They could have almost nothing to gain, and very much that is substantial to lose, by the sacrifice of their status as a small neutral power; and it is their policy to be friendly to their neighbor’s, without giving any one of them an occasion to be jealous or suspicious. Thus the situation seems to be permanently tenable.
The national congress in 1831 made a signally wise choice when it offered the Belgian throne to Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg, whose high personal connections and prestige, great experience in war, diplomacy, and politics, and familiarity, from residence at the English court, with constitutional government in Great Britain, all combined to fit him for the delicate task of piloting the new ship of state into safe waters. Few modern sovereigns have been more efficient and influential within strictly constitutional lines than was Leopold I. during his long reign of thirty-four years. His son, Leopold II., whose reign will have completed a quarter of a century in December, 1890, has also enjoyed a most popular and successful career as an administrator at home, besides achieving a brilliant reputation abroad for his enterprise, spirit, and enlightenment.
The Belgian constitution requires that a vote of the two houses of the legislature shall precede the acceptance by their king of the sovereignty of any other state; but although such a vote was passed in April, 1885, in order to permit Leopold to assume the kingship of the Congo Free State, the African project is not at all in favor with either party. It is entirely a personal venture of the king’s, and is proving a heavy drain upon his private resources. His efforts to persuade Belgium to take up the affair have met with no encouragement. The Belgians not only object to assuming the expense of supporting the government of the Congo Free State, but they also fear that entrance upon what must be tantamount to a colonial policy would involve them in complications with foreign powers and oblige them to establish a navy. M. de Lavelaye fully shares the objections of the Belgian political leaders to any identification of the country with the African movement. He regards the recent colonial projects of the European powers as a heavy burden upon the people, without having compensating advantages ; and in our conversations he referred to Italy’s expensive attempts to colonize and control desert wastes, and to the great sums spent by that power in building war-ships that are of little use when built, as a conspicuous example of disastrous public policy. The king of Belgium is reduced to the necessity of floating loans in small shares with drawings and premiums (somewhat on the Lesseps plan, with the later emissions of Panama stock), in order to pay the current expenses of his huge realm in the heart of Africa. The central government of the Congo State, meanwhile, is domiciled in Brussels, and the executive work is apportioned among three ministers, who hold respectively the portfolios of foreign affairs and justice, finance, and the interior.
The section of the constitution which vests the sovereignty of Belgium in the house of Saxe-Coburg limits the succession to the direct male line. A great sorrow to the present king and a disappointment to the nation was the death of Prince Leopold, the only son, in 1869, at the age of ten years. The successor to the throne must therefore be chosen outside the king’s immediate family. The tragic death of the Crown Prince Rudolph of Austria was also a heavy blow to the royal family of Belgium, his widow, the Princess Stephanie, being the daughter of Leopold. Thus the house of Saxe-Coburg has its full share in the list of calamities that have made the royal families of Europe so heavy-hearted in this generation. Leopold’s brother Philippe, the Count of Flanders, who is at the head of the Belgian army, has two sons ; the succession is likely, therefore, to remain with the male descendants of Leopold I. so long as royalty continues to serve a useful purpose, adapting itself to the conditions and demands of the modern state.