day (January 10, 1855) the treaty with France and England was signed, and shortly afterwards 15,000 Piedmontese troops under General La Marmora were despatched to the Crimea.
Events at first seemed to justify the fears of Cavour’s opponents. Cholera attacked the Piedmontese soldiers, who for a long time had no occasion to distinguish themselves in action; public opinion became despondent and began to blame Cavour, and even he himself lost heart. Then came the news of the battle of the Tchernaya, fought and won by the Italians, which turned sadness and doubt into jubilation. Joy was felt throughout Italy, especially at Milan, where the victory was the first sign of daylight amid the gloom caused by the return of the Austrians. Everyone realized that the Piedmontese contingent was fighting Italy’s battles. But to Cavour the announcement that Russia had accepted Austrian mediation (January 16, 1856) was a great disappointment. He had always hoped that if the war continued Austria would be forced to side with Russia in return for the aid given by the emperor Nicholas in suppressing the Hungarian revolt in 1849, and the Western powers would then have an opportunity of helping the Italian cause. He sent a memorandum, at Napoleon’s request, to Count Walewski, the French minister of foreign affairs, setting forth a kind of minimum programme of Piedmont’s claims. On the summoning of the congress of Paris at the conclusion of the war, Cavour first proposed that d’ Azeglio should represent Piedmont, and on the latter’s refusal decided to go himself. After much discussion, and in spite of the opposition of Austria, who as mediator occupied a predominant position, behaving “as though she had taken Sevastopol,” Cavour obtained that Piedmont should be treated as one of the great powers. Although he did not expect that the congress would liberate Italy, yet by his marvellous diplomatic skill, far superior to that of his colleagues, he first succeeded in isolating Austria, secondly in indirectly compromising Napoleon in the Italian question, and thirdly in getting the wretched conditions of Italy discussed by the representatives of the great powers, who declared that some remedy to that state of things was necessary, not in the interests of Italy alone, but of all Europe. A scheme of reform proposed by Count Walewski gave Cavour the opportunity to plead the Italian cause, and from that moment it was manifest to all that the liberation of Italy was personified in him, the statesman who came to hold all the strings of European politics in his hands.
Cavour’s chief measure of internal reform during this period was a bill for suppressing all monastic orders unconnected with education, preaching or charity; this aroused strong opposition from the extremists of both parties and also from the king, and led to the minister’s resignation. But he was soon recalled, for the country could not do without him, and the bill was passed (May 29, 1855).
Cavour now saw that war with Austria was merely a question of time, and he began to establish connexions with the revolutionists of all parts of Italy, largely by means of La Farina; but it was necessary that this policy should not be advertised to Europe, and he strongly discountenanced Mazzini’s abortive revolutionary attempts. He continued to strengthen Piedmont’s military resources, and the army soon grew too large for the country and was obviously destined for more than merely defensive purposes. But he well knew that although Piedmont must be made as efficient as possible from the military point of view, it could not defeat Austria single-handed. He would have preferred an alliance with Great Britain, who would never demand territorial compensation; but although British sympathies were wholly Italian, the government was desperately anxious to avoid war. From Napoleon more was to be hoped, for the emperor still preserved some of his revolutionary instincts, while the insecurity of his situation at home made him eager to gain popularity by winning military glory abroad; but he still hesitated, and Cavour devoted the whole of his ability to overcoming his doubts. In the midst of these negotiations came Orsini’s attempt on Napoleon’s life (January 14, 1858), which threatened to alienate his Italian sympathies and cause serious embarrassments to Piedmont. But after some remonstrances to Piedmont for not acting with sufficient energy against the revolutionists, the incident was settled; and Napoleon was, in fact, afraid that if he did not help the Italian cause more such attempts would be made. A month after the Orsini outrage he laid before Cavour a proposal for a Franco-Piedmontese alliance and the marriage of Prince Jerome Bonaparte with Princess Clothilde, the daughter of Victor Emmanuel.
An “accidental” meeting between Napoleon and Cavour was arranged and took place at Plombières in July, and although no one knew what passed, the news of it fell like a bombshell on the diplomatic world. No definite treaty was signed, but the basis of an agreement was laid, whereby France and Piedmont were to declare war against Austria with the object of expelling her from Italy, and a north Italian state was to be formed; in exchange for this help France was to receive Savoy and possibly Nice. But the emperor still hesitated, and refused to decide on war unless Austria attacked Piedmont; the British government, too, in its anxiety to preserve peace, was not very friendly to the Italian cause. Cavour saw that the only way to overcome all these obstacles was to force Austria’s hand. Then there was the danger lest an Italy freed by French arms should be overwhelmed under French predominance; for this reason Cavour was determined to secure the co-operation of volunteers from other parts of Italy, and that the war should be accompanied by a series of risings against Austria and the local despots. It was also necessary that the risings should break out in the various provinces before the Piedmontese and French troops arrived, so that the latter should not appear as invaders and conquerors, but merely as liberators.
The moment war was seen to be imminent, parties of Italians of all classes, especially Lombards, poured into Piedmont to enlist in the army. Cavour also had a secret interview with Garibaldi, with whom he arranged to organize volunteer corps so that the army should be not merely that of Piedmont, but of all Italy. Every day the situation grew more critical, and on the 10th of January 1859 the king in his speech from the throne pronounced the memorable words “that he could not remain deaf to the cry of pain (il grido di dolore) that reached him from all parts of Italy”—words which, although actually suggested by Napoleon, rang like a trumpet-call throughout the land. In the meanwhile the marriage negotiations were concluded, and during the emperor’s visit to Turin a military convention was signed between the two states, and Savoy and Nice were promised to France as a reward for the expulsion of the Austrians from Italy. But the British government was still unfavourable, and Napoleon, ever hesitating, again sought an excuse for backing out of his engagements; he jumped at the Russian proposal to settle the Italian question by means of his own favourite expedient, a congress. To this Austria agreed on condition that Piedmont should disarm and should be excluded from the congress; England supported the scheme, but desired that all the Italian states should be represented. Cavour was in despair at the turn events were taking, and appealed to Napoleon, actually threatening to emigrate to America and publish all his correspondence with the emperor if the latter did not keep his engagements. He decided at last most reluctantly to accept the English proposal, lest Piedmont should be abandoned by all, but clung to the hope that Austria would reject it. On the 19th of April the Austrian emperor, on the advice of the military party, did reject it; and on the 23rd, to Cavour’s inexpressible joy, Austria sent an ultimatum demanding the disarmament of Piedmont. Cavour replied that his government had agreed to the congress proposed by the powers and that it had nothing more to say. On quitting the chamber that day he said to a friend: “I am leaving the last sitting of the last Piedmontese parliament”—the next would represent united Italy. France now allied herself definitely with Piedmont, and England, delighted at Cavour’s acquiescence to her own proposal and enraged by Austria’s ultimatum, became wholly friendly to the Italian cause. A few days later Austria declared war.