The Age of Revolution in Europe and America

The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were times of political turmoil and upheaval in the Atlantic world. Drawing on ideals of Enlightenment thinkers, revolutionaries attempted to institute new governments which would meet the needs of the people they governed. They argued for popular sovereignty, the idea that ultimate authority lies with the people, not the ruler. Revolutions broke out in France and America; however the French Revolution failed to establish a stable alternative to the monarchy.

Revolutionary Ideas: The thinkers of the European Enlightenment had challenged the idea of Divine Right or rulers, and sought to make rulers responsible to the people they governed. They considered government to be a contract between the ruled and the ruler. John Locke had formulated the most influential theory of contractual government in his Second Treatise on Civil Government in which he argued that people granted political power to their rulers to preserve their rights to life, liberty and property. The power of the ruler came expressly from the consent of the governed, they who had created the government. If the ruler failed to protect these rights, the people could depose him. Voltaire had argued against religious persecution and the power of royal officials to censor works that did not meet the approval of religious or political authorities. Other Enlightenment thinkers had argued for the equality of all people. Chief among these was John Jacques Rousseau, who wrote The Social Contract. In that work, he argued that the collective members of a society were sovereign; and the general will of the people should govern.

Enlightenment ideas did not spread naturally or inevitably, but were spread by revolutionaries and social reformers. Their ideas influenced the organization of states and societies throughout the world. Enlightenment thought was a substantial factor in the American Revolution, however, since the Revolution and its origins are discussed in more detail in American history courses (and on this website) no treatment will be provided here.

The French Revolution was also inspired by Enlightenment political thought, but was much more radical than the American Revolution. Whereas American leaders were content to retain British law and British social and cultural customs, the French Revolutionary leaders repudiated the society of the ancien regime, and attempted to create a new social, political and cultural order.

The Kingdom of France was in serious financial difficulty in the late eighteenth century. Over half its debt was for support of the American Revolution and another quarter for support of the French military. A substantial portion of the debt was interest on debt to foreign bankers to finance the wars of Louis XIV. In fact, on his deathbed, Louis is reputed to have remarked, "I have made war too much." The situation was not stable then; in fact Louis had predicted its downfall after his death with his famous statement, après moi, les deluge ("after me, the flood.")

French society consisted of three political classes, known as Estates. The First Estate consisted of the Clergy (both of noble and common birth); the Second Estate of the Nobility, and the Third Estate of the Commoners, including the important bourgeoisie. The First and Second Estates paid no taxes; therefore the entire burden of financing the government debt fell upon the commoners. In fact, Louis XIV and other French Kings had actually sold titles of nobility to raise money, thereby exempting the newly made noble from taxes. These so called "nobility of the robe" were deeply resented by the old nobles, the "nobility of the sword," and the commoners alike.

An assembly of the three estates, the Estates General, had been instituted in 1303; however it had not met since 1614. French Kings had found it convenient to sell titles of nobility rather than convene the Estates General. Although the commoners were far more numerous than the other two estates combined and held more seats in the Estates General, voting was by estate; and the first two could easily outvote the third.

Louis XVI could raise no more taxes from the peasants who had been taxed almost dry, so he attempted to tax the nobility. This met with substantial resistance. The only way that he could tax them was by convening the Estates General and asking for authority to do so. He therefore summoned the Estates General into session in May, 1789; its first meeting in over 150 years. At the meeting, the Third Estate demanded tax reform, but was blocked by the other two. When Louis tried to dissolve the assembly, the members of the Third Estate fled the building and re-convened at a nearby indoor Tennis Court. There, they declared themselves a National Assembly, and took the famous Tennis Court Oath, whereby they swore not to disband until they had given France a written Constitution.

The declaration of popular sovereignty by the National Assembly excited feelings in Paris. On July 14, 1789, a mob stormed the Bastille, a combination arsenal and dungeon in search of weapons and ammunition. The garrison defending the fortress killed a number of the attackers, but was forced to surrender. The enraged mob hacked the defending troops to death. One person cut off the head of the governor of the Bastille with a pocket knife and the crowed paraded the severed head through the streets on a pike. News of the insurrection spread throughout France like wildfire.

July 14, 1789 has since been denominated Bastille Day. July 14 is still celebrated in France, similar to the American July 4.

The Assembly, emboldened by popular support, then adopted the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, which was based on American Revolutionary Ideas. It proclaimed the equality of all men, that sovereignty resided in the people, and proclaimed that individuals held "inviolable and sacred rights" to life, liberty, property and security. It also adopted the motto of liberté, egalité, fraternité ("liberty, equality, brotherhood.) It abolished the First Estate, seized Church lands, and declared clergymen to be civilians. The King was declared the chief executive with no legislative authority, and suffrage for all male property owners declared. Louis XVI saw the handwriting on the wall, and attempted to flee France in disguise, but he and his family were recognized, arrested, and brought back to Paris. In the meantime, other European nations, particularly Austria and Prussia, alarmed at events in France and fearing the spread of Revolution to their country, invaded France to reinstate Louis and the ancien regime. Leaders of the Revolution in turn established a new legislative body known as the Convention whose members were elected by universal male suffrage. The Convention proclaimed France a republic and imposed a conscription which drafted people and supplies to fight the war. A new execution device, the Guillotine (named for its inventor, Dr. Guillotin) was adopted as a humane way of execution. One of its first victims was Louis XVI, convicted of treason for attempting to flee and presumably seek aid from Austria and Prussia. His Austrian born wife, Marie Antoinette, often accused of a high handed and arrogant lifestyle, followed him to the block later.

The Convention was comprised of two political parties, named for their founders; the Gerondins and the Jacobins. The Jacobins, the more radical of the two, soon dominated the Assembly. They passionately believed that French society must be completed restructured. They planned to eliminate the influence of Christianity by closing Churches, forcing priests to take wives, and promoted a "cult of reason," as a substitute. They reorganized the calendar into ten-day units with no religious observances. They proclaimed a new era beginning with the year 1, beginning with the declaration of the Republic of France on September 22, 1792. Citizens were encouraged to wear their working clothes. In fact the more radical revolutionaries were soon known as the sans culottes ("without knee breeches," as worn by the nobility.) They gave women the right to inherit property and divorce their husbands, but did not allow them to vote or participate in politics.

The leader of the Jacobins was Maximilien Robespierre, a Lawyer known as "the incorruptible" and head of the infamous Committee on Public Safety which exercised political authority. To enforce Revolutionary policies, the Jacobins sent over forty thousand people to the Guillotine in one year (summer, 1793 – summer, 1794.) Another three hundred thousand were imprisoned. Eventually, however, the Convention fell out of favor as its members frequently turned on each other. In July, 1794, Robespierre and his accomplices were convicted of treason and themselves sent to the Guillotine.

A third assembly was then convened, known as the Directory. Although more moderate than the Convention, it was unable to solve problems of inflation and political turmoil. Eventually, when Britain, Austria and Russia formed an alliance to attack France, the Directory was overthrown by Napoleon Bonaparte, an ambitious general and supporter of the Revolution. Napoleon was able to restore peace to France. He concluded a pact with the Pope, the famous Concordat, which restored church lands, recognized Roman Catholicism as the official religion of France and agreed that the state would pay cleric’s salaries. This move made him immensely popular with the French people, who supported the revolution, but had balked at attempts to depose the Church.

In 1804, Napoleon promulgated the Civil Code (the Code Napoleon) which protected private property; allowed some aristocrats who had fled the country during the revolution to return and claim their property; and made women subservient to their male heads of households. Even so, he censored newspapers and limited free speech. He established a secret police who spied on opponents who were often arrested. He ignored legislative bodies and instead surrounded himself with loyal military officers. Later, he crowned himself Emperor of France (he took the crown out of the hands of the presiding bishop and placed it on his own head.)

A brilliant military strategist, Napoleon sought to extend authority throughout Europe. He conquered the Iberian and Italian peninsulas; destroyed the old Holy Roman Empire and reorganized it into the Confederation of the Rhine. His empire building dreams collapsed in 1812, however, when he invaded Russia. He led over 600,000 men, the grand armee, which captured Moscow; however the Czar, Alexander I, had withdrawn, and refused to surrender. The city was set on fire by Russian patriots, and there were no supplies for the French army which was forced to retreat. His army was devastated by the Russian winter, so much so that only thirty thousand men returned to France. Emboldened by Napoleon’s defeat, Britain, Russia, Prussia and Austria formed a new alliance and defeated Napoleon at the Battle of Leipzig in April, 1814. He was forced to abdicate and exiled to the island of Elba. However, he escaped in March, 1815, and returned to France. The new French king, Louis XVIII, fled on the news. Napoleon ruled again for one hundred days before he was finally defeated at the Battle of Waterloo, and exiled to the remote island of St. Helena, where he died of natural causes in 1821.

The Influence of Revolution: The American and French Revolutions inspired new upheavals against the old order throughout Europe and the Americas. On the island of Hispaniola, the only successful slave revolt in history took place. During the American revolution, the governor of the French colony, Saint Domingue, had sent 800 gens de coleur (free people of color) to fight for the Americans. There they became aware of American ideas of freedom and equality and returned to Saint-Domingue with plans to reform society. Civil war broke out in 1791 between the white settlers and the gens de coleur. The war was exacerbated when twelve thousand slaves revolted under the leadership of a charismatic voodoo priest named Boukman. They killed white settlers, burned their homes and were soon joined by over 100,000 slaves who attacked both white and the gens de coleur. Boukman died soon after the fighting started, but the slaves were defeated the others due to the leadership of François-Dominique Toussaint, who called himself Louverture (from the French "l’ouverture, meaning "the opening," the one who created an opening in enemy ranks.) A slave who had helped his master escape and then joined the rebels; he was a skilled organizer. In 1793 he had built a large, disciplined army, and controlled most of Santo-Domingue by 1797. In 1801 he promulgated a constitution granting equality and citizenship to all residents. He did not declare independence from France, as he did not wish to provoke Napoleon. Even so, Napoleon sent 20,000 troops to the island. Toussaint attempted to negotiate a settlement but was arrested and sent to France where he died in jail of maltreatment in 1803. In the meantime, yellow fever had ravaged the French troops and Toussaint’s successor generals defeated the French. Independence was proclaimed on January 1, 1804, and the new republic named Haiti after a local mountain.

In Spanish/Portuguese America, colonies were officially governed by peninsulares, (colonial officials) They were outnumbered 10-1 by creoles, people born in the colonies of Spanish or Portuguese ancestry. Inspired by both the American and French revolutions, the creoles wished to establish political independence, similar to that established in the United States.

In Spanish America, a series of revolts broke out during Napoleon’s seizure of Spain and Portugal, as the two countries were then considered weakened. A peasant rebellion broke out in Mexico under the leadership of Miguel de Hidalgo, but he was captured and executed by conservative creoles. His rebellion continued for three years after his death, and he became the symbol of Mexican independence. In 1821, General Augustin de Iturbude seized the capital and named himself Emperor of Mexico; however he was incompetent and was deposed in 1822 by Creole elites who declared the Republic of Mexico. In 1824, the southern regions of Mexico declared their own independence and became the independent states of Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica.

In South America, Simon Bolivar, a Creole, led the movement for independence. Inspired by Enlightenment ideas and the example of George Washington, he led rebellious forces which ultimately overcame Spanish forces. Bolivar had hoped to form a great confederation of South America, similar to the United States to be known as Gran Colombia. Strong regional differences made this impossible and the confederation broke up. Disappointed, Bolivar declared, "those who have served the revolution have plowed the sea." Instead of a great confederation, the various areas of South America proclaimed independent republics.

In Brazil, the Portuguese government had fled to Rio de Janeiro ahead of Napoleon’s invasion. When the king returned to Portugal in 1821, he left his son Pedro in Brazil as regent. Brazilian creoles called for independence, and Pedro agreed, and declared himself Emperor Pedro I. Demands from his father to return to Lisbon were ignored.

Despite the independence achieved in Latin America, the society remained rigidly stratified. Slavery continued, the Catholic church remained the official religion, and lower classes were often repressed. The Creole elites were the principal beneficiaries of independence, not the population as a whole.

New Ideologies: The American and French revolutions led to the development of new political ideologies, visions of human nature, human society, and the world which propose some form of political and social organization as ideal. Among these were:

Conservativism: Conservatives considered society as an organism which changed very slowly, and opposed radical or sudden change. Among their proponents was the English philosopher, Edmund Burke. Burke approved of the American revolution, which he considered to be an example of natural change in keeping with the historical development of North American society, but opposed the French Revolution as chaotic and irresponsible.

Liberalism: Liberals saw change as normal and as the agent of progress. Conservatism to them was only a means of preserving the status quo, preserve the privileges of the few, and avoid dealing with injustices and inequality. They saw political and social theory as a means of acting in the best interests of society. They typically championed enlightenment ideas of freedom and equality, favored republican forms of government in which people were governed by representative assemblies, and written constitutions which guaranteed the rights of individuals. The early proponent of liberalism was John Stuart Mill who promoted the idea that each individual should promote his own interests. He argued for universal suffrage as the most effective way to advance individual freedom, taxation of business profits and high personal incomes to prevent the wealthy from oppressing others, and argued that the rights of freedom and equality should be extended to working people and women.

Opposition to slavery also developed from new political ideas. Anti slavery sentiments had been present for many years, but only gained momentum after the American, French and Haitian revolutions. In 1807, the British Parliament, acting under the influence of William Wilberforce, a prominent member, abolished the slave trade. Other European nations followed suit, ending with Spain in 1845. The British navy patrolled the west coast of Africa to ensure that the trade did not continue. Slavery as an institution died more slowly as slave owners fiercely defended their right to free labor. The British Parliament voted £ 20 million to compensate owners and abolished slavery throughout the empire. Other states followed suit, the last being Brazil in 1888. Even so, freed slaves were not granted political equality for many years to come.

Promoters of women’s rights often argued that women suffered under the same disabilities as slaves. They had little access to education, could not enter professional occupations and could not vote. Among the more prominent proponents of women’s rights was the British Mary Wollstonecraft who wrote an essay, A Vindication of the Rights of Women in 1792. She argued that women possessed all the rights that John Locke had argued belonged to men.

Women were very active in the political revolutions of the day. Many sewed uniforms, rolled bandages, and managed farms and businesses while the men were away fighting. In October, 1789, a group of Paris women marched to Versailles to protest the high price of bread and broke into the royal apartments.

Other movements occurred in the nineteenth century with women such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott who organized the first feminist conference in Seneca Falls New York; and issued the famous Declaration of the Rights of Men and of Women. Still, the woman’s movement met with limited success until the twentieth century.

The Rise of Nation States in Europe: The experiences of people throughout the Napoleonic Wars combined with Enlightenment ideas led the people of Europe to think of themselves as members of distinctive communities who shared a common language and culture. This thinking gave rise to the birth of Nationalism, the movement to unite people of a common culture into a united community or nation. Nationalistic ideology often promised glory and prosperity to those who worked in the interests of the nation. Advocates of nationalism argued that a nation state should embrace the territory occupied by a common national community, and that government should promote the interests of the national community; even to the point of conflict with other groups. As nationalist groups identify with their own members, they frequently distinguish themselves from people of other lands and minority groups within their own lands.

Among the early promoters of Nationalism, Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744-1803) glorified the German Volk, ("people") and their powerful language. Unlike Enlightenment thinkers, who focused on understanding the world, early nationalists like Herder focused on understanding individual communities and their uniqueness. They also emphasized historical scholarship which they believed would illuminate the distinctive characteristics of societies. Additionally, they promoted the study of literature as the best guide to the Volkgeist, the popular soul or spirit of the community. To that end, the German brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm collected poetry, stories, songs, and tales as expressions of the German Volk. Their best known collection are Grimm’s Fairy Tales.

Nationalist thought became especially strident in the nineteenth century. Nationalists demanded unquestioned loyalty and solidarity from members of the nation. In areas in which they were minorities or where they lived under foreign rule, they worked to establish independent states to protect the national interests. An example is Giuseppe Manzinni

(1805-1872) who formed Young Italy, a group promoting Italian independence from Austria and Spain. He described the nation as a family and the nation’s territory as the nation’s home.

Nationalism was largely responsible for the Zionist movement, to establish a Jewish homeland in Palestine which began in the late nineteenth century. Jews had not occupied their own homeland since it had been destroyed by the Romans almost seventeen hundred years previously. Nationalist movements in other areas caused leaders to tighten restrictions on minority groups, which the Jews always were. Jews came under increasing suspicion as they continued to preserve their own customs, language and religion which was outside the mainstream of most European nations. The result was violent anti-Semitic violence, in the form of pogroms (organized persecution) especially in Russia and Poland where army units often attacked Jews. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, millions of Jews migrated to North America or other European lands to escape persecution. Anti-Semitism was not as strong in France as in Poland or Russia, but still Jews were viewed with suspicion. In 1894 a French army officer, Alfred Dreyfus was convicted of treason although ample evidence indicated another person was guilty. His conviction was apparently based on his being the only Jewish officer in the regiment. Among the reporters covering Dreyfus’ trial was Theodor Herzl, a Jewish reporter from Vienna. Shocked at the treatment of Dreyfus, Herzl launched the Zionist movement to form a Jewish homeland. That dream was realized in 1948 with the founding of the nation state of Israel. Sadly, nationalist sentiment provoked conflict between the Jewish settlers and the Palestinian occupants of the region; a conflict which still continues.

Nationalism often inspired patriotism and encouraged citizens to rally to their country’s defense. The revolutionary flag of France became the symbol of the nation, the motto of the revolution was adopted as the national motto, and the national anthem became the "Marseillaise" a rousing anthem inspiring pride in France. National consciousness soon spread all though Europe.

Nationalism was a threat to the restoration of the status quo in Europe before the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars. After Napoleon’s final defeat, the victorious nations, Britain, Austria, Prussia and Russia, sent delegates to the Congress of Vienna in an attempt to restore pre-revolutionary order. The Austrian foreign minister, Count Klemens von Metternich, led to Congress to re-establish the old royal order and create a new balance of power within Europe. Metternich was particularly concerned about preventing problems within his own Austrian Empire, which was comprised of ethnic Germans, Italians, Magyars, Czechs, Slovaks, Poles, Serbs and Croats, all of whom might crave national identity. The Congress had some success, the balance of power it established lasted until the outbreak of World War I in 1914. Even so, it was impossible to stop the onset of national consciousness and ideas of popular sovereignty. A wave of rebellions soon swept through Europe. The first such outbreak was in the Balkans, where Greek speaking people rebelled against the Ottoman Empire. Other revolutions broke out throughout Europe. A Revolution of 1848 brought down the French monarchy. Numerous other rebellions failed to achieve national identity for their proponents. Nationalist sentiment was most successful in uniting Italy and Germany into united Nation States, a condition which had not previously existed.

The unification of Italy came about through the efforts of Count Camillo di Cavour, prime minister to King Victor Emmanuel II of Sardinia. Cavour allied with France to expel Austrian troops from northern Italy. In southern Italy, Giuseppe Garibaldi led a separate unification movement known as the "red shirts." Garibaldi’s troops forced out Austrian and French forces, and delivered southern Italy to Victor Emmanuel who was crowned Victor Emmanuel I of Italy.

German unification was the work of Otto von Bismarck, prime minister to King Wilhelm I of Prussia. Bismarck’s policies became famous as realpolitik ("practical politics," or "the politics of reality.") In one of his most famous remarks, he stated that "the great questions of the day will not be settled by speeches or majority votes—that was the great mistake of 1848 and 1849—but by blood and iron." Bismarck reformed and expanded the Prussian Army and intentionally provoked separate wars with Denmark, Austria and France, which whipped up German nationalism and opposition to Prussia’s adversaries. In 1871, the King of Prussia, King Wilhelm was proclaimed Kaiser of the Second Reich—the Second German Empire. (The first Reich had been the Holy Roman Empire.) Ironically, Wilhelm’s coronation took place after the humiliating defeat of France in the Franco-Prussian War in which the French Emperor, Napoleon III was captured. To add insult to injury, Bismarck had Wilhelm crowned in France at the Palace of Versailles.

Nationalism in all areas fostered a sense of national community. Nations adopted national flags as symbols of unity, national anthems to inspire patriotism and national holidays. Schools instilled patriotic values in students young men were recruited into armies which defended national interests, and sometimes even participated in offensive campaigns. The nation state became the model of political organization in Europe and later throughout the world.