The 18th Century was a period of transition in Britain and Western Europe, serving as a bridge between the Early Modern period (16th and 17th Centuries) and the Modern period itself (19th and 20th Centuries). The 16th and 17th Centuries were dominated by the wars and strife of the Reformation, and by the emergence of European mercantile capitalist trading empires in the Americas, Africa and Asia. In contrast, the 18th Century was dominated by the great liberal philosophical movements of the time, which found (violent) expression in both the American and the French Revolutions. By the end of the century, thanks to these great Revolutions, and the accelerating Industrial Revolution, the seeds existed in European society of the great cataclysms of the later 19th and 20th Century – capitalism, colonialism, militarism, nationalism and political revolution.
The spirit of the 18th Century is best explained in terms of the following great events.
Industrial Revolution and Urbanisation.
For several thousand years, European society had been dominated by agrarian economies, which shaped political and social relationships. Such underlying power relationships began to be challenged in the 16th and 17th Centuries – with the wars and strife of the Reformation (which challenged core values and beliefs, and which made personal and national Christian religious affiliation a partisan political issue), the expansion of international mercantile trade into the world beyond Europe, and the centralisation of government authority. These powerful pressures began the slow process of fundamentally changing European society.
The Industrial Revolution arose directly out of these religious, economic and political movements. A changed intellectual climate stimulated both technological and philosophical speculation that in turn gave rise to ‘modern’ notions of centralised manufacture of commercial goods (i.e. the factory), the centralisation of workforce and population to support centralised manufacture (i.e. urbanisation), and the emergence of competing interests between the capitalist employer and the rapidly expanding urban working class.
In agrarian societies, land was the principal economic resource. Land owners controlled not only the land, and what could be produced from the land, but also the lives and welfare of the rural working class needed to work the land. Skilled craftsmen represented a specialised workforce, valued for their specialised skills, and who (reflecting relative levels of demand for their products) were dispersed throughout society in small-scale enterprises.
Industrialisation changed these economic and social relationships. New manufacturing technologies only made sense if the machinery were centralised in factories rather than small workshops. Such factories in turn lay at the centre of complex communication and transport systems, to ensure that a constant flow of raw materials reached the factories, and a constant flow of completed goods left the factories destined for far flung markets. Such centralisation of manufacture meant that more goods could be produced far more cheaply than ever before. The skilled craftsmen of the past became anachronisms in favour of the semi-skilled factory workers, and skilled machinists and engineers.
Industrialisation accelerated the processes of urbanisation, the fundamental demographic shift of populations away from rural areas into expanding cities. In agrarian societies, cities only expanded to the extent that their immediate rural hinterland could afford to feed the town population of non-agrarian workers. Land owners typically maintained large rural populations, even at subsistence levels, to provide mass farm labour (in the absence of mechanisation) and (in some cases) a ready reserve of recruits for the local militia in the event of strife with neighbouring land-lords and countries.
Industrialisation radically improved the efficiency of transportation systems to transport food from farm to market. No longer was the quantity of food transported limited to what could be conveyed by river boat or farm wagon. Improved road systems, the construction of canals, and later (in the 19th Century), the construction of railways, ensured the transportation of much greater quantities of food and over much greater distances. Increasing volumes of food transported in turn lowered the overall price of the food stuffs to urban consumers. For urban populations, increasing volumes of food-stuffs and their availability at lower prices was a great boon. In contrast, this situation was a disaster for rural land-owners and rural populations. Rural land owners, faced with declining food prices and rising prices for other economic commodities derived from their lands (wool, mining etc.), often contributed to the population shift to the cities – where subsistence tenant farmers could be more profitably replaced by sheep or mines, whole rural communities might find themselves evicted and homeless.
Industrialisation and urbanisation can be said to have begun in the 18th Century, however, it was the political and military demands of the Napoleonic Wars (at the end of the century) and the massive expansion of colonial empires in the 19th Century that turned the trickle of change into a flood.
The American Revolutionary War (1775-1783), also known as the American War of Independence, arose from the political and economic pressures of the era. Britain’s 13 Colonies on the American eastern seaboard had been founded progressively in the 17th and 18th Centuries to exploit economic opportunities offered by a continent newly accessible by rapidly advancing maritime technologies.
The British settlers of North American represented a mix of religious dissenters (such as the ‘Pilgrim Fathers’ of Massachusetts), mercantile capitalists, land owners and their respective work forces. Emerging political philosophies related to liberalism and democracy found favour amongst people actively building a new society. However, at the same time, there was increasing tendency by the British government to constrain local political autonomy in favour of long distance control from London and the rising power of autocratic Crown governors.
Political pressures in the American Colonies mounted as the settlers demanded political representation in the face of rising taxation (partly to pay for local defence), restrictive trade policies (which constrained the ability of local mercantile capitalists to trade with whomever they wished), and the abolition of local parliamentary assemblies. Such tensions finally escalated into armed conflict.
Despite the overwhelming British economic and military power in comparison to the localised ‘patriot’ forces, victory eventually was achieved by the rebel forces. In circumstances eerily similar to the post-colonial wars of the 1950s and 1960s, American ‘patriot’ forces were aided by European powers opposed to Britain (the monarchists regimes of France and Spain). France and Spain provided supplies of munitions and money (and later also troops and warships), and geographical ‘safe areas’ for patriot forces to re-group and re-arm. Further, the British execution of the war was significantly hampered by political division at home and lacklustre military performance in the field.
Concurrent with the emergence of industrialisation and urbanisation, and the defeat of Britain by patriot rebels in America, France was consumed by rising political and economic turmoil. This turmoil culminated in the incarceration and later execution of the French royal family. Political power shifted to the new National Assembly and the zealot political leaders that arose from it.
Newly founded republican France immediately became a pariah state in Europe, as neighbouring monarchist governments desperately sought to destroy the new regime before they themselves were overthrown by radical republican and liberal movements within their own countries. The wars that followed (French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars) drew Europe into 23 years of almost constant war. Successive radical French republican governments were replaced in succession until an imperial regime under General Napoleon Bonaparte was established. Eventually, the successive wars were brought to an end in 1815. Monarchist regimes were re-established throughout Europe. In the short-term, these monarchist regimes imposed authoritarian controls on their respective countries in a desire to avoid a repeat of the French Revolution. However, the tide of political change had been begun which could not be halted by increasing authoritarianism by national governments.
|Title: Iron and Coal
Date: 1855-1860. Photographic reproduction of a painting.
Source: Wikipedia Commons
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|Title: [Boston Massacre] The bloody massacre perpetrated in King Street Boston on March 5th 1770 by a party of the 29th Regt. Date: 1770. Photographic reproduction of the painting.Source: Wikipedia Commons
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