HOW DID THE AGE OF REVOLUTIONS (c. 1760-1840) TRANSFORM THE ATLANTIC WORLD?
Past historical events have shaped and altered the world for centuries. However, there has never been a more significant movement in history than the Age of Revolutions which took place between the years of c. 1760 – 1840. The movement of these revolutions assisted in the eventual abolition of slavery and transformed the Atlantic world into what was later known as the ‘Modern World’, transpiring new political views, changes in monarchies and outlooks on the perspective of the quality of life through Enlightenment ideas. This essay aims to take an analytical approach and investigate how the Age of Revolutions transformed the Atlantic world, and conclude whether the effects of these political modifications had a positive aftermath on the future of world society.
So what was the Age of Revolutions? Burg (2015, n.p.) claims that it was an era which “saw major societal changes all over the world, such as the rise of democratic ideas, new insights into the relationship between nation and state, and the start of decolonization.” Yet to answer this question concisely, the origins of this historical period must first be investigated and interconnected, as it is vital for the analytical perspective of this essay.
The Age of Revolutions was firstly conceived with the North American Revolution; also known as the ‘Revolutionary War’, and took place between c. 1775 -1783 (The American Revolution, 1763 – 1783: library of congress teachers n.d.). This war resulted in America gaining its ‘Declaration of Independence’ in 1776 and predisposed the French Revolution in 1789, in-turn, influencing the Haitian Revolution between c. 1791 – 1804 (See Blackburn 2006, p.643; Dubois 2009, n.p.). The combination of these revolutions ensued that an Atlantic revolutionary phenomenon spread across America and Europe in a consecutive order where one revolution instigated the next (See Blackburn 2006, p.643; Dubois 2009, n.p.). In an introduction to Friedrich Gentz’s book, Origin and Principles of the American Revolution, Compared with the Origin and Principles of the French Revolution, Peter Koslowski claims that there have never been more significant events in history’s timeline which impacted such a transformation on the world as the American and French Revolutions (Gentz 2010, p.vii). Yet can it be ascertained that these transformations were a vital necessity for the future of economic growth and globalization?
The Granger Collection New York - George Washington on his white horse
Koslowski describes these two revolutions as; one which ‘gave birth to a new nation that was to develop into the leading power in the world a century and a half later and the second gave birth within a generation to the greatest power in Europe for about twenty years, changing all its neighbor states forever’ (Gentz 2010, p.vii). This suggests it was an imperative step towards societal future, and with the correlation of the beginning of the Age of Revolutions now established, the investigation can continue with a deeper insight into the effects these revolutionary movements had on America, France and the rest of the world.
When American colonists began to rebel against the British taxes forced upon them, they rebelled against the Great British Empire itself, and on August 23, 1775, King George III declared this insurgence; marking the beginning of the American Revolution (see Pavao 2010, n.p.; Reasons for the Revolution: Colonial Williamsburg 2015, n.p.). By November 1775, an ‘Emancipation Proclamation’ was signed by Governor Dunmore which offered freedom to all slaves and servants who would bear arms for the king (Reasons for the Revolution: Colonial Williamsburg 2015, n.p.). Klooster & Oostindie (2011, p.26), claim that “one reason that rebellions and conspiracies were numerous and large between 1776 and 1848 was because there were more people in the Americas living in slavery than ever before or there would ever be again.” However, what is an interesting concept, is that regardless of thousands of slaves having the opportunity to gain freedom if they fought on the British side, the American Revolution had the minimalist impact on slavery during the Age of Revolutions (Klooster & Oostindie 2011, p.28). Why did such a large number of slaves not take the opportunity to gain their freedom from the British?
Lord Dunmore's Proclamation
It would take almost one hundred years before Abraham Lincoln would succeed in adding three further amendments to ‘The Bill of Rights’ which would eventually help slave abolition to transpire in America (McPherson 2014, n.p.). Slave abolition was still a long way away from occurring, but the country did win the Revolutionary War, and on July 4, 1776, American colonies declared themselves independent of the King of England (ushistory.org 2008, n.p.), initiating a domino effect which transpired into the trans-Atlantic Age of Revolutions (ushstory.org 2008, n.p.). The Civil War Trust made reference to both the American Revolution and American Civil War, stating that, “While the Revolution of 1776-1783 created the United States, the Civil War of 1861-1865 determined what kind of nation it would be” (McPherson 2014, n.p.). Hence, here lies the answer relating to African American slaves. Although ‘the end of slavery was just the beginning of their quest for democratic equality;’ (Loury 1998, n.p.), through these war movements, African American’s eventually gained what was most important to them; a legacy of freedom and civil rights on American soil for their future generations (See US Department of the Interior, Office of Civil Rights: The African American legacy and the challenges of the 21st Century n.d., n.p.; Loury 1998, n.p.).
A change was coming. Abraham Lincoln's Bill of Rights
It is imperative to subsequently look at the finer points of the French Revolution to understand how it eventuated and its interconnection to the events which took place in America, because while the American Revolution was about becoming their own independent country, the French Revolution was a succession of important stages for France which were almost singular revolutions within themselves (Cranston 1989, n.p.). Due to America being the closest neighbour to France, its influence was unavoidable, as many who were on the frontline with Enlightenment ideas for the American Revolution later became influential dignitaries in the French Revolution (See Gentz 2010, p.7; Cranson 1989, n.p.).
Political theorists and Enlightenment writers such as Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine predisposed the French philosopher’s to new ideas, and planted a seed in their minds about political issues (See Doyle 2013, p131; Marano 2002, n.p). This in-turn, inspired starving French citizens, causing the eventual execution of the French Crown, with Louis XVI’s beheading in 1793 and Marie Antoinette’s beheading later that same year; initiating a period of radicalization (ushistory.org 2008, n.p.). It was suggested by Edmund Burke himself that the French Revolution eventuated from French Enlightenment philosophers, and with historians such as Tocqueville and Lord Acton supporting this theory (Cranston 1989, n.p.), French people were provided with hope and ideas for a better future through all sorts of political theorists of the Enlightenment period (See Gentz 2010, p.8; Cranston 1989, n.p.; Dubois 2009, n.p.). Doyle (2013, p.131) suggests, that ‘from Machiavelli they had learned that nobilities were selfish vermin, with no public spirit. From Montesquieu, a more recent analyst whom they revered unequivocally, they accepted that nobilities were inseparable from monarchy, and even under monarchs worked primarily in their own interests, pursuing honour rather than the virtue which was the spirit of true republics.’ And after George Washington was elected as the first president of the United States of America on April 30, 1789 (Walsh 2008, n.p.), the French Revolution commenced, creating an immense change for France. Yet it did not come without a price.
Marie Antoinette at the age of 12 (detail) by Martin van Meytens, c. 1767-1768 / CC
The purpose of the French Revolution was to transform the monarchy into a constitutional governing, rather than destroying it altogether (Doyle 2013, p.116), but with the executions of the King and Queen of France, it is difficult to see it in any other perspective than a killing spree to overthrow the French Monarchy. Doyle (2013, p.129) also claims that ‘It was the renunciation of a king. Nothing so clear-cut marks the beginning of the French Revolution.’ However, the beginning of the French Revolution did instigate a series of important events, which included a “mass insurrection by the enslaved in August 1791, which lead to the abolition of slavery in the colony in 1793, then to its abolition throughout the French empire in 1794, and finally Haitian independence from France in 1804”(Dubois 2009, n.p.). The Haitian Revolution reached its peak with the battle of Ravine-a-Couleuvres on February 23, 1802 which instigated Haiti reaching their independence from France on January 1, 1804 (Dubois 2009, n.p.). Haiti was no longer a slave colony. So what did this all mean to the rest of the Atlantic world?
To understand the impact these revolutions would still have on Europe, a deeper perspective needs to be taken into account when analyzing the process of the changes these declarations of independence had on America, France, Haiti, and their influence on the rest of Europe yet to come. Blackburn (2006, p.643) claims, that while “The American Revolution launched an idea of popular sovereignty that, together with the cost of the war, helped to provoke the downfall of the French monarchy, the French Revolution, dramatic as was its influence on the Old World, also became the fundamental event in the New World because it was eventually to challenge slavery as well as royal power,” and with Great Britain losing its royal power over America and France, the country was forced to follow suit to abolish slavery. In 1807, the British Empire abolished slave trading, believing England would have greater success if slavery was eradicated throughout their empire due to economic developments, and assumed that this move would eventuate to slave abolition throughout the Atlantic world (E2B and E2BN 2009, n.p.). The enlightenment of these revolutions fashioned an uprising for change in cultural and ideological views, as well as commercial business ventures such as trade, and with these alterations interconnecting people throughout the Atlantic world, England was about to enter the most important economic modification in history; the Industrial Revolution (Valdes 2011, n.p.).
Illustration from the book: The Black Man's Lament, or, how to make sugar by Amelia Opie. (London, 1826)
Several consecutive events arose following England’s slave abolition movement which continued the uprising of the Age of Revolutions. Revolutions began in Spain, Germany, Greece and South America. However, South American and Greek colonies would be the only ones successful in achieving their independence during this period of revolutions by inaugurating their own constitutional monarchies (Butler 2007, n.p.). Russell-Wood (1978, p.361), argues that “foreign interests played a decisive role in separatist movements in Latin America and, once emancipation had been achieved, contributed to the initiation of processes of change which were to effect not only Latin America but its relationships with the major industrial powers of the nineteenth century…”. And in 1808, South America began the movement towards independence. Yet, it would take a further twenty years before this would be achieved (Smitha 2002, n.p.).
Following South America’s revolutionary achievement, Greece fought its own war to obtain independence which began in March 1821, elicited by “impulsive patriots of the Society, first in the Danubian Principalities by Alexander Ypsilantis, its nominal leader, and then in the Morea by some of the most reckless members of the society, such as Papaflesas”, (Koliopoulos & Veremis 2009, p.15-17). In 1832, they achieved their independence and Great Britain, France and Russia; their protecting European powers, signed two international treaties. The first was with the Bavarian Royal Dynasty of the Wittelsbach, who’s prince; King Otto, would become the first monarch of Greece, and the second with Porte, who supported Greece’s reliability to be independent (Koliopoulos & Veremis 2009, p.27). In the 1830’s, additional revolutions all over European continents erupted in countries such as Belgium, Poland and Switzerland within the period in question, continuing the spiral towards political world change (Butler 2007, n.p.).
Declaration of Independence
In conclusion of the findings and evidence articulated within this essay, the Age of Revolutions which erupted between c. 1760 -1840 still remain the most influential political movements in history from a commercial and global perspective. Without America, France and Haiti obtaining its ‘Declaration of Independence’ and becoming their own entities; separate from Great Britain, decolonization and globalization would not have had such an immense impact on the rest of the world. The abolition of slavery would not have been possible without these revolutionary movements, and the world economy would not have expanded into such an abundant power of commerce. Further European countries would not have initiated their own revolutions to gain independence in the future, and Great Britain would have continued to rule its large Empire. With all this evidence, and with the exception that many lives were lost through patriotism within these wars, it can be ascertained that the Age of Revolutions did have an eventual positive aftermath on the future of world society.
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