Introduction to Revolutions and the Emergence of Nation-States (1750–1914)

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Introduction to Revolutions and the Emergence of Nation-States (1750–1914)

The scientific revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries prepared the way for major developments in philosophy and political theory in the eighteenth century, an era that historians call the Enlightenment. New ideas of liberty and human rights promoted by such thinkers as John Locke (1632–1704), Voltaire (1694–1778), and Jean–Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778) inspired dramatic political action. Thirteen British colonies in North America declared independence from colonial rule in 1776, and with military assistance from the French, defended their revolution on the battlefield to establish the United States of America. Thirteen years later, militant crowds of ordinary French citizens defied the authority of King Louis XVI (1754–1793) and overthrew the unjust social hierarchy of his regime.

The French Revolution progressed from those heady moments of liberation into a volatile period of invading armies, factional fighting, and political executions referred to as the “Reign of Terror.” Eventually the upheaval gave way to a dictatorship headed by a Corsican soldier, Napoléon Bonaparte (1769–1821). Under his leadership, France restored law and order and won victories abroad. In 1804 Napoléon crowned himself Emperor of the French, with a campaign to conquer Europe already underway.

Napoléon’s wars consumed Europe for a decade, until his final defeat at Waterloo in 1815. Europe’s leaders convened at the Congress of Vienna to negotiate the post-Napoleonic peace. While the Congress restored conservative authority in Europe, the forces unleashed by Enlightenment ideals remained potent. Liberal and nationalist uprisings, peaking in 1848, led to the formation of new states and sparked revolutions in many others.

Napoleon’s campaign against Spain and Portugal made a profound impact on their possessions in Latin America. As Spanish forces were recalled to defend the home country, independence movements took the initiative. By 1830, thanks to such military leaders as Simón Bolívar (1783–1830), Antonio José de Sucre (1795–1830), and Bernardo O’Higgins (1778–1842), almost all of Latin America had won its independence from the European powers.

Of all the radical transformations in this “age of revolutions,” perhaps the most epochal was the Industrial Revolution, as new technologies for agriculture and manufacturing brought about fundamental changes in people’s daily lives. The revolution came first to England, where the coal, iron, and textile industries led a rapid rise in productivity and caused much social dislocation. The changes soon spread across Europe and to the United States, intensifying in the later decades of the nineteenth century as capitalism came of age.

Spurred by expanding international markets and the increased demand for raw materials, the European powers set off on a new spate of imperialist conquests. The British gradually transformed their commercial presence in India into outright colonization. With their possessions in Africa, India, Burma, Australia, the Pacific Rim, and Canada, the British built a global empire on which, it was proclaimed, “the sun never set.” Their European rivals battled them to gain strategic geopolitical advantage.

The rugged interior of the African continent had been little explored by Europeans, but the Industrial Revolution stimulated hunger for its resources. In 1884 the German chancellor Otto von Bismarck (1815–1898) called a conference in Berlin to establish the rules of engagement for European colonizers in Africa. Then the scramble was on: seven European nations planted their flags in African soil and divided the continent between them. By 1900 Liberia and Ethiopia were Africa’s only independent nations.

Among the colonial powers of Europe, commercial, military, and diplomatic rivalries simmered in the first years of the twentieth century. They would arrive at the boiling point in the summer of 1914.

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Introduction to Revolutions and the Emergence of Nation-States (1750–1914)

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Introduction to Revolutions and the Emergence of Nation-States (1750–1914)