In this installment, philosophers debate man’s natural rights and the European wars for empire come to a conclusion. These two events lead to revolutions in North America and Europe. The American and French Revolutions signal an end to the so-called “early modern” period and the beginning of the modern age. Ancient monarchies and the last vestiges of the feudal order collapse and democracy emerges.
Glorious Revolution (1688-89):
The English worried that the throne would fall to an undesirable because James II’s heir apparent was Catholic. By this point, many were concerned about James’ ties with France. As a result, Protestants united to overthrow James II and invited Dutch King William of Orange to take the throne. The Protestants successfully installed William which ended any chance of Catholicism returning to England. As a result, Catholics became second class citizens for nearly 300 years. The change in government ended a series of wars between England and the Netherlands and intensified the rivalry with France. The Revolution became part of the War of Grand Alliance, which was the first in a series of global conflicts between European powers.
The Enlightenment begins (1689):
The Enlightenment was a period in which philosophers believed reason and progress could overcome superstition and tradition. The movement began with John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government. In the work, Locke argued for limited government and the right to “life, liberty, and property.” Government gained legitimacy through the consent of the people. All men had natural rights which the government could not denigrate nor limit. Locke influenced other Enlightenment thinkers, such as Voltaire and Rousseau, and the American revolutionaries. In fact, Thomas Jefferson lifted most of the Declaration of Independence from Locke. His ideas live on in the modern conservative movement.
Quebec falls (1759):
The French and Indian War culminated nearly a century of imperial conflict between European powers. The British defeated the French for control on North America once and for all. In 1759, the British conquered Quebec effectively ending the war. The victory led the British to change their policy toward the colonies. The changes, including increased taxation and regulation on commerce, angered the colonies leading the American Revolution.
The Declaration of Independence (1776):
Thomas Jefferson summarized the Enlightenment in the Declaration of Independence. In the work, Jefferson asserted the right of the people to revolt against an unjust government, codified every man’s natural rights, and that “all men are created equal.” The document has become one of the most influential in history and been quoted by independence movements for two centuries.
Despite declaring independence, the colonies were not free. In fact, the American war effort suffered greatly. The United States was losing the war. Saratoga changed America’s fortunes. The American victory convinced the French to enter the war transforming the colonial squabble into a global conflict. Britain could no longer concentrate on North America. Instead, they had to defend a global empire against a major world power. French participation made American victory possible.
George Washington trapped Lord Cornwallis’ army at Yorktown. The victory convinced the British to grant American independence. The conflict cost too much financially and the British still had France to deal with. The American colonies simply were not worth continued effort. In the end, Britain convincingly defeated France leading to the debt crisis which precipitated the French Revolution.
The United States Constitution (1789):
America ratified the U.S. Constitution which went into effect in 1789. The Constitution set up a skeletal framework for the American government, defined the relationship between the federal government, state governments, and the people. It also limited the federal government’s power through the Bill of Rights. The “great experiment” began with the election of George Washington as America’s first president.
The Bastille falls (1789):
France experienced a terminal debt crisis after extravagant royal spending and overseas adventures. King Louis XVI attempted to rectify the crisis through the Estates General, which was made up of France’s three social classes. The Aristocrats and Clergy refused to make the necessary changes leading the Third Estate to start their own revolution. Meanwhile, the lower orders decided to take matters into their own hands when they stormed and dismantled the Bastille. The Bastille was an old royal prison that symbolized the oppression and incompetence of the old order. On July 14, about 9000 citizens stormed the prison, freed the prisoners, and murdered some guards and the commander. After the violence, the mob paraded through the streets of Paris with their victims’ heads on pikes. The assault marked the true beginning of the French Revolution.