Key Concept 5.3 Nationalism, Revolution, and Reform

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In the late eighteenth century many people changed their mind about what made authority legitimate. Rather than basing political authority on divine right, some advocated new ideas about how the right to rule was bestowed. Many Enlightenment thinkers wanted broader participation in government and leaders who were more responsive to their people. This led to rebellions and independence movements against existing governments and the formation of new nations around the world. No longer content to be subjects of a king, new forms of group identity were formed around concepts such as culture, religion, shared history and race. Colonized people developed identities separate from the European societies from which they emerged.

I. The rise and diffusion of Enlightenment thought that questioned established traditions in all areas of life often preceded the revolutions and rebellions against existing governments.

A. During
Delacroix - La liberte.jpg
the previous era (1450-1750) Europeans grew less reluctant challenging established authorities on matters of culture, science and religion. Borrowing the methods of science, the new ways of understanding the world began with one's direct observations or experience, organizing the data of that experience, and only then evaluating political and social life. In a movement known as the Enlightenment, European intellectuals applied these methods to human relationships around them. They did not hesitate to question assumptions about government and society that had gone unquestioned for centuries. Dismissing all inherited beliefs about social class and religion, they began from direct experience and asked why things had to be the way they were.

B. Since the middle ages, religion formed the basis of most every aspect of life in Europe. The Church sanctioned a hierarchical class system, supported the divine right of kings, and claimed to be the supreme authority on all knowledge claims. It did so by claiming to be the custodians of divine revelations which formed the basis of all that was true and were taken without question. During the Enlightenment, thinkers doubted the church's claim to possess a source of divinely revealed absolute truth. They instead emphasized the capacity of human reason and experience to arrive at knowledge. They despised all dogma--the belief in propositions given by authorities which are not open to be challenged or examined for one's self--and waged war against intolerance. In this regard, the most prominent figure is the French philosopher Voltaire. After wars of religion and the intolerance Catholics and Protestants demonstrated toward each other, Voltaire sought to destroy dogma and struggle against the power of the Catholic Church in European society.

C. The most profound influence of the Enlightenment was in political thought. New and radical ideas emanated from philosophers that challenged accepted notions of power. The English philosopher John Locke believed that all knowledge arises through experience, a belief that implies that experience rather than birth makes individuals who they are, thus calling into question the basis for the class system of Europe. He went on to argue that every individual has inalienable
rights--rights that cannot be taken away without a grievous violation of natural law. For Locke, the most fundamental inalienable rights were life, liberty, and the right to own property. The French philosopher Rousseau argued that the relationship between a government and its people was similar to a contract. This assumes that both parties are on equal footing and either side could violate the contract. Another English philosopher named Thomas Hobbes said that the only legitimate role of a government was to protect people from each other and anything beyond that was oppressive. The French philosopher Montesquieu also argued for a limited government. He believed the best way to limit the power of a government was to divide its most fundamental powers--the power to make laws, execute laws, and interpret laws in specific instances-- into three distinct and separate locations of the government. This had a strong influence on the American system of dividing government into legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government with checks and balances between them. The net effect of all these philosophers was to deny the legitimacy of a government with absolute power supported by religion rather than the general will of the people. The philosophers of the Enlightenment used the same assumptions about knowledge as the Scientific Revolution but used the methods to change how life was lived.

D. The philosophies of the Enlightenment influenced several important political documents that were used to challenged traditional forms of political authority and call for radical changes in society and independence from political regimes.

  • The Declaration of Independence
    The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 1789 is a fundamental document of the French Revolution and in the history of human rights
    Written by Thomas Jefferson, the Declaration of Independence set forth a justification for the independence of Britain's colonies in North America by claiming the actions of the English government violated the inalienable rights of the colonists as British subjects. It evoked John Locke's ideas of the contractual relation between a government and its people and made the case that King George III had overstepped his legitimate political power thus giving the colonists the right to separate from England. See the text of the Declaration of Independence HERE

  • The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen The Declaration of the Rights of Man was a product of the French Revolution. It was drafted by Lafayette, who was instrumental in the American Independence movement. This document proclaims the rights of all humans, regardless of social status. It effectively tore down the rights and privileges of the feudal class system and claimed that its concept of social equality and liberty were true of all people at all times and in all places. As an abstract declaration of rights for all people it claimed universal and abstract liberty and was a permanent gain of the French Revolution. See the text of the Declaration of the Rights of Man HERE.

  • Letter From Jamaica This is another document motivated by the political ideas of the Enlightenment. Written by Simon Bolivar in 1815, it justifies Spanish America's independence from Spain. The document outlines the grievance the colonies have against Spain and speculate about the future of Latin America. Bolivar repeats his conviction that unity, rather than a US style confederation, is necessary for the states of northern South America. See English translation of the text HERE.

E. All of these Enlightenment-inspired documents imply a radically different arrangement of society than what was practiced at the time. For most of human history, varying levels of rights and privileges were assigned to groups in a society rather than to individuals. Such groups were differentiated hierarchically by caste, race, religion, ownership of land, or some other criteria, and laws were different for each of them; inequality between groups was taken as a given. Enlightenment thought explicitly contradicted these assumptions. Lifting group designations completely, at least in theory, society was viewed as a collection of individuals who deserved to be treated in a uniform fashion. This new concept of individuality and universal rights initiated struggles to bring equality to women, dissolve feudal class systems, emancipate slaves, and expand suffrage to a wider range of people. But social reform was not without challenges. The mulattoes in Haiti who claimed equality with the creoles did not think for a moment that those same rights belonged to slaves; landowning planters fought the emancipation of serfs and other groups of coerced laborers; and in Europe Pope Pious IX referred to universal suffrage as a "horrible plague which affected human society." [1]

II. Beginning in the eighteenth century, peoples around the world developed a new sense of commonality based on language, religion, social customs and territory. These newly imagined national communities linked this identity with the borders of the state, while governments used this idea to unite diverse populations.

Since the dawn of human societies, people have inclined to identify themselves as part of a group, whether it be tribe or clan, Caliphate or kingdom. Enlightenment ideas, particularly those emanating from the French Revolution, created a modern way of establishing group identity. Previous identities usually centered around the leader who possessed some kind of mandate--religious or otherwise--to exercise authority over the people. Before the revolution in France, for example, people thought of themselves as subjects of the king who ruled by divine right. When they went to war, they marched for the monarch. However, after the French demoted--and then executed--their king during the Revolution, this concept of identity necessarily ended. They were no longer subjects of the king, but citizens of the nation of France. Nations are human constructs based on commonalities, usually language, ethnicity, territorial claims, religious bonds or a shared history, whether real or imagined. This cohesive force is called nationalism, and most nations seek to be politically autonomous on a specific territory (a nation-state). Thus it can be deadly to empires as it encourages different ethnic or religious groups to break away to form independent states. As a powerful force in uniting and motivating people, politicians can exploit nationalist feelings for their own objectives. At its worst, nationalism marginalizes groups of people who do not fit the ethnic or religious identity of the nation, which can lead to persecution and violence. For a video on nationalism, click HERE

III. Increasing discontent with imperial rule propelled reformist and revolutionary movements.

Shivarji, who welded together the Maratha confederacy that weakened the Mughal Empire.
Enlightenment ideas and nationalism intensified already strained relations between subjects and the imperial powers who ruled over them. The Mughal Empire, which had ruled South Asia since 1526, was weakened by the rise of the Marathas on the western border of the subcontinent. The Marathas were a collection of farming, landowning and warrior
The portion of India where the Maratha Empire emerged.
castes united by a single language. [2] Their strict adherence to Hinduism further set them apart from their Islamic Mughal overlords.
In the previous era, Akbar (1542-1605) inaugurated a period of peace and prosperity in the Mughal Empire by tolerating other faiths. Shortly after his death, conservative leaders returned the dynasty to its policy of favoring Islam above other religions. The Hindu majority once again had to pay the hated Islamic tax on non-Muslims, alcohol was forbidden, and Hindu temples were permitted to go into disrepair. [3] These measures galvanized the Hindu Marathas against the Islamic Mughals. A leader named Shivaji (1627-1680) forged a powerful Marathan confederacy which launched major revolts against the Mughals. By the early 1700s the Mughals were in an advanced state of decline. Divided by religion and doctrine, plagued by suspicion and accumulated grievances, India was vulnerable: Afghans conquered part of the Punjab in the north, despite staunch opposition from Mughal viceroys, the Marathas had gained the right to collect taxes in six Mughal provinces, [4] and the East India Company gained de facto control over large areas of India. After defeating the Maratha Empire in 1818, the East India Company briefly became the protectors of the Mughal Empire. By 1858 the British had colonized them outright.

B. Unlike South Asia, where the spirit of independence led to India being colonized by the British, in the Americas rebellion against imperial powers led directly to the formation of independent states. The participation of the French in the North American independence movement would influence revolutions in Europe against absolute monarchy and the feudal class system.

American Revolution The American
The surrender of British general Cornwallis to the Americans.
Revolution was a political independence movement that used British Enlightenment ideas to sever colonial political ties to England. Trouble between Britain and its 13 American colonies began after the French and Indian War (The Seven Year's War) when Parliament, to pay for this costly war, levied several new taxes on the colonists and began to enforce duties that had formerly been ignored. In taxing the colonists without giving them representation in British Parliament, the colonists claimed their rights as British citizens were violated by the crown. After residents in Boston destroyed British tea by throwing it into the harbor, the city fell under martial law. The colonists were required to quarter the British troops who had been sent by the king to hold back rebellion. Tensions escalated into armed resistance in 1775 when colonists and the British fired on each other at Lexington and Concord. In the following year, Thomas Jefferson penned the Declaration of Independence in which he argued that the colonists were justified in breaking their political bonds with England because the king no longer had the people's consent. As military clashes increased, the French decided to aid the colonists in an attempt to weaken the British. Six years of battle ended in 1783 when the British surrendered to the Franco-American forces at Yorktown, Virginia.
The struggle for American independence was only a revolution in a limited sense. It had indeed brought independence to the colonists who went on to create an enduring constitution and democratic institutions. However, the colonial structure of society remained intact. The new states of the United States of America retained the social characteristics of settler colonies. Despite the rhetoric of Enlightenment ideals and liberty, slavery was kept intact. Indigenous people had no place in the new nation and were progressively pushed out of the way of westward expansion. In this sense, the American Revolution provided a model for the creoles in Latin America who desired independence from Spain but did not want to lose their privileged status in society.

French Revolution
The French Revolution was inspired in part by the American Revolution and influenced by many of the same Enlightenment principles. However, the French were attempting to solve a different set of problems than the Americans were, a reality which made the outcome and character of their revolution much different. Unlike the American colonies, France had a class system that was deeply entrenched in the soil of its civilization. The king, an absolute monarch, ruled by divide right. Legitimizing both of these social and political institutions was the Roman Catholic Church. Thus religion, society, and politics were intertwined deeply in an arrangement known as the ancien regime. The French Revolution abolished the feudal class system, separated politics from religion, and ended absolute monarchy. Rather than an anti-colonial independence movement, the French Revolution was a true transformation of the social order.

The class system of France was divided into three basic ranks, or estates. The first estate (the clergy), the second estate (the nobles and aristocracy), and the third estate (the serfs or peasants) each had varying degrees of rights. The top two estates had the most privileges and paid little taxes. The third estate, about 85% of the population, supported the extravagant lifestyles of the other two with hard agricultural labor and heavy taxation. As unfair as this system was, it made sense in the context of the feudal economy of the middle ages. But much had changed since then. Enlightenment notions of the equality of all individuals struck at the heart of this social system. Moreover, the three estates did not adequately describe the social and economic reality of France in the 18th century. Between 1720 and 1780 France's foreign trade quadrupled.[5] Merchants and middle class businessmen who comprised the bourgeoisie (urban middle class) grew enormously in size and wealth but had the same level of rights as the third estate.
Haitian Revolution

Latin American Revolutions


  1. The Secularization of the European Mind in the 19th Century (1975) Owen Chadwick, p.113.
  3. India (2001) Stanley Wolpert, p. 43.
  4. Advanced Study in the History of Modern India, 1707-1813 (2005) Jaswant Lal Mehta, p. 92.
  5. The Age of Revolution, 1789-1848 (1996) Eric Hobsbawm, p.55.