Eighteenth Century : Europe in the Age of Enlightenment


Although the 18th century in Europe is famous as the Age of Enlightenment, to call it that is less to pass any defmitive historical judgment than to describe how the men of that century saw themselves.

They frequently expressed their belief in Reason as a means not only of knowing nature but of reforming society and in turn making better men. They frequently noted, too, that the men of previous centuries had lacked their understanding of the enlightened intellect. This eonfidence in man’s rational powers gave the 18th century a real coherence and acted as a spur to reform and discovery. It prompted Thomas Jefferson to try his hand at architecture, Immanuel Kant to write treatises on physics, and Jean Jacques Rousseau to study chemistry. It gave the enlightened despots courage to change the very conditions of life and even—in the case of Frederick the Great of Prussia—to compose flute sonatas.




European society in the 18th century was a broad pyramid, with the few of the nobility at the top and the masses of the peasantry at the bottom. In western Europe there was an increasing split between the wealthy nobility, who spent much of their time practicing exquisite etiquette at court, and those lower nobles who stayed in the countryside, hunting and running their estates with little concern for either social niceties or abstract ideas. Only a few at the social peak lived the life portrayed in 20th century historical novels—amid bright chandeliers, powdered wigs, and beautiful women—but it was in that milieu that the century earned its reputation for licentiousness and decadence. Every monarch had his mistresses, and the ways of Versailles were mimicked across Europe, most absurdly in the courts of the tiny German principalities.

The new wealth of the age was not, however, being earned by the upper classes. Trade had become immensely lucrative, and it was the merchants of the middle classes who built up family fortunes on ships, rum, slaves, and spices. In Britain this group was aided by the lack of internal customs duties or governmental interference, but trade also boomed within France, where such restrictions were present. The growing supply of precious metals and the increasing wealth of the middle class, quickly reinvested, showed their effects in the new and wider use of banks, stock exchanges, and paper money. Get-rich-quick schemes like the South Sea Bubble found ready investors. Manufacturing still depended largely on the putting-out system or upon guilds of artisans, but even these restraints on an expanding economy were failing by the end of the century. In central Europe, where trade was less important, the state furnished the main impetus for economic growth, though even there, imitation and decree tended to modernize the local economies.

From among the middle class townspeople came the lower bureaucrats, the tax collectors, the lawyers. They were the men who most vigorously supported ideas of progress, who demanded laissez-faire in trade and industry. It was to them that the new ideas primarily appealed, and it was they who bought the many broadsides, pamphlets, and newspapers of the expanding printing presses. The wealthier members of the middle classes could often, with care or a large dowry, buy their way into the nobility, and men of wit could gain their way into that company even without the aid of money. But the middle classes were numerous enough in western Europe to begin setting their own fashions and exchanging ideas in their own salons and coffee-houses. It was among this group that there grew a “relaxation of reverence,” of which Samuel Johnson complained.


The vast majority of Europeans, however, were still peasants dependent upon the land. In’ eastern Europe they were likely to be serfs, whereas in western countries they were often peasant propretors in all but name. They paid the bulk of the taxes, labored without pay for a certain number of days each year on the king’s roads, and suffered the most from epidemics and natural disasters. Farming methods at the beginning of the 1700’s were much as they had been for centuries, but England led the way toward more scientifie farming, and the ideas of men like Charles (“Turnip”) Townshend and Jethro Tull spread across the Continent. On the whole, the peasants of England, France, and Lombardy remained better off than those of other regions of Europe.

The church, espeeially in Roman Catholic countries, retained a profound influence on ali levels of society despite the increasing popularity of deism, a doctrine at limited God to the role of Creator. Even those deists—mainly intellectuals—who hoped to substitute Natural Law for the Trinity tended to attack the institutional church rather than Christianity itself. At the same time there existed among other men a desire for a more personal, more emotional religion. This desire was frequently met by the Pietist and Methodist movements, with their large meetings.

Despite the attacks upon them, however, the national church and the monarchical state remained for most 18th century men the twin pillars of a stable society.

Europe at the beginning of the 18th century

Europe at the beginning of the 18th century (Source : wikipedia.org)


The political ideas and values of the Age of Enlightenment, or Age of Reason, were primarily those that were dominant in France. But to a large extent they were based on the work of two Englishmen, Sir Isaac Newton (died 1727) in the exaet sciences and John Locke (died 1704) in political philosophy and psychology.

Newton had discovered and formulated basic laws of nature through observation, experiment, and reasoning. The implication of his work for 18th century thinkers was that similar laws eould be derived for human nature and social life. The political thinking of John Locke was connected with a defense of the Glorious Revolution of 1688 in Britain, but his ideas were much discussed in France and were made into slogans, many of which became shibboleths of the French Revolution at the end of the 18th century. Locke held that government was necessary and that the test of a government was whether it promoted the welfare of the nation. From his view of the social contrâct, by which individuals tacitly consent to be governed, he derived inherent or natural rights of the individual, which must remain inviolate. Equally important to 18th century reformers was Locke’s psychology, which saw men’s values and attitudes as wholly a product of environment. Voltaire, the great international figure of the 18th century, did much to popularize both Locke and Newton, but in his hands their ideas quickly became weapons for attacking old institutions and privileges.

The influence of England was also apparent in the writings of the Baron de Montesquieu, whose De L’Esprit des lois (1748; The Spirit of the Latvs) established the political doctrine of the separation of powers. Montesquieu claimed to find this separation in the English constitution, but the importance of his “discovery” lay in the fact that popular government was thus made to depend not on the goodness of the citizenry but on a balance of institutions—something much more easily obtainable. His influence, like Locke’s, is evident in the U. S., French, and other constitutions.


The philosophes—Voltaire and other French social philosophers of the age—tended to view the new political ideas as comparable to Newton’s discoveries in mathematics and physics. Jean d’AIembert, for example, spoke with pride of the new age his generation was creating. The environmentalist psychology was greatly extended in France, particularly by fitienne Bonnot de Condillac, and references to the natural goodness and reasonableness of man became cliches of the 18th century. Closely associated with this view was the conviction that because the proper foundation had been laid, man was now certain to progress. The doctrine was not entirely new, but it found increasingly explicit formulation espeeially in the writings of Anne Robert Turgot and the Marquis de Condorcet in France and of William Godwin in England. The idea of progress, too, became a dogma of the 18th century.

When applied to economics, this view that society is naturally regulated produced the laissez-faire, laissez-passer slogan of the physiocrats and also Adam Smith’s attack on mercantilism in The Wealth of Nations (1776). The utilitarian school of ethics and political philosophy, which held that the sum of each enlightened individual’s acts of self-interest would provide the best government—”the greatest good for the greatest number”—grew in another direct line of development from the doctrines of the Enlightenment. Utilitarianism, as it evolved from Claude Adrien Helvetius to Baron d’Holbach to Jeremy Bentham, was to have a powerful influence in the 19th century.

The ideas associated with the Age of Reason had hardly achieved intellectual dominance when attacks upon them began. David Hume piercingly showed that natural rights and the goodness of man were not rational principles empirically arrived at but merely another set of articles of faith. Jean Jacques Rousseau found man’s goodness to lie less in his rational capacities than in his moral feelings. At the time, however, Rousseau’s mystical doctrine of the general will and his concern with man more as a citizen than as an individual fitted well into the general movement for change and reform. But the philosophy of Rousseau was, as Deniş Diderot recognized, basically opposed to the values of the older philosophes. In Germany, too, writers of the Sturm und Drang (Storm and Stress) period and thinkers like Immanuel Kani and Johann Herder tumed from the French writers’ faith in reason. The French Revolution itself produced the greatest formulations of ideas opposed to the philosophes. Edmund Burke, who held a dimmer view of human nature, emphasized the importance of tradition in the molding of a good society. He formulated what was, perhaps, the most influential of the new doctrines of conservatism. But a similar reaction to the revolution could be found in Vincenzo Cuoco in Italy and Louis de Bonald and Joseph de Maistre in France.

The thought of the 18th century was not, therefore, of one piece. Nor was it as simple as is often represented. Whether one is studying liberalism or democracy or nationalism or modern constitutionalism, much of the time spent must be devoted to the writers of this period.


In regard to literature, the 18th century has come to be called the “Age of Prose,” an oversimplification that nevertheless contains some truth. It was a great period for the essay, and in this genre Joseph Addison, Sir Richard Steele, Diderot, and Rousseau effected major literary accomplishments. The lash of satire was wielded with new effectiveness by Jonathan Swift and Voltaire. It is true, too, that the literary figures tended often to be men of importance in the more general intellectual movements of the time. Thus, in France, Diderot, Voltaire, Rousseau, Montesquieu and others contributed to the 35-volume Encyclopedie (1751-1772), one of the major accomplishments of the 18th century. The Encyclopedie stands as a monument to the period’s desire to codify its new knowledge as well as to the breadth of its interests and to the high standards demanded of the essay. It is true, also, that Alexander Pope titled his most famous poems “essays” and that Voltaire’s poetry has a similar “essay” quality. But color and warmth are not lacking in Thomas Gray’s Elegy (1751), Daniel Defoe’s Rohinson Crusoe (1719), or James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson (1791).

In European literature, as in so many of the intellectual developments of this period, after about the middle of the 18th century there was an increased interest in sentiment and in fiction as such. This was the time when the English novel attained its form with the work of Samuel Richardson, Laurence Sterne, Henry Fielding, and Oliver Goldsmith. The comedy of manners reached new heights with the work of Richard Brinsley Sheridan in England and Pierre Caron de Beaumarchais in France, reflecting the century’s interest in man as a social animal. Toward the century’s close there was a turn toward the romanticism that was to dominate the early 19th century. This trend is seeu in the work of Rousseau, Friedrich Schiller, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, William Wordsworth, William Blake, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.


In no field does the 18th century hold a more important place than in music. The period produced not only an amazing array of musical geniuses but also major changes in musical forms. In the first half of the century, 200 years of German polyphonic art culminated in the work of Johann Sebastian Bach, who also paved the way for the development of the keyboard concerto. In this period, too, George Frideric Handel popularized the oratorio for English middle-class audiences; Antonio Vivaldi brought to a climax the Italian orchestral style in his concerti grossi and violin concertos; and Jean Philippe.Rameau laid the foundations for classical harmonic theory.

The second half of the century saw the gradual molding of the classical sonata and symphony in the hands of Joseph Haydn, Cari Philipp Emanuel Bach, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Opera, which had become little more than an excuse for vocal and theatrical display, was reformed by Christoph Gluck, who welded plot and music into a dramatic whole; and the genius of Mozart gave immortal treatment to ali prevailing operatic forms. The modern orchestra took shape, and with the growth of middle-class audiences, subscription concerts and popular operatic performances began to replace court-sponsored music. Despite these far-reaching changes, the music of the 18th century was neither uncertain nor weakly experimental but the expression of a highly developed art based on firm canons of taste. This great tradition was continued in the work of Beethoven who, trained in the 18th century, dominated the 19th.

Art and Architecture.

Eighteenth century paint-ing well reflects the many-sided life of the age. Within the misty atmosphere of Jean Antoine Watteau’s works, courtly lovers and Parisian actors are depicted with grace and refinement. Jean Honore Fragonard, with some elegance, and François Boucher, with less, presented the amo-rous frivolity for which the century is famous. Thomas Gainsborough’s landscapes and portraits are also notably elegant and charming, but they are somewhat less contrived, less removed from a more ordinary world. Sir Joshua Reynolds, in his portraits of adults, painted the successful of the age; and his pictures of children express the sentimental closeness of the bourgeois family. Canaletto, Bernardo Bellotto, and Giovanni Bat-tista Tiepolo kept alive the bright clarity of Venetian painting, while Francesco Guardi developed a style suggestive of impressionism. The studied classicism and patriotic fervor of Jacques Louis David are fitting in the artistic tyrant of the French Revolution, but these artistic trends are representative, too, of 18th century France. Jean Baptiste Chardin, on the other hand, painted with great care the small domestic scene and the carefully arranged still life, with little apparent concern for political implications. The century’s interest in social criticism—the penetrating eye— shows itself espeeially in the work of William Hogarth and Francisco Goya. Both of these artists commented on subjects from ali levels of society, often with sharp and biting effect.

Although inereasing wealth led to much build-ing, little of the new construction was impressive for its originality. An ornate style was popular wherever ostentation was desired, as in Blenheim Palace, built for the 1st Duke of Marlborough, and in Frederick the Great’s Sans Souci palace at Potsdam. The later 18th century brought a greater simplicity, as in the Petit Trianon built at Versailles by Jacques Ange Gabriel and in the work of Robert Adam in Britain. Throughout the century great attention was paid to gardens, both in the formal geometrie styles of the French and in the naturalistic, irregular landseapes fa-vored by the English.


Science and Technology.

The great scientific geniuses of the 17th century tend to overshadow the accomplishments of their 18th century successors. But in the 1700’s a large number of men were enthusiastically and systematically working in seience, and their contributions are very im-portant. Joseph Louis Lagrange in mathematics and Pierre Simon de Laplace in gravitational theory did a great deal to expand the work of Newton. Useful analysis in biology and zoology was made far easier by the classification systems of Cari Linnaeus and Georges Louis de Bufton. It was in the 18th century that physiological knowledge was codified and advanced by Al-breeht von Haller. Toward the end of the period, the old and awkward theory of phlogiston was given its death blow by Antoine Laurent La-voisier, who, using the experiments of Henry Cavendish and Joseph Priestley, isolated and named hydrogen and oxygen.  Lavoisier also established the con-servation of matter as a basic axiom. Important work was done on the nature of heat and light, and the experiments of Luigi Galvani, Alessandro Volta, and Benjamin Franklin brought electricity within the ken of science. The explorations of men like Capt. James Cook were as concerned with general information about weather and flora as with geography. But there is no greater tribute to the place of science in the 18th century than the great Encyclopedie, with its plates and deseriptions covering with equal interest man’s knowledge of the world around him and his own contributions, the new inventions

A steam-powered pump, the Newcomen engine, had been in use throughout the century, but, in the period 1769-1782, James Watt devel-oped steam engines that could be used to power machinery. Almost simultaneously there were a series of inventions that served to revolutionize industry. John Kay’s flying shuttle (patented 1733) had been a major step in the meehaniza-tion of England’s expanding textile industry, but James Hargreaves’ spinning jenny (patented 1770) allowed one man turning one crank to work eight spindles simultaneously. Sir Richard Arkwright’s adaptation of the waterwheel in the spinning frame (patented 1769) led to the gather-ing of industry into one building near a single source of power—a development he pioneered. Samuel Crompton developed a machine (1779) that could spin thread of varying thickness at unheard-of speed, and, in 1786, Edmund Cart-wright invented a suceessful power loom. Less than 20 years had been needed for the development of machinery to meehanize a major industry. Eli Whitney’s cotton gin (patented 1794) gave further impetus to the mechanization of textile manufacturing.

Despite deep resentment from many workers and reluctance on the part of some tradesmen, the new inventions were quickly accepted. This attitude toward technology was as important for the future as the inventions themselves.


The 18th century ended as it began, with France, the dominant power in Europe, fighting against-a coalition of most of the European states. But between the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714) and the wars of the French Revolution (1792-1800), British diplomacy, sea power, and money kept France checked at nearly every turn. Fought in India and North America as well as in Europe, these battles for supremacy between Britain and France were one of the major themes of 18th century international rela-tions. A balance of power was the accepted international goal, but that balance proved hard to maintain with the surprising decline of old powers sueh as the Dutch Republic, Sweden, and the Ottoman Turkish Empire, and the rise of new ones, such as Russia and Prussia. The task was made easier, however, by the absence of ideological issues. National or popular interests had little meaning, and provinces could be treated as chess pieces. Wars were frequent and costly, but on the whole not excessively bloody.

The Spanish Succession.

When, in 1700, Charles II of Spain died without issue, both Louis XIV of France and Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I were laying claim to the Spanish lands. Their claims were based on the fact that each had married a sister of the dead king. Charles, how-ever, had been prevailed upon to leave his lands to one of Louis XIV’s grandchildren, and pre-vious plans of partition between the claimants were dropped as Louis took up his grandson’s claims. In one sense a part of the long Habsburg-Bourbon quarrel, the dispute becarne something more when William of Orange, now King William

III of England, finally eutered into it, leading the Grand Alliance against the threat of French hegemony. The resulting War of the Spanish Succession, famous for such battles as Blenheim (1704) and Malplaquet (1709), ended with the severe defeat of France.

The peace terms were milder than they might have been, for in 1711 the imperial crown passed to Archduke Charles of Austria, on whose behalf Leopold had claimed the Spanish throne. Britain feared Austria’s claim to Spain as much as it had previously feared France’s, because a union of Spain and Austria would have been even more disadvantageous for Britain than the threatened Frenûh and Spanish union. The Peace of Utrecht (1713) therefore recognized Louis XIV’s grand-son, the Duke d’Anjou, as King Philip V of Spain, with the understanding that the two thrones of the Bourbons would never be united. Spain’s Italian and Netherlands holdings went to Austria, while Britain received Newfoundland and Nova Scotia from France and Gibraltar and Minorca from Spain, plus a limited right to trade in Spanish America.

Utrecht set the scene for the power struggle of the next hundred years. French territorial losses were less than Louis had feared or than he would have been willing to grant, but France had been bled white and its treasury was empty. Britain now had the basis for a great world empire, and its trade proflted from the rapid decline of the Dutch. Spain had clearly ceased to be a major factor in European affairs. Although Austria made gains, like France it was primarily con-cerned with recovery. The great French drive for hegemony had collapsed. Shortly afterward, in 1715, Louis XIV died.

Charles XII and Peter the Great.

western Europe was thus occupied, northern Europe was engaged in a similar struggle, the Great Northern War (1700-1721). Sweden was trying to extend its sway in the Baltic. After victories over Peter the Great of Russia and Augustus II of Poland, who was also Elector of Saxony, the young Charles XII of Sweden considered himself nearly invincible. He moved on into Saxony, where ali bowed before him, but he indulged the luxury of fighting those he hated rather than those who offered him real danger. Peter reformed his army, and when Charles went marching into Russia, first toward Moscow then into the Ukraine, the Swedish King was met and deeisively de-feated at Poltava (July 8, 1709). Charles, wounded, escaped to Turkey, but his army was lost. He died in 1718. The Treaty of Nystad (1721) gave Livonia and Estonia to Russia, whieh had taken Sweden’s place as the dominant Baltic power. The Czar, having thus secured his northern border, could then begin looking south-ward toward the Ottoman Empire.

European Diplomacy from 1718 to 1738.

Since the end of the Turkish siege of Vienna in 1683, Austria had been marching steadily to the south-east, retaking Hungary and parts of Croatia and moving on to Belgrade and Bosnia. The Treaty of Passarowitz (1718) ended a five-year Austro-Turkish war, made famous by the military ex-ploits of Prince Eugene of Savoy. Austrian power now dominated southeastern Europe, and only Russia was a potential competitor.


There followed a period of relative peace in which Sir Robert Walpole in Britain and Cardinal Fleury in France calmly sought a needed rest for their countries. A series of congresses arbitrated disputes through complicated compromise. Spain was forced in 1720 to give the island of Sardinia to the duke of Savoy, and the duke, henceforth king of Sardinia, gave Sicily to Austria. Spain, having given up its efforts to regain Gibraltar, drew nearer to France.

When Augustus II of Poland died in 1733, Stanislas I Leszczynski was elected his successor. But Leszczynski was the father-in-law of Louis XV of France, and Russia and Saxony supported August III, the son of the former king. Austria backed Russia, and Spain supported France. The War of the Polish Succession, which began in 1733, ended formally in 1738 with a juggling that was typical of 18th century diplomacy. Augustus III did become king of Poland, but Leszczynski received the duchies of Bar and Lorraine. The former duke of Lorraine, Francis Stephen—hus-band of Maria Theresa, the heiress to the Austrian throne—became grand duke of Tuscany. Austria in turn gave up Naples and Sicily to Don Carlos, a Spanish Bourbon, whose ambitious mother had , long viewed Italy as the rightful property of her younger sons.

The Austrian Succession.

By 1738 another of the major questions of European diplomacy seemed to have been settled. Charles VI, as Holy Roman emperor, had been concerned that the Austrian succession should devolve upon his children—including daughters if he should have no sons—rather than go to the offspring of Joseph I, his older brother, the emperor before him. To this effect Charles had issued the decree known as the Pragmatic Sanction of 1713. Before his death in 1740, the Emperor paid a high price for the aequiescence of the European powers: France was allowed Lorraine while Spain ex-tended her influence in Italy; the East Indies trade was made a British preserve; and Russia was supported first in the War of the Polish Succession and then in its efforts against the Turks. Turkish suceesses made this last affair partieularly costly, and Austria lost most of what it had gained at Passarowitz.

Frederick the Great became king of Prussia in 1740, and Maria Theresa succeeded to the Austrian crown within a few months. Their relations were tense from the beginning. Without a declaration of war and before commencing nego-tiations, Frederick moved his armies into Silesia in December 1740, thus beginning the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-1748). Frederick then demanded ali of Silesia from Maria Theresa in return for his formal support of the Pragmatic Sanction and his vote in favor of her husband, Francis Stephen, to succeed as emperor. But Maria Theresa, with great moral indignation, re-jected these demands. Bavaria and Saxony and then France came to Frederick’s support, while Britain, already at war with Spain (the War of Jenkins’ Ear) aided Austria. France achieved a long-sought goal when the imperial crown was taken out of the house of Habsburg by the elec-tion in 1742 of Charles Albert of Bavaria as Emperor Charles VII.

The war itself was marked by Frederick’s early withdrawal once Silesia was his, which allowed Austria to concentrate upon Bavaria and France. Worried by Austrian successes, however, Frederick suddenly reentered the conflict, only to leave again when his gains had been assured. Bavaria had been nearly crushed, and, following the death of Charles VII in 1745, Francis Stephen was elected emperor. Austria was strengthened by an alliance with Russia. Britain’s role on the Continent was reduced by the landing in Scot-land of Charles Edward, the Stuart claimant to the British throne, who is known as the Young Pretender. His defeat at Culloden Moor in 1746 ended the Stuart threat. Meanwhile, the war had reached a stalemate. Austria pushed hard on the Rhine, and Britain had twice defeated the French at sea, cutting them off from their colonies; but France was gaining in northern Italy. A final peace treaty was signed at Aix-la-Chapelle (Aachen) in October 1748, confirming the Pragmatic Sanction and Prussia’s acquisition of Silesia and in other matters providing for a return to the prewar situation. France gave up its Continental gains, and Britain returned its overseas conquests.

Seven Years’ War.

Aix-la-Chapelle proved to be a truce of exhaustion. In the next decade the struggle was resumed in the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763).

The new war was preceded by a diplomatic revolution that left Britain allied with Prussia and Austria with France. The latter alliance was a triumph for the Austrian chancellor, Count von Kaunitz. It left unaffected Maria Theresa’s im-placable hatred of Frederick the Great and Britain’s rivalry with France. The reversal of alliances had occurred when Frederick suddenly signed the Convention of Westminster (1756) promis-ing to protect Hannover, the German domain of the British royal family. France and Russia, deeply suspicious of Frederick’s move, were won to an Austrian alliance by Kaunitz. Frederick, recognizing the fomration of a coalition against him, attacked first, driving into the territory of Saxony, Austria’s ally.

Under the brilliant direction of the elder William Pitt, Britain devoted most of its attention to the war overseas. Robert Clive defeated the army of the nawab of Bengal at Plassey in 1757, opening the way for complete British hegemony in India. The main French outpost, Pondicherry, was taken four years Iater. In North America, Louisburg and Fort Duquesne fell to the British. The latter outpost, renamed Fort Pitt (later Pittsburgh), provided the key to the Ohio Valley. Maj. Gen. James Wolfe defeated the Marquis de Montcalm at Quebee in 1759. Montreal, and with it nearly ali Canada, were British within the following year.

In Europe, however, Britain’s ally, Frederick, was in desperate straits as the combined forces of France, Austria, and Russia gradually wore his territory away. Then, suddenly, in January 1762, Czarina Elizabeth Petrovna died. Her successor, Peter III, an open admirer of Frederick, took Russia out of the war. This move forced Sweden also to sign a peace with Prussia. Although free to turn on Austria, Prussia was too exhausted. The time for peace had come.

By the Treaty of Paris (1763), there was a return to the status quo ante bellum among the eastern European powers, with Prussia keeping Silesia. Spain was given French Louisiana but gave up Florida. Britain gained French Canada, Cape Breton Island, and ali other territory east of the Mississippi River, plus much of India, becoming the world’s greatest colonial power. France sank to its lowest ebb of the century, its finances shattered, its commerce broken, its navy crippled. Despite deep wounds, Prussia had remained an independent power, its prestige high after success against so impressive a coalition. The struggle between Prussia and Austria for hegemony among the Germanies was fated to continue.


Balance of Power in Eastern Europe.

again Europe appeared to be in balance, with no power in a position to challenge the equilibrium. But Austria, Prussia, and Russia eyed one another closely. Russia, at war with Turkey from 1768 to 1774, was making impressive gains, and Austro-Russian tension grew, both for that reason and because of the extension of Russian influence in Poland. To head off another general European war, Frederick proposed a partition of Poland. The powers concerned readily agreed, and, in 1772, Poland lost one fourth of its territory in the first of three partitions. Russia took extensive territories in the east, Austria obtained Galicia, and Prussia gained the vital connecting link be-tween the two halves of its kingdom. By the Russo-Turkish Treaty of Kuchuk Kainarji (1774), Russia won some territory in the Crimea, the right of free navigation in Turkish waters for commercial vessels, and an ill-defined status as protector of the Christian subjects of the Ottoman Empire. Toward the end of the century Russia was asserting itself in the Balkans as it had been in the Baltic at the century’s beginning.

Europe and the American Revolution.

Britain had incurred heavy debts from its worldwide wars against France, and so Parliament inaugu-rated a series of tax measures whereby the British colonies in North America might defray some of the cost of their defense. As resistance to these measures grew, the crown took a firm stand. The American Revolution broke out in Massachusetts in 1775, and the next year a congress representing 13 of the colonies declared them independent.

After the American victory at Saratoga (1777), the French declared war on Britain, and the Count de Vergennes, the French minister of foreign affairs, persuaded the Spanish to join (1779) in the war against the British. The French had come to the Americans’ aid out of more than a desire for revenge upon Britain. Many of the young nobility, of whom the Marquis de Lafayette was the most famous, were deeply moved by the “self-evident truths” of natural rights that the colonies were defending. Hurt still further by several European powers’ in-sistence upon the right of neutrals to trade with belligerents, the British were fînally forced to surrender. The independence of the colonies was recognized in the Treaty of Paris (1783), by which Spain regained Florida and Minorca from Britain and France received Tobago and Senegal. Britain had suffered its severest defeat of the century, but the French treasury was left empty by the effort.


Never fully recovering from the cost of the wars of Louis XIV, the French state failed to adjust to the social and economic changes of the 18th century. The financial projects of John Law early in the century, despite their failure, sug-gested some of France’s economic potentialities, but these were never realized.

Background of the French Revolution.

The reign (1715-1774) of Louis XV began with high hope, and under the cautious Cardinal Fleury, who led the government from 1726 to 1743, there was real economic progress. Thereafter the machinery of government broke down. The regime was more inefficient than tyrannical, and attempted reforms were swallowed up in the vast complexi-ties and contradictions of the old system. The tax system was not only unjust but unproductive. The role of Louis XV’s mistresses and the gossip about them further weakened royal prestige.

Louis XVI (reigned 1774-1792) sincerely hoped to effect some of the needed reforms, but by this time far more than ordinary capacity and good intentions were needed. The aristocracy had strengthened its position in relation to the crown throughout the 18th century, especially in the judicial courts (parlements), which became the most effective centers of opposition to most attempts at reform. Louis XVI, in his kindly way, restored the parlements, which had at last been abolished in 1771 before he came to the throne. Turgot, a leading physiocrat, was called on to attempt basic financial reforms, but he tried to do too much with only passive backing from the crown. Jacques Necker, his successor, contented himself with piecemeal changes until he, too, was dismissed from office. The only really great achievements of reform during this period were in the army and were to be of great value later to the revolutionary government.

The French state remained poor in a wealthy nation. After an Assembly of Notables had re-sisted Charles de Calonne’s program of reform, Louis XVI was prevailed upon to cali the Estates General into assembly on May 5, 1789. It had last met in 1614. The Third Estate (roughly the upper middle class) was equal in size to the First (the clergy) and the Second (the nobility) together, and demanded, therefore, that voting should be done by ali estates combined. They won their point by assuming the title of “National Assembly” and inviting the other estates to join them. A month later, the fear of a counterrevo-lution and the dismissal of the popular Necker led to the storming of the Bastille on July 14. The revolution had begun.

Course of the Revolution.

A constitution drafted in 1791 reflected a long line of 18th century thought. Separation of powers, the sovereignty of the people, the rights of the individual—ali were asserted there. France became the first really national state on the Continent. Feudalism was destroyed; the church lost its political power and became an organ of the state. But constitu-tional monarchy was a failure. The king, lacking any firm policy, could not hide his opposition to the revolution, and the revolutionaries constantly feared their monarch’s attempts to obtain foreign aid. Louis’ flight from Paris was a nearly fatal blow to the monarchy.

The Legislative Assembly (October 1791-September 1792) succeeded the National Assembly. It operated under the constitution written by its predecessor and under mounting appre-hension as Austria and Prussia drew closer together. Under its leading group, the Girondists, it declared war on Austria on April 20, 1792. Prussia supported Austria. Initial French reverses in the field put an even greater strain on the new and inexperienced government. The court, it was generally known, hoped for a victory by the Allies. These events and rising fears led to the storming of the Tuileries Palace by a Paris mob and then to the September Massacres of suspects pulled from jail and executed by the mobs.

A new assembly, the National Convention, was the first elected by universal manhood suf-frage. In its first session, on Sept. 21, 1792, it declared France a republic. On the day before, the French armies had won the important psy-chological victory of Valmy. With Prussia di-verted by a second partition of Poland (in which Austria did not take part), the French armies began a series of victories in the Austrian Nether-lands, provoking most of Europe to form an anti-French coalition. As the war again went badly and financial troubles increased, the crisis within France grew worse. The split in the National Convention between the moderate Girondist dele-gates and the more radical Jacobins was widened by the trial and execution of the “former king” in January 1793. Civil war was raging in the Vendee, and everywhere suspicion of traitors was rife. Out of the crisis grew the organs of the Reign of Terror: the Revolutionary Tribunal, the Committee of General Security, the repre-sentatives-on-mission, and, above them ali, the Committee of Public Safety dominated by Maxi-milien Robespierre.


Gradually, the French position improved. A levy of the entire male population capable of bearing arms strengthened the army, and a sys-tem of price and wage eontrols enabled the government to keep the army supplied. At home, the guillotine maintained revolutionary conform-ity, and Robespierre attempted to legislate the morals of his fellow-citizens in order to establish the “Republic of Virtue.” Finally, however, the gtullotine reached Robespierre himself, and the Reign of Terror ended with his death on July 28, 1794.

The Convention, after Robespierre’s death, wrote a new constitution to correct the excesses of the Committee of Public Safety, establishing a five-member executive, called the Directory, and a bicameral legislature. The Republican armies, particularly those under Napoleon Bona-parte, won some impressive victories. The Dutch Netherlands became the Batavian Republic, northern Italy was divided into the Ligurian and Cisalpine republics, and Switzerlancl became the Helvetic Republic, leaving France comfortably surrounded by satellites. The Treaty of Campo-formio in 1797 took Austria out of the war and broke up the First Coalition. Fresh from these victories, Bonaparte left for Egypt to strike at the British “lifeline” to India. Despite these tri-umphs, however, the Directory proved incapable of efficiently administering France. The War of the Second Coalition, beginning in 1798, brought new pressures, and French armies began to re-treat. It was then that Bonaparte, who had failed in Egypt, skillfully returned as the savior of France. His well-engineered coup d’etat of November 1799 led to his being made first consul of France. In 1802 he would become consul for life and in 1804 emperor of the French.

Europe’s greatest effort to establish a republic had in fact failed with the end of the century. Yet the ideas of the republic, the fervor with which they were held, the new methods of ad-ministration, the new state, and the very devasta-tion of the war itself effected great changes.


Great Britain.

The 18th century was a time of expansion for the United Kingdom of Great Britain, formed by the union of England with Scotland in 1707. The country acquired most of its huge empire in the course of the century and was united with Ireland in 1801. its seapower gained from new bases in the Mediterranean and the North Atlantic and from the decline of its competitors. This century saw the fullest davel-opment of the British constitution and the estab-lishment of British industrial supremacy.

The question of the succession to the English throne was decided by the Act of Settlement (1701), which declared that upon the death of Anne, who had no surviving issue, the crown would pass to the house of Hanover, thus pre-venting a Roman Catholic succession. The act further established parliamentary supremacy by restating the rights of citizens and the inde-pendence of judges. William III (reigned 1689— 1702) had found it expedient to have advisers from the majority party, and Anne (reigned 1702-1714) was persuaded to follow his example. Foreed, because of her own ignorance of affairs, to depend upon advisers more than William had done, Anne further established the precedent of requiring cabinet unanimity. Thus cabinet government made important strides in her reign. Anne also proved to be the last monarch to use the royal veto. Under George I (reigned 1714-1727), German-speaking and relatively indifferent to the traditional claims of prerogative, Parlia-ment solidified its gains. Sir Robert Walpole, often called Britain’s first prime minister, served under both George I and George II (reigned 1727-1760). For 21 years, until his downfall in 1742, he dominated the country, pursuing a mod-erate foreign policy and a program of assistance to British commerce. It was to a large degree WalpoIe who laid the foundations for the empire that was gained in the 18th century.

During 1700’s there was a lessening of bitter-ness between Whig and Tory, and, in the Elder Pitt and the Younger Pitt, Britain produced two of its greatest prime ministers. There was a certain relaxation of Catholic disabilities, and the active and growing Wesleyites took their doctrines to the lower classes. In short, Britain acquired its reputation for stability in this period. But toward the end of the century, the develop-ment of new industries, the strain of frequent warfare, and the increase in enclosures produced some signs of unrest. With its wealth and modern economy, its parliamentary government, and its independence from much of the thinking of the philosophes, Britain was unique. It was the only country prepared to meet the challenge of the French Revolution.


The swift rise of Prussia was one of the marvels of the century, but it was the result of careful work and planning. For some 60 years the electors of Brandenburg-Prussia strove to build a state of the first class upon the scattered lands of their principality. Elector Frederick III managed in 1701, by taking advantage of un-settled European conditions, to have himself recognized as Frederick I, king “in” (not yet “of”) Prussia. Until his death in 1713, he worked toward the ereation of a real cultural life in his capital, Berlin, where Gottfried wilhelm von Leibniz lent prestige to the newly founded Berlin Academy of Sciences. Frederick’s political inepti-tude was compensated for by his son, Frederick “william I (reigned 1713-1740), who devoted himself to his army with legendary frugality, making it the fourth largest in Europe. Prussia became an administrative unit with one of Europe’s most efficient bureaucracies.

But it was Frederick II, the Great (reigned 1740-1786), who brought Prussia to its height. Even if his shrewd diplomacy had not succeeded so often, he would be noted as one of the finest specimens of that 18th century phenomenon, the enlightened despot. A despot in a real sense, Frederick, by fiat, sought to reform agriculture, build roads, effect reforms in the army, and im-prove the economy, the administration, and the courts. A man of the Enlightenment, he en-joyed the friendship of Voltaire, composed flute sonatas, wrote poetry, and turned out tracts on military and philosophical subjects. For ali this, however, Prussia remained a military state in which there was a certain amount of freedom only because the king allowed it. Against a back-ground of frequent and sometimes desperate warfare, fiat was not enough. The basic social order, like the structure of the Prussian state, remained essentially unchanged.


Despite the succession of three enlightened monarchs, Austria never achieved any full reformation in the 18th century. As one of the major victors in the War of the Spanish Succession, it gained the Spanish Netherlands and became the dominant power in Italy, acquiring Naples, Milan, and Sardinia. These gains added to Austria’s heterogeneity as well as its wealth. Involved in most of the wars of the century because of its position and power, Austria lost al-most as heavily from Charles VI’s attempts to win acceptance of the Pragmatic Sanction as from the wars themselves. Nevertheless, with the ex-ception of the years 1742-1745, the title of emperor was kept in Austrian hands as visible proof of Austria’s hegemony among the Ger-manies. British subsidies during the War of the Austrian Succession lessened the drain of that conflict, and the policy of Count Kaunitz placed Austria in a strengthened position with respect to the other powers.

Maria Theresa (reigned 1740-1780) with the aid of her husband, Emperor Francis I (reigned 1745-1765), effected some reforms within her lands. But not until her son became co-regent in 1765 and emperor as Joseph II (reigned 1765— 1790) did Austria have a real taste of enlightened despotism. Maria Theresa never fully ad-justed herself to Joseph’s radical plans, and one of Kaunitz’ more trying tasks was arbitrating , between mother and son. On his own, Joseph eliminated serfdom, compulsory labor, and cen-sorship; closed numerous monasteries; and fa-vored civil marriage. With the confidence of the doctrinaire, he interfered with matters of policy and habit at every level. Often he left his peasantry bewildered and less satisfied than he had found them. He attempted a drastic cen-tralization within his realm, making German the official language in Hungary. Joseph’s reforms were too sweeping to take deep root, and often they raised more problems than they solved. For these reasons he is often cited as the prime ex-ample of the intolerant, impractical rationalist. still, he left Austria somewhat more liberal, rather wealthier, and more efficient than he had found it.



It was Peter the Great (reigned 1689-1725) who made Russia a Western power and created the modern czardom. Not only did he elevate Russia to a high rank among the European powers, but he decreed that in culture and technology it should look to the West. He founded a new capital city, St. Petersburg (now Leningrad), “the window to the West.” His ad-ministrative system was modeled on the Swedish, and he brought in technicians from ali over Europe. He organized the nobility into a hier-archical structure designed to support the state, and he encouraged trade and a mercantilist economy. He had himself named head of the church, thus making it, too, an arm of the state. And he left Russia a large, up-to-date army and a sizable Baltic fleet.

After Peter’s death, there was a great increase in the influence of the German advisers about the weakened court until a palace revolution brought Elizabeth Petrovna (reigned 1741-1762) to the throne. The aristocracy then began to free itself from the heavy obligations Peter the Great had imposed.

Although the mid-century in Russia was a time of cultural revival, the state was somewhat weakened. At the end of the century, however, Catherine II, the Great (reigned 1762-1796), was able to continue the work Peter had begun. Her interest in reform and her active correspondence with and respect for the philosophes rank her as one of the enlightened despots. She is noted also for her unscrupulousness, her vanity, and her long list of lovers. Catherine called together a com-mission to study needed reforms, and she unified the system of local government, allowing even a touch of self-government. Her reforms, however, were not primarily of a humanitarian sort: even serfdom was retained. Catherine’s central concern was to build a stronger throne in a stronger Russia, and her idealism was sacrificed to practical needs. She pursued an aggressive foreign policy, swallowing up parts of Poland, frequently battling the Turks, and extending Russian sway in the Crimea as well as on the Baltic. It was the Russia she had done so much to build that would absorb the armies of Napoleon in 1812.

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