European Revolutions 1750-1850

Depiction of a 'Stuart Drill. Agricultural developments that transformed farming in Britain. Source: www.cookit.e2bn.org

In this topic, we will identify and explain the changes that took place in Europe between 1750 and 1850.

Change is the driving force in history. Without change there would be no progress. As a result, historians are concerned both with identifying where changes have taken place, and why these changes have taken place.

There are different ways of explaining change. Some historians focus on the social changes. This means that they examine the factors that affect the lives of people. Other historians look at changing economic factors, while some might focus on political differences from one period to another.

We examine political revolution (French revolution) and economic revolution (Industrial revolution), the transfer of wealth and power from the feudal aristocracy to the urban middle classes, and we compare the situation in France and England.

From the mid-18th to the mid-19th centuries, Europe experienced major transformation. In England, a revolution began that spread to Europe and changed the way wealth was created and shared. Before the Industrial Revolution, the aristocracy held wealth and power. The Industrial Revolution shifted wealth and power to the urban, professional middle class and industry came to the fore. In England, the Industrial Revolution paved the road toward democracy. Political revolutions raged through Europe as people fought against the authority of kings. It began with the French Revolution at the beginning of the 19th century. In 1848, France had yet another revolution that spread across Europe. These revolutions gave hope for a society where people were free and equal and made way for democracy in Europe as the 20th century.

What is revolution?

Revolution literally means a turnaround or a complete somersault. It is used to describe periods or events that bring about dramatic change in politics, economics or society. A political revolution happens when a group of people rebel against the existing government and attempt to overthrow it. It is usually associated with violence, like the French Revolution, and sometimes leads to civil war. There are however political revolutions that are bloodless, in other words, where the existing government is replaced without any violence. An economic revolution takes place when the economy of a country is changed dramatically, like with the invention of new production methods that rapidly speeds up manufacturing and expands production.

Some revolutions bring about sudden change, like the English Revolution that led to the constitutional monarchy that England still has today. Others take much longer to affect the existing order, like the European Industrial Revolution that took time to spread from England to the rest of Europe. Certain revolutions and the changes they bring also last longer than others. For example, the French Revolution lasted 10 years, after which France resumed some of the despotism the people fought against in the first place. It took more revolutions in France to set the country on the road to democracy. The effects of other revolutions have been irreversible. For example, once industrialisation had begun in Britain and Europe, there was to be no turning back to the way things were before the Industrial Revolution.

In general, therefore, a revolution refers to something that begins a process of fundamental change to a political, social or economic system.

Last updated : 23-Mar-2017

This article was produced by South African History Online on 29-May-2011

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