How were the European and Atlantic area revolutions of the 1700s and 1800s influenced by the religious, philosophical, and technological innovations of the 1500s to1700s?
The beginning of the American Declaration of Independence declared the natural equality of all people and their right to seek happiness. At the same time, slavery and the subjugation of women remained facts of daily life that influenced the revolutionary political order. The French revolutionary formula of equality, liberty, and fraternity, together with the programmatic document of the French revolution, the Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizen, affirmed the basic equality and rights of individual male citizens, as well as their brotherly union within the indivisible nation. Society became revolutionized but at the same time remained paternalistic and authoritarian. Thus, racial and gender equality did not become a part of the political agenda until the middle of the 19th century.
The Protestant Reformation of the 16th century declared the equality of individual believers before God and their right to choose their religion in accordance with the demands of their conscience. Empiricist and rationalist philosophical systems of the 17th century, especially those of Descartes, Bacon, and Locke, prioritized individual reason and experience over the importance of authority and tradition. In his political writings, Locke also asserted the sovereignty of the people and their right to depose tyrannical rulers. While absolutist rulers, such as Louis XIV, rejected the ideas of religious freedom and social equality, they also insisted on the supremacy of the state and denied the unconditionality of the privileges of nobility. They associated social distinctions with distinct functional roles in society; they regarded a well-run society as analogous to a clock or similar mechanistic machine in accordance with new rationalist philosophies inspired by new machine-building technologies that were gradually emerging during the early modern period.
Newtonian physics became very popular in the 18th century; it represented the universe itself as a dynamic and precise mechanism consisting of self-activated matter moving through universal space, conceived as infinite and built according to universal laws and periodically adjusted by a rational God. The political corollary was a society filled with independent activity of society and citizens who adhere to rational constitutional laws that legislators periodically adjust rather than subjects bound unconditionally to the irrational will of their ruler.
Montesquieu, Voltaire, and other moderate Enlightenment thinkers of the 18th century interpreted government as an instrument of society, rather than vice versa. Humean skepticism asserted the supremacy of reason over accepted beliefs. Kant saw human logic and practical reason as creative, world shaping, and revolutionary force distinguishing it from traditional beliefs.
More radical 18th century Enlightenment thinkers, such as Denis Diderot, rejected God and traditional religion altogether, asserted the spontaneous evolution of matter, and denounced slavery and the subjugation of the lower classes as the result of arbitrary despotism. Rousseau criticized the lack of religion in the mainstream Enlightenment and challenged the priority of intellect over feelings; he stressed the importance of sincerity, simplicity, and the moral integrity of the common people over the refinement of middle and upper class intellectuals. He emphasized the central political importance of the popular will and the unified national community of male citizens. In this way he became the chief political ideologist of revolutionary populism and nationalism.
I will concentrate on two important European and Atlantic area revolutions: the French and the American. Both were influenced by the growth of rationalism in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries. Rationalism, which led to the eighteenth century Enlightenment, grew, in large part, out of revulsion against the bloody religious wars between Catholics and Protestants in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
A key philosophical tenet of the Enlightenment was the idea of "natural law." Natural law challenged the notion of the Divine Rights of kings. It said that every human is born with inherent rights, and that no monarch has the "divine" right to violate these natural liberties. In the American Revolution, these natural laws or rights were described as "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." The Declaration of Independence was an eloquent argument asserting how these rights had been violated by George III, giving the colonials the basis for severing ties with a king they called a tyrant.
In France, the cry was for liberty, fraternity, and equality. The French Revolution embraced more of the questioning spirit of the Enlightenment than did the American Revolution. The French revolutionaries overthrew such deeply entrenched traditional institutions as the Roman Catholic Church, insisted on marriage equality, reworked the calendar, and renamed the days of the week. Rather than rely on tradition, they followed the Enlightenment model of relying on rational thought.
Technology such as the printing press, which continuously improved its productive output during this period, allowed the rapid dissemination of ideas. The guillotine, invented as a "humane" execution device, allowed the French revolutionaries to quickly kill a vast number of people considered enemies of the state.
The major religious innovation of the early modern period that created the preconditions for the subsequent revolutions was the rise of Protestantism. The first reason this enabled revolutions was that it broke down the monolithic alliance of "throne and altar" in which the Roman Catholic church and European monarchies (especially the Hapsburgs) provided mutual support. The second way Protestantism led to revolution was its insistence on "the right and duty of private judgment" as opposed to the Roman Catholic notion of a divinely sanctioned church hierarchy. Also, due to the existence of official state churches, religious and political dissent were often connected.
Philosophically, much of the rediscovery of ancient Greek and Roman texts in the Renaissance, and the growth of humanism and critical philology, destabilized the authority of the Roman Catholic church.
Several technological innovations created the condition for the revolutions of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. One of them was the invention of print, allowing for new ideas to be widely and rapidly disseminated. Another important innovation was the agricultural revolution, including such technologies as the seed drill and horse hoe. The improved agricultural productivity and trade of the early modern period led to a rising middle class, often composed of Protestants, who served as an educated counterweight to established regimes.