American and French Revolutions
The French Revolution, which drew upon some of the principles enacted in the American Revolution, resulted in the overthrow of the monarchy of France and the spread of interest in democracy, nationalism, and socialism throughout Europe. On the eve of the revolution, France was in crisis; the monarchy, which claimed to rule by divine right, had spent so much money that the country had a massive deficit. A poor harvest and bitter winter in 1788 plunged the country into famine and drastically increased prices. In addition, British textile makers were underselling their French counterparts, leading to the closure of some French manufacturers and the spread of unemployment among the workers. The increasingly restless poor found that the wealthy nobles, clergy, and upper middle class made good targets for their anger at this situation.
The revolution was not a clean victory for either the poor or democracy, as by 1799 France was a military dictatorship. However, intellectuals throughout Europe were thrilled and inspired by the notion of revolutionaries rising up and demanding their rights. Wordsworth, Blake, Coleridge, and others wrote glowingly of the revolution, and Bysshe Shelley and Byron thoroughly supported its radical principles. In general, the romantics believed in the worth, potential, and freedom of the individual, and exalted this freedom over the thentraditional acceptance of social hierarchy and political repression.
The Industrial Revolution was a period of social and economic change that began in the mid- 1700s and lasted until the late 1800s. This change was instigated by the invention of various mechanical means of producing goods more quickly and cheaply than by hand. For example, textile mills allowed the production of vast amounts of cloth, with far less labor and cost, than if the cloth were produced by the traditional method of individual weavers working in their homes. Factory ironworks produced iron items more quickly than individual craftspeople could, and the “spinning jenny,” a device for spinning thread, could make more cotton thread than many human spinners.
The Industrial Revolution was also fueled by declining mortality rates, which resulted in rapid population growth. The increasing numbers of people provided both a workforce for the factories and a market for the goods produced.
The new factories necessitated improved transportation routes for raw materials and finished goods, as well as housing and other services for the laborers. These needs caused roads and canals to be improved or constructed, and swelled the cities with cheaply built housing. The first British railway, between Stockton and Darlington, was built in 1821.
The factories hired women and children as well as men, and were often unsafe. Housing built for the workers was often substandard and unsanitary. The factories themselves polluted both air and water, belching out smoke from coal-fired furnaces and releasing dye and other wastes into rivers. The regimented hours and repetitive work in the factories were viewed as dehumanizing and numbing by the general populace.
Romantic writers were aware of these changes, which presented such a contrast between the hellish life of the city laborer and the purity and peace of nature. The industrial changes convinced many romantics the natural world was purer than the industrial one, and that nature was a place of spiritual truth, release, and renewal. In The Excursion, Wordsworth applauds the advances in science and technology that made the mills possible, but also criticizes the exploitation of women and children, the dehumanizing work shifts, and the all-encompassing greed of the factory owners.
The Church of England was the official religious body during the Romantic period, but it had lost touch with much of the population. Some parishes were run by parsons who never actually visited them, while other parsons pursued their...
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