5.2C Nationalism and Revolution

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Learning Objective 5C

Explain the causes and effects of the various revolutions from 1750 to 1900.

Historical Development 1

Discontent with monarchist and imperial rule resulted in revolutions that led to new nation-states (countries) across the Americas and Europe.

Historical Development 2

All around the world, communities created new national identities and called for the unification or the liberation of their people.

Historical Development 3


The American Revolution

Main idea

The American Revolution was a revolt against increasing British economic and political control.

The American Revolution (1775 – 1783) was the first of several political revolutions in the Americas and Europe between the 1780s and 1830s. The colonist’s defeat of Great Britain was the first successful overthrow of European colonial. This success eventually inspired the rest of colonized America to revolt against their colonial powers. It also encouraged European people living under absolute monarchs to revolt and demand more political and social rights.

Causes of the American Revolution

Britain initially maintained a hands-off approach with its North American colonies. The colonies governed themselves with little interference from the British government.

Britain increased control over its colonies: As the colonies became more successful and Britain became a European power, Britain’s hands-off approach to governing ended.

  • Mercantilism: In the second half of the 17th century, Britain created new mercantilist policies to control the economy of their North American colonies.  The Navigation Acts required colonists to limit their foreign trade with countries other than Britain (closed-loop trading). One section of the act forced the colonies to only sell their raw materials, like tobacco, to Britain. Another section required the colonies to buy finished goods from Britain, like furniture or textiles.
  • New taxes: In the mid-18th century, for the first time, the British Parliament passed direct taxes (the Stamp and Sugar taxes) on the colonists to pay military costs from the Seven Years’ War—The French and Indian War in North America—and the continued stationing of troops in North America.

Lack of political representation: As Britain increased its control, colonists asked for the right to send colonial representatives to the British Parliament—Britain refused. These demands grew louder after the British  raised taxes on the colonies leading to one of the most famous phrases in American history, “no taxation without representation.”

Political causes
Economic causes
Social causes
  • Britain increased political control over colonies.
  • Britain refused political representation for colonists in the British Parliament.
  • New laws gave Britain control over colonists’ property (the Quartering Act) and legal systems (the Administration of Justice Act).
  • War debt led the British to charge new taxes for tea, paper, and sugar.
  • Britain maintained mercantilist control of America’s economy.
  • Enlightenment ideas created new ideas of freedom.
  • Nationalism created a new American identity.

Effects of the American Revolution

The American Revolution was successful, and the colonies gained their independence.

Changes in American
  • The government in America became a democratic republic guided by one of the world’s oldest written constitutions.
  • Concepts of liberty and individual rights became important ideas in America (the Bill of Rights).
Continuities in American
  • Wealthy white men still held all political power within the new American nation. 
  • Women, people of color, and landless white men remained without fundamental political rights.
  • Westward expansion and theft of natives’ lands continued.

The French Revolution

Main idea

The French Revolution revolted against the political and economic inequalities in French society.

The French Revolution (1789 – 1799) was not a revolt against colonial rule like the American Revolution. It was a fight waged by the French people against their absolute monarch and the privileges of aristocrats (wealthy landowners).

Why France?: By the late 18th century, many Western European societies had limited the powers of their monarchs. In Britain, as early as the 17th century, towns were allowed to send representatives to Parliament. Changes like this allowed for increased political participation amongst the emerging business and merchant communities. French kings had resisted this trend, retaining near-absolute power.

An unequal French society: French society was one of the most unequal in Western Europe. The kingdom consisted of three groups called Estates. The aristocratic classes (the 2nd Estate) and the Church (the 1st Estate) had a lock on political power and privilege—despite only being about two percent of the French population. The other 98% of French society were the commoners (the 3rd  Estate). Despite the 1st and 2nd Estates being the richest, they paid almost no taxes. The 3rd Estate paid them all.

Anger over taxes led to revolution: The French Revolution was set in motion when King Louis XVI needed to raise taxes to pay French debt. Much of the debt was from military conflicts against England and helping the Americans win their revolution. Despite having near-absolute power, the French king did not raise taxes without consent. He convened the Estates-General (an advisory body to the king) to ask for an increase in tax revenue. Each of the three Estates sent representatives. King Louis asked all three Estates to pay taxes, but the 1st and 2nd Estates refused and voted together to force the tax increase onto the 3rd Estate. Angry, the 3rd Estate broke away from the Estates-General, formed a new group called the National Assembly, and declared itself as France’s new ruling authority.

Political causes
Economic causes
Social causes
  • Kings held absolute power.
  • King Louis XVI mismanaged the French government.
  • The 1st and 2nd Estates dominated the Estates-General.
  • The government accumulated too much debt from military conflict.
  • The king had poorly managed French finances.
  • The 3rd Estate had to pay all the taxes.
  • The 1st and the 2nd Estate paid no taxes.
  • The 3rd Estate resented the privileges of the 1st and 2nd
  • Enlightenment ideas like freedom from unjust authority inspired revolutionaries.
  • Nationalism inspired people to fight for a new French nation that would guarantee citizens’ rights.
  • The poorest suffered from hunger as food prices increased due to poor agricultural harvests.
  • The 3rd Estate resented the privileges of the 1st and 2nd
  • Enlightenment ideas like freedom from unjust authority inspired revolutionaries.
  • Nationalism inspired people to fight for a new French nation that would guarantee citizens’ rights.
  • The poorest suffered from hunger as food prices increased due to poor agricultural harvests.

Effects of the French Revolution

The revolutionaries executed King Louis XVI and his wife, Marie Antoinette (1755 – 1793), in 1793. The National Assembly, set up by the 3rd Estate, quickly turned into a dictatorship led by Maximilien Robespierre (1758 – 1794). Robespierre executed anyone he thought threatened his power during the Reign of Terror (1793-1794). The Reign of Terror ended after the National Assembly turned on Robespierre, had him arrested, and executed. In just over a year, authorities had issued nearly 16,600 death sentences across France.

Napoleon: In 1804, a French military commander named Napoleon Bonaparte (1769 – 1821)) seized power. He ruled as Emperor of France from 1804 to 1814 and again from March 1815 to June 1815 and instituted various reforms.

  • The Napoleonic Code: Napoleon reformed the French legal system based on the ideas of the French Revolution. His Napoleonic Code applied equally to people regardless of social class. The old aristocratic classes in the 1st Estate had to follow the same rules and laws as everyone else. The Napoleonic Code set up an official process for making laws. No law was valid unless it followed the process. Laws also had to be published. Thus, there could be no secret laws.
  • Education: Napoleon’s reforms created a new secondary (grades 9-12) education system funded by the state that focused on math and science, not religious topics. The state also provided additional support to the existing primary education (grades below 9).
  • Introduced systems of merit: Under Napoleon, government jobs, especially in the military, were filled by those most deserving of the position—not because they held aristocratic titles.
Changes in French society
  • The hereditary privileges enjoyed by the aristocracy ended.
  • The Napoleonic Code create one set of laws for all French citizens.
  • France extended legal rights and recognition to male members of the 3rd Estate.
  • Taxation across social groups became fairer.
  • Serfdom was abolished. 
  • The Church was no longer independent from government authority.
Continuities in French society
  • The French Republic failed, and France became a dictatorship under Napoleon.
  • After Napoleon, the French monarchy returned to power for a time.
  • The French state did not grant equal rights to women.  

The Haitian Revolution

Main idea

The Haitian Revolution was a revolt against French colonization and slavery in Haiti.

Saint-Dominique (Haiti) was a French Caribbean colony. It was (1) the wealthiest colony in the Caribbean, (2) the most profitable French colony, and (3) the producer of 60% of the world’s coffee and 40% of its sugar.     

Race and class in Haiti: The island’s population was divided by race and class. Right before the outbreak of the Haitian Revolution, the island’s population had the following structure:

Whites: around 40,000 people

Grand blancs (big whites)

  • owned the island’s largest plantations

Petite blancs (little whites)

  • worked as artisans, shopkeepers, slave dealers, or owned small plantations

Blacks and mulattoes: around 500,000 people

Free blacks

  • Worked as artisans, shopkeepers, or as small slave-owning landowners  

Enslaved blacks

  • Two-thirds were born in Africa

Among free people, only the grand blancs had political rights. The petite blancs did not get political representation because they did not own the required amount of land and slaves—a second-class status that they resented. Economically, competition between petite blancs and free blacks for land, business customers, and jobs was intense, leading to animosity between these groups.

The French Revolution inspired the Haitian Revolution: The French Revolution and the Enlightenment ideas in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizens meant different things to different groups in Haiti.  

  • To the grand blancs, who owned the island’s largest plantations, the French Revolution meant they might hopefully gain more freedom from French restrictions on their economy.

  • To the petite blancs, the revolution meant potential social and political equality for all free white in Haiti.

  • To free blacks, the revolution meant potential racial equality for all free people. Revolutionary leader Toussaint Louverture belonged to this group.

  • To the enslaved, the ideas of the French Revolution meant potential freedom and the end of Haitian slavery.

The Causes of the Haitian Revolution

The incredibly unequal structure of Haitian society was highly flammable. The outbreak of revolution in France provided the spark that also lit the revolutionary fires in Haiti.

The start of the revolution: The Revolution began in 1791 when the island’s slaves rebelled against France and the slave system. The brutal conflict raged across the island for over a decade. Toussaint Louverture ( 1743 –1803) was a Haitian general and the most prominent leader of the Haitian Revolution. He led Haiti’s forces for much of the conflict until his capture and death in prison in 1803.

Political causes
Economic causes
Social causes
  • The enslaved wanted to end slavery.
  • Whites without property wanted political rights.
  • Free blacks wanted political equality with whites.
  • The French Revolution weakened France’s ability to control Haiti.
  • The economic exploitation of slavery.
  • Petite Blancs and free blacks were engaged in intense economic competition.
  • Grand Blancs controlled most of the island’s wealth and resources.
  • France used mercantilist policies to control the Haitian economy.
  • Enslaved Haitians wanted to escape slavery.
  • Enlightenment ideas inspired Haitian leaders.
  • Free blacks resented their third-class status.

The Effects of the Haitian Revolution

The revolution lasted nearly 14 years, ending in 1804. But by the end, Haiti was independent, and slavery had ended. Most remarkably,  Haiti was not reconquered. Unfortunately, while formerly enslaved people were free, most did not achieve equality. Most Haitians also remained poor without opportunities to better their economic circumstances.

Changes in Haitian society
  • French colonial rule ended. 
  • Haiti declared the equality of all races.  
  • Slavery ended. 
  • The black majority held Haitian political power. 
  • Former slave plantations were divided among small farmers. 
Continuities in Haitian society
  • Political and social divisions prevented the formation of stable governments on the island.
  • The Haitian economy declined as plantations land was divided among small subsistence farmers resulting in less production for export.
  • An enormous war debt imposed by France prevented Haiti from investing in infrastructure or social development.
  • Most non-elites on the island remained impoverished. 

The Latin American Revolutions

Main idea

Political instability in Portugal and Spain pushed their colonies in Latin America to revolt and seek independence.

The Latin American Revolutions were a series of revolutions against Portuguese and Spanish colonial rule in Latin America that lasted from 1808 to 1826. While the spread of Enlightenment ideas like republican government and personal liberty helped inspire the revolutions, they were not the primary cause. Instead, events in Europe pushed the colonies to independence.  

The lead-up to the revolution: Anger at Spanish and Portuguese rule in the Americas grew slower than anger at British governance in North America. While Latin American elites were angered as control over their governments and economies increased, they were used to tighter control than Britain’s North American colonies. Latin American colonial elites understood that Portugal and Spain founded their colonies for the mercantilist benefit they provided.

  • Creole elites: The elite class across the various Latin American colonies were the creoles. Creoles were born in America and of European ancestry. Unlike in the American Revolution, where whites were the majority, in Latin America, the creoles were outnumbered by indigenous people, Africans, and those of mixed ancestry. Creole leaders feared the lower classes might use a revolutionary movement to overthrow their control. For this reason, when Mexican peasants broke out into open revolt in 1810 and 1811 over high food prices, their movement was crushed by an army paid for by supported by creole landowners and the Catholic Church. When Mexico finally fought to achieve its independence in 1821, creoles made sure they controlled the revolution.

The Causes of the latin American Revolutions

Across Latin America, many creole elites remained loyal to Portugal and Spain. Even in disagreement with their mother country, they did not advocate separation and revolution. 

Napoleon invades Spain and Portugal: Calls for independence grew louder, even among some loyalists, after Napoleon, who came to power in France after the French Revolution, invaded Portugal in 1807 and occupied Spain in 1808. Napoleon placed both governments under his control. Latin American leaders certainly were not going to take orders from France, leaving them to govern themselves. After Napoleon’s defeat, Portugal and Spain remained unstable and unreliable. As a result, leaders in Latin America began calling for separation from Portugal and Spain.

Nationalist leaders and new national identities: Latin American revolutionary leaders created new national identities for people to adopt to help gain support for their wars. Leaders promised new economic and social freedoms after the revolutions to encourage people to adopt these identities. Leaders like Simon Bolivar (1783-1830)—a military leader who led the countries of Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru, Panama, and Bolivia to independence—spoke of one people called Americanos, not defined by class or race.

Political causes
Economic causes
Social causes
  • Increased Spanish control angered some creole elites
  • Napoleon invaded Spain and Portugal.
  • Non-creole elites wanted increased political rights.
  • Taxes were increased.
  • Mercantilist policies restricted colonial trade.
  • A small elite held nearly all wealth.
  • Systems of forced labor and slavery led to economic poverty.
  • Enlightenment ideas inspired various social classes to fight.
  • Nativist ideas created new American identities—similar to nationalism.
  • Hope for new liberty and equality inspired the enslaved and oppressed.

The Effects of the Latin American Revolutions

The revolutions ended with the independence of Latin American nations. Unlike in North America, due to geography and stronger regional identities, Latin America did not unite to form one or a few large countries but fragmented into various smaller countries.

Changes across Latin America
  • New countries gained freedom from Portuguese and Spanish rule.
  • Portugal and Spain were now longer significant European colonial powers.
  • Governments became increasingly corrupt and unstable.
Continuities across Latin America
  • Creole elites remained in control of Latin American governments.
  • Latin American countries remained impoverished.
  • The ruling class continued to oppress women, enslaved people, and natives.
  • Portuguese and Spanish cultures remained dominant.