Comparing Historical Developments Across Time & Geography

Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson we will compare and contrast historical developments across time and geography. We will identify patterns of cause and effect in history, and we will understand continuity and change in historical development.

Does History Really Repeat Itself?

It is often said that 'history repeats itself.' Another popular quote along these lines goes something like this: 'Those who don't learn from past, are doomed to repeat it.' But does history really repeat itself? This is the subject of much debate among historians.

Certainly we can say that history does not repeat itself in the sense of the same thing taking place in the exact same way, and yet throughout history we can see patterns and similarities between developments. A quote from Mark Twain is perhaps the best way to understand this concept. Mark Twain once said: 'History doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme.' By this he means that there are discernible patterns and continuities in history, even though nothing ever happens exactly the same way twice.

Let's learn more about historical developments. We'll learn about historical cause and effect, continuity and change, and other themes surrounding the flow of history.

Cause and Effect in History

So it doesn't take a rocket scientist (or in our case, a professional historian) to realize that historical events are caused by other historical events that take place first. For example, high taxes and bread shortages led to the French Revolution in 1789, which eventually led to the execution of King Louis XVI, which in turn led to ten years of chaos under the First French Republic, which created the conditions under which Napoleon Bonaparte could come to power. We call this process historical causation. Historical causation is the process of cause and effect evident throughout the flow of history. Historical causation is super important to historians and those studying history because it answers questions like: 'How did this happen?' or 'Why did this happen?'

Comparing and Contrasting Historical Developments

Let's take this example of the French Revolution and run with it. In order to understand how historians compare and contrast historical developments, let's analyze the American and French Revolutions. The American Revolution took place between 1763-1783 in North America, whereas the French Revolution took place in France between 1789-1799. So these two revolutions occurred in different places in time and geography, yet there are continuities, or similarities. In both cases, anger over taxation was an early cause. Both revolutions resulted in the establishment of a new governing authority: the United States of America in the American Revolution, and the First French Republic in the French Revolution. Themes of 'liberty' and 'equality' ran strong in both revolutions.

Washington and his men cross the Delaware River during the Revolutionary War.

Yet there are also profound differences. The French Revolution was very hostile toward religion; whereas religion was used to support and justify the American Revolution. The French Revolution was far more radical and 'left-wing' than the American Revolution. The American Revolution resulted in the formation of stable government, whereas the French Revolution led to a decade of turmoil in which various governments rose and fell. In a nutshell, the French Revolution was far more chaotic than the American Revolution.

The execution of King Louis XVI during the French Revolution.

Continuity and Change

In examining historical developments we can see two opposing themes: continuity and change. Continuity refers to the way two historical events or developments are similar or linked. For example, historians might seek to find continuity between early feminism in the 1890s and feminism surrounding 'flappers' of the 1920s. They would ask: 'What are the similarities between these two forms of feminism?'

A typical 1920s flapper.

Continuity exists in degrees. There are degrees of continuity between the French Revolution and the Russian Revolution of 1917. There are degrees of continuity between World War I and World War II. In both wars, France, Russia, and Great Britain fought against Germany. Yet there are also many differences. The technology was considerably different. The technology changed between the two world wars.

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