Major Revolutions Around the World During the 1700s

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 look at some of the important revolutions that took place during the 18th century. We will review the causes and effects of these revolutions, and place them in historical context.

Revolutions in the 18th Century

'You say you want a revolution. Well, you know, we all want to change the world.'

This popular Beatles song captures the spirit of 18th-century revolutions. The participants of the American, French, and Haitian Revolutions wanted a change. In their minds, they were fighting for a change for the better. While the American and Haitian Revolutions were undoubtedly successful, many historians consider the French Revolution less successful, particularly in the long-run. Let's dig deeper and explore these three major revolutions of the 18th century.

The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution

The American Revolution is probably the revolution we are most familiar with. After all, it resulted in the birth of the United States of America. Not all historians agree on the exact dates of the American Revolution, but for our purposes, we will say it took place between 1763-1783. The American Revolution was a revolt in which American colonists rejected British authority, and founded their own independent republic. We have to be careful not to consider the American Revolution and the Revolutionary War one and the same. The Revolutionary War (1775-1783) was a major part of the American Revolution, but the American Revolution was a broad political movement, and the war was but one part of this movement.

After the French and Indian War (1754-1763), tension erupted between American colonists and the British government. To pay for the costly French and Indian War, the British were forced to increase taxation on the American colonies. Because the colonies had little say in this policy, they began to protest. They were also angry about other various British laws, such as the Proclamation of 1763, which stated that colonists could not settle west of the Appalachian Mountains. In 1770, a group of British soldiers fired on a group of unarmed colonists, killing several in what became known as the Boston Massacre.

This famous painting depicts General Washington leading his Continental soldiers across the Delaware River, and into battle.
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Tensions continued to escalate as the British cracked down on dissent and imposed 'intolerable' restrictions. Finally, things came to a head in 1775, when the Revolutionary War broke out following the Battle of Lexington and Concord. For the next several years General George Washington and his rag-tag Continental Army managed to fight on, despite losing numerous battles. With French support, the Americans finally won the war. The American victory at Yorktown marked the beginning of the end for the British.The British were simply too war-weary to continue the fight. The Treaty of Paris, signed in 1783, brought an end to the war and ensured the survival of the newly formed American Republic.

Heads Will Roll: The French Revolution

The French Revolution was a critical moment in modern history. It occurred between 1789-1799. It resulted in profound political and social change, most importantly the overthrow of King Louis XVI and the establishment of the First French Republic.

Popular dissatisfaction with King Louis XVI led to mass protesting and rioting in the summer of 1789. The lower classes were particularly dissatisfied over issues of taxation and other economic policies. On July 14, protesters stormed the Bastille fortress, in an attempt to secure arms and powder. The masses jumped on the bandwagon, and revolutionary fervor swept the country as the lower classes rose up against the nobility. Rioting and looting were everywhere it seemed.

The Jacobins, a radical, leftist political group, unleashed what has been called the Reign of Terror. The Reign of Terror resulted in the execution of some 40,000 people; many whose only crime was belonging to the upper class of society. The guillotine was used in many executions and emerged to become a symbol of the Revolution itself. Jacobin leadership resulted in the forming of the First French Republic, established in September 1792. In January 1793, King Louis XVI was beheaded. Marie Antoinette, his wife, suffered the same fate nine months later.

The execution of King Louis XVI.
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The French Revolution eroded ancient conceptions of government and birthed new expressions of European democracy. It was also important because it paved the way for Napoleon Bonaparte's ascension to power, but that is a whole other lesson.

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