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The Age of Revolutions

Ethan Putman, Nate Sullivan
  • Author
    Ethan Putman

    Ethan Putman is an anthropologist, archaeologist, and writer working in the Southeastern US. He earned an M.A. in Applied Anthropology from the University of South Florida and a B.A. in Anthropology from the University of West Florida, both specializing in Archaeology. Ethan was a teaching assistant for undergraduate courses including Introduction to Anthropology, Cultural Anthropology, and Biological Anthropology. His research involves historic cemeteries, Florida history, and the various applications of social theory.

  • 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.

Learn about the Age of Revolutions. Identify major revolutions in history, and discover what happened during the revolution periods in the U.S., France, and Haiti. Updated: 08/01/2022

Table of Contents


What was the Age of Revolutions?

The Age of Revolutions was the historical period that occurred in the mid-18th to late-19th centuries. Generally speaking, during this period many different revolutions of many different kinds took place: the Industrial Revolutions, the Age of Enlightenment, and many different sociopolitical or military revolutions. More specifically, the Age of Revolution is spoken of in terms of this last category of revolutions -- those that used military action to produce social and political change. As it happened, the various actions of imperialist countries around the world caused as much backlash from indigenous peoples and colonists as it did cultural dialogue.

Important Revolutions in History

The Age of Revolution is usually discussed in terms of three major nationwide revolts, the ideas of which became influential to the peoples of other countries who also wanted to effect change. These primary uprisings are (in order of chronology): the American, French, and Haitian revolutions. The American and French revolutions happened for similar reasons involving taxation, while the rebellion in Haiti (then called the French colony of Saint-Domingue) was a result of the practice of slavery. These revolts directly affected each other and had an impact on the dissatisfied peoples of other nations, inspiring revolutions in Spain, Portugal, and Italy in the 1820s, including the Greek War of Independence in 1821.

The American Revolution Period

The period of the American revolution began in 1763, just after the end of the Seven Years' War, or, more specifically, the French and Indian War. These conflicts began around the year 1755, and brought the age-old rivalry between the British and the French to a head in their New World territories. During these conflicts, colonial American men were not as amenable to British military service as was expected by their superiors. To that effect, there was a certain amount of culture shock at work behind British lines, and the British-American troops were not used to the level of discipline and professional deference demanded of them.

Despite these internal setbacks, the British emerged victorious over French forces, acquiring a huge swath of land, which included France's North American territories east of the Mississippi River and Canada. Many members of the Thirteen Colonies were impatient to move west, investigating and settling these lands, but deadly Native American resistance in the Great Lake area convinced Britain to institute the Proclamation Line. This forbade colonial American western migration and aggravated many would-be settlers.

At the same time, Great Britain was struggling with a national deficit that had doubled due to the multi-year war that had just come to a close. In an effort to alleviate the pressures of the budget on British nationals, the government decided to make up the debt by imposing a series of hefty taxes on the daily essentials of colonial Americans. Predictably, this did not go well, with protests, petitioning, and riots resulting in opposition to each newly proposed tax, which would then be repealed and replaced by another. This cycle resulted in the violence of the Boston Tea Party in 1773, and the so-called Intolerable Acts in response to colonial rebellion.

By 1774, the Americans had assembled the First Continental Congress to discuss the colonial response to the Intolerable Acts and other instances of British aggression. Organizations sympathetic to colonial issues were created, including colonial militias, assemblies, and the Sons and Daughters of Liberty. Eventually this background organizing resulted in the Battles of Lexington and Concord, when the British governor of Massachusetts sent royal forces into rural areas in search of militia ammunition and armaments. These battles marked the beginning of the American Revolutionary War.

General Washington crosses the Delaware River, circa 1776.

Artwork entitled Washington Crossing the Delaware. It depicts a famous event from the American Revolution.

Lieutenant General George Washington led the Continental army, aided by the colonial militias. Their initial victories around Boston gave the Americans time to hold a Second Continental Congress, which eventually resulted in the drafting and publication of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. The British annexed Philadelphia in 1777, but with Benjamin Franklin's help, by 1778 the Continental army allied with French naval and army forces as well as with various military veterans from Europe. Stymied, British general Cornwallis began to strike at the American South in 1779, taking the coastline, while much of the fighting devolved into guerrilla warfare.

In 1781, Cornwallis and his diminished army retreated north to Yorktown, Virginia. There they found the French Navy waiting in the Chesapeake Bay, and were subsequently trapped by a joint Franco-American force led by Washington and the French Comte de Rochambeau. This final loss functionally ended the fighting and the British were forced to begin negotiations, which concluded with the 1783 Treaty of Paris and the official end of the war. America was now a self-governed constitutional republic.

The French Revolution Period

The French revolution followed, and was inspired by the American Revolutionary War. The war had incorporated many members of France's military forces, both naval and terrestrial infantry. In addition, prior to France's direct involvement in the war, the French crown had covertly supported the American colonists through funds and shipments of weapons and ammunition. The extensive spending habits of the French monarchy, including this money sent in aid of America, contributed directly to the development of their own people's rebellion.

Beginning in 1777, the position of general of finance went through a series of occupants with different ideas with regard to how the country's budget problems should be addressed. Jacques Necker believed a flat-tax system would be helpful without placing undue burden on any one group; however, this was strongly opposed by nobles and aristocrats, who did not pay taxes. Thus, in 1783 Charles-Alexandre de Calonne took up the position, initially increasing spending so as to stimulate the economy. When it became clear that this was an insufficient and potentially destructive solution, Calonne began advocating for the replacement of extant sources of taxation with a universal land tax. This plan too was generally unpopular with those needed to support it, and Calonne was replaced with Etienne-Charles Lomenie de Brienne in 1787, but de Brienne soon became convinced of the plan's necessity. When he brought the universal land tax to the parlements they would not approve the reforms, and called for the Estates General to handle the issue.

The Estates General was a representative governmental body drawn from the three main classes, or estates, of French society: the clergy, the nobility, and the peasant and middle classes. Initially these were equal in number, until it became known that the first two estates could outvote the Third; protests ensued until the number of representatives for the working people was doubled. In the course of their duties, a majority of the Estates General, including most of the First and Third Estates and forty-seven members of the Second, decided to draft a constitution instead and became the ''National Assembly of the People'' in June 1789. The group then became the ''National Constituent Assembly'' once the new constitution had been drafted in July.

King Louis the XVI was understandably shaken by these developments, and did his best to consolidate and protect the power of the crown. Unfortunately, his actions, including the removal of Necker and the relocation of the Invalides gunpowder to the Bastille, only served to convince the crowds that the King was planning a coup. The people stormed the Bastille, liberating prisoners and the gunpowder stores, and taking prisoner the soldiers therein. The following month, the National Assembly issued the ''August Decrees'', effectively leveling the playing field by removing the advantages previously enjoyed by the nobility, clergy, and even certain guilds and provinces. This was followed shortly by the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, which functioned as a statement of intent for the Assembly and the ongoing revolution.

Even then the people's wrath was not fully focused on the king. Many believed that Louis XVI was being led astray by advisors in Versailles, and ought to be brought to Paris to live nearer the people. The king was convinced to do so by the crowded Women's March on Versailles in October, and he, the queen, Marie Antoinette, and the dauphin did so the next day. The National Constituent Assembly followed suit, moving to the capital while continuing to institute countrywide reforms.

The power of the church waned in 1790, while that of the Assembly only grew, and factions began to form internally, including the radical Jacobin Club. The increasingly violent radicalism of the people made the nobility ever more anxious, and in 1791 the royal family attempted to escape Paris, only to be stopped by the national guard and returned to Paris under house arrest. Prussia and Austria demanded the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly and the freedom of Louis XVI, but when the Holy Roman Emperor died in 1792, the French declared war on Austria.

A few months later, crowds stormed the Tuileries, where the royal family was held, as well as the prisons, executing around 1,400 prisoners in the September Massacres. The Paris Commune took over the city and the newly created National Convention took over the governing duties of the Constituent Assembly. In December the king was arraigned before the Convention for ''conspiracy against the public liberty and the general safety'' and in January of 1793, he was executed by guillotine. Marie Antoinette was executed in similar fashion in October of that year, and their eldest son died in prison.

King Louis XVI is executed before the masses, circa 1793.

Artwork depicting the execution of Louis XVI during French Revolution.

Around this time the Reign of Terror began in earnest. Maximilien Robespierre, a radical Jacobin lawyer, became the head of the National Convention's Committee of Public Safety. Through this organization, 18,000 French nationals were executed for actions treasonous to the revolution, including those who had supported the initial rebellion, but not Robespierre's leadership. As so often happens with authoritarian leaders, Robespierre began to eat his own, executing not only the members of other political factions but moderate Jacobins as well. The crowd turned on him in 1794, known as the Thermidorian Reaction, and Robespierre and his aides were executed by guillotine.

The French then created a new legislature based on a 500-member representative house, known as the Council of the Five Hundred, and a 250-member senate called the Council of Elders. Together these two bodies chose a group of five people each year to lead the nation; this group was referred to as the Directory. The Directory worked to keep France safe from the outside threats of Prussia, Austria, and eventually Britain, as well as from the inside threat of political turmoil exacerbated by Robespierre. This was the government that Napoleon overthrew in 1799, creating the Consulate that he directed, and ending the French Revolution.

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Frequently Asked Questions

Why is this period called the Age of Revolution?

This period is called the Age of Revolution because of the large number of social and political rebellions aided by military action that took place, beginning with the American Revolution.

What are the three revolutions that define the age of revolutions?

The three definitive rebellions of the Age of Revolution are those that took place in America, France, and Haiti (then Saint-Domingue).

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