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Review Chapter 5: The Age of Revolutions

From the seventeenth through the nineteenth century, great political upheaval occurred in both Europe and the Americas. Several major revolutions during this period changed the political landscape of Europe and further encouraged the development of modern society.

The English Revolution

Although the nature of England's monarchy generally prevented most of the outrageous abuses of power committed by many of Europe's absolute rulers, there were still some questions over how much control the monarch should have. One of the first instances of stricter limitations being placed on the monarchy came in 1628, when Charles I requested funding for military campaigns against Spain and France. Seizing the opportunity to force Charles into a deal, Parliament agreed to finance his wars on the condition that he agreed to the Petition of Right. This petition would prevent the English monarch from imprisoning subjects without due cause, housing the military in private homes, enacting martial law in peacetime, and levying taxes without parliamentary approval.

After he refused to sign, civil war erupted. Charles was pitted against his non-Anglican subjects (the Scots) and Parliament. In the end, Charles was defeated and executed. In his place, the Puritan Oliver Cromwell was installed as dictator. Cromwell formed a new republican government and remained in power until his death in 1658.

Following Cromwell's demise, the monarchy was revived under the son of Charles I. When Charles II died in 1685 without an heir, the question of succession led to political division in England from which arose two separate groups, the Whigs and Tories. These groups would eventually evolve into England's modern political parties.

The question of succession led to the bloodless Glorious Revolution. Initially, James II, brother of Charles II and an ardent Catholic, was appointed as king. Later, the Protestant members of Parliament asked William of Orange and his wife, Mary (the daughter of James II), both of whom were Protestant, to take the throne. The most important event in the reign of William and Mary was their signing of the Bill of Rights, which further limited royal power by preventing the monarch from suspending a law of Parliament, levying taxes without parliamentary approval, hindering freedom of speech in Parliament, or preventing citizens from petitioning about grievances.

The American and French Revolutions

In 1776 Britain's colonies in North America rebelled against the colonizer, England. The ensuing American Revolution ended British colonial control of North America and resulted in the establishment of a new nation.

The French Revolution was brought on by inequities in the structure of French society, which was divided into three separate classes called estates. The First Estate included members of the clergy. The Second Estate was composed of the landed nobility. The Third Estate included merchants, peasants, and the rest of the French population. Although the clergy and nobility accounted for only a very small percentage of the population, they owned a large portion of the land and paid few, if any, taxes.

As a result, the Third Estate was heavily taxed and subject to poverty and poor living conditions. The civil unrest came to a head in 1789, when a meeting of the Estates-General, the French assembly, was called to address serious economic issues caused by Louis XVI's excessive spending. During this meeting, the Third Estate proposed a new system of voting that would give them an equal number of votes to the First and Second Estates combined. When the request was denied, the Third Estate founded its own legislature called the National Assembly. After being barred from their meeting place, the members of National Assembly met on a tennis court and took the so-called Tennis Court Oath, in which they vowed to write a new French constitution.

Eventually, the National Assembly adopted an important document called the Declaration of the Rights of Man. Much like the American Declaration of Independence, this document stated that all men were created equal and were naturally entitled to the rights of “liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression.”

The political battle for reform turned violent on July 14, 1789, when rebels stormed the Bastille, a major prison in Paris. The attack on the Bastille led to a period of civil unrest, known as the Great Fear, during which the country was plunged into chaos.

By 1791 the National Assembly had begun to lay the groundwork for a new government. They planned to adjust to a limited monarchy that would work in tandem with a new legislative body, the Legislative Assembly. The assembly was composed of three separate political factions, the radicals, the moderates, and the conservatives. The following year, in response to continued issues with Louis XVI, the Legislative Assembly and the limited monarchy were abolished and replaced with a republican government. As the monarchy crumbled, a violent political group known as the Jacobin Club rose to power. With France now under the control of the Jacobins, Louis XVI and his family were arrested. In 1793 Louis XVI was executed.

Louis XVI's death marked the beginning of the Reign of Terror, during which Maximilien de Robespierre, a powerful Jacobin, used the guillotine to execute anyone thought to be an enemy of the republic. Robespierre's rash of executions came to an end only with his own death by guillotine in 1794.

As peace began to return to France, another new government was formed. The Directory was composed of a two-house legislative body and a five-member executive branch. One of The Directory's most crucial decisions was to appoint Napoléon Bonaparte as the commander of the French army in 1796.

The Napoleonic Empire

Just three years after his appointment, Napoléon staged a coup d'état and installed himself as dictator of France. Early in his reign, Napoléon instituted a series of internal reforms intended to stabilize the country and restore its structural integrity. The centerpiece of Napoléon's government was the Napoleonic Code, a system of laws that ensured the legal equality of adult men, emphasized the patriarchal family, and placed limitations on the freedom of speech and the press.

Before long, however, Napoléon's attention turned to foreign matters. He was determined to build a French empire by any means necessary. To fund his plans, he sold off all of France's holdings in North America in 1803 in an economic deal called the Louisiana Purchase. Soon after, he declared himself emperor. His campaigns were initially successful. Within a year, only the British stood between him and total domination of Europe. A pivotal loss at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, however, prevented him from conquering England.

The Napoleonic Empire reached its zenith around 1812, but a series of costly miscalculations and key defeats led to its decline. In 1814 Napoléon was forced to abdicate and went into exile on the island of Elba, but he later returned. After some initial successes, Napoléon's forces were finally defeated by the British and Prussians at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. Following this critical defeat, Napoléon was exiled to the island of St. Helena, where he remained until his death.

After the final defeat of Napoléon, the major powers of Europe came together for the Congress of Vienna. The goals of this meeting were to establish European peace, to prevent France from committing further attacks, to restore the international balance of power, and to help restore Europe's monarchies. The actions taken by the congress restored the peace, increased the political power of conservatives, and encouraged the rise of nationalism. Britain and Prussia emerged as Europe's two most powerful nations.

Revolution in the Americas

The crisis in Europe and the subsequent changes made by the Congress of Vienna also led to revolutions in many of the remaining colonial territories in the Americas. Revolts in South America, Middle America, Mexico, and Haiti led to the end of European dominance of that region.

Most notable among the major figures who led these revolutionary efforts was Simon Bolivar, a Venezuelan general who played an important role in many of the early-nineteenth-century revolutions that unfolded in South America. His goal was to create a strong South American state, which he named Gran Colombia. In addition to leading his native Venezuela to independence in 1821, Bolivar also played a pivotal role in liberating Peru, Ecuador, and Chile. For a time, he also managed to make Gran Colombia a reality, but economic distress and other difficulties led to its dissolution into various nation-states after only a few years.









Toussaint L’Ouverture

Venezuela, Argentina, Ecuador, Chile



Simon Bolivar, José de San Martin, Bernardo O’Higgins




Dom Pedro




Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, José Maria Morelos, Agustin de lturbide

Review Questions

1. Which of these was part of the French National Assembly's initial plan for government reform?

A. Constitutional republic

B. Dictatorship

C. Limited monarchy

D. Absolute monarchy

E. Democracy

2. The Bill of Rights signed by William and Mary prevented the English monarch from doing all of the following, EXCEPT

A. interfering with freedom of speech in Parliament

B. levying taxes without legislative approval

C. suspending any law passed by Parliament

D. refusing to hear grievances made by citizens

E. imprisoning subjects without due cause

3. The Louisiana Purchase provided France with significant funding for

A. rehabilitating the economy after Louis XVI's extravagant spending

B. establishing a new republican government following the failure of the previous one

C. overthrowing the monarch and starting a new government under the Jacobins

D. financing Napoléon's campaign to conquer Europe and build a French Empire

E. rebuilding the nation after the defeat at the Battle of Waterloo

4. Simon Bolivar was MOST interested in leading revolutions against Spain in the Americas because he wanted to

A. rule the entire region as a dictator

B. establish a unified Latin American state

C. force the Spanish into North America

D. isolate the region from outside influences

E. transfer colonial control from Spain to France

5. In taking the Tennis Court Oath, the National Assembly vowed to

A. establish a republican government

B. overthrow the oppressive monarchy

C. boycott all unfair taxes

D. write a new state constitution

E. install a military dictatorship

Answer Explanations

1. C. The National Assembly initially planned to establish a limited monarchy in place of the absolute monarchy. This plan led to the establishment of the Legislative Assembly. The new limited monarchy lasted only a short time.

2. E. The Bill of Rights did not include a clause that restricted the monarch's ability to imprison subjects without due cause. This matter was addressed in the Petition of Right, which was rejected by Charles I.

3. D. The Louisiana Purchase provided funding for Napoléon's empirebuilding ambitions. Napoléon recognized that his plans were costly and looked for means of raising funds in a short period of time. His solution was to sell the French holdings in North America to the United States.

4. B. Bolivar's main goal in leading some of the revolutions that occurred in South America in the nineteenth century was establishing a unified Latin American state. Bolivar wanted to build a strong nation in the area that he dubbed “Gran Colombia.” Although Gran Colombia did come into existence for a time, the fledgling nation existed for only a few brief years.

5. D. In taking this oath, the National Assembly vowed to write a new constitution.

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