Questions of periodization

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The differences in political backgrounds of the two continents led to some very different consequences. For the United States (and eventually Canada), it meant that relatively democratic governments left entrepreneurs open to the Industrial Revolution, which, after all, started in their mother country. For Latin America, it meant that their governments were less supportive and/or more removed from the economic transformations of the Industrial Revolutions, and stable democratic governments and economic prosperity would be a long time in coming.


The Enlightenment philosophy that inspired revolutions in the United States, France, and Latin America brought about lasting changes in western political ideology, with some people reacting against the chaos that revolutions brought, and others inspired by the values of democracy, liberty, equality, and justice. Three contrasting ideologies may be seen by the early 1800s:

  • Conservatism - People who supported this philosophy at first advocated return to absolute monarchy, but came to accept constitutional monarchy by the mid-1800s. Generally, conservatives disapproved of the revolutions of the era, particularly the French Revolution with all the violence and chaos that it brought.

  • Liberalism - Liberals supported a republican democracy, or a government with an elected legislature who represented the people in political decision-making. These representatives were generally from the elite, but were selected (usually by vote) from a popular base of citizens. Emphasis was generally on liberty or freedom from oppression, rather than on equality.

  • Radicalism - Radicals advocated drastic changes in government and emphasized equality more than liberty. Their philosophies varied, but they were most concerned with narrowing the gap between elites and the general population. The Jacobins during the French Revolution, and Marxism that appeared in the mid 19th century were variations of this ideological family.


The political values supported by revolutions were embraced by some who saw them as applying to all people, including women and former slaves. Values of liberty, equality, and democracy had profound implications for change within societies that had always accepted hierarchical social classes and gender roles. Reform movements sprouted up as different people put different interpretations on what these new political and social values actually meant.

Women's Rights

Advocates of women's rights were particularly active in Britain, France, and North America. Mary Wollstonecraft, an English writer, was one of the first to argue that women possessed all the rights that Locke had granted to men, including education and participation in political life. Many French women assumed that they would be granted equal rights after the revolution. However, it did not bring the right to vote or play major roles in public affairs. Since gender roles did not change in the immediate aftermath of revolution, social reformers pressed for women's rights in North America and Europe. Americans like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony in the United States decided to concentrate their efforts on suffrage, or the right to vote. A resolution passed at Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848, emphasized women's rights to suffrage, as well as to education, professional occupations, and political office. Their movement did not receive popular support, however, until the 20th century, but their activism laid a foundation for large-scale social change later.

The Limits of the Abolitionist Movement

Although slavery was abolished in Europe and North America by the late 19th century, blacks did not realize equality within the time period. Although former slaves were guaranteed the right to vote in the late 1860s in the United States, they were effectively barred from political participation by state and local legislation called Jim Crow laws. Blacks all over the Americas tended to have the least desirable jobs, limited educational opportunities, and lower social status than whites.

Conservative Reactions to Reform

During the late 1800s two systems of related political thought emerged among conservatives to justify inequalities:

  • Scientific racism - This idea system became popular among conservative thinkers in industrialized societies. It used scientific reasoning and evidence to prove its premise that blacks are physiologically and mentally inferior to whites. The theory generally constructed three main "races" in the world - Caucasian, Mongoloid, and Negroid ; and built its arguments that basic differences existed among them that made Negroids inherently inferior to Caucasians. Scientific racism, then, justified the inferior positions that blacks had in the society and the economy.

  • Social Darwinism - This philosophy justified not racial differences, but differences between the rich and the poor. It used Darwin's theory of natural selection (living things that are better adapted to the environment survive, others don't) to explain why some get rich and others remain poor. In the competition for favored positions and bigger shares of wealth, the strong, intelligent, and motivated naturally defeat the weak, less intelligent, and the lazy. So, people who get to the top deserve it, as do the people who remain at the bottom


Another reaction to the revolution in political thought was Marxism, The father of communism is generally acknowledged to be Karl Marx, who first wrote about his interpretation of history and vision for the future in The Communist Manifesto in 1848. He saw capitalism; or the free market; as an economic system that exploited workers and increased the gap between the rich and the poor. He believed that conditions in capitalist countries would eventually become so bad that workers would join together in a Revolution of the Proletariat (workers), and overcome the bourgeoisie, or owners of factories and other means of production. Marx envisioned a new world after the revolution, one in which social class would disappear because ownership of private property would be banned. According to Marx, communism encourages equality and cooperation, and without property to encourage greed and strife, governments would be unnecessary. His theories took root in Europe, but never became the philosophy behind European governments, but it eventually took new forms in early 20th century Russia and China.


In older forms of political organizations, the glue of political unity came from the ruler, whether it is a king, emperor, sultan, or caliph. Political power generally was built on military might, and a ruler controlled the land that he conquered as long as he controlled it. Power was often passed down within one family that based the legitimacy of their rule on principles that held sway over their populations, often some kind of special contact with the spiritual world. The era 1750 to 1914 saw the creation of a new type of political organization - the nation - that survived even if the rulers failed. Whereas nations' political boundaries were still often decided by military victory, the political entity was much broader than control by one person or family. Nations were built on nationalism - the feeling of identity within a common group of people. Of course, these feelings were not new in the history of the world. However, the force of common identity became a basic building block for nations, political forms that still dominate world politics today. Nationalism could be based on common geographical locations, language, religion, or customs, but it is much more complex than that. The main idea is that people see themselves as "Americans" or "Italians" or "Japanese," despite the fact that significant cultural variations may exist within the nation.

Napoleon contributed a great deal to the development of strong nationalism in 19th century Europe. His conquests were done in the name of "France," even though the French monarchy had been deposed. The more he conquered, the more pride people had in being "French." He also stirred up feelings of nationalism within a people that he conquered: "Germans" that could not abide being taken over by the French. In Napoleon's day Germany did not exist as a country yet, but people still thought of themselves as being German. Instead Germans lived in a political entity known as "The Holy Roman Empire." However, the nationalism that Napoleon invoked became the basis for further revolutions, in which people around the world sought to determine their own sovereignty, a principle that Woodrow Wilson called self-determination.


A combination of economic and political transformations in Europe that began in the 1450 to 1750 era converged between 1750 and 1914 to allow the "west" (including the United States and Australia) to dominate the rest of the world. From China to the Muslim states to Africa, virtually all other parts of the world became the "have nots" to the west's "haves." With political and economic dominance came control in cultural and artistic areas as well.


A major political development inspired by growing nationalism was the consolidation of small states into two important new nations:

  • Italy - Before the second half of the 19th century, Italy was a collection of city-states that were only loosely allied with one another. A unification movement was begun in the north by Camillo di Cavour, and in the north by Giuseppe Garibaldi. As states unified one by one, the two leaders joined, and Italy became a unified nation under King Vittore Emmanuele II. The movement was a successful attempt to escape the historical domination of the peninsula by Spain in the south and Austria in the north.

  • Germany - The German Confederation was created by the Congress of Vienna in 1815, but it had been controlled by the Austrian and Prussian Empires. In 1848 major rebellions broke out within the confederation, inspired by liberals who envisioned a German nation ruled by parliamentary government. The revolutions failed, and many liberals fled the country, but they proved to be an excuse for the Prussian army to invade other parts of the Confederation. The Prussian military leader was Otto von Bismarck, who subjugated the rebels and declared the beginning of the German Empire. The government was a constitutional monarchy, with Kaiser Wilhelm I ruling, but for a number of years, Bismarck had control. He provoked three wars; with Denmark, Austria, and France; and appealed to German nationalism to create a strong new nation in the heart of Europe. He pronounced it the "2nd Reich" or ruling era (the 1st was the Holy Roman Empire and the 3rd was set up by Adolph Hitler in the 20th century).

These new nations altered the balance of power in Europe, causing established nations like Britain and France concern that their own power was in danger. Nationalism, then, was spurred on by a renewal of deep-rooted competition that European nations carried to the ends of the earth. They competed with one another through trade, industrial production, and colonization, setting up worldwide empires to bolster their attempts to outdo all the others.


The Russian and Ottoman Empires - two land-based powers in Eurasia - suffered the disadvantages of being neighbors to the rising nations in Europe. Russia had its wins and losses during the era yet managed to retain its power, but the Ottomans were in steep decline during most of the period and on the brink of destruction by 1914.


The Russian Empire turned its attention to the west under the late 17th and early 18th century rule of Peter the Great. His moves to build Russia into a great western empire were reinforced by tsar Catherine the Great in the late 18th century. Although the tension between Slavic traditions and the new western orientation remained, Russia retained its growing reputation as a world power, especially after resisting Napoleon's invasion in 1812. However, Russia in the mid-19th century was a huge, diverse realm that was very difficult to rule from a central location, even with the power granted to an absolute tsar. Its economy remained agriculturally based, with most people as serfs bound to the land that they cultivated.

Russia got into trouble with powerful England and France, when its formidable army attacked the Ottoman Empire to seize access to warm water ports around the Black Sea. Fearful of an upset in European balance of power, England and France supported the Ottomans in defeating Russian troops in the Crimean War (1853-1856). This defeat clearly showed Russian weakness, and it led Tsar Alexander II to attempt reform by emphasizing industrialization, creating elected district assemblies called zemstvos, and emancipating the serfs.

Russia's instability became apparent when Alexander II was assassinated by one of the many revolutionary groups that were growing rapidly within the country. Some of these revolutionary groups were Marxist, and their influence would eventually take over the country in 1917. However, Russia continued on under absolute rule until then, with an intense state-run industrialization program that did modernize Russia by the end of the 19th century.


The Ottoman Empire reached its peak during the 16th and 17th centuries when they won many of their encounters with European kingdoms, although their attack of Europe was stopped with their unsuccessful siege of Vienna. By the early 1800s the Ottoman Empire had many internal problems, including these:

  • Economic problems - Military officers owned most of the land, a fact that created a great deal of resentment from others. Since military were exempt from taxes, the government had problems getting enough revenue to keep the army and government functioning. "Tax farming"; or relying on middlemen to collect taxes; became corrupt, and their demands created resentment from the taxpayers.

  • Problems with the Janissaries - The Janissaries originally were Christian boys from the Balkans that had been recruited by the Ottomans to fight in their armies. By the early 1800s, the Janissaries were well established as military and political leaders. They often operated separately from the weakening sultan's court and gained a reputation form brutality and corruption.

  • Revolts in the Balkans and Greece - At their heart, these revolts were evidence of nationalism; Balkan and Greek people who had loyalties to their ethnic identities, not the Ottoman Empire. Many people in these Christian areas resented Ottoman control, and they were inspired to revolt when janissary governors treated them brutally. The Balkans appealed to Russia for help, which eventually led Russia to invade the Ottoman Empire, sparking the Crimean War. Greece gained its independence, supported in large part by western European nations. Most famously, the English poet Lord Byron, who fought and died in the Greek Revolution, saw the battle as one between western civilization (with roots in Ancient Greece) and the Islamic Ottomans.

When the Russians attack started the Crimean War, the Ottomans were aided by England and France. Even though Russia was defeated, an important result of the war was that the Ottomans found themselves increasingly dependent on western Europe. Even before the war, weak Ottoman rulers tried to restore their power by imposing western reforms, such as trials, rules of law, separation of church and state, and a Magna Carta type document. Young people were sent to France to learn modern military techniques and medicine. Education reforms featured textbooks written in French, and the army adopted French-style uniforms. The nickname that western nations bestowed on the Ottomans reflected their attitudes about the empire: "the sick man of Europe."

The decline of Ottoman power and prosperity had a strong impact on a group of urban and well-educated young men who protested European domination of the empire's political, economic, and cultural life. Inspired by the European nationalist movements, they began to call themselves the Young Turks, and they pushed for a Turkish national state. A constitution was granted in 1876, but was later rescinded under a new sultan. However the Young Turk movement continued on through the era.


Empire building is an old theme in world history. Societies have sought to dominate weaker neighbors as long ago as ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt, all the way through to the present. Motivations have been similar - to obtain natural resources, to subdue enemies, to accrue wealth, to win power and glory - but until the rise of the west, most empires have expanded to territories next to their borders. With the combination of sea power, centralized governments, and industrialized economies, European nations set out to build empires all over the world, like none that had been seen before. They were driven by the need to provide raw materials for their industrial capacity, and the types of goods exchanged were determined by that need.


Europeans began building their empires in the western hemisphere in the early 1500s, but by the 1800s, Spain and Portugal were no longer powerful countries, and the largest British colony had become the United States. Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and the Netherlands continued to colonize during this era, but they also devised other ways to spread their empires. In the late 19th century Japan and the United States joined the European nations as an imperialist power.

Types of imperialism in the 1800s included:

  • Colonial imperialism - This form of imperialism is virtual complete takeover of an area, with domination in all areas: economic, political, and socio-cultural. The subjugated area existed to benefit the imperialist power, and had almost no independence of action. In this era, almost all of Africa and southern and southeast Asia were colonized.

  • Economic imperialism - This form of imperialism allowed the area to operate as its own nation, but the imperialist nation almost completely controlled its trade and other business. For example, it may impose regulations that forbid trade with other nations, or imperialist companies may own or have exclusive rights to its natural resources. During this era, China and most of Latin America were subjected to economic imperialism.

  • Political imperialism - Although a country may have had its own government with natives in top political positions, it operated as the imperialist country told it to. The government was sometimes a relatively permanent "puppet government," as happened in late Qing China, and other times the control was temporary, as occurred in the Dominican Republic when the United States ran its government until it got out of debt.

  • Socio-cultural imperialism - The dominating country deliberately tried to change customs, religions and languages in some of the countries. A good example was British India, where English was taught in schools, Indian soldiers dressed British-style, and western trading rules were set up. Generally, the imperialist countries assumed their cultures to be superior, and often times they saw themselves as bringing about improvements in the society.


Between 1450 and 1750 Europeans traded with Africa, but they set up very few colonies. By 1850, only a few colonies existed along African coastlines, such as Algeria (French), the Cape Colony (Great Britain,) and Angola (Portugal). Instead, free African states continued, and after the end of the slave trade in the early 1800s, a lively exchange took place between Europeans and African states, such as the Sokoto Caliphate in western Africa and Egypt and Ethiopia in northeast Africa. They traded manufactured goods for gold, ivory, palm oil (a substance used in soap, candles, and lubricants). Under the leadership of Muhammad Ali¸ and his grandson Ismail¸ Egypt grew to be the strongest Muslim state of the 19th century, producing cotton for export and employing western technology and business methods. They benefited from the American Civil War, when cotton shipments from the southern U.S. were cut off, but the Egyptian cotton market collapsed after American shipments resumed after the Civil War was over.

In the latter half of the 19th century, dramatic changes occurred, as Europeans began to explore Africa's interior, and by 1914, virtually the entire continent was colonized by one or the other of the competing European countries. European imperialists built on the information provided by adventurers and missionaries, especially the famous Dr. David Livingstone and Henry Stanley. Livingstone, a Scottish missionary, went to Africa in the 1840s and spent three decades exploring the interior of Africa and setting up missionary outposts all the way from central Africa to the Cape Colony on the southern tip. When people in Britain lost contact with Livingstone, journalist Henry Stanley became a news sensation when he traveled to Africa and found Livingstone. The two sparked interest in Africa and others followed, including the imperialists.

Belgium was one of the first countries to sponsor expeditions to develop commercial activities, first establishing the Congo Free State under the direction of Belgium's King Leopold II, and eventually seizing it as the Belgian Congo. This event set off the Scramble for Africa, in which Britain, France, Germany, and Italy competed with Belgium for land in Africa. The Berlin Conference of 1884-5, in an effort to avoid war, allowed European diplomats to draw lines on maps and carve Africa into colonies. The result was a transformation of political and economic Africa, with virtually all parts of the continent colonized by 1900.


With the Mughal Empire significantly weakened, the French established trading cities along the Indian coast during the 18th century, but the British East India Company had pushed them out by the early 1800s. The British were still following the model of government support for private companies that they had used in colonizing North America during the 19th century. The company forced the Mughals to recognize company rule first over Bengal, and when the old Mughal Empire was defeated in the 18th century by Iranian armies, the British pushed for economic control over more and more areas. Again India fell into the familiar pattern of decentralized independent states ruled by nawabs, native princes who had nominally supported the Mughal emperor, and the company made agreements with them that were economically advantageous to the British.

The British "Raj" - 1818-1857

India was under "company" rule for almost forty years, but they were not actually a British colony during that time because the British East India Company was still private, even though the British government supported it. However, the company administered governmental affairs and initiated social reform that reflected British values. At the same time, they depended on the nawabs to support them, and so they also had to abide by Indian customs and rules as well. The contradictory roles they played eventually erupted in the Sepoy Rebellion of 1857. The Sepoys were Indian Muslims and Hindus who served the British as soldiers in the army that defended the subcontinent. The rebellion took the British by surprise, but they found out that the Indian fury could be traced to a new training technique that the soldiers refused to follow. It required them to put a bullet shell in their mouths that had been greased in either pork or beef fat, with the pork fat being highly offensive to the Muslims and the beef to the Hindu. The British changed the practice, but it was too late because nationalism had reached India, too, and a movement for a country based on Indian identity was beginning. The leaders of the movement would have to wait about 90 years, though, to fulfill their dreams.

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