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READ: Ingredients for Revolution

Between 1775 and 1825 several revolutions occurred around the Atlantic Ocean, all influenced by Enlightenment ideas. Economic problems that nearly bankrupted several governments also and helped spark revolutions.
The article below uses “Three Close Reads”. If you want to learn more about this strategy, click here.

First read: preview and skimming for gist

Fill out the Skimming for Gist section of the Three Close Reads Worksheet as you complete your first close read. As a reminder, this should be a quick process!

Second read: key ideas and understanding content

For this reading, you should be looking for unfamiliar vocabulary words, the major claim and key supporting details, and analysis and evidence. By the end of the second close read, you should be able to answer the following questions:
  1. What was the Stamp Act and how did British North American colonists react to it?
  2. How did the lives of French people in the lower and middle classes change during the eighteenth century? How did these changes affect their attitudes about the government?
  3. What was unique about Haiti’s independence?
  4. What were the causes of the Latin American revolutions, according to the author

Third read: evaluating and corroborating

At the end of the third close read, respond to the following questions:
  1. How does evidence from this article help you support, extend, or challenge the communities frame narrative?
  2. Revolutionary movements had many different causes, as you learned in this article. In your view, based on this article and other material in this lesson, make and defend a claim in response to the following questions: Do you think Enlightenment ideals or economic factors played a bigger role in sparking revolutions? Do you think the answer is the same everywhere, or does this vary by region?
Now that you know what to look for, it’s time to read! Remember to return to these questions once you’ve finished reading.

Ingredients for Revolution

Painting of a large group of people, mostly female, standing in a large group in protest. One woman is beating a drum and many women have raised swords.
By Malcolm F. Purinton
*Between 1775 and 1825 several revolutions occurred around the Atlantic Ocean, all influenced by Enlightenment ideas. In addition, there were economic problems that nearly bankrupted several governments, which also helped spark revolutions.

Radical ideas

Several political revolutions during the early part of the long nineteenth century changed the Atlantic world and had radical effects on the rest of the world—effects that continue to be felt today. The American War of Independence, the French Revolution, the Haitian Revolution, and revolutions of Latin America were all between 1775 and 1825. Why did these monumental shifts in power occur in such a short period of time? What influenced people on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, and in both North and South America, to all rise up against their rulers within a few short decades?

Enlightened changes

To some, these revolutionary changes were no surprise. Voltaire, the French writer and philosopher, wrote this to a friend in 1722: "My dear philosopher, doesn't this appear to you to be the century of revolutions?" He wrote this in the midst of the Enlightenment when ideas about the world, and humanity's place in it, were changing. The causes of these revolutions were connected through new intellectual and political ideas, as well as economic issues. Why all these sudden important connections? In the end it had to be the many global exchanges of ideas and knowledge that went on between the late eighteenth century and the early nineteenth century.
A collection of four painted images of various battle scenes. In one, a man sits atop an elephant, in another, men hold up a partially destroyed flag in a smoky scene.
Seven Years' War Collage showing several battle scenes in India and Europe. By Blaue Max, CC BY-SA 4.0.
Enlightenment idealsstart superscript, 1, end superscript of freedom and equality strongly influenced the revolutionary age as they challenged the old order of life. At the beginning of the eighteenth century the old regimes of Europe continued to rule but a lot would change over the next 150 years. The idea of liberty, including the suggestion that individual humans had rights, sounded outrageously strange to most people. Before the revolutionary period, many monarchs thought they needed to control what people wrote and believed. But that got a lot harder as the century wore on and people began calling for individual liberties. The freedom to worship as they wanted, the end of censorship, and having a say in their own laws were all on the agenda. All of these ideas were supported by the growing belief that societies are not fixed by tradition or religion, but that they can be improved by human action guided by reason. As "reason"-able as that may sound in many parts of today's world, these beliefs were truly radical at the time.

Follow the money

But it wasn't all about the big new ideas. Changing systems of production and distribution were also among the causes of these political revolutions. For example, several wars were fought in the years before these revolutions that would have long-term effects. In the Seven Years’ War from 1756 to 1763, France and Austria fought against England and Prussia on several fronts. Battles raged across central Europe, North America (where it was known as the French and Indian War), and even India. England and Prussia won. France lost all its territory east of the Mississippi River in North America, all of its holdings in India, and was very humiliated from losing. One thing the winners and losers now had in common—major debt! How were they going to pay back all the money for war? Taxes.
Another collection of battle scenes. Men march in a line, war ships come toward the shore, and men have fallen in an explosion.
Battle scenes from the American War of Independence. Public domain.
The North American English colonies had been pretty autonomous from England. They had been making their own local laws and taxes in each of the thirteen colonies. England allowed this because they didn't really see them as all that important—the real money came from sugar plantations in the Caribbean, using the labor of enslaved people. Most settlers in the North American colonies were generally happy with being part of the British Empire— they had access to British markets, protection in wartime, and still considered themselves "English." However, after the expensive Seven Years’ War, the British government decided to pay off their debt by taxing the colonies directly and putting tariffs on the colonial goods. The British also announced that they would base a large army in North America—without colonial consent. The colonists, who were rather proud of their autonomy and economic achievement, pushed back. The Stamp Act of 1765—the first of several attempts to tax the North American colonies—invited protests, rioting, and boycotts against the British. It was eventually repealed, but the damage was done. Opinion in the colonies had shifted, and the British were now the enemy.

The end of an old regime

The American Revolution was won partly with French support. Even though France had little money after the Seven Years War it still wanted revenge against the British. From the beginning France supplied guns and gunpowder for the colonial fight against England. By 1777 thousands of French volunteers—including the Marquis de Lafayette—had arrived in Virginia to support the fighting colonists. Without such strong military and monetary support from France the American Revolution may not have ended the same way. But even though France got its revenge against the English, it nearly bankrupted their own country. Which brings us to… the French Revolution!
A painted battle scene shows a great billow of smoke in the sky. Many soldiers lay dead or wounded and a few men continue to fight with swords in the foreground.
The storming the Tuileries Palace in Paris in 1792 during the French Revolution. By Jean Duplessis-Bertaux, public domain.
Just as the British had tried to pay off its debts by taxing the American colonists, the French monarchy tried to avoid bankruptcy by taxing its people—with drastic results. A lot was changing during the eighteenth century. The growing population led to the growth of cities and towns. That caused inflation, making the goods and food that people needed much more expensive. The poor had to work harder and longer to survive as rents and costs continued to rise. The middle class—also part of the "third estate"—was made up of merchants and educated professionals who were seeped in Enlightenment ideas of individual rights and the freedom to create their own laws. The "third estate" didn't have the economic privileges that nobles and the Church had, and they wanted a new economic and political system. They got their chance in 1789 when the King of France called the Estates General—a large meeting so that he could change laws and impose new taxes. When things didn't go as planned, the representatives of the middle class and some supporters among the nobility organized themselves into the National Assembly, and thus began the French Revolution.

Another American revolution

Across the Atlantic Ocean in the Caribbean Sea, the people of the French colony of Saint Domingue—now known as Haiti—were watching the French Revolution closely. The American Revolution had been about retaining autonomy and having local control politically and economically. The French Revolution had started out of social differences. The Haitian Revolution was about all of that and more. There, what you fought for depended on who you were in the colony. If you were a rich white landowner, you probably fought for greater autonomy from the French government. If you were a poor white man you battled for citizenship equality. If you were a merchant, your crusade was against economic restrictions. And if you were among the almost 500,000 enslaved laborers in this colony, you fought for the two things you didn't have: freedom and a paycheck.
A drawing of a battle scene, taking place in a jungle-like wilderness.
Depiction of the Battle of Ravine-à-Couleuvres (23 February 1802), during the Haitian Revolution. Public domain.
The Haitian Revolution began with revolts in 1791 that left a thousand plantations burned and hundreds of people killed. Over the next decade the enslaved population, led by Toussaint Louverture, gained their freedom and declared independence on January 1, 1804. It was the second independent republic in the Americas after the United States. But it was the first Western colony where a majority population of enslaved people fought for independence and won, and the first independent nation-state ruled by people of African descent.

Revolutions in Latin America

Economics played an important role in the Latin American revolutions between 1810 and 1825. As in other Atlantic regions, social tensions between classes grew out of a familiar set of problems. These included high taxation, the financing of foreign wars, and questioning the legitimacy of European monarchs so far away. Leaders in Latin American colonies were also heavily influenced by the same Enlightenment ideals that helped motivate the three revolutions we already discussed. The nationalist leaders in this region included Simon Bolivar and José de San Martin. With promises of liberty and individual freedoms similar to those of the French Revolution, they led revolts that pushed the Spanish out of Latin America.

Revolutionary roots

Each of these revolutions had their own leaders and specific local challenges. But they were not isolated in their ideas or causes. Bolivar often visited the newly independent Haiti as he fought the Spanish in South America. Thomas Jefferson, of the recently independent United States of America, was in Paris as the French Revolution began, offering support and advice to the revolutionaries there. Each of these revolutions was influenced by the ideas of progress, liberty, and equality coming out of the Enlightenment. Revolutionaries fought for new forms of government and independence. And of course people desired better economic and labor conditions than they were getting in this increasingly production-driven world. In the end the economic, political, and intellectual causes of revolution all played important parts in this revolutionary era.
Portrait of a man in uniform. He has dark hair and is looking directly at the artist.
Portrait of the South American revolutionary Simón Bolívar, 1812. Public domain.
Author bio
Malcolm F. Purinton is a part-time lecturer of World History and the History of Modern Europe at Northeastern University and Emmanuel College in Boston, MA. He specializes in Food and Environmental History through the lens of beer and alcohol.

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