World History Project - Origins to the Present
Course: World History Project - Origins to the Present > Unit 6Lesson 2: Liberal and National Revolutions | 6.1
- READ: Sovereignty
- BEFORE YOU WATCH: The Scientific Revolution and the Age of Enlightenment
- WATCH: The Scientific Revolution and the Age of Enlightenment
- READ: Ingredients for Revolution
- READ: The Enlightenment
- READ: The Atlantic Revolutions
- BEFORE YOU WATCH: The Haitian Revolution
- WATCH: The Haitian Revolution
- READ: West Africa in the Age of Revolutions
- READ: Origins and Impacts of Nationalism
- BEFORE YOU WATCH: Nationalism
- WATCH: Nationalism
- BEFORE YOU WATCH: Samurai, Daimyo, Matthew Perry, and Nationalism
- WATCH: Samurai, Daimyo, Matthew Perry, and Nationalism
- Liberal and National Revolutions
A dictionary definition isn’t much help when grasping important concept of sovereignty. But understanding how radically it changed people’s personal and political lives is a good start.
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:
- What is sovereignty? How did it affect how people thought about their governments?
- What were some of the limitations of the idea of sovereignty?
- What does the American Three-Fifths Compromise tell us about sovereignty?
- How did ideas about sovereignty affect the lives of some children?
- How did ideas about motherhood change as a result of ideas about sovereignty becoming influential?
Third read: evaluating and corroborating
At the end of the third close read, respond to the following questions:
- In what ways might the idea of sovereignty impact the way that a political community works?
Now that you know what to look for, it’s time to read! Remember to return to these questions once you’ve finished reading.
Painting of The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. The words are carved into a sculpture, and sitting on top of the sculpture are two women with angel wings
By Eman M. Elshaikh
A dictionary definition isn’t much help when trying to grasp the important concept of sovereignty. But understanding how radically it changed people’s personal and political lives is a good start.
In the wake of the Enlightenment, many societies around the world pursued sovereignty—the right and the power of a person or a nation to govern themselves. Sovereignty is a broad term that influences many modern concepts such as identity, individuality, and rationality (the use of reason). These ideas developed together during the long nineteenth century and were connected to the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment. Without the concept of sovereignty, however, they would make no sense.
Sovereignty and liberal ideals
The long nineteenth century saw many changes including growing distrust in the authority of monarchs and religious institutions, and more interest in individualism, freedom, and rationality. These liberal political ideals (goals for perfection) generally placed a lot of importance on the people as a source of political power. One expression of this was the concept of popular sovereignty, the belief that a state's power comes from the consent of the people. According to these ideas, a government is only legitimate if it represents the needs and ideas of the people who are governed.
A drawn representation of the book Leviathan. There are a number of small images, including drawings of symbols and of a large house. The largest drawing shows a man of great size standing over a city. He is wearing a crown and holding a sword.
In an absolute monarchy, sovereignty is in the hands of the king or queen. In other words, the state is whatever the monarch says it is. Popular sovereignty, on the other hand, views the state as a political organization that makes possible the ruling of a specific territory. The people within this type of state are usually not passive as subjects, but rather are citizens, with actual political rights. Rather than passively obeying the ruler, citizens could take an active role in the political process. This meant that popular sovereignty also encouraged the recognition of the individual and individual rights.
Believe it or not, it was unusual to suggest that an individual who wasn't a ruler was rational and deserved autonomy, or self-governance. That meant that society and government were only legitimate when they helped individuals achieve their goals and protected their rights. Today we may take this for granted, but at the time this was a pretty new, even revolutionary concept.
Sovereignty for whom?
We must not confuse sovereignty with equality or civil rights. Although citizens had rights, that didn't necessarily mean that all citizens had the same rights in practice, or that everyone in a society could be considered a citizen. So, who got left out? A person's ability to participate in government—and to govern themselves—was often dependent on their class, race, and gender. Typically, in Europe and European colonies, only white land-owning males were truly independent. The conquered people of the colonies didn't become citizens. Similarly, enslaved people, working-class people, and women weren't given the same kinds of rights. In other words, personal sovereignty and autonomy were luxuries offered to a very small segment of society.
In fact, in many ways, the achievement of sovereignty for some resulted in the loss freedom for others. For example, in several sovereign democracies like the United States, slavery was still legal, thriving, and important to the economy. Need a powerful example of how sovereignty does not mean equality? Just look at the American Three-Fifths Compromise of 1787. In this agreement, each enslaved person was counted as three-fifths of a full citizen for the purposes of determining representation (the right to vote) and taxation. In this case, the inclusion of enslaved people was seen as compatible with popular sovereignty for other people, but… three-fifths? Slavery is already fundamentally dehumanizing, but to have your humanity mathematically downgraded is one of history's most literal and glaring examples of inequality.
Women, workers, and children
The same is true for most children. Middle- and upper-class families in Europe and the Americas got to enjoy new values of familial love and innocence. Educating your children instead of putting them to work was a privilege. In places like Japan, children were seen as especially vulnerable, and there were many government programs designed to protect children during this fragile phase in life.
However, if you weren't part of the small privileged class, or in Japan, it was another story. Under slavery and colonialism, children were forcibly separated from their parents. Enslaved children were sold, and indigenous children were sometimes sent away from their families. Also, within the colonies, many children of mixed heritage were born outside of marriage. Because of race laws and the realities of colonial hierarchies, mixed children would almost never get to be a part of a cohesive family unit.
In colonial settings, many children were seen as the subjects of colonial masters, and working conditions could be pretty harsh. Whether through indentured labor or wage labor, children in Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, and India continued to labor in plantations, factories, and mines. They also often worked as household servants. In other parts of the world, like in China, classical values like obedience and hard work continued to shape children's lives.
Women were also often left out when it came to personal sovereignty. Some Enlightenment thinkers still saw women as inferior to men, while others pushed for women's equality. However, women also differed across race, class, and region. Working class women, women of color, and colonial subjects didn't have access to these new social and educational opportunities. In most places, women of the lower classes took on new roles out of economic need. Many single mothers had to work to support their families.
A portrait of a woman. She has grey hair held back with a white headband and is wearing a striped dress and holding a text in one hand.
Citizenship and the modern subject
Let's not forget that all these cultural and social shifts were about much more than just a single issue. Rather, peoples' entire relationship to the state was being altered. Some found that the state now gave them freedom to control their lives and bodies, while others found they had less control. For example, women were increasingly valued as those responsible for raising the next generation of citizens. To educate their children and ensure their full political participation, mothers needed to be educated too. Motherhood became a political act! This created new opportunities for women, but it also meant that a woman's decision whether to have children at all was not necessarily hers to make.
Children, too, came to be controlled more—partly through schools. Schools tried to promote children's health and protect them from abuse, but also control their daily activity. In Canada, Australia, and the United States, governments often forced indigenous children into boarding schools. The purpose was to change behaviors that colonists saw as problematic. That usually meant getting them to adopt European traditions and customs and leave their own behind. Similarly, in British India, school was used to instill European values in students with the goal of making them more useful as colonial subjects.
So, while Enlightenment ideas about citizenship, sovereignty, and autonomy changed the face of the globe, it's important to remember that these changes were very uneven. Through the modern period and into the twenty-first century, different groups of people have been included and excluded from these values. However, these ideas surrounding personal sovereignty have continued to influence many political institutions to this day.
The author of this article is Eman M. Elshaikh. She is a writer, researcher, and teacher who has taught K-12 and undergraduates in the United States and in the Middle East. She teaches writing at the University of Chicago, where she also completed her master’s in social sciences and is currently pursuing her PhD. She was previously a World History Fellow at Khan Academy, where she worked closely with the College Board to develop curriculum for AP World History.
Want to join the conversation?
- In what ways might the idea of sovereignty impact the way that a political community works?(3 votes)
- Citizens could take an active role in the political process. This meant that popular sovereignty also encouraged the recognition of the individual and individual rights(2 votes)
- The public could participate actively in politics. This meant that popular sovereignty promoted respect for individuals and their rights.(2 votes)
- what's the main idea(1 vote)
- Why do women Have to be part of a working class? what are the reasonings that women have to be in a working class?(0 votes)