The eighteenth century marked the beginning of a new spirit of intellectual exchange in Europe known as the Enlightenment. Inspired by the Scientific Revolution’s spirit of critical thinking, the ideas of the Italian Renaissance, and the legacy of Muslim, Greek, and Indian scientific foundations, the Enlightenment centered on the role of reason and generated a newfound optimism in philosophical principles such as liberty, rights, and the rejection of tyranny. Such ideals inspired many members of the upper and middle classes in western Europe to question the legitimacy of traditional laws, political systems, and religious teachings.
Although the Enlightenment established important foundations for the defense of human rights, its reach was limited to a relatively small elite. Despite its emphasis on ideals of freedom and liberty, it coexisted with the oppressive institutions of slavery and colonialism.
Over the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the public sphere became an increasingly important component in the spread and development of Enlightenment ideas. As networks of informal socialization and intellectual exchange, coffeehouses provided a setting in which people from all social backgrounds who had the luxury of leisure could share ideas and opinions without fear of punishment from the state or church. Salons likewise served as important centers of philosophical discussion. They also enabled the small number of women from the upper and middle classes who hosted them to play leadership roles in the Enlightenment, though guests from less privileged backgrounds were generally excluded. Along with the emergence of academies, print shops and a flourishing long-distance community of writers, salons and coffeehouses ensured the development of a public sphere that stimulated the free and open exchange of Enlightenment ideas.
Over the course of the eighteenth century, a series of famines and economic crises deepened wealth inequality and narrowed access to political power on both sides of the Atlantic. As the growing influence of the public sphere and Enlightenment ideas of equality and liberty shaped opposition to colonial and monarchical privilege, the century concluded with a series of revolutionary movements and the adoption of novel democratic systems.
The American Revolution, which initiated the revolutionary era, launched the foundation of the newly formed United States of America but established a paradoxical model of political liberty that coexisted with the institution of slavery. Inspired by the colonists’ victory over the British monarchy, those who led the French Revolution established a political model based on principles of democratic rights and equality, but they faced significant challenges due to political factionalism and ongoing economic crises. The Haitian Revolution resulted in the most radical break from the past by toppling the French colonial government, successfully challenging the institution of slavery, and creating the new nation of Haiti. However, Haiti faced long-term economic challenges after France imposed an independence debt on the fledgling nation in 1825.
Although these revolutions reflected a variety of political aims and consequences, each radically reshaped the political landscape of the Atlantic world by challenging traditional models of monarchical privilege and calling into question long-standing disparities in wealth and access to political power.
As the revolutionary fervor of the eighteenth century faded, a desire to restore order and stability permeated the political and intellectual atmosphere of Europe. In particular, the ideologies of conservatism, nationalism, and liberalism represented different approaches to protecting the revolutionary gains of the eighteenth century and temporarily quieting the turbulence of the revolutionary era. These gains were relatively short-lived, however, as political upheaval once again irrevocably transformed Europe by the middle of the nineteenth century. In the case of Italy and Germany, the desire for unification prevailed over the desire for freedom, resulting in the birth of new states. Although the forces of nationalism and conservatism reversed some democratic gains rooted in notions of the social contract and individual liberty, liberal principles such as religious toleration and equality before the law continued to exert a powerful influence on the rise of the modern nation-state.