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Special Circumstances: Its Origin in Europe

The next epoch of world history is focused particularly on western Europe. Its civilization began there before spreading to the rest of the world. The European ascendancy at the beginning of this epoch created an imbalance which produced a backlash at the end; for it was intolerable that one people’s history should be the history of all mankind. In terms of our theory, a critical event was the introduction of a new cultural technology in western Europe, which was Gutenberg’s invention of printing with movable type. Although the technology of printing had previously been employed in China and Korea, it did not take hold in the East Asian societies to the extent that it did in the West because of differences in script. Printing did not catch on in Islamic society because of religious and cultural restrictions. That left western Europe, a relative latecomer in acquiring the technology, to make full use of it. The particular culture which appeared then northern Italy was the embryo of a future civilization in Europe and the rest of the world. Its direction was secular and commercial.

Thawing Religious Belief

In the late Middle Ages, European people were caught in the grip of a religious ideology that permeated community life. A thick dogma had settled down upon the society. Philosophical conceptions once incandescent in Greek or Jewish minds had long since cooled in frozen shapes. The eternal truths of Christianity, unchallengeable by reason, were embalmed by faith. Beneath the surface, life yet stirred. It was, in fact, a vigorous, healthy stirring of the human spirit. Despite its spiritual veneer, medieval life was bustling with a lusty materialism. Religious offices, indulgences, and relics of saints were offered for sale. Holy names, places, and things were regularly blasphemed. The church became a “trysting place” for young lovers. Obscene pictures were peddled there on festival days. Johan Huizinga has written that with “an enormous unfolding of religion in daily life ... all that is meant to stimulate spiritual consciousness is reduced to appalling commonplace profanity ... Holy things ... become too common to be deeply felt.”

Then, like a glacier, the religious culture of the late Middle Ages, or what would be the springtime of CivIII, began to melt. The solid chunks of dogma, exposed to reason, developed cracks here and there. As some of these cracks became wider, tiny streams of fresh thinking slipped through. In time, the streams became torrents, which burst the dam of faith. One can associate this process with a few persons of strong intellect and determination. Such a person was Peter Abélard (1079-1142), a teacher of theology at the University of Paris. Another was Francesco Petrarca or Petrarch (1304-1374), an Italian scholar and poet. Others include: Emperor Frederick II (1194-1250), a freethinking monarch who defied the Pope; Roger Bacon (1214-1294), an English monk who developed the theory of experimental science; and Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) who wrote the Divine Comedy. The Roman church meanwhile was losing its moral credibility. The “Great Schism”, which produced rival Popes in Rome and Avignon, struck at papal legitimacy. The public was becoming disgusted with corrupt clergy and the need to raise increasing sums of money. There was an air of violence and coercion about the church, so unworthy of its founder.

The Seeing Revolution

The idea which we have of the Renaissance is that, being a time of cultural rebirth, it brought forth new discoveries of the world. Like a new-born child, humanity again learned to see. The civilization of western Europe was emerging from its cocoon of medieval piety to embrace the humanist principle that “man is the measure of all things.” The Renaissance culture rejected philosophical speculations in favor of a new worldliness which sought knowledge based on natural observation. “Mental things which have not gone in through the senses are vain and bring forth no truth except detrimental,” Leonardo da Vinci declared. The previous epoch, begun with a philosophical revolution, had valued “things unseen”. Its religious culture considered ideas to be a source of goodness and truth while the body was a source of sinful weakness. Believers were asked to have faith in God’s promise and quell doubts born of worldly experience. In contrast, the third civilization began with a revolution in seeing. Its redirected attention to things of the world represented a complete reversal of the previous culture.

The first fruit of this seeing revolution was a host of beautiful objects created by artists whose eyes were open to new possibilities of color, shape, and composition. The human body as painted by artists became a object of pleasure and grace. Mind was subjected to belief in what could be found in the physical world. Where Byzantine art had produced monochromatic and rather ethereal representations of human figures, the north Italian art pioneered by Giotto fleshed out its subjects. The names of Michelangelo, Leonardo, Raphael, Titian, Boccaccio, Brunelleschi, Masaccio, and others suggest the creation of beautiful colors and shapes in a balanced composition. North of the Alps, another group of talented artists including Jan van Eyck, Pieter Brueghel, and Albrecht Dürer were creating works rich in realistic detail. Realism was the theme of Renaissance art. Leonardo studied human anatomy to create more realistic visual representations of his subjects. Alberti, Brunelleschi, and others developed the technique of perspective to suggest how objects at various distances might appear in real life.

In literature, the veil was lifted from works of classical authors known by reputation or in translations from Arabic. Petrarch taught himself Latin and Greek to be able to read ancient manuscripts in the original. He came to feel that he knew their authors personally. His famous love poems dedicated to Laura abandoned medieval courtly traditions in favor of presenting the image of a real woman. Petrarch’s example inspired a revival of interest in classical Graeco-Roman texts. Where medieval scholars had been careless in copying or compiling texts, Petrarch respected the integrity of original compositions. He was concerned with the authenticity of texts and with discovering an author’s real intentions. Dante wrote the Divine Comedy in his native Tuscan language rather than in Latin, which made poetry accessible to many more people. Vernacular translations of the Bible were a revolutionary event. They challenged the authority of the Roman church by allowing the masses of people to read God’s word for themselves and seek salvation in truths of the Bible rather in church-controlled rituals.

Medieval society had sought truth about nature in the scientific writings of Aristotle. Roger Bacon challenged this attitude in promoting the alternative approach of experimental science. “Cease to be ruled by dogmas and authorities; look at the world,” he said. Following Bacon’s prescription, empirical science finds truth in observed patterns in the natural world and in theories that can be experimentally tested. Alchemists and astrologers had long been gathering facts about nature. This empirical orientation, combined with mathematics and a willingness to give up beliefs contradicted by natural observation, led directly to modern science. The Polish astronomer Nicholas Copernicus conceived the modern scheme of the solar system, which contradicted the earth-centered scheme of Ptolemy. Galileo conducted an experiment to see if Aristotle’s teaching was true that objects would fall to earth at different rates depending upon their weights. He found, to the contrary, that differently weighted balls dropped at the same time from on top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa hit the earth at the same time.

Leaving behind a religious culture laden with symbolic or invisible meanings, Europeans in the Renaissance period discovered the physical world. An Italian navigator, Christopher Columbus, persuaded the Queen of Spain to finance a voyage across the Atlantic to reach what he supposed would be east Asia. But, instead of the Indies, he reached the shores of a strange new land. There, in the western hemisphere, Columbus and his European companions found a different race of people, new types of food, unknown diseases, tobacco, furs, timber, inland waterways, deserts, silver and gold in abundant supply. Columbus had heard that Japan had inexhaustible supplies of gold. A Florentine map, badly underestimating the size of the earth, placed Japan just west of Europe. Magellan’s voyage around the earth revealed the existence of a new continent which could be traversed at its southernmost point. The Spanish and Portuguese voyages of global exploration were another manifestation of the spirit of worldly discovery feeding the new civilization.

A commercial spirit drove this age of discovery. There was a strong market in Europe for oriental nutmeg and spices, which could preserve meat and add exotic flavoring, and for the Chinese silk used in princely garments. When the Ottoman Turks captured Constantinople in 1453, a hostile empire blocked the overland trade routes to China that were previously available to European merchants. Portuguese navigators found an alternative route by sea around the southern tip of Africa and soon captured Moslem trading posts along the Indian Ocean. Columbus was a native of Genoa. Genoese trade routes ran between Kaffa in the Crimea and ports in the Adriatic and western Mediterranean seas. The Venetians, who dominated trade with the Ottoman empire, also sent ships into the north Atlantic. A third trading bloc maintained a network of ports in the Baltic and North seas. Northern Italy and Flanders, centers of textiles manufacturing, were the most active commercial regions. The great wealth generated by trade, banking, and manufacturing created a demand for various kinds of luxury goods. Money and luxurious objects were no longer something to be despised or feared as a temptation to the soul. The appeal of wealth was visual and immediate, not other-worldly.

Luther’s Protest

The growing concern with wealth and beautiful objects affected the Roman church, which was headquartered in central Italy. The church needed large amounts of money to support its worldly projects. Unable to raise enough funds from management of its lands and other properties, it resorted to such fundraising methods as selling church offices and papal indulgences. The Renaissance popes had frequent need of moneylenders; Innocent IV called them “the peculiar sons of the Roman church.” The Papal fortunes became intertwined with those of the Borgia and de’ Medici families. Pope Callistus III openly practiced nepotism. Pope Alexander VI, his nephew, was the father of Cesare Borgia, Machiavelli’s model of a ruthless prince. In the 1490s, the worldliness of the church found a determined opponent in a Dominican monk, Girolamo Savonarola, who urged his fellow Florentines to forsake artistic images, abandon luxuries, and return to simple Christian living. Alexander VI ordered him to desist in his anti-Roman preachings. Savonarola refused. For this he was excommunicated and burned at the stake.

Julius II launched a massive project to rebuild St. Peter’s church. This project, which required a century and a half to complete, engaged artists of such talents as Bramante, Michelangelo, Raphael, and Bernini. Such an undertaking required new fundraising efforts. In 1509, the Pope instituted a special Jubilee indulgence. A Dominican preacher named Johann Tetzel arrived in Saxony in October 1517 to promote a new dispensation of indulgences granted by Leo X. This was the event that inspired Martin Luther to post the “95 theses” on the church door at Wittenberg. His manifesto was widely distributed. While Luther was branded a heretic, the pressure to reform the Christian church was now too strong for him to be treated as a politically isolated monk such as Savonarola had been. In 1521, Pope Leo X issued a bull condemning Luther’s views and threatening him with excommunication within sixty days if he did not submit to Roman authority. Luther and his friends burned a copy of it in a bonfire. The Saxon elector Frederick III gave Luther sanctuary in his castle at Wartburg.

A new Christian faith, supported by a powerful group of north European monarchs, took shape along the lines of Luther’s religious arguments. Among its tenets were disbelief in the supernatural powers of the Mass and other church sacraments, in the ability of sinners to win salvation by good works, and in the presumed power of Roman priests to mediate between God and humanity. “Justification by faith” was, in Luther’s view, the sole means of salvation; however, some persons were predestined to believe and be saved while others were not. While the Roman church claimed authority on the basis of ecclesiastical succession, Protestants maintained that “scripture alone” was the basis of religious authority and truth. The ability of each believer to read and interpret passages in the Bible kindled a spirit of individualism. Individual believers could go straight to the source of Christian teaching and see what Jesus had actually said. Thomas Hobbes observed that “after the Bible was translated into English, every man, nay, every boy and wench that could read English, thought they spoke with God Almighty.” An age of vigorous public discussion followed as pamphlets were printed to defend the Protestant or Catholic cause. Still, individuals were not free to choose their own religion. The temporal rulers of Europe had the power to decide what faith their subjects would adopt.

As strong-minded individuals preached their own versions of Christian truth, western Christianity became hopelessly split into denominations. By 1650 A.D., there were at least 180 different Protestant sects. Luther’s own followers, concentrated in Germany and Scandinavia, were a conservative group compared with the Calvinists, Zwinglians, Anabaptists, Mennonites, and Quakers. Zwingli differed with Luther over interpreting the Mass. The Anabaptists repudiated infant baptism. The most important Protestant figure after Luther himself was John Calvin, theocratic leader of the city of Geneva. His teachings are presented in a treatise, The Institutes of the Christian Religion. Theologically, Calvin believed in the moral depravity of the human race, which would lead to eternal damnation but for Jesus’ saving grace. The Calvinist doctrine of eternal damnation held that from the beginning of time God had ordained that a person’s soul after death would be either saved or damned. Regardless of one’s efforts, nothing could be done to change that determination.

Forces working within the Roman church might have prevented the Protestant rupture had they acted more promptly to restore its commitment to poverty and Christian service. Bishop Caraffa, later Pope Paul IV, led a group of Italian prelates seeking to reform church practices even before Luther’s defiant act. The Council of Trent, held intermittently between 1545 and 1563, reviewed church sacraments and beliefs in light of Protestant criticisms. The so-called “Counter-Reformation” was a conservative movement to revitalize and strengthen the church. Its most important figure was St. Ignatius Loyola (1491-1556), a Spaniard who founded the Jesuit Order in 1540. The Jesuits emphasized spiritual discipline and education. Self-styled soldiers of the church, Jesuit missionaries were prominently involved in evangelizing the native peoples of the Americas. They also undertook missions to India and the Far East. Thanks largely to the Jesuits, Spanish and Portuguese colonization always retained a hard religious edge. English and Dutch colonists were more willing to limit themselves to purely commercial objectives. It is ironic that the spirit of commercialism was stronger in Protestant than Catholic countries considering that Luther’s complaint had concerned excessively commercial practices within the church.

Scholars have noted a correlation between Calvinism and commercial progress. Perhaps the best-known explanation is that presented in Max Weber’s treatise, Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Weber argued that persons such as the New England Puritans, who were raised in a strongly Protestant culture, were more likely than others to regard money-making as a worthwhile pursuit. Theirs was an ethical imperative to achieve wealth. Weber speculated that, although Calvinist dogma held that good works were ineffectual in achieving salvation, the Calvinists craved reassurance that they were among God’s elect. While strength of faith or spiritual conviction would be for any Protestant a sufficient means of salvation, Calvinists believed that “faith had to be proved by its objective results.” One increased the sense of conviction in one’s own salvation by experiencing at each moment a life of “systematic self-control”. Therefore, the righteous persons of this religious persuasion were ascetics actively engaged in the world - Christian businessmen like John D. Rockefeller - driven to make money not for the sake of enjoying physical comforts but deriving satisfaction from the money-making itself.

Commercial Rivalry between the North Atlantic Nations

The European voyages of discovery beginning in the 15th century introduced an era of exploration and colonization in distant lands on earth. Each nation developed territorial interests. Portugal and Spain made the first claims to new territory by virtue of their navigational feats. In 1493, Pope Alexander VI divided the entire world outside Europe between the two Iberian nations on condition that they convert the native peoples in their respective possessions to Christianity. A Papal bull (later adjusted by treaty) gave Portugal lands east of a longitudinal line running through present-day Brazil, and Spain lands west of that line. In the west Pacific region, a similar line assigned the Molucca (Spice) islands to Portugal and the Philippines to Spain. That gave the two Iberian nations a big head start in the race to colonize and commercially exploit the non-European world. The focus of political rivalry shifted from the Mediterranean area to the North Atlantic and to the larger-sized nations located along its shores.

Portugal made the first significant discovery when, in 1488, ships commanded by Bartholomeu Dias rounded the Cape of Good Hope in southern Africa. In 1498, a Portuguese flotilla under Vasco da Gama’s command sailed around the Cape and traveled to the west coast of India. The Portuguese found that Arab merchants controlling trade along the Indian ocean were uninterested in the type of merchandise that they carried. So the Portuguese, equipped with muskets, returned several years later and took the Arabs’ trade outposts by force. They seized Goa in 1510, Malacca in 1511, and Hormuz in 1515. Portuguese merchants controlled the trade in oriental spices for the remainder of the century. Along with the traders went Jesuit missionaries intending to convert the Asian peoples to Christianity. St. Francis Xavier founded missions in west India, the Molucca islands, and Japan between 1541 and 1552. Matteo Ricci traveled to China in 1582, where for the next three decades he translated Christian scriptures into Chinese, wrote cultural treatises, and became a mathematician and astronomer at the Ming court in Peking. The Iberian Christians were later expelled from that region when church officials refused to compromise on theology to accommodate local traditions.

In 1492, Christopher Columbus and his Spanish companions landed on the island of San Salvador in the West Indies (mistakenly believed to be a part of India) in search of gold. What little gold they found there gave rise to further explorations and a system of slave labor to work the mines of Hispaniola. In 1519, Spanish adventurers led by Hernando Cortés came in contact with a populous nation in southern Mexico. Greatly outnumbered, they conquered the Aztec empire in less than two years thanks to their boldness, superior equipment, help from peoples hostile to the Aztecs, and the lucky fact that Cortés’ arrival on a certain day and year convinced the Aztec emperor, Moctezuma, that he was the reincarnation of the god Quetzalcoatl. Another Spaniard, Francisco Pizarro, conquered the Inca empire in South America between 1532 and 1535. Both empires were rich in silver and gold. The Spanish set about to exploit that resource systematically.

Tons of precious metals from American mines were shipped to Spain each year. Instead of becoming rich from this cargo, however, the Spanish monarch found that he was becoming steadily poorer. Mining and shipping operations, military protection for the galleons, and loss of revenues to private mine owners were costing the crown more than the gold and silver was worth, especially considering that the large increase in the supply of these metals brought a reduction in price. Spanish silver was causing severe monetary inflation not only in Europe but also in the Ottoman empire. In response to growing debts, the Spanish parliament imposed a ban on shipments of precious metals from the country. The king then suspended debt payments, issuing bonds to his creditors. As state finances continued to deteriorate, Philip II and his advisors blamed the situation on foreign merchants, usurers, and speculators. They required that the American colonies buy only from Spain. They imposed duties on goods imported from the Americas, escort fees for the warships, and other new taxes. Meanwhile, attendance at once brisk trade fairs languished. So much land was taken out of wheat cultivation that Spain could not feed its own people.

To protect its interests, the Spanish government tried to exclude English merchants from trade with the New World. Matters came to a head in 1567 when the Governor of Vera Cruz seized English ships filled with African slaves and arrested the crew. Two ships escaped, commanded by John Hawkins, the squadron leader, and a young captain named Francis Drake. Drake and a crew of English pirates later went on a rampage against Spanish towns along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. Piracy had long been a way of life in the Atlantic. Merchant seamen were given a royal charter to engage in armed piracy against Spanish vessels in the series of wars between Spain and France beginning in 1521. While French pirates plundered at will, their English counterparts held back because the daughter of Henry VIII, the future Queen Mary, was married to Philip II of Spain. After Mary’s death in 1558, that constraint was removed. For a time, the new queen, Elizabeth I, steered a delicate course between supporting English seamen and keeping the peace with Spain. Her decision to confer knighthood on Francis Drake aboard his pirate ship in 1580 signaled an end to that policy. Philip II responded in 1588 by dispatching the Armada, a fleet of 130 ships, to conquer England. The smaller but more agile English fleet defeated it.

After ousting the Arabs, Portugal controlled the lucrative trade in oriental spices. The Dutch began to challenge their position at the end of the 16th century. Philip II, who after 1580 was king of Portugal as well as Spain, attempted to punish his rebellious subjects in the Netherlands by ordering Dutch ships seized if found in Spanish or Portuguese waters. Jan Huyghen van Linschoten, a Dutch merchant who had spent five years in Goa, published a book in 1595 suggesting how his fellow countrymen might break the Portuguese monopoly on trade with the Indies. His idea was that the Dutch ought not to challenge the Portuguese military outposts in India but, instead, to set up trading posts in the relatively undefended areas of Indonesia and Malaya where the spice trade originated. In the same year, Cornelius Houtman embarked on a voyage with four ships to Bantam and the Moluccas which succeeded in breaking the Spanish-Portuguese naval blockade. That triggered a series of Dutch expeditions to the South Seas.

In 1602, the Estates General of the Netherlands gave the United East India Company the right to enter into treaties with Indian princes, raise troops, build fortifications, and appoint governors and judges. Its directors promptly sent fourteen sailing ships to Asia. A stone trading post established at Bantam (Java) became a base for further expeditions to neighboring areas. Other Dutch fleets, which were equipped with powerful guns, attacked Portuguese forts, negotiated friendship treaties with Indian rulers, and blockaded Goa. The Dutch defeated Spanish and Portuguese fleets in several naval engagements. The hard-pressed Spanish monarch signed a 12-year armistice with the Dutch in 1609, allowing free trade in Asia. The Dutch used this opportunity to build trading posts and forts throughout Indonesia. They developed a flourishing trade in spices based not on force but on favorable purchases and sales in the open market. The armistice with Spain was not renewed in 1621. Portugal and Spain again barred Dutch merchants from their harbors. The Dutch then imposed a tight naval blockade of Portuguese trading ports in Africa and southern Asia. When peace was established in 1645, Portuguese trade was ruined. The Dutch ruled the seas.

England’s interest in the New World began with John Cabot’s voyage to North America in 1498 in search of a northwest passage to the Pacific. Failing in that purpose, Cabot discovered what became the world’s richest cod fishery off the coast of Newfoundland. In the 16th century, fishing for cod turned out to be more profitable than mining silver. Sebastian Cabot, John’s son, made another attempt on England’s behalf to reach the Far East by a sea route. In 1553, he set sail on a voyage around the northern part of Norway with a fleet of three ships. Two ships perished in the Arctic Sea but the third reached the current site of Archangel. From there the ship’s captain traveled overland to Moscow where Czar Ivan the Terrible received him cordially. The Russians realized that they had found an alternative source of European goods. The English found a source of furs and a potential market for their woolen products. The Muscovy Company, first of England’s great colonial shareholders’ companies, was formed in 1555 to take advantage of that opportunity.

Several other companies were established to represent English commercial interests in diverse parts of the world. The Levant Company obtained a royal charter to trade with the Ottoman empire in exchange for an annual duty of at least 500 pounds. England set up consulates in Syria and Egypt. Despite official obstacles, its merchants did a brisk and profitable trade with countries bordering the Mediterranean sea. However, the defeat of the Invincible Armada and England’s subsequent retaliation against Spanish ports brought an end to lawful trade with the Iberian countries and their colonies in Africa and the Americas. No English ship dared sail past the Straights of Gibraltar into the Mediterranean sea. Therefore, merchants of the Levant Company sought other channels for trade in oriental goods. John Newbury persuaded its management to send him and five companions on a mission around southern Africa. Though unsuccessful, this expedition gave the English a close look at the riches of India. They learned intimate details of conditions in China, as well as boat construction, by capturing a Portuguese vessel off the Azores in 1592. Queen Elizabeth sent a fleet of ships to explore trade with China which, unfortunately, sank during a storm.

The English persisted in pursuing trade opportunities. The East India Company, an association of English merchants, received a charter from the queen on December 31, 1600, granting them a monopoly on trade in the Eastern Hemisphere. At first, this venture was hindered by falling prices for pepper and spice, by opposition from its European rivals, and by the fact that south Asian peoples had little use for English woolen goods. After the Dutch made it clear that they would not tolerate an English presence in Indonesia, the East India Company decided to concentrate on trade with India where it was hoped they might acquire goods to be traded later for Javan spices. An Englishman named Midnall had made friendly contact with the Mogul emperor, Akbar the Great. Officials of the East India Company followed up on that visit by sending another fleet to India. The Portuguese, entrenched at Goa, blocked English efforts to establish trading posts in western India. However, the English commander, Hawkins, traveled to Agra to plead his case with the Indian emperor. Emperor Jahangir, Akbar’s successor, granted the English all the commercial privileges that they requested. This was the beginning of a long and fruitful association between the British East India Company and the Mogul dynasty.

Although the papal bull of 1493 had granted Spain all American lands except for Brazil, the Spanish crown was too busy with administering its Mexican and South American colonies to pay much attention to North America. Other European nations, starting with France, explored the coastal and interior waterways of this continent. English kings in the 17th century granted royal charters which allowed individuals to settle and govern tracts of land in North America so long as their rule did not conflict with English law. One such colony was established at Jamestown in 1607, and another in Massachusetts in 1620. Groups of religious dissenters who felt oppressed by the Church of England flocked to the New World. The first major influx brought more than 20,000 Englishmen, mostly Puritans, to colonies in New England before the English Civil War erupted in 1642. Other religious minorities, including Quakers and Roman Catholics, were given opportunities for exile to American colonies. During the reign of Charles II, the English government began to tighten its regulation of those colonies. The Navigation Acts, enacted between 1660 and 1696, required that American commerce be transported in ships built and operated by English nationals. The Crown also altered or revoked many colonial charters, placing its North American subjects under the control of appointed governors.

The Spanish possessions in America were on a still tighter leash. From the beginning, the King of Spain ruled his American empire by a thick, detailed code of laws. Persons wishing to emigrate to the Americas had to apply for a permit. A Supreme Council of the Indies, headed by the king, made the major administrative decisions in Spain, while viceroys, judges, and other bureaucrats carried out its mandates on site. The Pope gave the Spanish monarch authority over religious as well as political matters in return for a commitment to maintain the church. Special attention was paid to the treatment of native peoples. Generally, the church acted to protect them from severe exploitation and to gain conversions by persuasion rather than by force. On the other hand, the native population declined precipitously during the first century of Spanish rule. In Portuguese Brazil, the colonial government was more loosely organized. The real power lay in the hands of the large plantation owners. The European and native American peoples mixed more freely in Latin America than in the English colonies to the north, producing a hybrid race. By 1800, the population of Spanish America had reached 18 million. Its cities rivaled those of Europe both in size of populations and in culture and wealth.

French settlements in the Americas were concentrated along the St. Lawrence river in Quebec. French fur traders in the Great Lakes region obtained beaver pelts from Indian trappers in exchange for rifles, knives, and steel implements. These pelts were used for the high-priced beaver hats worn by European nobility. Louis XIV of France, who set the pace of fashion in Europe, had his eye on European conquests rather than overseas colonies. He built ornate palaces such as the royal residence at Versailles. The king’s finance minister, Jean Baptiste Colbert, had ambitious ideas about making France an economic power. His memorandum written in 1664 recommended the creation of a French East and West Indies Company. Colbert was the architect of a planned economy aiming to make France economically self-sufficient. French textiles and other manufactured goods were prized objects of trade. Colbert hoped to obtain American silver from Spain in payment for its trade deficit with France which could be used to purchase spices in Asia. However, the Spaniards hoarded their silver. Colbert’s mercantilist strategy of restricting imports and pushing exports became self-defeating when other nations followed suit. Ultimately, his micromanagement ran the French economy into the ground. France was bankrupt when Louis XIV died in 1715.

Colonial Trade

Wars impose heavy costs upon national economies. To raise money for its protracted wars against France, the English government in 1694 gave a group of merchants the right to issue bank notes to the extent of their invested capital. This bank immediately loaned the government its entire capital of 1.2 million pounds sterling. It then issued paper money good for purchasing precious metals and foreign bills of exchange. That is how the Bank of England began. After Louis XIV’s death, a Scottish financier named John Law convinced the Duke of Orleans to allow him to establish a similar institution in France. The French economy was then facing a severe monetary squeeze. Law proposed to restore money and credit by issuing bank notes backed by his own capital. The Banque Générale Law et Cie was created for that purpose in May 1716. While acceptance of the bank notes was voluntary, Law’s scheme was successful. The French government took over the bank in 1718. Law, as controller general of finances, merged the royal bank with a stock company which he had formed to promote land sales in Louisiana. There was a frenzy of speculation which increased the price of the stock to unsustainable levels. When the price collapsed in December 1720, Law fled the country. The English “South Sea Bubble” burst about the same time.

While financial speculation had brought Law’s downfall, the idea behind his Mississippi company was basically sound. Law intended to attract European settlers to the French Louisiana territory where they might cultivate crops that could be marketed in Europe. The chief crops were coffee, sugar, and tobacco. Law would encourage the settlers to grow these crops on plantations and would extend credit to them to purchase necessities from Europe while the crops matured. He would also use credit for the settlers to purchase African slaves to work the plantations. Law consolidated all the French overseas trading companies into one, purchased the colony of Louisiana, secured the tobacco monopoly, and expanded the French slave trade. Although his Mississippi Company operated for only two years, those years marked a shift in the direction of European commerce. Previously, European merchants had focused upon the trade in spices from the East Indies. Law’s enterprise diverted attention to the West Indies. Europeans acquired a taste for those exotic goods which, Ernst Samhaber wrote, “introduced into the chilly West the whole seductive warmth of the topics and the sweet ease of life in a sunny climate.”

France and England were now on a collision course. Once united in opposition to Spanish power, the two nations clashed when England joined the “Grand Alliance” against Louis XIV. In North America, the French had a long-standing alliance with the Huron tribe of Indians who supplied them with beaver pelts taken from interior waters. The Iroquois Indians attacked the Hurons, forcing the French to take sides. Dutch fur traders stationed in New Amsterdam, and later the British, sided with the Iroquois, who promised to divert the fur trade from the St. Lawrence river to the Hudson. Thus, the European powers were drawn into conflict for trade dominance. This struggle was resolved a century later with the English general Wolfe’s capture of Quebec in 1759 which ended the “French and Indian War”. When England’s American colonies broke away from their mother country in the mid 1770s, the British and their Iroquois allies fought the colonial rebels then aided by the French. George Washington, an English officer in their earlier conflict, was commander in chief of the American colonials. After this war was concluded, Canada remained a British possession with a sizable French-speaking minority in the Quebec province.

Both England and France had trading companies in India. As the Mogul empire weakened during the 18th century, these companies formed strategic alliances with Indian princes and became militarily engaged. Robert Clive’s victories over the French and Dutch between 1748 and 1760 put England in a dominant position. The British East India Company took over the administration of provincial governments in northern India on behalf of the Mogul empire. Its representatives grew rich from exercise of their official duties. To combat corruption, the British Parliament assumed joint control of the Indian government in 1774, ruling through a series of governor generals. Public administration was actually an unprofitable undertaking for the East India Company. Its money was made in the tea trade. A publicity campaign in the 1720s had persuaded the English public to drink tea rather than coffee. Whenever the British government needed money, it raised the tax on tea. This strategy backfired when in 1774 a band of American colonials disguised as Indians dumped a shipload of tea into the Boston Harbor to protest the increased taxes. The British retaliated, bringing on the American war of independence.

During colonial times, North America participated in a highly profitable three-cornered trade. Ships from England carrying textiles, beads, and metal wares sailed first to the coast of west Africa, where they exchanged these goods for human slaves. The ships then sailed across the Atlantic ocean to the Caribbean islands, Brazil, or England’s North American colonies, which needed the African slaves for plantation laborers. In the Americas, merchants purchased such products as sugar, coffee, and tobacco from the plantations, as well as timber and fish. Those commodities went back to England to complete the cycle. The West Indian products, especially rum distilled from the sugar, had greater commercial appeal for Europeans during the late 18th century than the traditional eastern luxuries of spices and silk. There was also an assured demand for slaves in the New World. The key to this trade was finding items which the slave-hunting chieftains of west Africa would accept in exchange. Each chieftain preferred certain products.

Later, leaders of the Dahomey and Ashanti tribes from the interior of west Africa offered to furnish the white merchants an unlimited number of slaves in exchange for firearms which they could use to subdue their rivals. They organized regular manhunts nabbing a greatly increased number of captives. Portuguese navigators had begun the slave trade in the 15th century, and the Dutch had expanded it. The English brought this trade to a peak. An estimated 900,000 slaves were shipped from Africa to America in the 16th century. That number rose to 1.7 million slaves in the 17th century, and to over 7 million in the 18th century, before dropping off in the 19th century. Slavery was abolished in the British West Indies in 1833; in the United States, in 1865, following the U.S. Civil War; and in Brazil, in 1888. Most black African slaves were brought to islands in the West Indies and to Brazil; less than a million went to the United States. Many others died during the Atlantic passage.

Liverpool was the center of the English slave trade as well as trade in manufactured products. Over 300,000 slaves were brought across the ocean on ships sailing from that port between 1783 and 1793. However, the cargo carried back to England had changed. Instead of coffee, bales of cotton were starting to appear. There was not enough land in the West Indies to grow this crop, so cotton began to be cultivated in the southern part of the United States. Unfortunately, the variety of cotton which grew well in that region was difficult to gin. Eli Whitney’s cotton gin, invented in 1793, solved this problem. Another problem was the lack of labor to weave cotton cloth. Again, mechanical inventions came to the rescue, including Hargreaves’ spinning jenny and Crompton’s “mule” machine, both powered by steam engines. Cheap textiles made of cotton replaced woolen goods as England’s leading export product. In India, once an exporter of cotton textiles, machine-produced goods imported from England underbid the local product and threw millions of weavers out of work. Much of England’s wool business moved to Australia. Twenty-nine merino sheep shipped there in 1787 multiplied into today’s herds.

Trade Competition in the Industrial Age

The Industrial Revolution resulted from technologies that came from the natural sciences. According to Arnold Toynbee, the religious wars which raged in Europe during the 17th century were so hateful and intense that men of intelligence turned their attention instead to the natural world. While theological questions were clearly divisive, men could be friends as fellow students of nature. “Before the close of the (17th) century,” wrote Toynbee, “Religion had been replaced by Technology ... as the paramount interest and pursuit of the leading spirits in the Western society.” The Royal Society of London, proposed first by Sir Francis Bacon in The New Atlantis, was established in 1660 by a group of men who, tired of religious controversies that had led to the English Civil War, wished instead to discuss the physical world. Earlier in the century, Galileo had built a telescope which allowed men to study celestial objects. A Dutch lens grinder, Anton van Leeuwenhoek, used the microscope to observe cell tissues, bacteria, and other minute objects. Sir Isaac Newton, a president of the Royal Society, worked out mathematical equations describing fundamental relationships that underlay gravitation, optics, and physical motion.

It took about a century for this interest in science to be translated into technological improvements affecting daily life. A system of crop rotation introduced from Holland in the late 17th century helped to increase wheat yields in England and so supply foods that would keep livestock alive during the winter. Starting in the 1760s, inland canals began to be used to transport coal from mines to industrial centers such as Manchester. James Brindley of Staffordshire designed and built almost four hundred miles of canals. A new generation of ironmongers built iron bridges across rivers. Men such as Joseph Priestley, Josiah Wedgwood, and Benjamin Franklin conducted scientific experiments with gases, metals, ceramics, and electricity which had practical applications. The most important technological advancement may have been James Watt’s invention of the steam-driven engine, which was installed in an English cotton mill in 1785. A steam engine was attached to a boat in 1802, and to a railroad locomotive in 1804. Steamboats were in use both in England and the United States by the first decade of the 19th century. The age of railroads began in the 1820s.

What is called the Industrial Revolution started in the English cotton mills. Production techniques were improved not only by Watt’s steam engine but by a host of other mechanical inventions including the spinning jenny, spinning frame, mule, and power loom. Samuel Slater’s theft of English technology brought this industry to America in 1790. The use of special machines to weave cotton and produce cotton cloth allowed much more cloth to be produced in an hour of operation than before. Cloth produced this way could be sold for lower prices than cloth produced in the traditional manner. Business shifted to the new mode of production. Textiles factories required people to tend the machines. Some came from villages whose cottage industries and local handicrafts were meanwhile being ruined by competition from factory-made products. Others came from the farm. The development of commercial law made it possible for business managers to have legally enforceable contracts to buy and sell various commodities including labor. Because the factory system was based on commercial contracts, its enterprises did not employ slave labor but workers whose had agreed to sell their effort and skill for a certain time in exchange for wages.

Most nations, including the United States, adopted a policy of protecting their infant manufacturing industries by high tariffs, even at the risk of killing their shipping business and foreign trade. Napoleon Bonaparte tried to choke British commerce with the “Continental System”, which prohibited trade with England in any lands under his control. The effect was to deprive European consumers of the coffee, sugar, and tobacco which the British had once supplied and to ruin French agriculture. Napoleon was forced to grant numerous “licenses”, excepting one or another special situation. Trade was resumed after the war; however, Europe was impoverished from its devastation and had become used to making do with homegrown products. That situation bred policies of trade protection. In 1815, English landed gentry persuaded Parliament to ban wheat imports when the price was below a certain level. Wheat prices rose in England, increasing hunger in its cities. They fell in France, where the farmers suffered. As protectionism spread through Europe, trade and employment plummeted. Although the French Revolution had established the individual right to choose a career, this meant little to people working in a depressed economic environment.

British manufacturers, who enjoyed a comparative advantage in most kinds of products, supported a campaign for “free trade” which would open foreign markets to them at the cost of accepting more competition from imported goods. Richard Cobden, a former cotton merchant from Manchester, led the fight for repeal of the corn laws in 1846. He persuaded the French emperor Napoleon III to enter into an agreement with Great Britain for a mutual reduction of tariffs in 1860. Two years later, France signed a similar agreement with Prussia. The volume of world trade expanded enormously. In contrast with previous periods, this trade included foodstuffs, steel, and other necessities, not just luxury goods. In the Far East, the campaign to liberalize trade was accompanied by military force. Admiral Matthew Perry of the United States opened Japan to foreign commerce and cultural influence after centuries of isolation. Recognizing their own backwardness, the Japanese eagerly modernized their society along western lines. British gunboats forced China to accept opium imports from India after the Chinese government banned this narcotic in 1839. The reason was that the East India Company needed a product to trade for Chinese tea.

During the 19th century, the new industrial order of Europe and North America marched triumphantly over the rest of the world. The old plantation system was in retreat; slavery was finished. The large Jesuit plantations in South America which had produced agricultural exports with Indian labor had been swept away in the previous century. The King of France banned the Jesuit Order in 1764 when the Society was unable to pay its debts from speculative ventures in Martinique. In the late 1860s, cotton plantations in the southern United States fell into ruin as the Confederacy met with military defeat. American wheat farmers, cultivating large acreages with mechanized harvesting equipment, shipped huge quantities of grain by railroad to urban markets in their own country and abroad. New mineral discoveries were made in remote parts of the earth. A transportation network consisting first of inland canals and then railroads allowed inexpensive shipment of commodities from their point of production to distant markets. Electric telegraph lines communicated information instantaneously. New alloys and processes of production improved the cost and quality of steel.

Giant corporations arose to produce newly invented products. Capitalizing on his ties to the railroads, a Scottish immigrant to the United States, Andrew Carnegie, acquired one quarter of this nation’s steel-production capacity by paying close attention to quality and cost and by busting unions. He imported from England the Bessemer process of producing steel from cast iron. John D. Rockefeller created the Standard Oil trust through mergers, efficient production, and aggressive moves against business competitors. In Germany, firms such as Bayer, BASF, and Hoechst captured much of the world’s market for artificial dyes. Synthetic drugs such as aspirin and materials such as celluloid were other products of chemical research. Thomas Edison’s laboratories in Menlo Park and East Orange, New Jersey, invented and developed a variety of products that used electricity. An American tinkerer and race-car driver, Henry Ford, helped to found an automobile-manufacturing firm that bears his name. He is credited with inventing the factory assembly line. His “Model T” Ford offered a reliable product which people could afford. Henry Ford also built up the market for automobiles by paying his workers high wages and scheduling shorter hours of work. In the process, he became one of the richest men on earth.

The Labor Movement

The Industrial Revolution, which began in England during the late 18th century, increased production efficiency and wealth but also increased wealth inequality. Cheap factory-produced goods undercut the market for goods less efficiently produced in handicraft industries. The enclosure and privatization of once public lands by several acts of Parliament closed off the opportunity that rural people might eke out a living in such places. So a multitude of persons, having nothing to sell but their labor, migrated from the countryside into industrial cities. In theory, the new system of contractual labor respected the workers’ freedom and dignity. In practice, individual workers were at a disadvantage in bargaining with their employer. Given a lack of alternative employment in the villages, employers could pick and choose among job applicants, play one off against another, and, if necessary, blacklist uncooperative individuals. The dynamics of increasing production efficiency meant that fewer workers were needed to tend the machines so unemployment tended to increase. Employers had a financial incentive to pay workers as little as possible and extract from them a maximum amount of work. This led to an upward spiral in scheduled work hours. Around 1800, people customarily worked 14 hours a day in the factories, and sometimes longer.

A possible remedy for this intolerable situation was for several workers to bargain jointly with their employer so as to obtain more favorable contracts. However, the British Parliament passed a law in 1799 forbidding such “combinations” which were intended to raise wages or prices in restraint of trade. Effectively, some workers could undercut their fellow employees by agreeing privately to a lower wage. It was necessary for workers to communicate with one another, if only in secret. The earliest workers’ organizations were therefore secret societies which, being illegal, sometimes resorted to violence. Parliament legalized labor unions in 1824-25 so that collective bargaining could take place in the open. Labor issues also became part of reform legislation enacted during this period. The Factory Act of 1833, introduced in Parliament by the Earl of Shaftesbury, limited the hours that children of various ages were allowed to work. A universal 10-hour bill was passed by the British Parliament in 1848. Factory workers were becoming an increasingly active economic and political force in society. Worker agitation built up to a peak in 1848, when the English Chartists pushed their program of universal male suffrage and other reforms.

Perhaps the most important person in the early labor movement in Great Britain was not a worker but Robert Owen, owner of a textile factory. In 1800, Owen bought his father-in-law’s cotton mills at New Lanark, Scotland, which he managed for 29 years. There Owen created a model industrial community where the firm’s 2,500 employees enjoyed superior housing and sanitation, stores with fair prices, and free schooling. The work day at New Lanark was 10 1/2 hours compared with 13 or 14 hours in rival mills. Owen was the principal promoter of the Factory Act of 1819, which limited working hours for women and children. He supported trade unions and agricultural-industrial coops and agitated for a universal eight-hour day. In later years, Owen established a utopian community at New Harmony, Indiana, which used labor rather than gold as a medium of economic exchange. The idealism of Owen and others fed a current of labor activity which appealed to intellectuals and ultimately became the socialist movement.

Another force was the trade-union movement itself. After labor unions became legal in 1824, British workers rapidly organized, especially in the mining and textiles industries. The Trade Union Congress was formed in 1868 to coordinate policies on a national scale. Trade unions also arose in Germany and other nations of continental Europe after the revolution of 1848, as well as in North America. Initially, labor agitation was focused upon reducing the length of the working day. In 1825, carpenters in Boston struck unsuccessfully for a ten-hour day. However, a general strike in 1835 over the same issue persuaded the Philadelphia city government to adopt a “6 to 6” daily schedule, including two hours off for lunch. In 1840, President Martin Van Buren signed an order granting all mechanics and laborers in the executive branch of the federal government a uniform ten-hour day. Another burst of activity took place in the United States around the time of the Civil War when a national movement to promote the eight-hour day headed by a Boston machinist, Ira Steward, achieved several legislative victories. These proved to be hollow. The fight for the eight-hour day continued throughout the 1870s. In the summer of 1872, more than 100,000 building-trades workers in New York City struck for three months to win this concession.

On May 1, 1886, U.S. and Canadian unions conducted a general strike in support of the eight-hour day in several large cities. An estimated 350,000 workers participated in this “May Day” strike. It is best remembered for the bombing which occurred in Chicago’s Haymarket Square three days after the strike and for the trial in which four labor leaders were convicted of inciting violence and sentenced to death. The American Federation of Labor was organized in Ohio later that year. This organization made plans for another strike on May 1, 1890. When delegates to a conference of the Second International in Paris heard of those plans, they endorsed the event. European trade unions, supported by socialists, staged a general strike for the eight-hour day on the same day as the North Americans’ strike, thus turning “May Day” into an international labor holiday. The socialists were a group of political agitators who advocated that labor-friendly governments seize control of productive enterprise. The American Federation of Labor rejected this sweeping program and thereafter confined themselves largely to bargaining with employers to their members’ best economic advantage.

The eight-hour day came to pass in most industrialized countries around the time of World War I. Its standard is embodied in the first convention of the International Labor Organization, adopted in 1919. Two years earlier, Marxist socialists had seized control of the Russian state. That brought labor questions to the forefront of world politics. When Russian communism brought other peoples into its political orbit after World War II, the earth’s nations became divided into a socialist and capitalist camp, each governed by a quasi-religious economic philosophy. Karl Marx and his associates had founded the International Workingmen’s Association, later known as the “First International”, in London in 1864. The “Second International”, founded after Marx’s death, included the leaders of most European socialist parties in the period between 1890 and 1919. Then, with the triumph of Bolshevism, the “Third International” was created to serve the ideological objectives of the Soviet state. The overthrow of the Stalinist empire in the former Soviet Union and eastern Europe represented a major setback to those ideals. Meanwhile, the western labor movement has been weakened by the disparity of incomes between union and nonunion workers and the globalization of labor competition.


It may be that the western labor movement is a victim of its own success. Its purpose lay in overcoming economic disadvantage. As the unions succeeded in increasing wages and reducing hours, however, the working class graduated into a more comfortable condition of life. Its new middle-class status raised expectations that the workers’ children were in a position to seize even greater opportunities for advancement in society. The gateway to this multigenerational improvement was education. Education cultivated the mind, rendering it fit for glorious achievements. Persons trained at the universities might become lawyers, doctors, or prime ministers though their parents were poor. It was so much more satisfying to become associated with such an institution, which promised success through individual effort and intelligence, than to belong to an organization representing people who worked with their backs and hands and, if contract talks were successful, won pay increases regardless of merit. So the prospering trade unionists abandoned their heritage built on claims of disadvantage and went for the brighter future that education held forth.

Western education is rooted in medieval institutions associated loosely with the church. Theological training, along with studies in medicine, law, and the liberal arts, formed the core of the curriculum at the University of Paris. A strong humanist tradition developed with exposure to classical Greek and Roman writings. After 1500, Europeans learned to imitate the styles of Latin authors from the period between Cicero and Augustus. The Protestant Reformation, led by religious scholars, viewed education as a means of acquiring direct knowledge of Christian teachings. Indoctrination in religion was the spiritual equivalent of military training for Catholics and Protestants alike. Mistrusting the educated poor, the princes of Europe later tried to take control of the schools and turn them into devices to attract clever young men for service to society. H.G. Wells observed that “the university was part of the recognized machinery of aristocracy ... A pompous and unintelligent classical pretentiousness dominated them ... The only knowledge recognized was an uncritical textual knowledge of a selection of Latin and Greek classics, and the test of a good style was its abundance of quotations, allusions, and stereotyped expressions ... Such a training ... showed the world reflected in a distorting mirror of bad historical analogies.”

Prussia responded to the challenge of defeat by Napoleon’s armies in numerous ways, including reorganization of its schools. University education was improved, and the gymnasium became the center of training for a social elite. Applied science was added to the curriculum. Thanks to its academic institutions, Germany became a leader in chemical technologies. When Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha married England’s Queen Victoria, he took pains to warn his adopted country of its educational deficiencies. He initiated the university commission of 1850 and, a year later, the first International Exhibition at Hyde Park in London, whose purpose was to show the English what other European nations had accomplished artistically and industrially. Anglo-German rivalry during the second half of the 19th century prompted much soul searching among British educators, especially when the Germans began to compete with Britain for naval power. National competitiveness dictated more rigorous training in the natural sciences. The British public began to see the need for popular education, now that steam power had reduced the demand for persons who worked with their muscles and increased the demand for workers who exercised judgment and skill.

The irony was that Great Britain and France, whose educational systems stressed literature and classical studies, had led the way in making scientific discoveries and developing useful technologies based on this knowledge. The great pioneers of experimental science were, for the most part, persons without much education. Neither Kepler nor Descartes were affiliated with a university. Benjamin Franklin, Michael Faraday, and Thomas Edison were largely self-taught. James Watt lacked a university education although he did consult with Joseph Black, a professor of chemistry at Glasgow. Joseph Priestley went to divinity school. Yet, the German example of academic training in the sciences made a deep impression upon the British public. At first, the idea of popular education was quite humorous to Britain’s educated elite. Wells reports that “in the middle Victorian period it was thought to be extraordinarily funny that a shop assistant should lean across the counter and ask two lady customers not to speak French, as he ‘understood the langwidge’ ... The German competitor later on robbed that joke of its fun. Before the death of Queen Victoria, English shop assistants were being badgered to attend evening classes to learn French.”

A western university education had another purpose which, in the long run, had enormous historical impact. With the rise of western science and especially military science, the balance of political power in the world shifted decisively toward the west. Nonwestern leaders realized that, for the sake of self-preservation, their nations needed to modernize along western lines. Specifically, these nations needed to acquire the weapons technology to defend themselves against western aggression. In some cases, they employed westerners as military advisers. Moroccan kings defeated an invading Portuguese army in the 16th century with the help of western weapons technology and recruits. Ranjit Singh in the 19th century employed veterans of Napoleon’s army as instructors to fight the British in India. Eventually, however, these nonwestern regimes found that mere possession of technology was not enough. To use it effectively, they needed disciplined troops, good hygiene, adequate public finances, supporting industrial facilities, and other features of western society. They needed a wholesale adoption of western culture. What they did not want, however, was western religion because conversion to Christianity would mean the loss of their own spiritual identity.

Some nonwestern governments decided to modernize completely. Peter the Great of Russia (1682-1725) is an example of this policy. The young czar traveled to the west and even worked as a carpenter at a shipyard in the Netherlands to gain experience of western methods before returning to his country and embarking upon a program of modernization. Others, in the 19th century, include the Ottoman emperor Mahmud II, King Mongkut of Thailand, and the Japanese reformers of the Meiji restoration. The most common way for nonwestern nations to acquire knowledge of western ways was to send young men to be educated in Europe. A barrier was that most western universities had religious qualifications for students. Until 1871, for example, Oxford University required each candidate for a degree to declare personal acceptance of the Thirty-Nine Articles promulgated by the Church of England. An exception was the University of Padua, located in Venetian territory, which allowed non-Catholics to be admitted. It became a favorite of Greek students, both in Venice and the Ottoman empire. As religious tolerance spread in Europe, more universities dropped their requirement of assent to the locally accepted version of Christianity, and a western education became more attractive to foreign students. This happened just as western technology was demonstrating its superiority.

What had started slowly became a torrent in the 19th century. A new class of western-educated natives of nonwestern societies appeared in nations around the earth. The name, “intelligentsia”, has been given to this group in Russia. Living between two worlds, such individuals became an interface between westerners and their own society. Many took high government positions where they carried out modernization programs. While the nonwestern governments had generally supported this class, the intelligentsia sometimes pursued its own agenda. Westernized Greeks under Prince Ypsilanti rebelled against the Ottoman empire in 1821. A corps of Russian officers conspired against Czar Alexander I in 1825. Both rebellions were crushed. Foreign students in Europe tended to pick up on intellectual and cultural fashions of the day. The Marxist ideology appealed to European intellectuals during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Chou En-lai and Ho Chi Minh began their revolutionary activities in Paris just after World War I. Sun Yat-sen was educated in Honolulu. Mohandas Gandhi studied in London. Nehru attended Harrow and Cambridge University. Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana attended Lincoln University in the United States. It is fair to say that the anticolonialist movements of the mid 20th century were products both of nationalism and a western education.

The original lure of western culture had been its technology, especially fire arms and artillery. German-style training in science spurred British education, as, a century later, the Soviet launching of Sputnik inspired increased appropriations for American colleges and schools on the theory that the Russians had more rigorous training in science. In the 1930s and 1940s, it did seem that academic science was the key to technological advance. The atom bomb and electronic computers were first developed in that milieu. Yet, ultimately, U.S. education has been more concerned with building a homogeneous society. It has taken an immigrant population and taught them to be Americans. It has molded farm populations, veterans returning from war, racial minorities, and other irregular types into persons who could live in the cities and hold professional jobs. This function is not unlike that of teaching foreigners how to cope with western society. All the power and wealth that this society has to offer is made available to the one trained to make the right approach.

National Histories

A political dream in Europe has been to duplicate what was happening in China at the other end of the Eurasian continent. Once the first Ch’in emperor had created a unified empire, it never really came apart. Sometimes a dynasty would fall, barbarians would intrude, and the empire might be split into several kingdoms; but, inevitably, the Chinese empire would be reconstructed. In western Europe, on the other hand, the political fragmentation that began with the Germanic invasions of the Roman empire in the 5th century A.D. has persisted into modern times. Political empires such as Charlemagne’s which comprised the bulk of western Europe proved ephemeral. The Roman Popes tried to unify Europe in a quasi-political religious empire, but this enterprise was doomed by the Great Schism of the 14th century and the Protestant Reformation. Ironically, the empire which European monarchs sought to achieve in Europe was collectively built on a global scale during the third epoch of world history. This, too, has come apart in the 20th century.

CivIII political history is characterized by a plurality of nations rather than by unified empires. Its “prophet” was an Italian writer and one-time political advisor named Niccolò Machiavelli who had advised the political ruler of Florence for ten years until the Medici family took charge in 1512. His book, The Prince, published posthumously in 1532, tells what he had learned during that time. Machiavelli denied that the object of statecraft was to advance Christian ideals or build a better society. Politics, as it was actually practiced, was about getting and keeping power. Therefore, heads of state ought to pursue their political self-interest without reservation or remorse. Machiavelli also recommended the “balance of power” strategy which guided European diplomacy in centuries to come. This strategy dictated that parochial princes combine to oppose any other prince who became too powerful. For example, Lorenzo de’ Medici kept the peace by aligning the power of Florence and Milan against Venice and Naples. In the military struggle between Emperor Charles V and Francis I of France during the 1520s, Charles was supported by the Pope and England’s Henry VIII; Francis, by the Ottoman Turks. Once Charles appeared to be winning, Henry and the Pope abruptly switched sides and supported Francis.

The Carolingian dynasty of Charlemagne and his heirs established the geographical framework within which the European nation states emerged. In 843, Charlemagne’s Frankish empire was divided between his three grandsons. Charles the Bald received most of present-day France. Lewis the German received the eastern German territories. The middle strip of land running from Belgium through Italy was assigned to Lothaire, who was also named Holy Roman Emperor. During the 10th century, the German territories and most of Italy were united in the empire of Otto the Great. France was then comprised of a royal domain surrounding Paris and several large fiefdoms, including Burgundy, Normandy, Brittany, and Aquitaine. The Normans conquered lands in southern Italy and Sicily during the 11th century to establish the Kingdom of Two Sicilies. In 1066, Duke William of Normandy defeated the English king, Harold, at the Battle of Hastings. His Norman dynasty unified England. The English and Burgundians together battled the French dynasty of Hugh Capet. In its darkest hour, a peasant girl, Joan of Arc, saved France from destruction, expelling the English. King Louis XI of France (1461-83) later brought Burgundy under control. From that time forth, France was a strong and united monarchy.

At the end of the 15th century, the marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella united the Iberian kingdoms of Castile and Aragon which for centuries had been pushing the Moors back toward North Africa. This task was completed in 1492. Their grandson, Charles V, was also the grandson of the Austrian Habsburg emperor, Maximilian I. Upon Maximilian’s death in 1519, Charles became sole heir to a European empire which included Spain, Austria, Hungary, Bohemia, the Netherlands, the Kingdom of Two Sicilies, and, of course, Spain’s American possessions. In addition, as Holy Roman Emperor, he indirectly controlled the German states of Central Europe. The French king, Francis I, was Charles’ principal rival. Seemingly a child of destiny, Charles had the misfortune to be a Catholic monarch and emperor at the time of the Protestant Reformation. He faced open rebellion from German princes who supported Luther. War broke out in 1546 between Protestant and Catholic forces, and again in 1552. Charles chose to retire to a monastery. Between 1554 and 1556, he turned over his possessions in Italy, Sicily, the Netherlands, and Spain to his son Philip. The Habsburg possessions in Central Europe he bequeathed to his brother Ferdinand. Charles died two years later.

Religious warfare continued into the next century. England had turned Protestant as a result of Henry VIII’s quarrel with the Pope over a divorce. The Thirty Year’s War, which began in 1618, devastated central Europe. It began with resistance to the Catholic Habsburg king Ferdinand II by Protestant Bohemian princes, and grew to include Denmark, Sweden, France, Spain, and most German states. This war pitted Catholics against Protestants and much of Europe (including France) against the Habsburg dynasty. Rivalry between the two Catholic superpowers, France and Austria, continued into the next century. Catholic Spain, which had been united with Portugal in 1580, made a brief bid to conquer its European neighbors under Philip II. However, its power was eroded by the Dutch Civil War of 1567-1648, disastrous naval expeditions against England and Holland, and the revolt of Portugal and Catalonia. In the late 17th century, it was France’s turn, having achieved cultural ascendancy in Europe, to seek corresponding political dominance. Louis XIV, the Sun King, engaged in a series of aggressive wars against his neighbors to the east, but was effectively opposed by the Dutch, Swedes, Spanish, and English. Europe’s most populous nation, France was weakened by expulsion of its industrious Protestant minority.

Later, the English and French struggled for dominance. The British evicted the French from North America between 1690 and 1763, and from India between 1746 and 1761. Having survived several Turkish sieges of Vienna, the Habsburg Austrian dynasty recovered Hungary at the expense of the Ottoman empire. It inherited Spanish territories in the southern Netherlands and Lombardy. Leopold I persuaded Serbia to join the Habsburg empire by offering religious freedom. Czar Peter the Great defeated Sweden between 1700 and 1722, annexing territories along the Baltic sea. The Russians conquered Belorussia and much of the Ukraine from the Ottoman empire under Catherine the Great. Then the rising power of Brandenburg-Prussia clashed with the Austrians, Russians, and French. Poland was partitioned between Prussia, Russia, and Austria. The French revolution brought Napoleon to power. His principal opponents were the Germans, Russians, and British. Napoleon’s empire encompassed most of continental Europe, but his ill-fated Russian invasion sapped its military strength. By this time, religious motives no longer played a significant role in European warfare. Wars were fought primarily for political and commercial advantage. Instead of involving the civilian populations, the combatants employed uniformed soldiers who furnished their own supplies and fought within limits.

Napoleon’s conquests enkindled nationalistic feeling among the German and Italian people. Italy was united as a nation under the monarchy of Victor Emmanuel II in the period between 1859 and 1870. Prince Otto von Bismarck was instrumental in uniting the German states under Prussian rule in the period between 1866 and 1871. Germany established itself as the strongest military power in Europe by defeating France in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71. France and England meanwhile added new colonial possessions in Africa and acquired trade enclaves in China. In Asia, the westernized Japanese empire defeated Manchu China in 1894-95, accelerating its partition by western powers, and then defeated Russia in 1904-05. The United States of America, which had consolidated its North American territories during the first half of the 19th century, evicted Spain from Cuba and the Philippines at the end of that century. The commercial rivalry between Great Britain and Germany was accompanied by formation of military alliances between France, Russia, and Britain. Still, the balance-of-power diplomacy enunciated by Machiavelli remained in effect. Then, a decade and a half into the new century, a bloody “world war” broke out in Europe itself. The civilization self-destructed.

World War I had an evident impact on the European political landscape. Four powerful monarchies disappeared after the war’s conclusion. All the monarchies belonging to the Central Powers disappeared: Kaiser Germany, the Habsburg Austro-Hungarian empire, and the Ottoman Turkish empire. In addition, Czarist Russia was replaced by the Soviet Union after, first, the Kerensky provisional government and, then, the Bolshevists seized power. The Americans, who had intervened on the winning side, carried with them an aura of the future. Democracy had triumphed over the old system of European monarchies. Several of the western monarchies which had participated in the war on both sides - the Habsburg dynasty excluded - were genealogically related, mostly through minor German nobility. Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm and King George V of England were both grandsons of Queen Victoria. The Kaiser imagined that the war might be settled by a polite conversation with his royal cousins, the British king and the Russian czar. It was not to be. The war swept away not only his government but a dream held by Europeans since Charlemagne. This last, loose empire of European monarchies was swept away.

Democracy and Revolution

The political situation at the end of the third epoch was the opposite of that which it had been at the beginning. In the early 16th century, three strong monarchs - Charles V of Germany and Spain, Francis I of France, and Henry VIII of England - bestrode western Europe. Each claimed title to his throne by virtue of a legitimate inheritance sanctioned by God. With the decline of the Papacy, the temporal ruler possessed nearly absolute power within his realm. He even had the power to choose his subjects’ religion. At the end of the epoch, the institution of monarchy appeared to be dying. Democratic government (or pseudo-democratic dictatorship) was taking its place. The political rulers were persons selected by the will of the people rather than divine favor. Government, which had arisen as a coercive institution in CivI, took on characteristics of the marketplace. It replaced autocratic rule with a softer regime whose power is based on the ability to sell itself to the public.

The transition from absolute monarchy to democratic government is another part of the story pertaining to CivIII. The Magna Carta, which King John I had signed to placate rebellious noblemen in 1215, started the trend toward a system of government which was accountable to the people. To build their lavish palaces and wage dynastic wars, the monarchs of Europe needed large sums of money, which had to be raised by taxation or borrowings from wealthy merchants and bankers. Parliaments were formed to facilitate the tax-collecting function. At first these were assemblies of men representing the shires and counties of the realm, who testified as to the tax-producing capacity of their area. The king had to call the parliament into session to seek additional sums of money, and this body enjoyed a certain right of refusal. Parliamentary government began to impinge upon the power of the English crown during the 17th century when Cromwell’s armies defeated the Royalists and Charles I was beheaded. A similar process occurred in France in the 1790s as the Estates General, convened by Louis XVI, seized absolute power. A new government was meanwhile being created in the United States of America in which an elected President took the place of the monarch.

As nomadic invasions of settled communities were a recurring theme in the first epoch of world history, so the history of CivIII is marked by a series of political upheavals which historians call “revolutions”. After Czarist Russia and Manchu China had completed their encirclement of the nomads’ pastoral homeland in the 17th century, the threat to civilized society from external barbarians subsided and became virtually extinct. The new barbarian threat came from within. The commercially developing societies of Europe had developed disparities between certain classes of people with respect to their economic and social condition. The “lower” classes, economically oppressed and dissatisfied with their lot, became a force threatening social stability. The European empires also came in conflict with colonized peoples who were deprived of their political liberty. These two types of grievance led to a new kind of “barbarian” eruption during the third epoch. Within the heart of the European world empire, masses of dissatisfied people were challenging the society in violent ways. The hordes of political and social revolutionaries turned the civilized world upside down.

Examples of these revolutions include: the Dutch revolt against Spain in the 16th century, the English Puritan revolution of the 17th century, the American and French revolutions of the late 18th century, and the Russian and Chinese revolutions of the 20th century. (See Table 6-3.) All of them involved bloodshed incurred in the course of rebellion against the reigning political authority. All were successful in seizing power. In the case of the English Puritan and French revolutions, however, this power subsequently reverted to rulers of the previous type after the death or defeat of their leader. All revolutions except for the Chinese were directed against the institution of monarchy. In the case of the English, French, and Russian revolutions, the lawful monarch was executed. In some cases, parliamentary government replaced the monarchy; in others, dictatorship. The aspiration for religious liberty played a part in the Dutch and English revolutions. On the other hand, the French revolutionaries were anti-cleric while the Russian and Chinese Marxists were atheistic. Religious issues generally played a less prominent role in these upheavals as time went by. Economic concerns became increasingly important.

The Dutch, American, and Chinese revolutions were anticolonial movements. The Dutch revolt against Spain was driven by a desire for tolerance of Protestant religion in a Catholic empire, for constitutional government, and protection of local interests. It resulted in the creation of an independent Dutch republic. The American Revolution opposed autocratic colonial government and “taxation without representation”. Its leaders likewise established an independent republic. Both supported and advanced the interests of the merchant class. The Chinese Revolution, on the other hand, combined the anti-plutocratic themes of Marxist revolution with opposition to western influence in China, including an immediate fight against Japanese imperialism. The other three revolutions were internal uprisings in the mother country. The English Puritan revolution featured a struggle for religious liberty and advancement of parliamentary government, but also included an element of social leveling. The French Revolution brought the emerging interests of the Third Estate - business people, workers, and peasants - to bear against the feudal privileges enjoyed by the nobility and Christian clergy. The Russian revolution of October 1917 was a coup d’état in a war-weary land instigated by members of an ideologically hardened political party which advocated socialism.

To sensibilities of the previous civilization, the idea that lower-class people would violently rebel against divinely appointed governments was indeed scandalous. It was shocking when such rebellions included executing a lawful king. The Puritan regicides became the worst of criminals once the beheaded monarch’s son, Charles II, regained the British throne. Yet, the verdict of history is colored by the fact that these revolutions succeeded. Since the victors write history, their bloody and unlawful acts are mitigated by the revolutionary ideals which they embraced: The English Puritans were fighting for religious liberty. The brave soldiers of the American Revolution were struggling against unjust colonial government. The French revolutionaries were advancing the Rights of Man. It is the combination of those lofty principles with bloodshed and disorder which makes the revolutions seem morally confusing. The social riffraff, who brutally executed their superiors, were also, in a large sense, contributing to human progress.

The Unraveling of Western Colonialism

Historical epochs often reverse themes on which they began. For example, the third epoch, which began with a trio of strong European monarchs (plus Babur and Süleiman the Great), ended with the abolition of absolute monarchy in Europe. The lusty pursuit of gold and material wealth has given way to an anti-plutocratic spirit in the 19th and 20th century labor movements. This period also began with the European voyages of discovery, establishment of colonial governments, and the subjugation of native peoples. It brought racially based slavery to the New World. If the third epoch of civilization began on a theme of European dominance, one might expect that it would end on an opposite note. And so it is that in the late 20th century resentment of “western imperialism” runs strong in the nonwestern world. Five hundred years after the first African slaves were brought to the Americas, many of the slaves’ descendants curse the white society and its culture as historic oppressors of their people. This curse has unleashed a wave of racial hatred and self-hatred that reverberates in many directions.

The anti-European attitudes exhibited today are a consequence of the fact that the history of CivIII is abnormally skewed toward the European experience. White Europeans were once the conquerors and civilizers of peoples around the earth. Their acquisitive and secular culture begun in Renaissance times has become the world’s culture. Quite naturally, most of the world’s people, being non-European, will see this as something alien to themselves and become antagonistic. The Europeans conquered other people’s lands by their superior technology combined with an insatiable greed and a martial spirit built up over centuries of fighting Moslem armies. The Spanish and Portuguese, coming in the first wave of European invasion, tended to be motivated at least in part by religious conquest. Having recently defeated the Moors, they were the ones closest to the front of religious wars. As the initiative passed to the Dutch and English, the commercial element became more pronounced. These were merchants and adventurers unaccompanied by Jesuit missionaries, who sought to grow rich through trade. The commercial culture blossomed under their regime.

Force inevitably followed European explorations and trading expeditions. The European adventurers possessed muskets and cannon, laws, written language, and ocean-going ships. The spectacular conquests of Mexico and Peru were followed by colonization of sparsely populated lands elsewhere in the Americas. The British converted their tax-collection arrangements with the Mogul empire into imperial rule of the Indian subcontinent. They first cut a deal with the Sikh empire-builder, Ranjit Singh, to respect the Sutlej river as the boundary of their respective empires. A generation later, between 1845 and 1849, Britain conquered the Sikh empire in the Punjab. The western-style Russian army was able decisively to defeat the Ottoman Turks in the Russo-Turkish war of 1768-74, which prompted Sultan Selim III to undertake similar measures to modernize his armed forces. After Napoleon’s armies conquered and withdrew from Egypt, Muhammad Ali came to power in Egypt as a viceroy of the Ottoman empire. The British and French prevented his conquest of Syria and Palestine at Ottoman expense. The British later established a protectorate in the region including the Sudan. The French had controlled Algeria since 1830. Following the Opium War of 1839-42 with China, the British established a colony in Hong Kong.

The 19th century was a golden age of European nationalism. In the decades after Napoleon’s forces had fought English, Austrian, Prussian, Spanish, and Russian armies, these various peoples derived a sense of national pride from having defeated the great French general. The Germans were especially filled with this proud spirit. German musicians, philosophers, scientists, and poets achieved cultural ascendancy during this period. German literature was said to be best in the original, free of French influence. A similar attitude infected the youthful culture of the United States. Russian novelists and symphonic composers came into their own during this period, producing classics of their genre. Italian nationalism found a voice in the operas of Verdi and Puccini and a political champion in Garibaldi. Greeks fought for national independence against the Ottoman empire. Early in the century, Haitian guerrillas under the command of Toussaint L’Ouverture defeated Napoleon’s crack troops. Símon Bolívar and José de San Martín ended Spanish colonial rule in South America. An attempt to establish a French empire in Mexico during the U.S. Civil War was foiled.

Nationalism caught up with other nonwestern peoples during the 20th century. The Japanese military victory over Russia in 1905 showed Asians that a major European power could be beaten. That became even more clear after European society sacrificed the cream of its youth on the battlefield in World War I. Among Woodrow Wilson’s “Fourteen Points” at the Versailles peace conference was a statement affirming all people’s right to national self-determination. An immediate result was a resurgence of Turkish nationalism in the “Young Turk” movement led by Kemal Atatürk. Nationalists led by Sun Yat-sen attempted to build a democratic nation in China. In India, Mohandas Gandhi agitated nonviolently for an end to British rule. After Europe experienced another bloodbath in World War II, the anticolonial movement began in earnest. Great Britain and France divested their colonial empires. The Philippines received its independence from the United States, as did Indonesia from the Netherlands. India and Pakistan became self-governing nations in 1947. A year later, an independent Jewish state was established in Palestine. Communist forces ousted the Chinese nationalists. Many new African nations were created from former colonies during the 1960s. Vietnamese communists expelled French and American armies from Indochina.

Materialism and Disintegration

A new kind of philosophy was conceived during the third epoch. This “materialist” philosophy is mother of the modern social sciences. A key figure in this movement was the Scottish philosopher and historian, David Hume, who was Adam Smith’s mentor and an important economist in his own right. Hume’s philosophy, like that of other materialists, held that the human mind resembled a machine. Where Plato had taught that ideas were real and the natural world was created from them, materialistic philosophers held that ideas were the product of a physical brain. The brain carried on certain processes which explain how people think. The philosophies of Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibnitz, which are sometimes called “rationalist” philosophies, set the stage for the British empiricists’ even more devastating attack on objective ideas. For them, sense data were the primary source of knowledge. Ideas were the synthetic product of worldly experience. The wholeness of ideas disappeared.

After the embers of romanticism had cooled, 19th century Europeans pursued realism in literature and art. Gone were sentimental expressions conveying beauty and good. People wanted to see the ugly truth. And so, detailed descriptions of life in urban slums filled the novels of Charles Dickens and Victor Hugo. The French painters, Gustave Courbet and Jean François Millet, were celebrated artists of the realist school. This was the age of Karl Marx and Charles Darwin. In their schemes of creation, design came from the bottom up. When photography was invented, mindless machines were able to produce a more accurate visual representation of worldly scenes than the best artists. Inspired by the camera, painters such as Degas tried to create an image of objects as if seen from unexpected angles. Impressionist painters abandoned any attempt to depict shapely things; they instead placed colored dots upon the canvas to imitate how rays of light might strike the eye. This break with tradition led to other schools of experimental art - cubism, surrealism, Dada.

All this “modern art” came to a head in the period just before the outbreak of World War I. The public could not fathom the presumed excellence that lay in its disharmonious forms. Picasso’s grotesque pictures reminded Karl Jung of the “lacerated” thought patterns that he had observed in schizophrenic patients. The poet Yeats complained that “things fall apart; the center cannot hold.” Artistic expressions were pieced together in eclectic assemblages lacking form. Not coincidentally, crossword puzzles were invented during this period. Such games arranged words in mechanical ways without reference to meaning or expressive flow. The artist seemed to be taunting the public, challenging it to make sense of his work. This was the opposite of the beautiful art created in Renaissance times, whose objects were painted in full and round shapes. It signaled the end of an epoch whose culture many today deem synonymous with “civilization.”

Note: This page reproduces Chapter 6 of Five Epochs of Civilization by William McGaughey (Thistlerose, 2000).

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