Political Revolutions Review for AP World History
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The American Revolution
The revolt for independence in the British North American colonies was the child of Enlightenment philosophers, most notably the Englishman John Locke. Locke spoke of a social contract in which the people relinquished some of their rights to the government in order to establish order. Governments had the responsibility of safeguarding the "unalienable" rights of "life, liberty, and property." If a government did not preserve these rights, the people had the right to overthrow it and establish a new government.
Britain's North American colonies had gradually developed their own identity since their founding in the early seventeenth century. The colonists particularly resented British policies that levied taxes on them without allowing them their own representative in Parliament. Higher taxes were imposed in 1763 after the end of the French and Indian War (the American phase of the Seven Years' War) as a result of British efforts to receive colonial reimbursement for part of the expense of the war that the British had fought on the colonists' behalf. The aftermath of war also brought British restrictions against colonial migration into territories west of the Appalachians once held by the French, territories the British considered unsafe for settlement because of potential conflicts with Native Americans in the area.
The American Revolution began in 1775 as a result of efforts from colonial leaders well versed in Enlightenment thought. In 1776, the colonists set up a government that issued the Declaration of Independence, a document modeled after the political philosophies of John Locke. Its author, Thomas Jefferson, altered the natural rights identified by John Locke to include "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." With the aid of the French, the British colonists were victorious in 1781. In 1787, the new United States of America wrote a constitution insuring the separation of powers and the system of checks and balances, both ideas of the Enlightenment philosopher Montesquieu. A Bill of Rights added a statement of individual liberties in keeping with Enlightenment principles. Voting rights were increased to embrace more white male voters; by the 1820s, property rights for voting had been abolished in the new states. Neither the Declaration of Independence nor the United States Constitution addressed the issue of slavery.
The French Revolution
Enlightenment thinking also contributed to a revolution in France. In the late eighteenth century, French society was divided into three classes, or estates:
- First Estate––the clergy, comprising a little more than 1 percent of the population, and paying no taxes.
- Second Estate––the nobility, comprising slightly more than 2 percent of the population, and paying only a few taxes.
- Third Estate––the remainder of the population, made up of merchants, artisans, and peasants. The peasants were burdened with heavy taxes and labor requirements that were carryovers from feudal days. The middle class, or bourgeoisie, were the merchants, artisans, and professionals who became the driving force of the revolution.
Representatives of the three estates met in the Estates-General, the French legislative assembly. In 1789, however, the French monarchs had not called the Estates-General into session for 175 years. Revolution broke out because of:
- Bourgeoisie desire for a wider political role.
- Bourgeoisie wish for restraints on the power of the clergy, monarchy, and aristocracy.
- Population growth.
- Poor harvests in 1787 and 1788.
When King Louis XVI was forced to call a meeting of the Estates-General in 1789 in order to raise taxes, the bourgeoisie insisted on changing the voting rules in the Estates-General from one vote per estate to one vote per representative. The king was forced to agree to the new voting arrangement as rioting broke out in Paris. On June 14, 1789, the Bastille, a Parisian political prison, was stormed by a Paris mob. The incident liberated only a handful of prisoners but became the rallying point of the French Revolution.
The new bourgeoisie-dominated National Assembly issued the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, a document whose content bore a resemblance to clauses in the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution. The French declaration identified natural rights as "liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression." A new constitution guaranteed freedoms of the press and of religion and increased voting rights. Olympe de Gouges countered the French declaration of rights with her Declaration of the Rights of Woman and of the Female.
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