Social Transformation in the 18th Century for AP European History (page 3)
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In the eighteenth century, Great Britain and, to a lesser extent, France surpassed Spain, Portugal, and Holland as the dominant economic powers in Europe. They did so by controlling the majority of the increasingly lucrative triangle of trade that connected Europe to Africa and the Americas. The resulting wealth and prosperity set in motion a series of innovations that radically changed European agricultural and manufacturing production, which in turn produced changes in the social structure of Europe. Competition between Britain and France, and the desire of their eastern European rivals to catch up, led to innovations in diplomacy and war, the twin processes by which eighteenth-century European rulers built and expanded their states.
The Triangle of Trade
The phrase triangle of trade refers to a system of interconnected trade routes that quadrupled foreign trade in both Britain and France in the eighteenth century. Here are three characteristics of the triangle of trade:
- Manufactured goods (primarily guns and gin) were exported from Europe to Africa.
- Slaves were exported to serve as labor in European colonies in North America, South America, and the Caribbean.
- Raw materials (especially furs, timber, tobacco, rice, cotton, indigo dye, coffee, rum, and sugar) were exported from the colonies to Europe in exchange for the slaves and manufactured goods.
Prior to the eighteenth century, the primary destination of Africans taken into slavery by their rivals had been either the Mediterranean basin or Asia. The eighteenth-century expansion of the European colonies greatly increased the demand for African slaves and reoriented the slave trade to the west. The majority of slaves were destined for the West Indies and Brazil, with about 10 percent going to colonies in North America. The transportation of African slaves across the Atlantic on European trade ships was known as the Middle Passage. As many as 700 slaves per ship were transported, chained below deck in horrific conditions. It is estimated that somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000 Africans were transported each year during the height of the eighteenth-century slave trade.
Breaking the Traditional Cycle of Population and Productivity
The enormous wealth generated by the British and French colonies and the triangle of trade created pressure for social change that eventually affected the whole population. The effects were felt more strongly in Britain and led to changes that, taken together, constituted the first phase of an Industrial Revolution that began in Britain and then spread eastward throughout Europe, breaking the traditional cycle of population and productivity.
The traditional cycle worked like this:
- Population and productivity rose together, as an increase in the number of people working in an agricultural economy increased the agricultural yield.
- Eventually, the agricultural yield reached the maximum amount that could be produced given the land available and the methods in use.
- For a while, population would continue to rise but eventually, as the number of people far outstripped the agricultural yield, food would become scarce and expensive.
- Scarcity and high prices would eventually cause the population to decline.
- When the population was safely below the possible productivity, the cycle would begin again.
In the eighteenth century, several developments related to new wealth combined to break the cycle:
- Agriculture became market-oriented.
- Rural manufacturing spread capital throughout the population.
- Increased demand led to technical innovation.
The new market orientation of agriculture created a shift from farming for local consumption to a reliance on imported food sold at markets. The introduction of rural manufacture put larger amounts of currency into the system and made the working population less dependent on land and agricultural cycles, thereby breaking the natural check on population growth.
The rise in population created more mouths to feed. The existence of a vast colonial empire of trade created an increasingly wealthy merchant class who both bought land from, and affected the behavior of, traditional land-holding elites. The result was the destruction of the traditional manorial system in which land-owning elites (lords of the manor) held vast estates divided into small plots of arable land farmed by peasants for local consumption and vast grounds known as commons where peasants grazed their livestock. That system was slowly replaced by a market-oriented approach in which cash crops were grown for sale and export.
The shift to cash crops created pressure that led to the reorganization of the social structure of the countryside. The traditional land-owning elites abandoned their feudal obligations to the peasantry and adopted the attitude of the merchant class. Cash crops created a demand for larger fields. Landowners responded by instituting a process known as enclosure because of the hedges, fences, and walls that were built to deny the peasantry access to the commons, which were now converted to fields for cash crops. Later, the land owners extended enclosure into other arable lands, breaking traditional feudal agreements and gradually transforming much of the peasantry into wage labor. By the middle of the eighteenth century, three-quarters of the arable land in England had been enclosed informally or "by agreement" (though the peasantry had not, in fact, been given any choice); after 1750, the process continued more formally as land was enclosed via acts of Parliament.
The increase in population also created greater demand for the other necessities of life, particularly clothing. In the feudal system, all aspects of textile production had been under the control of guilds (which were organizations of skilled laborers, such as spinners and weavers), who enjoyed the protection of the town officials. Membership in a guild was gained only through a lengthy apprenticeship. In that way, the guilds kept competition to a minimum and controlled the supply of textiles, thereby guaranteeing that they could make a decent living. In the eighteenth century, merchants faced with an ever-expanding demand for textiles had to find a way around the guild system; the result was a system of rural manufacturing known variously as cottage industry or the putting-out system.
In the putting-out system, merchants went into the countryside and engaged the peasantry in small-scale textile production. Each month, the merchant provided raw material and rented equipment to peasant families. At the end of the month, he returned and paid the family for whatever thread or cloth they had produced. Initially, peasant families supplemented their agricultural income in this way; eventually, some of them gave up farming altogether and pooled their resources to create small textile mills in the countryside. As the system grew, the guilds of the town were unable to compete with the mills; cottage industry replaced the urban guilds as the center for textile production.
The new system of rural manufacturing went hand-in-hand with the shift to market-oriented agriculture; the destruction of the manorial system could not have been accomplished if some of the cash flowing into the economy had not found its way into the hands of the rural population. The creation of cottage industries provided the cash that enabled rural families to buy their food rather than grow it themselves.
However, the social change that accompanied the destruction of both the manorial system and the guilds also brought hardship and insecurity. The enclosure movement meant that thousands of small landholders, tenant farmers, and sharecroppers lost their land and their social status. Forced to work for wages, their lives and those of their families were now at the mercy of the marketplace. The destruction of the guilds produced similar trauma for the artisans and their families. For both the peasantry and the artisans, the economic and social changes of the eighteenth century meant the destruction of their traditional place and status in society: they were now faced with both new opportunities and great insecurity.
Technical Innovations in Agriculture and Manufacturing
It is important to remember that technical innovations are always responses to new challenges. The people of earlier centuries did not fail to innovate because they were less intelligent; they simply had no need for the innovations. The ever-growing population and demand for food and goods in the eighteenth century created a series of related demands that eventually led to technical innovations in both agriculture and manufacturing. Single innovations often created a need for further innovation in a different part of the process.
The key technical innovation in the agricultural sector in the eighteenth century was the replacement of the old three-field system, in which roughly one-third of the land was left fallow to allow the soil to replenish itself with the necessary nutrients, with new crops such as clover, turnips, and the potato, which replenished the soil while producing foodstuffs that could be used to feed livestock in winter. More and healthier livestock contributed products such as dairy and leather.
In the manufacturing sector, a number of interconnected technical innovations greatly increased the pace and output of the textile industry.
- In 1733, John Kay invented the flying shuttle, which doubled the speed at which cloth could be woven on a loom, creating a need to find a way to produce greater amounts of thread faster.
- In the 1760s, James Hargreaves invented the spinning jenny, which greatly increased the amount of thread a single spinner could produce from cotton, creating a need to speed up the harvesting of cotton.
- In 1793, the American Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin, which efficiently removed seed from raw cotton, thereby increasing the speed with which it could be processed and sent to the spinners.
These technical innovations greatly increased the pace and productivity of the textile industry. The need to supervise these larger, faster machines also contributed to the development of textile mills, which replaced the scattered putting-out system by the century's end.
The prosperity and power of Britain and France caused their eastern European rivals to try to strengthen and modernize their kingdoms.
In Prussia, Frederick William I built a strong centralized government in which the military, under the command of the nobles, played a dominant role. In 1740, his successor Frederick II (the Great) used that military to extend Prussia into lands controlled by the Hapsburgs. Challenging the right of Maria Theresa to ascend to the throne of Austria (which was a right guaranteed her by a document known as the Pragmatic Sanction), Frederick II marched troops into Silesia. In what came to be known as the War of the Austrian Succession (1740–1748), Maria Theresa was able to rally Austrian and Hungarian troops and fight Prussia and its allies, the French, Spanish, Saxons, and Bavarians, to a stand-off.
In Russia, the progress towards modernization and centralization made under Peter the Great had largely been undone in the first half of the eighteenth century. However, under the leadership of Catherine the Great, Russia defeated the Ottoman Turks in 1774, thereby extending Russia's borders as far as the Black Sea and the Balkan Peninsula. In 1775, Russia joined with Prussia and Austria to conquer Poland and divide its territories among the three of them.
War and Diplomacy
In eighteenth-century Europe, statebuilding was still primarily conducted through war and diplomacy. The competition between Britain and France in the triangle of trade meant that they would contend militarily for control of colonies in North America and the Caribbean, but the desire to weaken one another also led them to become entangled in land wars in Europe.
The expansionist aims of Frederick II of Prussia led to a shift in diplomatic alliances that is now referred to as the Diplomatic Revolution:
- Prussia, fearful of being isolated by its enemies, forged an alliance in 1756 with its former enemy Great Britain.
- Austria and France, previously antagonistic towards one another, were so alarmed by the alliance of Prussia and Great Britain that they forged an alliance of their own.
Colonial and continental rivalries combined to bring all of the great European powers into a conflict that came to be known as the Seven Years War (1756–1763). The conflict pitted France, Austrian, Russia, Saxony, Sweden, and (after 1762) Spain against Prussia, Great Britain, and the German state of Hanover. Land and sea battles were fought in North America (where it is sometimes known as the French and Indian War), Europe, and India. The European hostilities were concluded in 1763 by a peace agreement that essentially re-established prewar boundaries. The North American conflict, and particularly the fall of Quebec in 1759, shifted the balance of power in North America to the British. The British had similar success in India.
As the eighteenth century progressed, the nature of European armies and wars changed in ways that would have profound implications for the ruling regimes. The standing army was different in several ways:
- The size of the standing army increased.
- The officer corps became full-time servants of the state.
- Troops consisted of conscripts, volunteers, mercenaries, and criminals who were pressed into service.
- Discipline and training became harsher and more extensive.
- Muskets became more efficient and accurate.
- Cannon became more mobile.
- Wars were now decided not by a decisive battle, but by superior organization of resources.
- Naval battles were now often more crucial than land battles.
Weapons and tactics changed to accommodate the new armies:
In the eighteenth century, Britain and France came to dominate the lucrative triangle of trade that imported valuable raw materials from North America and the Caribbean to Europe in exchange for slaves acquired from Africa. The influx of capital generated by the colonial trade served as a spur for unchecked population growth made possible by an agricultural revolution and the creation of a system of rural manufacturing. The changes in agricultural and manufacturing production destroyed the last vestiges of an economic system (manorialism) and a social system (feudalism) that dated back to the medieval period. In that process, both the traditional European peasantry and the guildsmen were converted to wage labor.
The intensifying rivalry between Britain and France, and the growing ambition of their eastern European counterparts, led to a series of midcentury wars, including the War of the Austrian Succession and the Seven Years War. Rivalries also led to a series of innovations in diplomacy and warfare.
The review questions for this study guide can be found at:
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