Revolutions, Human Rights and Constitutions

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Absolute monarchy was almost without exception the only form of government in the whole of Continental Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries. In this period, the bourgeoisie gradually came to play a larger role in the central administrations, and the state diligently supported trade and industry. This did not increase the influence of the peasants, who everywhere led a wretched life. But the many new ideas of the Enlightenment meant that the bourgeoisie at times turned against the kings because they wanted more political influence. There was dissatisfaction and desire for change among populations across Europe.

The break-up of communities, resulting from the spread of industrialisation from the late 18th century onwards, was a common feature of developments in all countries. From the middle of the 19th century especially, large numbers of the rural population started moving to the towns to find work. In the towns, they lived and worked under appalling conditions, but they encountered the ideas of socialism and revolution and thus became politically aware.

Secession and the Constitution in America

An event that sparked these changes was the American secession from Great Britain in the 1770s. What began as a rebellion against being ruled by a king far away in London ended up starting a wave of revolutions in Europe. Not least because the American declaration of independence from 4 July 1776 was also the world's first declaration of human rights. Its ideas about the equality of human beings and their rights were ground-breaking:

We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its Foundation on such Principles, and organizing its Powers in such Form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

The final secession from Great Britain was preceded by a war which lasted seven years. In 1783, the war ended with the foundation of the USA as a federation of 13 constituent states, and in 1788, they ratified the world's first democratic constitution. It is of course questionable just how much freedom and democracy the people enjoyed as the constitution covered neither women nor slaves. But it begins by unequivocally asserting that this is the people's own constitution:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquillity, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Revolution, Human Rights, and Dictatorship in France

Developments in America directly inspired the French Revolution in 1789. A few months after the Revolution had broken out, and the French National Assembly had taken over legislative power from the king, the French declaration of human rights was announced:

  1. Men are born and remain free and equal in rights. Social distinctions may be founded only upon the general good.
  2. The aim of all political association is the preservation of the natural and imprescriptible rights of man. These rights are liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression.
  3. The principle of all sovereignty resides essentially in the nation. No body nor individual may exercise any authority which does not proceed directly from the nation.
  4. Liberty consists in the freedom to do everything which injures no one else; hence the exercise of the natural rights of each man has no limits except those which assure to the other members of the society the enjoyment of the same rights. These limits can only be determined by law.
  5. Law can only prohibit such actions as are hurtful to society. Nothing may be prevented which is not forbidden by law, and no one may be forced to do anything not provided for by law.
  6. Law is the expression of the general will. Every citizen has a right to participate personally, or through his representative, in its foundation. It must be the same for all, whether it protects or punishes. All citizens, being equal in the eyes of the law, are equally eligible to all dignities and to all public positions and occupations, according to their abilities, and without distinction except that of their virtues and talents.
  7. No person shall be accused, arrested, or imprisoned except in the cases and according to the forms prescribed by law. Any one soliciting, transmitting, executing, or causing to be executed, any arbitrary order, shall be punished. But any citizen summoned or arrested in virtue of the law shall submit without delay, as resistance constitutes an offense.
  8. The law shall provide for such punishments only as are strictly and obviously necessary, and no one shall suffer punishment except it be legally inflicted in virtue of a law passed and promulgated before the commission of the offense.
  9. As all persons are held innocent until they shall have been declared guilty, if arrest shall be deemed indispensable, all harshness not essential to the securing of the prisoner's person shall be severely repressed by law.
  10. No one shall be disquieted on account of his opinions, including his religious views, provided their manifestation does not disturb the public order established by law.
  11. The free communication of ideas and opinions is one of the most precious of the rights of man. Every citizen may, accordingly, speak, write, and print with freedom, but shall be responsible for such abuses of this freedom as shall be defined by law.
  12. The security of the rights of man and of the citizen requires public military forces. These forces are, therefore, established for the good of all and not for the personal advantage of those to whom they shall be intrusted.
  13. A common contribution is essential for the maintenance of the public forces and for the cost of administration. This should be equitably distributed among all the citizens in proportion to their means.
  14. All the citizens have a right to decide, either personally or by their representatives, as to the necessity of the public contribution; to grant this freely; to know to what uses it is put; and to fix the proportion, the mode of assessment and of collection and the duration of the taxes.
  15. Society has the right to require of every public agent an account of his administration.
  16. A society in which the observance of the law is not assured, nor the separation of powers defined, has no constitution at all.
  17. Since property is an inviolable and sacred right, no one shall be deprived thereof except where public necessity, legally determined, shall clearly demand it, and then only on condition that the owner shall have been previously and equitably indemnified.

Just how ground-breaking the 17 articles were is clear if you read them and imagine, for each article, how it would read if the wording was the exact opposite. This was often how European societies looked in the 18th century and earlier.

In late 1789, the French king Louis XVI was brought from Versailles to Paris by force, and here, in 1791, he endorsed the new constitution. The revolution had been completed. The kings of the neighbouring countries were not happy about the French people's revolution, and in 1792 war broke out between France and Austria/Prussia, where France initially prevailed, but in the end was defeated. This led to the king's imprisonment, mass murder and the National Convention proclaiming the republic. The king was executed in 1793, and military defeats led to the Jacobin regime with mass executions. However, in 1795, the moderate middle class succeeded in regaining power and disarming the people of Paris. But France was still at war and two reasons in particular may have brought about a reversal of the fortunes of war: the French army was the first to consist of conscripts instead of mercenaries, and it was led by an able general by the name of Napoleon Bonaparte.

In 1799, he successfully implemented a coup d'état, brought order after the Jacobins and installed himself as First Consul. His rule was effectively a dictatorship, and in 1804 he proclaimed himself Emperor. France was then plunged into alternating revolutions and dictatorships, a process which lasted until 1870.

However, it wasn’t all war and revolution. In 1804, Napoleon introduced the Code Civil des Français, also known as the Napoleonic Code, a law concerning the civil administration of the state. A ground-breaking part of the code was that it laid down the principle that no laws may be secret or retroactive. In addition, it decreed that married couples could be divorced.

Changes during the period

During the 19th century, Europe underwent a number of drastic changes. Where before there had been handicrafts and cottage industries producing many things, there was now the emergence of large scale industrialisation. While the economy had previously been reliant on agriculture, small traders, craftsmen and their rigid system of craftsmen's guilds, capitalism arose at this time because the new industries required large investments of capital. Industrialisation and capitalism had begun back in the 18th century but they broke through in earnest during the 19th.

The rural population was increasing so people began moving into the towns, where there was a demand for cheap labour. The result was a constantly growing population of workers who lived in miserable conditions in slum-like tenements and were plagued by poor nutrition and diseases. The working day in the new industries was often 15 hours and there were no days off or holidays. Furthermore, it was normal for children as young as 6 years old to work in the factories.

The other town dwellers, the middle class, the craftsmen and the merchants, did what they could to keep well away from this new underclass, which they regarded with a mixture of fear and contempt. For their part, the workers looked at the more affluent members of society with envy - who wouldn't have done?

In the small towns and rural areas, capitalism meant that small communities could no longer regulate their own economy. At the same time, the large numbers of people on the move also led to changes in the social structure.

This was a time of gigantic social upheaval throughout Europe. Significant numbers of people were moving from the countryside into the towns, where they met not only an entirely new kind of life (and squalor), but also all the other people who had moved from the countryside into the town. Usually this kind of "migration" is regarded as a statistical or economic phenomenon, but the human and cultural consequences of such changes should not be underestimated.

A huge proportion of the population of Europe went from being rural workers in the village where their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents had also lived, and where everyone knew everyone else, to being industrial workers in large towns and cities where no-one could possibly know everyone in advance. This meant that each individual person was faced with a tremendous challenge and upheaval. Suddenly, they could no longer turn to the family elders for advice; they had to fend for themselves in a new way. Old habits and skills were no longer something they could rely upon either. For society as a whole, it meant the blossoming of new ideas, new communities and new demands on the authorities and employers; society and the economy was changing across the board. There was not just a new underclass; the middle class was also growing.

New Ideologies

Liberalism, nationalism and socialism were some of the new ideas that came to the fore at this time.

Liberalism is concerned with the liberty and rights of each individual and is based primarily on the Enlightenment philosophers John Locke (1632-1704), David Hume (1711-1776) and Adam Smith (1723-1790). In addition, Liberalism also supported free trade and urged the kings to abolish the old tariff systems that were inhibiting economic opportunities. It was the middle class in particular that was in favour of liberal ideas and put a high value on personal freedoms.

Nationalism was in fact invented by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In 1770, when Poland was in danger of being swallowed up by Russia, the Polish government turned to France for help. France however was not interested in getting on the wrong side of the Russians, while at the same time the French were getting pretty tired of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who was constantly publishing his provocative books. The French government decided to kill two birds with one stone; they sent Rousseau to Poland to solve the problem the Poles had with Russia.

The Polish government, which consisted of a worried nobility, had no doubt expected a military strategy; instead Rousseau wrote his work Considérations sur le gouvernement de Pologne (Considerations on the Government of Poland), in which he puts forward the world's first systematic defence of the nation state. His solution for holding a nation state together was not military; it was cultural. If Poland could not defend itself militarily against Russia, then they could at least create a Polish self-consciousness that held the Polish people together regardless of who their rulers were.

From Poland, and from Rousseau's pen, the idea of the nation state spread to the rest of Europe. From the 1830s onwards, European kings, politicians, theologians, poets, artists and educators threw themselves over nationalism with a ravenous appetite and created the national identities on which Europeans build their self-understanding to this day.

Socialism arose as a natural consequence of the deplorable working and living conditions which urban industrial workers lived under. People felt totally unfairly treated and wanted a share in the wealth they were helping to create. If this could not be achieved through hard work, then they would have to achieve it by political means through changing society and the system of government. Few were thinking about democracy or a political redistribution of money within the existing system; instead the dream arose of a revolution which would completely abolish the unjust society and lead to a new and fairer one, where no-one owned anything and everyone shared everything together.

Socialism was initially not a clearly defined ideology and the dream of revolution took different forms. But socialism gradually began to be formulated and take shape. The collaboration between Karl Marx (1818-1883) and Friedrich Engels (1820-1895) in particular led to a more precise formulation of what socialism should be aiming at. Here Manifest der Kommunistischen Partei (The Communist Manifesto) of 1848 and Marx's Das Kapital (Capital) of 1867 played a significant role. Marx was the first major theorist of socialism and believed that class struggle through revolution would lead to a classless society where ownership was abolished and no-one would thereafter be able to exploit or dominate others. In the beginning, Marx put the individual at the centre, but with time Marxism became almost religious; it promised the perfect society which should be built into the way of the world. It also asserted that it was not the individual's responsibility to create good living conditions for themselves and others nor can the individual take the credit for them being created. All that was needed was one more revolution, and then everything would fall into place in an almost supernatural way.

The Spreading of Newspapers

At the same time as these developments, the first newspapers came into being. It was the first time in the history of the world that people in all parts of society had access to information about what was happening outside the village and their close circle of acquaintances.

Since the late 15th century, there had been flyers that had been printed if something really exceptional had happened, and which had mainly circulated among travelling traders. Moreover, they presupposed that people could read, and there were after all only a minority who could.

In the 17th century, the first weekly publications began coming out in Britain, and in 1690, America got its first newspaper. However, it was printed without permission and was immediately shut down; the print run was confiscated and the publisher arrested.

But in the 1720s, real newspapers came into being in America and, in 1783, there were about 43 daily newspapers in the United States. Seen with modern eyes, the quality was not exactly impressive. But newspapers played a significant role in the formation of the USA around the time of the secession from Britain and the subsequent formation of the new American union. With the adoption of the U.S. Constitution in 1791, freedom of the press was introduced and newspapers were here to stay!

Both in the U.S.A. and Europe, the 1800s became the great century for newspapers, and on both continents, they played a significant role in political development, in the revolutions and in the introduction of democracy, as did the new communications possibilities that the telegraph and railways brought with them during their spread in the 19th century.

Revolutions in Europe

The revolutions in France at the end of the 18th century and beginning of the 19th both fascinated and frightened the whole of Europe, and the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars that followed had far-reaching political and cultural consequences. In Europe, the 1800s became the century of revolutions and constitutions.

In 1845-47, Europe was hit by the "potato blight", a fungus that destroyed potatoes, and in 1846, there was a poor grain harvest too. This led to starvation, in some places outright famine, and widespread discontent everywhere. From 1846, it meant economic crisis and high unemployment, and thus the foundation was laid for a series of riots in the years to come. In the history of Europe, 1848 stands out as the Year of the Revolution.

The first was the independence revolt in Sicily, which broke out on 12 January. In France, a revolution broke out in February that resulted in the formation of the Second Republic. This led to the introduction of the right to vote for men and the right to work, which meant that the government created workhouses for the unemployed.

Italy was at that time a number of small states, some of them under Austrian rule. In March, there was an uprising in Milan and further uprisings in several other states. Germany was not unified either, but consisted of 39 states in a loose federation. Germans wanted freedom and democracy and, inspired by the February Revolution in France, the March Revolution took place in the form of a series of demonstrations and riots in the German states. The main demands were freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, a national parliament and the right to vote.

In addition, there were riots taking place in the Habsburg Empire, which was ruled from Vienna, riots which involved large parts of Central and Eastern Europe and the Balkans.

In the course of 1848 alone, about 10,000 people are alleged to have died in the European unrest, and even more were arrested and tortured. However, none of these revolutions achieved any direct results - none of them led to democracy in the first round - but they had laid the foundation for lasting change.

Britain, Holland, Russia and Scandinavia were spared the wave of revolutions, but developments were followed closely for fear that revolutions would break out in these countries too. One explanation put forward for no revolution breaking out in Russia at the same time as the other revolutions is that people could not get in touch with each other due to the lack of the means of communication.


From about 1770 until the end of the 19th century, the economic, social, cultural and political landscape in Europe and the U.S.A. changed radically. The changes created a middle class where people had a common interest in participation in decision-making. Crafts, industrialisation and trade created a prosperous and well-informed middle class which demanded more political power. Where before absolute monarchs had ruled through oppression of the broad populace, now revolutions broke out in most places. In the beginning, they were middle class revolutions; later, they became socialist.

Next chapter: Representative Democracy