|Watt's steam engine|
These are posts in the World History part of my "General Education in a Nutshell" series. This series involves ten subjects you might study in a general education or "liberal arts" core at a university or college. The first topic in the overall series was philosophy. So far in the world history section:
- World History Overview
- From 9-11 to the Present
- From the Cold War to the Millennium
- From Waterloo to World War II
- 5a. The French Revolution
- 5b. The Enlightenment to the American Revolution
The First Industrial Revolution
16. We have already mentioned how the Second Industrial Revolution of the late 1800s created immense wealth for a handful, economic slavery for many more, while also launching us into the modern economic situation. The perfection of steel made better railways and better tools possible as more and more things were invented. Railways made it possible for commerce to take place on an unprecedented scale.
The First Industrial Revolution took place in the late 1700s, and its key invention was James Watt's steam engine, a vast improvement on an earlier version. Watt's engine made the steam train possible. This caused the rise of the coal industry. It made it possible to mechanize the production of clothing. The steam engine made it possible to mechanically produce circular motion. Just imagine all the inventions involving the mechanistic production of circular motion.
Of course the coal industry brought with it all the excesses of poor working conditions and child labor in England especially. The Industrial Revolution also shifted the focus of culture from the farm to the city. Ironically, in that regard, it diminished the demand for slaves to work the land. Indeed, the slowness of the South to industrialize was part of its insistence on slavery in the lead up to the Civil War.
The Absolute Monarchs
The fact that there was more talk of absolute monarchy in the 1600s than earlier may suggest that the authority of kings as kings was more in question than ever before in history. So Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) published Leviathan in 1651, two years after King Charles I of England was executed and the year that King Charles II was forced into exile. Yet Hobbes was arguing in this book that kings had absolute authority, yielded to them by the people as part of an implied social contract.
Many historians would suggest that although there was much rhetoric of the absolute authority and divine right of kings in the "age of the absolute ruler," that in reality the kings of the 1600s and 1700s really did not rule absolutely. They were strong rulers to be sure: King Louis XIV of France (1638-1715), Frederick the Great of Prussia (1712-86), Czar Peter the Great in Russia (1672-1725), Catherine the Great of Russia too (1729-96). But those of the 1700s were also Enlightenment rulers who helped modernize their nations.
The English Civil War
One of the most shocking events of the 1600s was the execution of King Charles I of England in 1649. It is not that kings had not been killed before. Kings had repeatedly been killed by other kings or by usurpers. It was not unheard of either for kings to be killed by angry people. But the execution of Charles I was by the Long Parliament--that is, it was a legal trial with Charles held on the charge of treason.
The very notion that a king could be tried for treason was somewhat unprecedented in the history of the world. Charles I had gone for 11 years without calling a Parliament in England, but called it twice in 1640. The second one passed a rule saying that only they could dissolve themselves. They stayed for twenty years.
The key leader, almost dictator during this period was Oliver Cromwell, "Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland, and Ireland." In the peak of his power, he was quite oppressive toward Irish Catholics. In 1660 when the royalist supporters of the king regained power, Cromwell's dead corpse was dug up and beheaded.
The Republic of England for these eleven years however may have been inspiring to the American Revolutionaries.
Shoguns in Japan
A significant change in the way Japan was governed took place in 1600 when one of the "shogun" families seized power from the Emperor and set up a government at Edo, which is Tokyo today. The shoguns were hereditary dictators over smaller regions in Japan from about 1185.
The Emperor remained as a figurehead at Kyoto, but without much power. The Tokugawa dynasty would rule from 1603 to 1867, when new Emperor Meiji restored imperial rule. By the time of his death in 1912, Japan would emerge as a world power.
During this same period, the Qing (or Manchu) dynasty was ruling in China, from 1644-1912.
The Slave Trade
The modern association of race with color was a direct consequence of the Atlantic slave trade that began with the Portuguese in the 1500s and continued with the British, French, Spanish, and Dutch. At first, the English classified these individuals as "indentured servants" or servants for life. But as these Africans had children, slavery became permanent.
It is important to recognize that color was not a key feature of distinguishing race prior to the slave trade. In Africa, for example, individuals distinguished themselves from each other by tribe, not by color. Similarly, in Europe, people distinguished themselves by ethnicity (e.g., Italian, Prussian, French) and did not consider themselves to be of the same race. Nationality is also a fairly recent category.
However, Europeans in the 1500s did not distinguish between various African tribes. The slaves they brought across the sea were all lumped into one category, a category whose defining feature to them was color. "Black" was created as a category of race. Predictably, "white" then became a counter-category. "White," however, is not really a race any more than "black" is.
Even in the 1800s in the US, "white" was used in reference to those who were 1) not black and 2) assimilated into American culture. So immigrant groups that were still perceived as "other" were not yet considered white. Thus, the Irish were not "white" when they arrived, and so forth.
Next Week: Renaissance and Reformations
- Inventions really can impact the course of history and culture. Scientists shouldn't be made fun of. But there are often unintended social consequences to innovation.
- We have so much more say in our lives as the governed that most people throughout history.