Europe in the 18th Century
Europe in the 18th Century
One of the defining characteristics of Europe in the 18th century is its descent into gross libertinism. Perhaps this was expedited by the growing use of a sheath of silk or linen for birth control, which got its name from Colonel Cundom of England. Nonetheless, Europe in the 18th century was for the first time ravaged by pandemics of venereal disease spread through rampant promiscuity.
The United States Constitution was signed in 1787—to the horror of European monarchs. The American dollar began to circulate around Europe late in the 18th century.
Scandinavia settled down into an existence of inoffensive obscurity. Spain concentrated on its colonies in South America. Spain was ruled by the Bourbon kings from 1700 to 1808—exactly the period in which it lost all pretensions of being a great and powerful nation.
Venice elected its last Doge (leader) in 1789. Eight years later, Napoleon ended the reign of Venetian Doges that had lasted almost 1100 years.
Europe in the 18th century wilted under a cacophony of criticism designed to undermine its treasured institutions and its religious beliefs. From this anti-crusade we see born modern Atheism and the Secular State—a combination that created the Terror of the French Revolution near the end of the 18th century.
One definition of The Enlightenment is a shallow and pretentious intellectualism, combined with an unreasonable contempt for authority and tradition. The so-called "Age of Reason" was also an age of naivety. Many of Europe's intellectuals granted one human faculty—Reason—far too much prominence at the expense of all the others.
The 18th century saw a sharp decline in morality across Europe. It was an age of easy scruples, marked by a relaxation of social—especially sexual—mores. As the century wore on, sexual licentiousness not only increased but philandering became routine and ostentatious. Augustus the Strong, King of Poland, fathered 300 children.
The Enlightenment thinkers suffered under the delusion that Reason alone would uncover natural law, natural morality, and natural religion. David Hume of Scotland (1711-1776) believed that the scientific method should be applied to all human affairs.
The sages of the Enlightenment proved no more objective than the clerical historians they replaced—whom they savagely ridiculed. One bias was simply replaced by another.
The Scottish financier, John Law (1671-1729), created a fever of speculation by selling paper shares in the future of the French colony of Louisiana. When the bubble burst—as all bubbles do—millions of investors, large and small, were bankrupted.
John Law was an adventurer and a financial wizard. His father was the esteemed goldsmith and banker of Edinburgh. John Law became an apprentice at his father's banking firm at age 14. He grew tall and handsome; became a man about town and heavy gambler; and he killed a man in a duel over a woman.
For this last deed, John Law was forced to leave town. He traveled around Europe, becoming well known in Venice, Hungary, and France, as an expert on European trade.
John Law convinced Louis XIV to grant him a charter for Law and Company—a bank that would issue notes backed by the value of land. This did stimulate rapid growth in industry and trade. The notes themselves quickly increased in value by 15 percent. And thus for the first time, paper notes became a common currency.
This success led to the formation of the Mississippi Company. Thousands rushed to buy stock in it, including many common folk who risked their life savings with the hope of gaining a fortune. John Law's bank began printing far too much paper money. Hard money grew scarce as the wiser people hoarded it. France was drowning in a sea of paper bank notes.
Then came the inevitable panic in which 15 people were trampled to death by mobs rushing on Law's bank to cash in their paper bills for hard currency—of which there was none to be had. The people wanted John Law hung, but the king allowed him to leave the country, and he settled in Italy.
In the meantime, news of the early success of Law's schemes had become the talk of London. Innumerable companies—including the South Sea Company—were launched and "went public." All of them promised huge profits to investors but eventually vanished into thin air to the financial ruin of a multitude of people, rich and poor and everywhere in between.
Despite these early failures; banks, credit, insurance, a national debt, a stock exchange, and speculators had become a part of the permanent landscape in Europe. Jonathan Swift saw all of this clearly as an "irreversible social and cultural transformation" featuring a new kind of wealthy man "whose whole fortunes lie in funds and stocks; so that power, which used to follow land, is now gone over into money."
Britain emerged as the foremost maritime power of Europe in the 18th century. It controlled its North American colonies until 1776, and assumed control of India through the East India Company.
Britain controlled most of the Atlantic trade, which was centered on sugar, tobacco, and slaves. Britain had seen its economy boom after it imitated the Dutch by setting up its first permanent institution of public credit, the Bank of England, in 1694.
France also had its eyes on India and North America, having established the city of New Orleans in the latter in 1715. It was inevitable that France and Britain would clash, and when they did superior British naval power would win the day.
The countries of Europe that became maritime powers waxed wealthy, far more than their inland counterparts of Central and Eastern Europe. The founding of St Petersburg in 1703 allowed Russia the access required to dominate trade in the Baltic Sea.
Two of the great figures of Russian history appear in the 18th century: Peter the Great, who reigned from 1682 to 1725; and Catherine the Great, who reigned from 1762 to 1796. Both had huge personalities, as well as extraordinary determination, energy, and physical stature.
Peter the Great was a moral monster. He founded a club he called the All-Joking, All-Drunken Synod of Fools and Jesters, which specialized in blasphemy and sadistic torture as amusement. Peter demonstrated a colossal disregard for human suffering. He even laughed while watching his son and heir being tortured to death. He celebrated by throwing a ribald party that evening.
Peter also made it the law that Russian Orthodox priests must betray the secrets they heard in confession. Public flogging for confessed crimes became a daily feature of life in Moscow.
Nonetheless, Peter, who came to power at age 17, brought Russia into the modern world with his ambitious program of Westernizing. He imported a multitude of books from Europe and made French the language of court. He even founded an Academy of Science—though for decades all its members were foreigners as no Russians were as yet qualified.
Through 20 years of war, Peter beat back Sweden and Poland, thus vastly enlarging the size of Russia. Perhaps a million Russians died during these efforts. 500,000 Polish Slavs were forced to move to Russian estates where they were made virtual slaves (Slav serfs) to Russian officers. 300,000 people from other conquered lands were also pressed into servitude. It is from this time that Europeans developed the stereotype of Russians as uncouth drunks. Like all stereotypes this one had its basis in truth.
One of Peter's greatest achievements was the founding of St Petersburg in 1703, which for the first time gave Russia access to trade routes from the Baltic Sea. By the time he died, Russia had a standing army of 300,000 men.
Catherine the Great of Russia was a German princess. She is well remembered for her stunning ambition and gross sexual licentiousness. Catherine surely seized the throne by having her husband murdered. Rumor has it she died having sex with a horse.
Ukraine was subjugated by Russia in the 18th century. Thereafter, its traditions and language were prohibited and its ancient capital of Kiev officially presented as an old Russian city. The empty great plains were now populated with Russian and German peasant immigrants. In 1794, the magnificent port of Odessa was opened on the Black Sea. By this time, Russia had also extended its land all the way across the vast reaches of Siberia to the Pacific Ocean—and was exploring Alaska.
Field Marshall Prince Grigory Potemkin (1739-1791) was the Governor of New Russia in 1787 when he arranged a bit of a ruse to impress Empress Catherine. Catherine came to see how much progress Potemkin had made since wresting this new province from the Muslim Turks.
Grigory Potemkin took Catherine on a river cruise along which he arranged facades of bustling little villages along the route. The royal barge would round a bend, and actors, dressed up as peasants, would wildly cheer Empress Catherine and her entourage. After the Empress was out of sight, the facades would be moved downriver where the same actors, dressed in different outfits, would once again merrily applaud the voyagers.
Thus "Potemkin Villages" have long been part of Russian deception and disinformation. Lenin and Stalin used them to impress gullible visitors from the West, all of whom were also socialists at heart and therefore wanted to believe what was presented to them: thriving Russian towns full of peasants who were just as happy as clams. But all of them too were actors and there was nothing behind the facades.
The Habsburg family was originally from Switzerland, where they were established shortly after the year 1000. In 1278, the Habsburg family moved to Austria as its new rulers and stayed in power for well over 600 years.
Maria Theresa (1717-1780)—besides being the greatest designer of chandeliers—effectively ruled the Habsburg Empire for forty years from Vienna. She was a woman of great conscience who devoted herself to agrarian reforms and relief for the poor.
Maria Theresa also instituted huge improvements in the educational system of Hungary and founded the University of Buda. Her son, Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II (1741-1790), is known as "the Great Reformer." He emancipated the serfs, abolished capital punishment, established religious tolerance, legalized Freemasonry, and instituted child labor laws.
The prime beneficiaries of the Habsburg Empire in the 18th century were German aristocrats who established extraordinarily rich estates in Bohemia. The native Czechs were reduced to peasants under their rule. A large Jewish community flourished in Prague.
The Austrians developed a system whereby an elite cadre of professional bureaucrats ran the Habsburg Empire. The University of Vienna saw its greatest purpose in the training of these civil servants to manage the educational system, judicial system, and the economy. Prussia soon copied the setup using the University of Halle.
Prussia rose to power in the 18th century. To stabilize its internal affairs it created a marvelously efficient bureaucratic machine. To protect itself against foreigners it created a huge army with an aristocratic officer corps commanding conscripted peasants.
Frederick the Great ruled Prussia from 1740 to 1786. Immediately upon taking the throne he started 25 years of warfare. His opening gambit was to seize the Silesia region of Austria. Frederick was a military genius but he was also a brutal man.
By 1795, Prussia controlled much of Poland. Though Prussia was a German nation of Protestants, 40 percent of the population it ruled were now Catholic Slavs. And a large Jewish community had come under its rule in Poland as well.
Poland had been a sovereign nation under 31 successive kings. By the end of the 18th century it was no more. Poland was carved up and divided amongst the Russians and the Prussians—Austria also grabbed a piece.
Casimir Pulaski valiantly led an army to the field against the Russians to try to save Poland, but to no avail. He escaped to America where he fought in the American War of Independence, saved the life of George Washington, and founded the United States Calvary.
The Great Turkish War
The Muslim Turks (Ottomans) made their last great push to destroy Christian Europe in 1683. They laid siege to Vienna that year—again—but by this time Prussia and Russia had emerged as land powers in Central and Eastern Europe that saw it as their Christian duty to repel the Muslim invaders.
The Ottomans already controlled Albania and had forced its population to convert to Islam. A Muslim army under Albanian leadership first attacked Poland, but it was repulsed by John Sobieski.
The Muslims turned their attention to Vienna. With a fighting force of 200,000 men equipped with outstanding siege equipment and heavy artillery, the Muslim army besieged Vienna, which was poorly provisioned, for two months. John Sobieski, now the King of Poland, rode down with the terrific Polish Calvary and vanquished the Muslims on the 11th of September, 1683.
Thus began a gradual 200-year retreat from Europe by the Ottoman Turks. There followed three Russo-Turkish Wars—the first began in 1735 and the last ended in 1792—in which the Russians were victorious. This is how Russia came to rule the entire northern coast of the Black Sea for the first time.
But much of the region of the Balkan Mountains remained under Muslim rule. Russia managed to help free Greece from Muslim subjugation in 1769, and Serbia was set free in 1813. Bulgaria and Montenegro also escaped from Muslim oppression.
Because of Muslim domination, the Balkan states did not take part in the Renaissance, Reformation, Scientific Revolution, and Enlightenment. They remained relatively uncivilized with nepotism lubricated by bribery as a way of life.
Great music was written in Europe in the 18th century. The three giants were Bach (1685-1750); Mozart (1756-1791); and Beethoven (1770-1827). Vivaldi (1675-1741) was the big name composer in Italy; Monteverdi the Italian master of the opera. And in 1741, the masterpiece of Christmas music, Messiah, was composed by George Handel.
Bach was a creator of drama in sound and the master of complexity, who was a genius at adapting music to meaning. Mozart was devoted to orderly form, harmony, and delicacy. Beethoven revolutionized music with his focus on stress and storm.
The overture became the instrumental form to express drama. Its other name was sinfonie. The word orchestra was coined to mean the place in front of the opera stage.
The prime instrument of European music, the violin, was perfected by the Italian master string instrument maker, Antonio Stradivari (1644-1737). All the master violin makers were Italians. Stradivari built violins and other stringed boxes with a power and richness of tone that have not been surpassed.
The violin is an extremely versatile instrument with outstanding melodic qualities. It is ideally suited for solos as well as the natural leader of a string group with viola, cello, and bass. As the common "fiddle," it was also used for folk and dance music. Because it is small, portable, and relatively inexpensive, the violin became the universal workhorse for all types of music, high and low.
In 1719, English satirist Daniel DeFoe published what would become the world's first popular novel, Robinson Crusoe. Daniel DeFoe was a genius who created a powerful idea—showing instead of telling.
The other three hugely famous novels of the 18th century are Gulliver's Travels (1726) by Jonathan Swift; Tom Jones (1749) by Henry Fielding; and Tristam Shandy (1767) by Laurence Sterne.
Jonathan Swift was a philanthropist who spent his whole life helping whomever he could—men or women, young or old, with or without talent. Swift even defended the Irish against English oppression.
What Swift loved to write about was the individual human being. He wrote that he "hates and detests all nations, professions, and communities. All my love is toward individuals—John, Peter, Thomas, and so forth."
In Gulliver's Travels Swift invents the tribal name Yahoo to wonderfully express human brutishness. The mass behavior of men is what he finds "odious." Swift follows a long line of prophets, poets, and philosophers who express love toward the individual but record the horrors of man's collective pursuits.
Jonathan Swift lived during a time of unabashed political corruption and he was close to powerful politicians. He saw politics as disgusting, full of injustice, betrayal, and jealousy. Swift believed that men should cultivate manners, morals, and sincere devotion to religion.
Swift was not opposed to science, invention, or progress but—since make believe never escaped his lash—he railed against Scientism as an attempt to use scientific methods in realms where it does not belong.
Journalism, Science, Agriculture, Economics, and Government
In the 18th century we see a new social type: the journalist. They see their proper task as to form public opinion. For the journalist and for the public, news must be striking—unexpected or scandalous.
Linnaeus of Sweden (1707-1778) created the first system for classifying plants. Throughout Europe, the 18th century saw a mania for encyclopedias. In 1768, The Encyclopaedia Britannica made its debut in Edinburgh.
In England, what were once open lands were enclosed with fences. This hurt the peasant population but created a prosperous new class of yeoman farmers and gentleman landholders. The English dramatically improved agricultural yields by pioneering methods of drainage, crop rotation, and soil nutrition, as well as plant selection and breeding.
Adam Smith of Scotland founded modern economics. He was the original absent-minded professor, rambling through the streets of Edinburgh, half-dressed, arguing with himself. Smith published his Theory of Moral Sentiments in 1759 and then his masterpiece The Wealth of Nations in 1776. The latter work of 900 pages explores human greed and how it can be harnessed for the good of all.
Adam Smith posited the existence of "society," in whose mechanisms all people take part. He formulated the laws of the "free market," including production, competition, supply, demand, labor, and prices. His conclusion: "Let the market alone."
The physician John Locke, who was good friends with Sir Isaac Newton, developed the idea of government through a social contract, with the principle of consent, separation of powers, as well as checks and balances between the executive and legislative branches of government.
In Europe in the 18th century, the very concept of history was transformed from a chronicle of events to a science of causation and change. With this came a new idea—Progress. To quote Turgot in 1750: "The totality of humanity . . . moves steadily though slowly towards a great perfection."
Giambattista Vico was one of the towering minds of the 18th century. I would venture to say he would be more famous if not for his first name.
Vico grew up in dire poverty and received hardly any schooling. His poor father sold books in Naples. Vico was an autodidact extraordinaire with an unshakable faith in Jesus Christ. His intelligence enabled him to eventually join the highest circles of learned men.
It was Giambattista Vico who posited that cultures, nations, and civilizations go through cycles: from barbarism to high civilization and back to barbarism. The more shocking part of his concept is that the second barbarism is always far worse than first, because the original barbarians have at least rudimentary virtues but after a high civilization fails there is hardly any virtue left.
According to Vico, the main reason for this is that high civilization creates crowded cities where men lose first their religion and then their morality. Manly courage, duty to one's family, and modesty fly out the window as men come to regard wealth as the measure of all things.
Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) stands as a giant among philosophers. He never once left his hometown of Konigsberg, Germany.
In 1781, Kant published his Critique of Pure Reason, in which he says "I had to abolish knowledge, in order to make room for faith." He believed that Reason must be accompanied by faith and imagination.
Kant also made clear that Art should serve morality and beauty and avoid the portrayal of nasty objects.
The Industrial Revolution
The Industrial Revolution refers primarily to the invention of power-driven machinery.
In the 18th century an agricultural revolution vastly increased crop yields. The availability of a plentiful supply of food led to a rise in population, which along with less need for farm workers led to a surplus of labor.
James Watt (1736-1819), an instrument-maker from Glasgow, perfected the steam engine in 1763. Clock-makers soon began to focus their ingenuity on all types of machinery. Then, other key factors came into place—improved methods for mining coal and for producing iron and steel. Hardened steel was needed to make machines and coal to make steam.
The 18th century saw the rise of the factory: a shortening of the word manufactory, which means produced by a man. The factory concentrated large numbers of industrial workers under one roof. The growth in factories meant a growth in large cities—first typified by Manchester, England, where cotton textiles were king.
Huge factories required enormous amounts of capital. Men with a surplus of cash reserves had to be persuaded to invest in projects that might bring great returns but always included immense risks.
The Industrial Revolution took off first only in Great Britain. Why? Britain had political stability, a rapidly rising population, plenty of entrepreneurs, a thriving network of trade, a multitude of sharp merchants, a vast supply of iron and coal, a plethora of skilled artisans, and the most prosperous farmers in the world.
The United Kingdom of Great Britain
In 1692, the Protestant Campbell Clan, backed by the English, slaughtered the Catholic Clan MacDonald at the treacherous Massacre of Glencoe. Thus started a war between the Lowlands and the Highlands—a Civil War that would break the unity of Scotland and leave it vulnerable to English conquest.
The Scots did not go quietly and their repeated uprisings lead to the destruction of the Scottish Highlands civilization. After 1746, the Gaelic language was banished, the native dress prohibited, their organizations dismantled, their leaders driven into exile. Then followed mass migrations of Scots to America, where they soon were more numerous than back in the now nearly empty Scottish Highlands. This area still has such a haunting emptiness to this day.
As for the small kilt we picture when we think of ancient Scottish culture—the "philibeg"—it was invented by an Englishman named Thomas Rawlinson in 1727.
Meanwhile over in Ireland, the English began to deny Catholics the right to hold public office, own property, acquire an education, or marry a Protestant.
The Hanovers of Germany ruled Britain for 123 years (1714-1830), through George I, II, III, & IV. It was these kings who presided over the first Industrial Revolution in the world.
Lloyds of London
Edward Lloyd ran a coffee house in London. Near the dawn of the 18th century, he began to publish a weekly bulletin that featured the latest shipping and commerce news, which morphed into an information service. Soon Lloyd's became the meeting place for merchants, traders, and people in the shipping business. Men began to meet there to form joint-ventures, as well as to buy or sell insurance.
Lloyd's of London issued its first insurance policy in 1774, and would go on to become the largest insurance association in the world. The idea of insurance is to sell security. It was first used for shipping, then for merchant inventories, and soon after for business buildings.
Before long, insurance was used to share the risk of accident, fire, poor health, and loss of life. (In 1693, Edmund Halley had developed the first actuarial tables, which he called "The Degrees of Mortality of Mankind.")
In 1717, London was home to four Masonic Lodges. The four joined together to form a "Mother Grand Lodge of the World" and elect their first "Grand Master." London became the home of an international movement. Paris got its first lodge in 1725, followed by Prague (1726), and Warsaw (1755).
The Freemasons deliberately cultivated an air of mystery about themselves by utilizing secret rituals, signs, symbols, and jargon. The compass and square, the apron and gloves, and the circle on the floor are symbolic of freemasonry's origin in medieval guilds.
The Pope issued Bulls that condemned freemasonry six times from 1738 to 1890. The Vatican considered Masons to be subversive, conspiratorial, and wicked. In the 20th century, totalitarian regimes would prove even more hostile with both Communists and Fascists sending Masons to concentration camps.
Freemasonry has had a distinguished list of members. Just to name a few there have been Churchill, Eiffel, Garibaldi, Liszt, Pushkin, Talleyrand, Wellington, Lafayette, Mozart, Haydn, Burke, Burns, Goethe, Gibbon, Montesquieu, Voltaire, Swift, and Wren.
The Right vs. the Left
The Right versus the Left is a metaphor derived from the 18th century. In France, and in most of Europe, the nobility—the most successful members of society—sat to the Right of the king during assemblies, along with the clergy. The common people sat to the Left of the king. Over time, those sitting to the Right of the king became equated with Godliness, authority, and privilege; while those seated on the Left became associated with those opposed to privilege, authority, and Godliness.
Many countries have sought to maintain an equilibrium between these two sides but according to Karl Marx the center cannot hold, and thus the Left must force the Right to capitulate or the Left will be forced to capitulate. Therefore, according to Marx, consensus, toleration, compromise, and mutual respect must be disdained as a "Bourgeois illusion."
(As a side note, Red was always the color of the Left (for the blood of revolution) and Blue the color of the Right (for conservatism) until this past decade when the American Media pulled "The Great Switch" to disassociate Leftist states from the Red of bloody socialist revolutions that left a hundred million dead in the 20th century.)
Europe in the 18th Century
My primary sources for this Hub are Europe by Norman Davies; and From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life by Jacques Barzun.