The 19th Century – 1789-1914?

I went into history because they said there would be no math. I was probably not the only one, because in European history, people refer to the 19th century as “the long 19th Century,” and start it in 1789, ending in June 1914. Which some uncharitable souls, who likely majored in the hard sciences or math, take to imply that historians can’t add. We can, but events don’t always line up neatly with years that end in 00, and grand sweeps of the spread of ideas and technology tend to ignore calendars.

The century opens with the meeting of the Estates General and France and the rapid shift from a royal tax meeting to the declaration of a new government, the eradication of feudal privilege, and the onset of a revolution that would set new highs, and lows, for relations between people and their government. Although I agree with DeToquville that the French Revolution was a continuation and intensification of the central government’s control over and nullification of traditional rights, privileges, and powers, the scale was new. Napoleon took that even farther, spreading the ideas of the Revolution and French Enlightenment across Europe. This opened a can of worms that the monarchs of Europe struggled to put back into the can, and dragged the new US into the war (see War of 1812 as well as the Louisiana Purchase).

The Industrial Revolution had been going on for a while in England and the US, but really got wound up in terms of scale and steam in the late 1700s, and spread to mainland Europe, more or less, sort of, in places. The world of mass production and the agricultural revolution that also spread from England to Europe allowed for a slow rise in the overall standard of living, and the shift from rural to urban life. 1846-47 would be the last time famine caused by purely natural events (bad weather) hit Europe, and it contributed to the Revolutions of 1848. France had already had two revolutions, and England staved off one in 1830 by making major political reforms that enfranchised the new urban workers and made Parliament’s lower house much closer to the people.

While this is going on, blood-and-soil Nationalism also got going, mostly among the urbanized middle classes and elites. You do not find nationalistic peasants, unless it is in the sense of us versus them, like in 1846 when Polish nobles tried to rouse the Galician peasants to recreate Poland, and the Ruthenian [Ukrainian today] peasants responded by killing the nobles and giving 200+ heads to the local Habsburg officials in hopes of a bounty. Oops. Romantic Nationalism, the idea of the brotherhood of all men and the rise of national Liberal movements, collapsed after 1848, but the blood-and-soil version grew stronger as a response to increasing unification and central administration in the German-speaking lands and the Habsburg lands. At one point, bitter arguments broke out in Hungary over just who was the Hungarian Nation, and if Magyar-speaking peasants were really Magyars, or if it was just the great lords, or the great lords and the lower (tax-free) gentry, or just the gentry, or all Magyar speakers. Re-discovering culture and language became a major project of the upper and middle classes, and then using that as a tool for politics. This is when Russia began spreading the idea of Pan-Slavism, that all Slavs shared a common identity and spiritual bond, and should be led by Russia. Not all Slavs agreed with this, especially Poles and Czechs. Super especially the Poles living in Russian Poland.

The United States joined Great Britain as industrial powers, and pushed communications and transportation technology farther and faster. The US also fought the first industrial war. Observers from Europe chalked this up as an anomaly in military history, just as many would also do with the Franco-Prussian war in 1870-71 and the Boer War. Trains, machine-guns, and barbed wire, and aerial observation really had nothing to do with “real” warfare, or so the theoreticians and military trainers assumed.

Great Britain, France, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, and later Germany expanded their governing overseas to colonies, either intentionally or semi-accidentally. This was the “Scramble for Africa” and the start of a new kind of take on “race” that incorporated misunderstood and twisted versions of the new biological sciences. The old idea of race = culture remained strong, only fading after 1900 or so, and the British still wrote about the “martial races,” meaning people like the Rajputs, Zulu, Maori, and others who had defeated British forces at least once in fair fights.

The idea of individual freedom to choose faith, profession, and location, and to prosper through individual initiative and effort grew and spread, most strongly in the Anglo-sphere. Communitarian ideas remained common, however, and showed up in Marxist Socialism as well as utopian Socialism.

The century tended to be optimistic, with a strong sense of self-confidence and rightness. Since things in Europe were getting better, why not export those things and improve the lot of the rest of the world? It is easy to sniff and say that such talk was a thin cover for imperialism and personal greed, but at the time a lot of people took the duty to help others seriously, both at home and abroad. At their best, Europeans introduced fair court systems, public health, better farming, transportation systems, and the idea of the worth of the individual to the world, and tried to pound the rule of law into India and parts of the African continent. At their worst, read The Heart of Darkness or King Leopold’s Ghost or books about the Germans in Africa, especially the Herero wars. Or the partition of China.

By 1914, an observer from 2016 can look at the world, nod, and say “Yes, that is modern. Chemical engineering, airplanes, telephones, internal combustion engine, modern medicine, classical Liberalism vs. socialism and Communism, tabloid newspapers and people famous for being famous, I know all this.” A lot of the old world remained, not broken away until after 1920 and 1945-49, or later in some places.

WWI shattered empires, shattered the European mentality, and left Russia in a darkness it still struggles with. Only the United States and Japan emerged relatively unscathed, and so historians say that the 20th Century (“the American century” although you could also call it the State-ist Century) began in 1914.



6 thoughts on “The 19th Century – 1789-1914?

  1. Which some uncharitable souls, who likely majored in the hard sciences or math, take to imply that historians can’t add.

    Just point out that the “International Geophysical Year” was 18 months long.

    • Has there been any historical agreement yet as to when the 20th Century ended? Considering this post, a start of around 1914 seems likely, but the end? I can see arguments for 1990 and 2001 and perhaps even 2016, but we might well be still too close to tell.

      • I’d lean toward 2001, simply because it marked the official recognition by the “global north” of Islam’s War with Everyone Else. In the Cat universe, it is called “The Second Ideology War” by historians of human development from Rada’s time. One of her times. Sorry, not enough tea and too many attempts to do an overseas transaction this AM.

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