The Enlightenment

Like the Renaissance, the Enlightenment refers to an intellectual movement, but again I am using it to describe a larger period of political history. The Enlightenment could be most simply be described as the next step after the Renaissance. European intellectuals decided that they should no longer just ape the classical past but move forward, using science, logic and reason to solve all problems and dilemmas. These intellectuals fell madly in love with notions of reason and order conquering all, and one only needs listen to the orderly sounds of classical music to get an idea where this love affair got them. Eventually this philosophical notion of reason led to political notions, the first being Absolutism, the belief that the monarch should dominate all in his state without restraint. Nobles and peasants alike owed absolute (hint) obedience to the King or Emperor. Later reason led to just the opposite conclusion, to notions of democracy and legal equality. These notions would turn out to be dangerous ones indeed, dangerous enough to shatter Europe's political order. At the end of the Thirty Years War, the powers that would dominate Europe were more or less set in the same position until the French Revolution and Napoleon would demolish this balance of power. Balance of Power was a phrase that fixated the European political mind at this time. Abroad, Europe was rapidly expanding her colonies and holdings in the Americas and Asia, but at home she fought war after war that led to little or no territorial gain. The only significant change in her political geography was the rise of Muscovy, which would come to dominate a united and expansive Russia. Prussia, a small militaristic state that barely survived the Thirty Years War intact also rose at this time, and between them and a resurgent Austria Poland would be swallowed in three partitions culminating in her demise in 1795. The Ottoman Empire, terror of the sixteenth century, gradually fell behind Europe in military technology and her outstanding leadership and unmatched legions gradually fell into decline. In 1683 she besieged Vienna for the second time, but her army was utterly routed by the Austrians and a Polish-led relief force. France, especially under the 'Sun King', Louis XIV, embarked on a series of futile wars in Germany and elsewhere, resulting in only limited territorial gain. Britain led coalitions to contain France and keep Germany not only divided into petty states but safe from the overwhelming military power of France or Austria, often relying on Prussia to do so. Sweden briefly was a military terror, but she was driven back by Russian power. A huge amount of fighting for almost two hundred years led to almost no result. The reason for this was the nature of warfare at the time. Black powder weapons were inaccurate and had a slow rate of fire. Armies in the field were slow and cumbersome, and muskets could not destroy enemy units by themselves. In order to destroy an enemy army, one had to close in with the bayonet, and the infantry of the day, burdened with equipment and trained, by necessity, to stay in formation no matter what, were almost unable to pursue a retreating enemy. The Absolutist Monarchs of the day preferred artillery sieges, by now worked out to a precise science, to campaigns in the field. Such sieges were almost as expensive as field campaigns, but they at least seemed to be safer investments. These investments did not pay off, however. Despite the mass of wealth flowing into Europe from commercial ventures all over the world, the Absolutist states fell deeper and deeper into debt fighting indecisive wars with each other. France spent the most money and gained the least from her wars, and so it was perhaps inevitable that France was the first European state to have a liberal, democratic revolution. The English Colonies in America had led the way, and France followed in 1789. Unlike America, however, France's Revolution was uncontained and soon became radical in the face of foreign military threats. The regimental system, which all European countries used to create their armies, was replaced with a 'levee en masse', a universal male draft. The hordes of revolutionary-inspired Frenchmen not only held off the professional armies of Europe but conquered significant territories, much more than years of Absolutist wars had. The Revolution's radicalism soon tempered, however, during the Thermidorian reaction. The middle-class leaders of this reaction could not control the new officers rising in the wars on France's borders, and one in particular was sure he knew how to run France. In November of 1799, Napoleon declared himself dictator and began conquests surpassed only by Alexander the Great and the Mongol Hordes before him. By 1805 he changed his title to that of Emperor, and by 1812 he had conquered or cowed all of Europe, save Russia. That year was, however, a bad one for Napoleon. In Spain, local nationalist guerrillas (the term was coined during this war) helped by British troops routed his armies there, and in Russia Napoleon led the biggest single army in history up until that time, over a half-million men, into disaster. Unable to decisively defeat Russia's army, the Russian winter reduced his force to thirty thousand exhausted stragglers. His beautiful legions destroyed, his power broken, and Napoleon was exiled to Elba. He briefly returned to fire France's nationalist spirit, but was defeated again at Waterloo and was sent to St. Helena., an island so small it wouldn't rate a pixel on one of my maps. After a spasm of change, Europe's borders were settled, seemingly once and for all, by the Congress of Vienna in 1815. But two new factors, nationalism and industrialization, would rip apart this tidy arrangement in the century to come. To use this page, click on underlined text to access information on various maps of The Enlightenment.

Questions, comments, and corrections are welcome! Direct comments and such toTony Belmonte