Generation 490, 1780-1800. A turning moment in the human story?

In this generation an idea took hold. It contaged people, led to changes in behaviour and modified our world in ways that we still feel now.

The idea had been brewing in the previous generation, when the British Government, short of money after its latest war, imposed taxes on the settlers in North America. They protested, using the powerful slogan ‘No taxation without representation’. During this generation, the United States of America was founded, with a constitution outlining the rights of the citizen. In France in 1789 a similar document was drawn up, ‘La declaration des droits de l’homme’, the Declaration of the Rights of Man.

Why did this idea take root at this time? It had been proposed before, as we shall see. For me a powerful component of this idea is what underlies it, the idea that the state is not necessarily personified by its ruler. A great French king a century earlier had declared that ‘L’etat c’est moi’, I am the state. But in Holland, Britain and North America, where the idea was explored and amplified, certain ingredients were already in place which gave people rights and freedoms independent of the whim of the ruler.

The first was a (relatively) independent legal system. An entrepreneur could theoretically protect their new products through the courts.

Second, there was stability of property. The ruler could not confiscate a successful person’s riches without valid legal reason.

Third, there were sources of finance. The banking system developed in the Netherlands was adopted in Britain and North America.

Fourth, the governing elite was so preoccupied with its own concerns that it didn’t interfere in the changes happening out of its line of vision. The mediaeval guilds kept a stranglehold on innovation in established cities like London – but not in the new cities of Birmingham and Manchester. There an apprentice didn’t have to serve seven years before practising a trade. There was no glass ceiling – but no safety net either. If their venture succeeded it brought prosperity to the city, and if it failed that was their problem.

Fifth, there was a free press and exchange of ideas. There were clubs and societies. Educated people were prolific letter-writers, even across continents when a letter took weeks or months to arrive. And because of the first four ingredients, enough of them could experiment with putting these ideas into practice. This period has been described as the ‘Industrious Revolution’, as people took advantage of these opportunities and set up small enterprises on an unprecedented scale.

Other countries had some of these ingredients but not all. France had a free press but did it have an independent judiciary? The first days of the republic with its high aims were followed by the Terror of 1793, during which many were sent to the guillotine, and by the Empire a generation later. In the USA, where all of the ingredients were more or less in place (we’ll come to slavery later) the republic is still based on the constitution drawn up by a group of men in Philadelphia in 1789.

One ripple from this momentous idea was the concept of a nation state. There were movements for independence in South America, in Venezuela and Colombia, inspired by events to the north of them. India was talked of as a single entity for the first time. In southeast Asia, Siam (now Thailand) established itself as a separate country (indeed one of the few in the region subsequently able to resist colonisation by Europeans).

Some things I can’t understand about this period:

– Why were the Europeans so expansionist and aggressive? They were continually at war, either with each other or with people in other continents that they wanted to colonise. They were very good at war, thanks to innovations feeding in from the Industrious Revolution.

– Populations were growing. Thousands of Europeans moved to other continents, and still the population of Europe increased. Was this because of imports of foods from the new world, reducing dependence on local produce?

And of course, not everyone benefited from the wind of freedom that was blowing through this generation.

Some women pamphleteers in Britain and France wrote outlining the case for their gender to be accorded similar rights to the men. But this is one idea that did not catch at the time, and was arguably not seen through to its enactment until our lifetimes, generations 498 and 499. And even now, not everywhere.

Many of the people who emigrated to the new world went as indentured servants, who had to work for several years after arrival to earn their freedom. It was probably still a better bet than what they had left behind: servants were very badly paid back in Europe.

The slave trade reached its zenith in this generation. Mainly British, but also French, Dutch and Portuguese traders bought slaves in the markets of west Africa. They transported them over the Atlantic in sailing ships, then sold them to work on farms and plantations in the southern states of north America, the Caribbean and south America. It brought wealth to the traders and plantation owners, and huge suffering to the victims.


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