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The eighteenth century hosted a number of huge developments which have had monumental impacts on society up till the modern day. In discussion of the “most important” developments, one must be quite critical of its significance, to do this various criterion must be taken into account: whether the development had a large impact within the century; if it inspired various other events; if it was a unique development; if it impacted multiple demographics of people; and if other developments had greater importance. Based on this criterion, it is clear to see that whilst of great significance, the Haitian Revolution was not the most important political transformation in the eighteenth century. If something is a ‘transformation’ the political climate would be completely different to how it was before the event happened, and whilst the Haitian revolution had this effect, it wasn’t until the nineteenth century its influence was fully felt and in this “Haitian revolution” essay the causes of it are defined. The Enlightenment meets both aspects of the statement, not only was the Haitian revolution a by-product of the enlightenment, it also inspired other revolutions and birthed the modern feminist movement- completely altering the way society viewed power and entirely changing the political climate in the eighteenth century.
Scholar Valentina Pegeuro argues that ‘the significance of the Haitian revolution is that it is considered the first successful slave revolt in modern times’. Pegeuro’s view has great credit, though in relation to the statement, the revolt did not end until 1804, meaning its significance is mainly limited to the nineteenth-century, working against its weight in the eighteenth century. Due to this fact, we already eliminate the criteria point of if it had a large impact within the century. Clearly, the Enlightenment is the most important “political transformation”, an argument supported by Jonathon Israel who states ‘the roots of anti-colonialism itself, as well as the modern idea of racial, ethnic, and sexual equality’ are found in enlightenment writers. The ideas inspiring the Haitian revolution were formulated and spread in the Enlightenment. The most significant events in the eighteenth century all have deep roots in the enlightenment, not only did it have a huge impact across the century, it inspired numerous other events, it hugely impacted multiple demographics of people, and overall had a much greater impact in the eighteenth century than the Haitian revolution did. To prove this, the influence of the Enlightenment in inspiring revolutions and birthing a new movement will be discussed.
Firstly, the Enlightenment inspired a major contender for the title of ‘the most important political transformation’, that being the American Revolution of 1775-1783. This revolution represents a physical form of the enlightenment ideas which were reaching peak popularity in the eighteenth century, without this ideology, it is unclear whether or not the revolution would have ever had the success it did or if it would have ever occurred to begin with. Bernard Bailyn argues that “the greatest achievement of the revolution was of course the repudiation of just such state authority and the transfer of power to popular legislatures, no one will deny that this action was taken in accordance with highest principles of Enlightenment theory”. In this Bailyn is attributing the success of the Revolution to the enlightenment, an argument with great value, we can see how the works of enlightenment writers had a profound impact on the revolt and the product of the United States of America. An example is in the work of Baron De Montesquieu in The Spirit of the Laws, a man who contributed much to the enlightenment in his review of the greatest type of government between monarchy, republics and despotism. In doing so, Montesquieu formulated a new way of thinking, a new, more critical outlook on politics, allowing individuals to question their own state and form their own opinions on their government. Particularly threatening to the colonial Britain’s power in America was the following quote from The Spirit of Laws:
“Better it is to say that the government most conformable to nature is that which best agrees with the humour and disposition of the people in whose favour it is established”.
Here Montesquieu implies that colonial power is unnatural, and the best form of governing is in a democratic republic. He also implies that other forms of government do not suit the people they govern. The idea that the state should be like the people, with similar “humour and disposition” establishes the idea of the representative government and forms great anti-colonial sentiment- a huge threat to colonial forces in America.
Thus, further demonstrated in the following:
“For it is clear that in a monarchy, where he who commands the execution of the laws generally thinks himself above them, there is less need of virtue than in a popular government, where the person intrusted with the execution of the laws is sensible of his being subject to their direction”.
Montesquieu highlights here the inequality within monarchy and the lack of check on the power of the monarch, they are above the law, and hence this is an injustice to the people. Thus, furthering his previous point, the need for a representative government, those in power, in representing the people, should be subject to the same law as the people.
This Enlightened ideology “nourished” the American population, and anti-colonial, republican sentiment grew- resulting in the American revolution. We can see the extent of influence of the enlightenment ideas on the revolution leaders in the product of the revolt, the U.S. Constitution (ratified 1787). A legislative branch, all directly elected by the people, with one body even being called the ‘House of Representatives’, was established in Article I- clearly responding to the idea of a representative government established by Montesquieu. The executive branch, the president, also directly elected, was also established in Article II- responding to the need for the leader to serve the people, heshe is directly accountable to the population. The supreme court was established in Article III, in place to check the power of the president and legislature, making sure their power remains bound in accordance to the constitution, performing another key aspect of Montesquieu’s writings, a check on the power of the state which he claims is required to prevent the abuse of power.
Hence it is very clear how the Enlightenment was embodied by the American Revolution, as Bailyn puts it ‘in behalf of Enlightenment liberalism the revolutionary leaders undertook to complete, formalise, systematise, and symbolise what previously had been only partially realised, confused, and disputed matters of fact’. In other words, the American Revolution proved that the ideas of the Enlightenment could be achieved, and set the example of revolution as a method to achieve it. Through force you could achieve liberty.
Overall, the American revolution as a solitary event can be seen to have great importance, though it cannot be deemed the most important political turning point as its entire foundations lay in the Enlightenment and ideology established in the Enlightenment, its main value was in providing a physical representation of these ideas and creating an example others could emulate.
This emulation is evident in the French and Haitian revolutions, in what can be described as the butterfly effect of the Enlightenment. These revolutions for liberty, and the overthrow of monarchical colonial powers and replacement with a republic appears to be a frequent occurrence in the eighteenth-century, and, as Robin Blackburn argues, “should be seen as interconnected, with each [revolution] helping radicalise the next”. Immediately, the case for the Haitian revolution being the most important political transformation is undermined, it took its influence from two predecessor revolutions and used the well-established and influential Enlightenment ideology – it wasn’t very unique and it did not breed any new ideas in the eighteenth century. Blackburn argues that the Haitian Revolution had a role in the “entire reshaping of slavery in the early nineteenth century”. In the context of the new century, its significance sharply increases, as by this point the new republic was already established, the first black republic. This was a huge transformation which set the tone for the rest of the century, inspiring many other colonies to revolt, ultimately resulting in the end of slavery – although in the eighteenth century, without the title of being the first black republic, the Haitian revolution was just one of many revolutions occurring at the time. These revolutions can be seen as a product of the enlightenment, political thought was completely transformed in the eighteenth century, critiquing old world powers and seeking liberty, key features of the enlightenment, became a wider and more popular practice, critical thinking became a common thing, and a general restlessness with the old order was arising. This took form in not only revolutions, as previously mentioned, but in new movements.
One of these new movements is the modern feminist movement, birthed as another by-product of the Enlightenment. Many earlier enlightenment thinkers, like John Locke, disregarded women as rational beings in investigations into human nature. This chauvinistic approach was heavily questioned in the late eighteenth century, the liberal ideas of the enlightenment, of liberty and equality of opportunity were not being applied to women, and as Katherine Clinton also argues, “the arguments they presented and the solutions they proposed became the basis of the modern feminist rationale”. The “woman question” became a huge issue and highlighted the mistreatment of women, hence we see how the enlightenment did not only result in the challenging of physical structures, but societal structures. One of the enlightenment thinkers to challenge the patriarchal system is Mary Wollstonecraft, who is frequently acknowledged as “the mother of English-language feminism” and truly brought to the surface the issue of female inequality in her “A Vindication for the Rights of the Woman”. This is demonstrated in the following quote:
“Consider, I address you as a legislator, whether, when men contend for their freedom, and to be allowed to judge for themselves respecting their own happiness, it be not inconsistent and unjust to subjugate women, even though you firmly believe that you are acting in the manner best calculated to promote their happiness? Who made man the exclusive judge, if woman partake with him the gift of reason?”
Here Wollstonecraft uses Enlightenment ideology of “freedom” and humans’ “gift of reason” to highlight double-standards within society’s treatment of men compared to women. Terminology used to describe an oppressive state like “subjugate” in conjunction with a later quote “tyranny of man”, present the idea that the patriarchy must be overthrown just like monarchical and colonial states- proving the influence of the enlightenment and the revolutions of the century. Wollstonecraft also argues the following:
“My main argument is built on this simple principle, that if she not be prepared by education to become the companion of man, she will stop the progress of knowledge and virtue; for the truth must be common to all, or it will be inefficacious with respect to its influence on general practice. And how can woman be expected to cooperate unless she know why she ought to be virtuous?”
In this, Wollstonecraft emphasises the importance of the right to education for women, alluding to the fact that women may not be equipped with the knowledge to be virtuous or help their husbands be virtuous. From a modern perspective, a woman receiving an education mainly to be a better wife is clearly a problematic ideal, causing critics to accuse Wollstonecraft of being a misogynist, though it is important to note even this was incredibly radical for the eighteenth century. By highlighting these inequalities and the oppression of women, Wollstonecraft laid the foundations for the feminism of today, and the context of the enlightenment and the political climate created by the enlightenment enabled this.
To conclude, it is clear both from the revolutions and movements born in the eighteenth century, that the Enlightenment was the most important political transformation, not the Haitian revolution. Israel argues, “the most vital aspects of modernity have recently come to seem much more clearly and definitely products of the Enlightenment”, an extremely valuable point, and, as previously mentioned, for something to be a “political transformation” you would expect the development to completely alter the political climate and political thought. The Haitian revolution does not have this quality, especially in the context of the eighteenth century, where revolutions had already occurred. Instead the Enlightenment had this impact, the ideas it entailed promoted the critical thought which took form in the revolutions and movements, like feminism, that we see arise in the eighteenth century. Upon reflection of the criteria established in the introduction of this essay, it is clear that not only did the enlightenment have a butterfly effect across the entire century and beyond, it inspired various other events and reached multiple demographics of people (women, upper class, lower class and ethnic minorities). Even though the Haitian revolution was undeniably important, it cannot be deemed the most important political transformation due to the fact it was not particularly unique, nor did it inspire other events within the century, not to mention the fact its basis is rooted in Enlightenment ideology. Hence, it is undeniably clear that the statement “the Haitian Revolution was the most important political transformation of the eighteenth century” cannot be true due to the great value of the Enlightenment.
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