The Age of George III

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Was There an 'Atlantic Revolution'

The successful revolt of the American colonies against Britain provided European radicals with a model; whether there was an "Atlantic Revolution" is debatable. Since the French Revolution people have been tempted to find links between it and the American Revolution which had preceded it by a decade. French troops had fought alongside the colonists and French commitment in America on the side of the colonists had further weakened the unstable finances of the ancien régime. In both upheavals, some of the revolutionaries spoke in terms of liberty, equality and the rights of man.

In recent years it has been suggested that there was more than just a link between the American and French revolutions. It has been noted that as well as the revolutions in America and France, here were political disturbances and upheavals in Britain, the Low Countries and elsewhere in Europe. It has been concluded that towards the end of the eighteenth century a single revolutionary movement spanned the Atlantic Ocean. The aim of this movement is deemed to have been the creation of a more democratic society.

R.R. Palmer begins his theory of the Atlantic Revolution in 1763 where he sees some of the characteristics of the revolutionary era becoming apparent:

By 1770 Rousseau had published his Social Contract and the ideas of the philosophes had been publicised. In 1765 the French Assembly of the Clergy had denounced philosophe literature, which it said would undermine all churches, states and societies. In England, the 'Wilkes and Liberty' movement had begun in 1763; in 1764 and 1765 the Sugar and Stamp Acts had created colonial resistance to British rule. The Americans appealed to historic or natural rights against the sovereign authority of Britain and gathered the merchant and lawyer class into clubs and committees. They exploited mob violence to obtain their ends.


The demand for self-determination rather than adjustment to pre-existing authoritative standards underlies all the demands for political and economic liberty. Anarchy is avoided in the political sphere by the stress on equal rights, fraternity and the law. All these are bound together in the idea of constitutionalism. In economic theory, natural law or natural harmony prevents liberty from degenerating into confusion.

International revolutionaries

There was no international organisation of revolutionaries. Agitators and subversives did exist in many countries but there is little connection between them.

Class analysis

The establishment of American independence was followed by the heightened democratic agitation of the 1790s to decide who should rule America. The same pattern can be seen in Europe, especially in regions subject to a sovereignty increasingly felt to be foreign: Lombardy and Belgium for example. The same pattern can also be seen in countries having native governments because the rulers were 'foreign' to their people. The French revolution began with the revolt of the notables against royal absolutism, for instance.

If the revolutionary role of the aristocracy is accepted, then the attempts of the Polish gentry to revolt against the partitioning Powers (Russia, Austria and Prussia), or the uprising of Hungary and Belgium against Joseph II, or the English gentry demanding parliamentary reform can be fitted into the picture.

In countries where there was a middle class, a bourgeois phase soon followed the aristocratic protest; the working classes often made themselves heard too: for example in France, England, Scotland and Holland. Usually the landed classes had the last word; only in France and America did small farmers become revolutionary and only there can be found complete and thoroughly indigenous revolutions. In Ireland the rural population was disaffected but helpless. In England, "the land" meant the aristocracy.

General causes of unrest in Europe existed by c. 1780