How Enlightened was the Enlightenment?


                                      Links: Imagining Other Index page


                                                                                                                                 Week 3: science and the philosophy of science.


                                                                                                                                 Week 5: religion.


Week 4 – economy and society in 18th century Europe:

growth of capital, changing class structures, wars (trading and colonial), agricultural and industrial revolutions...




1. Overview


2.  Wars and their effects on economy and politics in 18th century England and Europe – two contrasting views:

2.1 A ‘traditional’ view

2.2 A Marxist view

2.3 Political repercussions of war and revolution:


3. Agriculture and the industrial revolution

3.1 New techniques and crops

3.2 Enclosures

3.3 Opposition to enclosures (including examples from literature)


4. The industrial revolution:

4.1 Industrialisation

4.2 The British disease? (science and technology)

4.3 Inventions (coke, steam-power, spinning and weaving machines).


5. References






1. Overview: [A.L. Morton: a people’s History of England: war, trade, the colonies and the accumulation of capital]


(p 320:)

In relation to England: ‘The real history of the period between 1688 and the middle of the Eighteenth Century can be summed up in the three words: accumulation of capital’. This, he says, happened through (a) the growth of the National Debt and consequently of taxation, concentrating capital in the hands of the small class who were able to provide the State with finances for war; (b) the rapid increase in trade, especially by monopoly control of colonial empires (c) direct plunder of colonies (especially, for England, of India)


‘On the surface the period seems devoid of startling changes. Society was relatively stable... It was an age of the unquestioned acceptance of recognised authority, of the dominance of squire and parson in the countryside, an age in which elegance was more prized (*) than imagination, and in which the word enthusiasm... was always used in a disparaging sense... Only, beneath the surface, the streams of gold poured into the City... till the time when the flood burst out, transformed by some magic into mills and mines and foundries, and covered the face of half of England...’ This was the ‘industrial revolution’ – on which see below.


(*) Valentine de Saint-Helme writes that the eighteenth century ‘finished in 1789, exhausted by excess of luxury and wit... it was necessary to have an excess of wit to have enough. Women particularly excelled in this... ‘ (etc!).


2. Wars and their effects on economy and politics in 18th century England and Europe – two contrasting views:


2.1 A traditional view from: Gascoigne, Bamber HistoryWorld ( – this account sees wars as either arising from a ‘balance of power’ or from strategic demands i.e. access to the sea, or acquisition of territory. [Gascoigne was educated at Eton and Magdelene College Cambridge, then at Yale. He wrote a series of TV programmes on The Victorians broadcast in 1987, and has written on the Moghuls of India, and the two world wars etc].



France - under its absolute monarch Louis XIV - was the dominant power at the end of the 17th century. Other powers, especially England, sought to prevent France from becoming too powerful.


Russia, together with Denmark and Saxony tried to prevent Sweden from becoming too powerful: they invaded its empire in 1700 (the Northern War, which lasted 21 years). Russia - under Peter the Great - gained access to the Baltic by taking from Sweden the territory on which St Petersburg was to be built. 


The balance of powers was also further upset when, at the death of Charles II of Spain, it was found that he had left everything to the grandson of the king of France. This led to the War of the Spanish Succession. Among the changes that resulted, Britain gained Gibraltar and Minorca from Spain (giving her access to the Mediterranean).


Prussia and Austria are rivals – ‘competing to lead the German world’. In 1740 the 28-year old Frederick II becomes ruler of Prussia, and the 23-year old Maria Theresa inherits the thrones of Austria and Hungary. ‘The first woman in the Habsburg imperial line inevitably provokes a crisis’ and Frederick marches into the Austrian province of Silesia – thus beginning the War of the Austrian Succession, which lasts 8 years. Frederick retains Silesia – however Maria Theresa allies herself with France and Russia and prepares to retake Silesia. This is thwarted by Frederick, who in 1756 attacks Saxony – launching another war: the Seven Year War which ‘merges with an existing imperial conflict between Britain and France’. Prussia under Frederick II is now very powerful.


In the east, Russia and Turkey fight for control of the Black Sea.


Finally, after the French Revolution of 1789, an attack on France by Austria and Prussia in 1792 precipitates the French Revolutionary Wars and then the Napoleonic Wars (which last for some 23 years)...


2.2 A Marxist view: from: A.L.Morton (Ch x) – here the emphasis is on trading and colonial wars and on economic factors which led to changes in the class structure, all of which is related to the way politics is conducted (in England in this particular book, but of course the same approach can be adopted to all wars):


- he argues that the changes that were happening in warfare were important: war was expensive (and becoming more so with new technical developments), and while England and Holland were wealthy enough to adapt, France was not: the economy was badly run and had been damaged by the expulsion of the Huguenots. In England the Whigs (business class) benefited financially from war, whilst the Tories (landowners, because of rising land taxes) did not, and their political attitudes and policies were different as a result


- Morton also stresses the importance of the Bank of England in lending money to the government – he describes it as ‘an instrument of the dominant Whig financial clique.’ The Bank fought off attacks by goldsmiths and by Tory squires, and became more powerful and more closely connected with the government.  [*] Note at end.


 - thus more credit became available, and there was a growing system of speculation in stocks and commodities...


- costs of wars à expanding National Debt... à more taxation, and the government issuing bonds to raise money, which in turn à profits for minority bond-holders (also arms manufacturers etc?) and thus a concentration of ‘fluid’ capital which helped finance the industrial revolution... (Tories, as landowners, on the other hand lost because of higher land tax).


- speculation led to crises: the South Sea Company (founded in 1720) – grew from slave trading and whale fishing to become rich and powerful enough to plunder India. It was the biggest and best known of the chartered companies at the time, which were protected by the state – later the state itself drove colonial exploitation.


The company issued shares which were expected to keep on rising – bogus subsidiary companies were formed, and members of the Whig government and the Prince of Wales were criminally involved. When the (inevitable!?) crash came, it ruined thousands of investors – and there were other financial crises in 1763, 1772, and 1793... and the failure of Law’s Mississippi Scheme damaged France’s economy.


Role in India: in 1740 it had a capital of £3 million, and paid a 7% dividend to shareholders; more was taken from India in bribes, extortion and private trade – it monopolised trade between India and Britain. Even the Directors of the Company complained of the ‘tyrannic and oppressive conduct’ of those in the Company, which allowed them to acquire ‘vast fortunes’ (307 quote).


The French arrived in India later (at the end of the 17th c) and used arms to establish bases in Mauritius, Pondicherry, Chandanagore – all close to towns held by the English. ‘A clash was almost inevitable’. Both exploited the differences between local rulers/officials... 


The Battle of Plassey 1757 à the conquest of Bengal. The ‘Black Hole of Calcutta’ is remembered as an atrocity, but in fact it was simply a prison owned by the East India Cy, and some English prisoners died in the heat! Other atrocities occurred... (which are not so well remembered?!). The Treaty of Paris ended hostilities in 1763, leaving The East India Cy strong, and expanding its operations, and the French weak (a few trading stations which they were forbidden to fortify). The Company took £6 million in bribes in Bengal alone – and held trading monopolies in salt, opium and tobacco – yielding immense fortunes. The English created a famine in 1769-70 by cornering rice and refusing to sell it except at exorbitant prices. Clive of India became extremely wealthy – especially through bribes and ‘presents’ from native rulers. (308)


The Government implemented controls over the Company, (ostensibly to check its excesses) but in fact this enabled more exploitation by the British, and facilitated the move from buying commodities to controlling the supply of manufactured goods, especially cotton.


Of course, Morton describes the strategic aims of war – such as Britain’s gaining Gibraltar and Minorca (as the key to the Mediterranean), and former French territories in America. However, he points out that, for example, the Treaty of Utrecht (1714, at the end of the War of the Spanish Succession) brought Britain more than strategic or territorial gains: the treaty gave Britain the monopoly of supplying Spanish colonies with slaves. On average 20,000 slaves were shipped from Africa each year between 1680 and 1786... (see later in this course.) The treaty also led to an increase of 50% in exports over next 30 years – the trade in sugar, timber, tobacco and rice grew, assisted by Britain’s gains such as parts of the West Indies and by the plundering of India. After all, he say, these were conflicts over colonies:India, North America, West Indies, etc. England thus, by becoming dominant in commerce and in the colonies, laid the foundations of its empire, (while France and Holland became less powerful).


2.3 Political repercussions of war and revolution:


France also got into trouble because, ‘one by one [she] was stripped of her colonies’ but the ‘complicated and excessively bureaucratic and military organisation of the French State’ could only be justified if it were in control of extensive colonies. Instead, it became top-heavy and was always on the verge of bankruptcy. At the same time, the French bourgeoisie and capitalists gained from the increase of trade - by imports from abroad - while the lower classes of peasants and artisans were subject to increasing taxation, and consequently turned against the aristocracy and Monarchy, which, of course, contributed to the French revolution.


Morton also traces (pp 312 - 319) the political effects of all this in England, with the Whigs and Tories vying for power. Both groups were, of course, drawn from the better-off classes – however, gradually a new radical grouping developed, especially through the conflict between America and Britain. For example, Tom Paine the revolutionary pamphleteer, and Wilkes who became a supporter of the American claim to independence ’Wilkes and liberty!’ was, says Morton, ‘the most popular of slogans for half a generation’. [See later, on the American revolution...]


With the French Revolution, [also see later] there was also on the one hand a reaction in England against radical views (and increasing support for the constitution); and on the other, working people became campaigners for Parliamentary Reform.


3. The agricultural and industrial revolutions:

(Notes from O’Hara 2010 unless otherwise indicated).


In England, agriculture was a very significant part of the economy because (i) it was expensive to import food, and (ii) the ‘landed interest’ dominated British politics and social life (Hobsbawm 1968 p 97) – land ownership was a way of getting into politics.  The agricultural revolution took place partly as a result of new agricultural techniques and crops, and the enclosures of previously communally-owned land (the new landowners being anxious to maximise returns and profits). Note, however, that there was opposition to these changes...


3.1 New techniques etc.


Crop rotation was a major breakthrough: growing different crops in turn, it was discovered, had beneficial effects, and was used instead of the old practice of leaving fields fallow: over-use of land for crops eroded the soil of nutrients and encouraged the build-up of pests and diseases. In fallow fields nothing would be grown for a year (every three or four years) for the soil to recover. But fallow was wasteful, and rotation of different crops and animals helped improve the output. Also, turnips and other roots crops - and especially clover - put more nitrogen back into the soil. A key figure in this development was the 2nd Viscount (‘Turnip’) Townshend (1674 – 1738). He developed a four-crop ‘Norfolk rotation’ – turnips, barley, clover and wheat (Gibson 2010 p 219).


Gibson (2010 p 217) says the agricultural revolution started in the 1650s, (the ‘yeoman’s agricultural revolution’) but was really significant in the first half of the 18th century, with a 2 ½ -fold increase in wheat, barley and oats between 1700 and 1850, in Norfolk.


Another factor in the growth in agriculture was the discovery of new crops in the New World, viz maize and potatoes (see Adam Smith’s praise of the potato, O’Hara p 128).


Other techniques:

Watering by channels, better livestock breeds, and machinery such as Jethro Tull’s seed drill all contributed. Andrew Meikle invented a mechanised threshing machine in 1784. Reclamation and drainage (see next point) meant that the area under cultivation in England nearly doubled in the 18th century.


3.2 Enclosures:


According to Hobsbawm, enclosures - the ‘rearrangement of formerly common or open fields into self-contained private land-units, or the division of formerly common but uncultivated land into private property’ – had long been practised, and since the middle of the 17th century (the Tudor period) with little trouble in the early stages. (op cit p 100) (However, see below concerning Scotland and Ireland). However, there had been protests against enclosure in the 15th and 16th centuries –Thomas More [1478 – 1535] in Utopia (1516) wrote of a fear of the vagrants being created by the expulsions. See: Extracts from Thomas More's Utopia. And the Levellers and Diggers in the 17th century protested against the privatisation of land, e.g. Gerard Winstanley 1649 Declaration from the poor oppressed people of England.


An overseas demand for English wool was another factor in driving these changes.


Gibson (2010, p 38) describes the drainage, and subsequent enclosure with hedges, of the Bedford Levels around Ely in the 17th century. However, from about 1760 landlords used Acts of Parliament to speed up the process, instead of negotiating agreements with yeoman farmers. A large part of the middle of the country was enclosed in this way between 1760 and 1820. The changes were seen by landlords as ‘improving’ their farming: sheep were more profitable than crops, and they needed fewer labourers. Gibson (p 106) cites as evidence of the widespread practice of enclosure, Lord Kames’s 1776 publication: ‘The Gentleman farmer, being an attempt to improve agriculture by subjecting it to the test of rational principles’ – which ran to four editions by 1798! He also points out that this was the heyday of landscaping – by Capability Brown for example.


Opposition sometimes boiled over into violence (e.g. Galloway 1724 – troops were brought in to restore order).


In Scotland, enclosures or clearances began later in the century, happened in the Highlands, and impacted on the clan system – thus, rather than having semi-feudal obligations to the clan, chieftains became landlords... (from Wikipedia) They then charged high rents, and poor families were displaced. For example MacLeod of MacLeod hired Englishmen and Lowland Scots to “encourage” people to move off land that could be used for sheep farming. The Duke of Sutherland forced 90 families to the coast where they lived in the open until they had built themselves houses. One clan chief – MacDonell – claimed he was protecting Highland culture!


As a result of the clearances many peasants were moved from the Highlands to the Lowlands, or to coastal areas, where they had to cope with bad weather conditions, but where they could be employed gathering kelp (for soap, fertiliser, glassmaking). Or they went (or were put on ships) overseas to America (Nova Scotia, Ontario, the Carolinas). Richard Gott, in Britain’s Empire (2011) argues that those who emigrated to America and Australia were later behind rebellions against the British who had forced them to go – and then later still, they were in turn responsible for repressing the native populations... (See later, on race, colonialism etc).


The Highland clearances also took place at a time of rebellion against the English – the first Jacobite uprising was in 1725, and the massacre at Culloden in 1746. An Act of Proscription banned tartans etc. General Wade raised the Black Watch (to deal with disturbances) (Wikipedia).


In Ireland, where Anglo-Irish landlords held 95% of all land, there was resistance to enclosures by e.g. the Whiteboys (1761) (see Gott 2011 p 49 - 50) - and the Steelboys. As conditions worsened they ‘attacked enclosure fences, maimed cattle and sheep, attacked landlords and even resisted the militia.’ (Also Gibson op cit p143)


In Ireland, but also in England, a tragic consequence of the enclosures was the rise in the price of corn – and, together with the cost of the Napoleonic wars, famine...


Hobsbawm says we must distinguish the use of Parliamentary Acts from the wider, more gradual process, the ‘general phenomenon’ of agricultural concentration. Labourers were thrown off land – but also uncultivated land was brought into cultivation (creating work). But ‘marginal cottagers and smallholders’ undoubtedly lost out heavily, losing their common rights to pasture, firewood, etc (p 102). Above all they now became ‘inferiors dependent on the rich.’ (Hobsbawm p 102 quotes from a concerned Suffolk clergyman writing in 1844 abut the loss of the village green etc).


By the end of the 18th century in England there was concern at the number of people being driven off the land into penury, and the industrial sector was not yet large enough to take them up: ‘By the 1790s the consequent decay of the village poor had reached catastrophic proportions in parts of southern and eastern England’ (Hobsbawm p 104). Hence changes were made to the Poor Law - the ‘Speenhamland System’ - in 1795, to try to ensure workers had a living wage. A minimum rate was fixed according to the price of corn, and if wages fell below it they would be supplemented from the poor rates (loc cit).


On the other hand, Gibson (p 220) points out that larger farms with fewer labourers were the outcome, and the labourer’s outlook became more insecure, with contracts down from annual ‘hirings’ to monthly or weekly contracts. Thus a workforce was being created that would eventually become the factory workers of the industrial revolution.


Update: in ‘Kith: The Riddle of the Childscape’, Jay Griffiths blames the enclosures for cutting us (and especially children) off from nature.  However this review says that Griffiths descends into ‘merely dotty navel-gazing’ – beyond the ‘very English romanticism’ which she also expresses.


3.3 Opposition:

Gibson points out that ‘Widespread resistance... was far more common than is often assumed’ (p 223).

Examples in literature:


Poem by John Clare in ‘The Tragedy of the Enclosures.’ Gibson p 223... Cited by Grififths (update above): ‘The Enclosures spiked the nest of Clare’s psyche...’

Oliver Goldsmith: The Deserted Village 1770

William Cobbett’s Rural Rides 1830


4. The industrial revolution.


4.1 Industrialisation.

New technologies - sometimes but not always resulting from the application of pure science, says O’Hara – together with improved food production marked the beginnings of the industrial revolution:


Once standards of living in the countryside improved, workers were tempted to move to the towns, where factories promised even more improvement to their standard of living. With these demographic changes, and the increase in trade with the colonies, technology grew.


Morton (p 321) argues that the ‘large scale and long continued wars waged by professional armies’ led to a demand [my emphasis] for ‘ever-increasing quantities of standard [my emphasis] goods’ and it was this increased demand, ‘and not the genius of this or that inventor, which was the basic cause of the Industrial Revolution.’ (See also pp 324 - 360).


Hobsbawm (1968) discusses the many factors that led to Britain starting the industrial revolution – especially: the flexibility and adaptability of British institutions, the urgency or need for transformation, and the low risks. Thus, the aristocracy had become bourgeois by the end of the 17th century and had ceased to resist capitalist development; ‘two revolutions had taught the monarchy to be adaptable’; and the technical challenges/risks were not high (since the process started on a local, small scale). We should add to this: the imports from our colonies, favourable geo-physical factors (availability of coal and iron ore, temperate climate), the monarchy’s concern to protect the ‘middle classes’, and Voltaire’s observation that ‘Commerce, which has enriched the citizens of England has helped to make them free, and that liberty has in turn expanded commerce.’ (Hobsbawm p 26).


Since it was economic demand rather than curiosity that motivated technological discoveries, most developments occurred in countries such as England and Scotland, where commerce was ‘less of a dirty word’.


4.2 A brief digression on ‘The British Disease’:


Scientists, it has been argued, were not good at getting their ideas applied… applications of science spread more through social gatherings e.g. Lunar Society in Birmingham than through the scientific institutes.


It has often been argued (e.g. by Anthony Sampson in The Anatomy of Britain) that this inability to apply scientific knowledge is a feature of English culture: my own view is that science was practised, and scientific knowledge publicised, by an intellectual and social elite, and this elite was often more interested in traditional landowner pursuits such as hunting and shooting than in running factories, or in commerce.


One negative consequence of this is that an ‘engineer’ has never had the status in England than in Europe. This is reinforced by a quirk of language:  the English word has connotations of (dirty, oily, noisy) ‘engines’ whereas the French: ingénieur means someone skilled or clever. German uses the same word for an engineer as French i.e. Ingenieur (or Techniker) – and engineering is Technik in German [Vorsprung = advantage – literally a leap in front], and so there is not the same association with ‘engines.’


Another consequence is that individuals with high ambition in this country aimed to become landowners rather than to go into industry. Finally, we have seen the development of a separate ‘managerial’ (or ‘entrepreneurial’) class to run our businesses.


4.3 Inventions.


On the other hand, there were many discoveries and innovations associated with the Enlightenment and the industrial revolution, which are well known, e.g.:


- Abraham Darby developed coke instead of charcoal for smelting (1709), leading to less need for timber, and the possibility of locating iron works away from forests; Darby’s iron was superior, and thinner – so kettles etc were cheaper. Later his family produced bar iron for forges, thus boosting small manufacture. (Gibson p 230) One consequence of this was a growth in the number of coal mines – and Davy’s ‘safety lamp’ is usually cited (however, there is controversy over this – see David Albury’s book Partial Progress). The lamp – it is argued by Albury – enabled owners to get coal extracted from mines hitherto regarded as dangerous from methane.


- steam power was first developed in the Newcomen engine in 1705, then in 1712 the ‘atmospheric engine’ which was more reliable - used to pump water from the mines; steam engines could also be used to pump air into mines, so they also enabled deeper mines... By 1733 there were 100 Newcomen engines in use in England (Gibson). Elsewhere, water power was used.


- later James Watt produced more steam engines, to power e.g. locomotives - leading to trains of course;


- John Wilkinson established a steam-powered blast furnace in the 1750s at Willey – he produced large iron cylinders, which in turn could be used to build more and larger steam engines (at first they had been used to make cannon...). Watt used Wilkinson’s iron to build his engines.


- machines for the cotton industry were crucial to this country’s economic growth:

          Kay’s flying shuttle (1733) enabled looms to be much wider, so weavers could work faster;

          Hargreaves’ spinning jenny (1764) led to an 8-fold increase in what a worker could produce;

          Arkwright’s water frame (1769) harnessed looms to water power, enabling increased production of stronger more evenly woven cloth;

          Crompton’s mule (1779) combined the spinning jenny and the water frame.


(See Gibson op cit p 234)


5. References (additional to those for the whole course):


Albury, David, & Schwartz, Joseph:: Partial Progress – the politics of science and technology, Pluto, 1982.


Gibson, William: A Brief History of Britain 1660 – 1851, Constable and Robinson Ltd, 2010.


Gott, Richard: Britain’s Empire: Resistance, Repression and Revolt, Verso, 2011. Reviewed in The Guardian:


Hobsbawm, E.J.: Industry and Empire, The New Press, New York, 1968.


Morton, A.L.: a People’s History of England, Lawrence and Wishart 1976 (first published 1938).


De Saint-Helme, Valentine: The French Eighteenth Century and Revolution, The Mayfair Press London.




[*] according to Morton religious differences still played a part: the Bank of England backed William out of fear that if the Stuarts came to power they would not support it...




1. A.L. Morton p 320 (2 paras)


2. Valentine de Saint-Helme p 10 – 12, and 67 – 8 {and ch v for the arts...}


3. O’Hara p 128 – from Adam Smith on the potato...


4. Thomas More: Utopia p 80


5. Richard Gott  p 49 – 50 (peasant resistance [anti-settler and p 50 anti-enclosure] in Ireland – the Whiteboys - ) {and for later, crits/problems}


6. E.J. Hobsbawm  Industry and Empire p102


7. From Gibson p 223: Poem by John Clare (1793 – 1864) ‘The Tragedy of the Enclosures.’


8. A.L. Morton p 321: on slave trade, profits from.