Earned Knowledge, L14,P1

The Modern Era

The world is always changing, of course, but 1815 AD is a reasonable year to pick as the beginning of the modern era. At that point, much of the modern world was in place and the rest of it was forming.

As we noted in Lesson 13, knowing how to understand the physical world and knowing how to use it intelligently (as in inventing new and useful things) had spread far and wide. And so, by 1815 people were becoming used to the idea of progress. They were, in fact, coming to expect it. And once they saw that they could have it in the areas of science and invention, they began to imagine that they could have progress in every other area of life, including rulership.

But before moving into details, here are some of the pieces that were coming together in 1815:

    • Agricultural production (the amount of grain, fruit or meat produced per acre) was rising rapidly and steadily. People had more food.
    • Daily living was becoming less demanding. Washing machines, among many other inventions, made daily chores (in this case the washing of clothes) far easier and less time consuming than it had been. And in cities a wide variety of foods, services and new types of equipment were easily available.
    • Newspapers were widely available, which kept people up to date with new ideas and new possibilities.
    • Railroads were beginning to link nearly all significant cities, moving people, goods and information far better than ever before.
    • Factories were multiplying, and with them a huge number of reliable jobs. And, of course, much cheaper goods.
    • Travel was becoming far easier and far more affordable.
    • John Locke’s new conception of the republic – as an instrument of liberation – had spread very widely, and the early success of the American experiment had convinced people that it was a valid choice. People began to wonder whether they really needed their rulers and whether they could do better on their own.
    • The telegraph was about to make person-to-person, nearly-instant communication available and affordable. Precursors were already operating.
    • Beginning in 1815, there was a century of overriding peace. The huge wars of the previous centuries pulled back. (There were still quite a few smaller wars, of course.)
    • The markets of the West were freer than they had been before or would be after.
    • People in the United States owned the mineral rights of land they owned. In most other places, they did not. This ended up being especially important once the need for crude oil arose during the 19th century. American oil companies were owned by individuals, while European oil companies were owned by rulers.

A Second Removal of Slavery

As 1815 dawned, North America was filling with Christians, and South America was following. And Christianity, as we noted previously, was fundamentally incompatible with slavery. (Though slave-holders tried to argue otherwise.) And so, over the next fifty years, slavery was again removed from the places where Christians lived and could exert influence.

Over this period, European rulers, at the prodding of their populations, outlawed slavery in all their territories. In the United States the elimination of slavery involved a war, but the civil war of 1861-1865 wasn’t only about slavery, and for many people not primarily about slavery. In fact, the US central government had protected slavery until the war, and did so during the war as well.

But while the elimination of slavery was certainly a necessary thing, there was another aspect to the anti-slavery fight. The people fighting to eliminate slavery (called abolitionists) began seeing government as a tool for shaping the world as they wished.

And so, once slavery was eliminated, these same people moved into a new cause: that of “temperance,” which involved the outlawing of alcoholic beverages. And so again, they saw government as a tool they could use to enforce their beliefs.

By the middle of the 19th century, the problems of America and England (less so in the rest of the West) were widely blamed on the consumption of alcohol. And so laws forbidding it were passed in many places, ending with serious restrictions in England (1914) and an outright ban in the United States (1920). The enforcers of temperance claimed that a wide range of human problems would vanish if no one drank liquor, and quite a few American towns went so far as to sell their jails, believing they would no longer be needed.

The outlawing of alcohol failed, of course. It made things worse, not better, and the temperance laws were repealed over time. The idea of using government to enforce beliefs has remained and spread, however, though it is less associated with religion these days. Many people now see government as a tool to enforce their opinions.

A New Political Model

With the republic now seen as valid or even superior, and with kings consistently angering their subjects, trouble was afoot for European monarchies.

By 1830 or so, France was a fairly modern type of nation-state, although it had repeated political upheavals. The UK had transformed itself into a type of republic that retained a special place for a royal family. The other monarchies of Europe were scrambling to survive, and all of them would be gone or nearly powerless within ninety years.

And so a new model formed in the West. It featured elected legislators, more and more laws, a professional police class, armies composed of citizens rather than soldiers provided by nobles, mechanized production, religious toleration, and an aristocracy that was losing its power.

An aristocracy, of course, was a legally privileged class. But without a king to support them, and with politicians being in the popularity business, aristocrats lost the vast majority of their support.

At the same time, the rural population was pouring into cities to work in the new factories, far from the ancient rhythms and norms of life.

There were outbreaks of revolution in Europe in 1820 and 1830, then a larger one in 1848. None were as dramatic as the French or American Revolutions had been, and many were partly reversed for a time, but they stretched all across the European continent. They weakened, altered, or plainly wiped out one monarchy after another.

As this went on, people stopped looking to royalty, or even to the church, when considering the conditions of their lives and seeking to improve them. Rather, they looked to elected officials, who they believed were answerable to themselves.

There were several other important changes as monarchy was being swept away. The largest of them were:

    • Public credit. Kings and princes were personally responsible for the loans they took. When they defaulted, as they sometimes did, they faced personal consequences. But with orders now coming from legislatures, the debts of governments were passed directly to the people. And so the government officials who borrowed and spent money were free from personal responsibility. Instead, the obligation to repay all their debts was passed to the people, and to their children, who had no part in taking the original loans.
    • Beginning in about 1850, and spreading all across the West in a few decades, it became illegal to use silver as money. It was a strange phenomenon that began with almost no public support but was imposed upon the people just the same.
    • Also beginning in about 1850, Imperialism, the policy of extending a country’s power through colonization, rose rapidly. Many European countries sent people (very often from the failing aristocratic class) to govern distant countries.


Paul Rosenberg