Key Events and Influential People of 18th Century Europe

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Louis XVI

During the 18th century France, Louis XVI was the king of France that married Marie Antoinette of Austria as a sign of alliance. After his grandfather Louis XIV’s reign with the court and four wars, France was largely in debt and Louis XVI wasn’t a political man that knew how to deal with the debt. He ended up taxing often in order to compensate for the debt, placing the burden on peasants. His foolish reign partially contributed to the fire of the Revolution, and his attempt to escape Paris to Austria later on was seen as treason, leading to his fall with the guillotine.

Frederick William

Frederick William was the king of Prussia during the 18th century. During his reign, he gave much of his power to the nobles in return for their loyalty to him. He gave privileges to folk such as the Junkers, meaning nobles, by raising their ranks and giving them responsibilities in the military. However, other classes in Prussia such as the middle and lower class had less rights; only the middle class did benefit from taking a stance in the General Directory created by this king. As a whole, Frederick William demonstrates power in absolutism through his reign and acts as an example for rulers to come, such as Frederick the Great.

Frederick the Great

In 18th century Prussia, Frederick the Great was the successor of absolutist Frederick William. Because of the age of the Enlightenment, Frederick the Great reflected parts of his rule based on its culture and education provided. Eventually, he even made a government where he put the people in power by making them a priority. He stressed and made ideals such as freedoms of speech, religion, press and was against capital punishment as it was barbaric. In the more absolutists time of his reign, he participated in two wars called the Seven Years’ War and the Austrian Succession, gaining Silesia in the process. By the end of his reign, Frederick the Great exemplified how a ruler could be both enlightened and heavily involved with the military.

Joseph II

In 18th century Austria, Joseph II was the king of Austria and proved to be one of the most enlightened rulers of the time. He took a step in his mother’s direction by keeping Austria’s music as a priority; then, he moved onto more enlightened matters such as abolishing serfdom, increasing freedoms, and advocating equality, and ending the death penalty. He made an incredible number of laws and decrees, yet many of them were reversed back to the old order. Because the people were not ready for such a drastic change, his successors eventually unraveled his work, but little did he know that his ideals were to be used later on.

Catherine the Great

In eighteenth century Russia, German Catherine the Great had learned Russian and won favor of the palace guard who chose the successor, becoming an autocrat of Russia. Her success depended on the palace guard and the middle class, and so she was unable to leave out the Russian nobility.From the start, she wanted reform and called for a debate that questioned serfdom, torture, capital punishment, and supported equality for all; she worked to reorganize the government, dividing Russia into fifty provinces that had districts looked after by officials chosen by nobles. Catherine managed to involve the nobility, and the gentry had new rights, such as the right to trial by the Charter of the Nobility in 1785. Catherine worsened conditions for the poor by her noble favor, attempting to impose restrictions on free peasants, which resulted in a revolt in the Volga valley that was intensified by the Cossacks (fierce warriors of tribes). Catherine suppressed the revolt and repressed the peasantry further, stopping rural reform and spreading serfdom. Catherine the Great helped expand Russia’s territory west towards Poland and south to the Black Sea, defeating the Ottoman Turks, and although her goal was to have enlightened reform, she focused on war for power.

Pugachev Rebellion

During the 1770’s, Catherine II the Great was a ruler that split Russia into 50 provinces, giving power to her nobles to connect to them. This angered the poor, leading to a full on rebellion lead by Pugachev and the help of the Cossacks, who are fierce warriors. By leading the rebels around Europe, he caused a lot of damage but also spread the news; eventually, He was often respected for his being against useless taxes and the military. Later on, he was betrayed by one of his own; after losing his rebellion against the king, Catherine II the Great limited peasants further.

Partition of Poland

In the 18th century, the state Poland demonstrated its weakness and failure in government. It was attacked constantly by the states Austria, Prussia, and Russia. In 1772, Poland was split into three parts: 30 percent of it went to Austria, 50 percent of it went to Russia, and the west went to Prussia, the most valuable part because it united Prussia further. By then, Poland was meant to be independent but it really wasn’t because Russians stood on their territory. In 1791, they tried to strengthen themselves, and the Russians, Austrians, and Prussians brought in their military in 1792 to prevent this; then Russia and Prussia took a second partition, meaning when a country is divided once more. From 1794-1795, under General Thaddeus Kosciuszko held a rebellion but Poland fell once more against the three powerful states in the third partition. At the time, Poland demonstrates how a strong monarchy was necessary during this era rather than electing nobles who care for themselves.

Gustavus III

While Sweden’s power was diminishing in the 18th century, the born leader Gustavus III took charge in order to strengthen his state. Inspired the Enlightenment, Gustavus III used Enlightenment ideas as a method to better his country and offered a source of breath for his people he gave freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of press, freedom of torture, and laissez-faire, a way to better his state’s economy. Throughout his reign, Gustavus III demonstrated how a connection between the monarchs and his people through Enlightenment ideals has its benefits.

War of Austrian Succession

The War of the Austrian Succession started in 1740 to 1748 and happened in Europe, North America, and India. It started when Habsburg emperor Charles VI failed to produce a male heir to the Austrian throne and in fear of his daughter Maria Theresa’s succession, spent most of his time negotiating the Pragmatic Sanction that various European states agreed to recognize his daughter as the heir. After Charles died, the Pragmatic Sanction was ignored, and Frederick II of Prussia decided to invade Austrian Silesia. The empress’s vulnerability also made France enter the war against its previous enemy Austria, and so she tried to ally with Great Britain, who feared

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French Power

In Europe, Prussia seized Silesia and France occupied Austrian Netherlands. In the East, France took Madras in India from the British, and in North America, the British took the French fort of Louisbourg. The war ended in 1748 by the treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle, which promised to return all occupied territories to the original owners except for Silesia. This war proves significant in that it was much like a world war, demonstrates the power and impacts Prussia had at the time under Frederick II, and also shows gender roles in that Prussia chose to invade after the male ruler died.

Seven Years’ War

The Seven Years’ War started in 1756 all the way to 1763 and involved Europe, India, and North America. It started after the War of the Austrian Succession, when Prussia refused to return Silesia, urging another war between Prussia and Austria. In 1756, there was a diplomatic revolution in which France and Russia joined Austria and Great Britain joined Prussia. In Europe, there was the British and Prussians versus the Austrians, Russians, and French; at the Battle of Rossbach in Saxony in 1757, Frederick II won, but was tired out, leading to a stalemate by Peter III of Russia by the Peace of Hubertusburg in 1763, guaranteeing Austria having control of Silesia and returned territories. In India, there was the Great War for Empire that was fought in India and North America when the French and British opposed Indian princes, ending by the Treaty of Paris in 1763 when the French withdrew and left India for the British. There was also the French and Indian War in North America based on the waterways of the Gulf of Saint Lawrence and the unsettled Ohio River valley; the French threatened the British by its territory of the Appalachians to the Mississippi River, and after the Treaty of Paris, the British became the world’s strongest colonial power, since France gave them Spanish Florida and Louisiana territory. The Seven Years’ War is often viewed as the first world war and displays the massive amounts of lives lost but also a big shift in territories and power of the time.

American Revolution

After the Seven Years’ War in 1763, Great Britain acquired power, but needed a source of revenue to pay for protection of colonists. This move to tax without consent of the people sparked a revolution in which the patriots were led by George Washington in the Continental Army, approved by the Second Continental Congress. Throughout the war for independence, there were problems aroused internally, especially from the difference of opinions between patriots and Loyalists. However, the Americans were able to win the war with foreign countries’ help, such as France who supplied arms, money, and soldiers. After the revolution was won by the Americans, their constitution and government could be seen to reflect the Enlightenment ideals, proving that this was a reality, not a utopia; this ended up becoming an inspiration for the French themselves, and the French Revolution was born soon after.

Estates General

In 18th century France, the Estates General was made up of all three states in France: the first estate with the clergy, the second estate with the nobles, and the third estate with the common people. As a voice for the people, this group was meant to be representational of France. There are 300 members in the clergy and nobility and 300 for the common folk. In 1789, there was a voting dispute between voting by order or by head; the final decision by the Parlement of Paris was to vote by order, giving advantage to the nobles. Eventually, the Third Estate split from the Estates General and created the National Assembly that helped fight for equality and ideals of the Enlightenment era.

Tennis Court Oath

After the Third Estate wanted head count and split into the National Assembly, they were locked out from the next meeting. That day, June 20, 1789, Jeu de Paume and a few others swore an oath at the tennis court promising that the National Assembly would continue to meet until the new constitution was written that was based on equality and as a whole, the ideas of the philosophes from the Enlightenment. One of the more obvious causes of the French Revolution sprouted from this day, when there was a clear distinguish between the Second and Third Estate based on privilege and birth that was to be fought against.


In July 1789, the fall of Bastille, a royal armory, was guaranteed when Louis XVI attempted to raise his defense by increasing troops in Paris. Mob activity occurred, and Parisian leaders created the Permanent Committee to organize themselves. But first, they needed supplies, thus attacking the Bastille even though there was only a few weapons. The commander, the marquis de Launay, refused to use his cannon, leading the garrison to surrender and a victory for the Revolution. This demonstrated mob rule and the humans’ need for organization and rule, but it also became an inspiration for peasants’ rebellions.

Declaration of Rights of Man and the Citizen

In France, August 1789, the National Assembly had created the Declaration of Rights of Man and the Citizen. It reflected many of the philosophes’ ideal thoughts as well as the American Declaration of Independence and its constitution. It affirmed the destruction of aristocratic privileges by ending exemption from tax, freedom and equality for everyone, and freedom of occupation based on skill rather than birth. Other rights included freedom of speech and press as well as outlaw of choice-arrests. In this declaration, the monarchy was limited, and citizens were to have say in politics. This declaration took a step toward developing France toward Enlightenment ideals but also questioned who “all men” were in the basis of equality.


During the 18th century France, the Sans-culottes were a group of revolutionists that derived from the middle class, who were ordinary people with regular clothes of long trousers rather than noble, long breeches. On September 1792, they demonstrated more radical aspects of the Revolution that pertained to blood and violence by killing everyone in a prison during a massacre based on who they saw as a traitor. Eventually joining the National Convention, the Sans-culottes had some part and contribution to the more violent aspects of the later years in the Revolution.

Reign of Terror

In 18th century France, mainly Vendée the Reign of Terror came to be when the Committee of Public Safety and the National Convention instituted it to address the lack of morality and violence of innocent civilians, ironically. It was originally meant to protect its people from internal enemies through revolutionary courts, but many fell victim for not following the radical ideas of the sans-culottes. They also used military to defeat rebellious armies as well. Many of the deaths established during this reign came from the guillotine, a device used to split the head and the body. Their excuse was the war and that this reign was to reflect the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, but it was really a savage time led by 12 men in France who chose to execute based on their choice. As a whole, they set a barbaric example for the people, deepening the violence.

Toussaint L’Ouverture

In 1791, the French in the West Indies still owned many slaves although the National Convention desired to abolish slavery as a step toward an Enlightened state. Places like Saint-Domingue were already fighting for freedom in inspiration of the revolution in France, killing many of their plantation owners. The revolt was led by Toussaint L’Ouverture, a son of African slaves, who took control of Hispaniola by 1801. He was later captured by Napoleon, who reinstated slavery in the French West Indian colonies, and died in a French dungeon. Unluckily for the French, they were weakened by disease, and eventually, on January 1, 1804, present day Haiti got its freedom and became the first independent state in Latin America.

Third Coalition

After the second coalition between Russia, Great Britain, and Austria, Napoleon acquired peace with Britain that was temporary in 1802. In 1803, the war continued in the Third Coalition when Britain joined with Austria and Prussia during the first Battle of Ulm. There, Napoleon lost to Austria, but moving on to Austerlitz, he won against Tsar Alexander I because of the terrain. He later moved on to crush Prussia in Jena and Auerstadt in October 1806 and defeated the Russians at Eylau and Friedland in June 1807. The Treaties of Tilsit was signed between Napoleon and Prussia and Austria, but not Britain; Napoleon demonstrated that although he was outnumbered, skill was an important aspect in the army for state power, touching to a more Enlightened aspect of his rule.

Continental System

After the Third Coalition didn’t apply to Britain, it was known that Britain was still a global hegemon during the 18th to 19th century. They were able to survive because of their navy, one of the ways that led to Napoleon’s downfall. At first, Napoleon seeked to defeat their seapower through invasion and collection of ships, but a failure against them even with a French-Spanish fleet led to him to take a different direction. He turned to the Continental System to defeat them, instituted in 1806 and 1807 to prevent imports to Britain in order to weaken them economically and prevent them from taking a part in war. It failed because of allies states that hated French hegemony, who then opened markets for British collaboration, leading to high British exports. It demonstrated that despite of effective rule and high power, without consent or like of the people, any empire can fall.

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