Chapter 17 European Revolutions of Society and State, 1714-1815

Section 1 An Era of Global Warfare

At the end of the 1600s[v] France dominated Europe. This domination, however, forced other nations to grow stronger and form alliances in order to balance France's influence in Europe. These alliances weakened French power during the 1700s.[vi] Other nations, particularly Great Britain and Prussia, rivaled France. This struggle for power and security in Europe would also change the balance of power around the world.

Anglo-French Rivalry

The succession of William of Orange,[vii] the archenemy of Louis XIV,[viii] to the throne of England in 1689[ix] renewed the old rivalry between France and England. Since the Hundred Years War, England and France had Louis' own ambitions insured that it would continue under Williams' successor, Queen Anne.


The political union of Scotland and England intensified the rivalry in 1707. This union had been achieved primarily because English lords feared that the Catholics in the north of Scotland, in conjunction with the French, would try to return a Catholic to the throne of England. By uniting Scotland and England, the English hoped that Scotland would cease to represent a threat. Thus was born the United Kingdom of Great Britain.

            George I, the first of the German house of Hanover, succeeded to the throne of Great Britain in 1714. Both he and his successor, George II, remained more interested in their territories in Hanover than in England. For this reason, and because they were also staunch Protestants, Britain under the Hanovers remained opposed to French ambitions in Europe.

            During the 1700s, however, French and British rivalry took on new forms.[x] The two countries began to compete for influence among the other European states, in an effort to dominate the continent. They also competed for control of overseas trade routes and colonies. By mid-century, Britain and France were in direct opposition and competition in three major regions—the Caribbean, North America, and India.[xi] 

            In the Caribbean, the French controlled Guadeloupe[xii] and Martinique,[xiii] as well as numerous smaller islands. On these islands, the French developed sugar plantations, creating sizable profits for French traders.[xiv] British planters in the West Indies envied French profits, and resented the fact that some of these profits came from trade with British colonists in North America. In keeping with the prevailing mercantilist economic theory, the British Parliament tried to control colonial trade by enforcing a series of Navigation Acts, which required the colonies to trade only with Great Britain. These acts were difficult to enforce, however, because the many bays and inlets along the Atlantic coast made smuggling easy.

            Meanwhile, Anglo-French rivalry in North America also intensified because of territorial conflicts. The population of British North America was increasing rapidly. Many colonists looked west for new lands, but this would mean moving into territory claimed by France. To prevent this expansion the French built a series of forts from the St. Lawrence River[xv] to the Mississippi.[xvi]  In 1711 Colonel Alexander Spotswood,[xvii] the lieutenant governor of Virginia, wrote about the British settlers' fear of the French: 

The British plantations are in a manner surrounded by their commerce. . . . Should they multiply their settlements . .  . so as to join their dominions of Canada to their new colony of Louisiana, they might even possess themselves of any of these plantations they pleased.[xviii] 

In response to French fortification, Britain reinforced its strength in the colonies by sending more ships and troops[xix] and by establishing its own forts in the western territories.[xx]

            The third region of conflict between France and Great Britain was India. As the Mughal Empire[xxi] declined in the 1700s,[xxii] India splintered into dozens of small states. Both the French and the British took advantage of this chaos to increase their commercial profits. The French tried to gain an advantage over Britain by making military alliances with Indian princes in exchange for trading privileges. The British then tried to out-maneuver the French by making similar alliances with the rivals of the French-supported Indian princes. Such intrigues and diplomacy often resulted in France and Britain fighting small wars in India, not as the principal combatants, but as the allies of rival Indian princes who were at war.

The Rise of Prussian Power

By the early 1700s, France still remained the single most powerful state on the European continent. As a result of both the wars of religion and particularly Louis XIV’s[xxiv] wars of expansion, however, other countries had begun to forge alliances aimed at maintaining a balance of power in Europe – a balance that would prevent any single country like France from dominating all the others. As part of this process, a new dynastic state began to expand under the Hohenzollern family in northern Germany in the late 17th and early 18th centuries that would change the shape of the continent – Prussia. For the next two centuries, Prussia's steadily growing power would force a continuing realignment of the European balance of power.

            Prussia had originally been part of the territory conquered by the monastic Order of Teutonic Knights. At the time of the Reformation, however, the 37th Grand Master of the Order, Albert of Brandenburg-Ansbach, a branch of the House of Hohenzollern, made a momentous decision. Under Luther’s personal influence and encouragement, and with the agreement of his uncle, King Sigismund I of Poland, in 1525 Albert resigned as Grand Master of the Teutonic Knights, converted to Lutheranism, and secularized the Prussian territories of the Order. He then did homage to the Polish king as his overlord and was granted in return the hereditary title of Duke of Prussia.

            Under Albert’s rule, Prussia became the first state to adopt Lutheranism as its official religion. Although both the Holy Roman Emperor and the Pope rejected his actions, neither was strong enough to reverse them. Indeed, as the Protestant Reformation took its toll on the allegiance of other northern German princes of the Empire, by the early 17th century Prussia’s position as a leading Lutheran state had been assured.

            When Albert’s son died without a male heir, in 1618 the duchy passed to his grandson-in-law, John Sigismund, the Elector of Brandenburg and head of the Berlin branch of the Hohenzollern family. The Hohenzollern dynasty thus consolidated its rule over the combined state of Brandenburg-Prussia in the same year that the Thirty Years War broke out. It was a strained inheritance since Brandenburg was a part of the Holy Roman Empire, while Prussia was not.

            Throughout the war, Hohenzollern fortunes rose and fell. Forced into an alliance with Sweden, Brandenburg in particular suffered repeated invasion by Catholic and Swedish armies and scholars estimate that as many as half the adult male population died during the war. The situation became so bad that the relatively weak Elector, George William, fled Berlin and sought refuge in Konigsberg. In 1640, however, his son Frederick William succeeded to the title and soon showed his mettle as a remarkably strong ruler.

            Making the army his first priority, for obvious security reasons during the war, Frederick William, who became known as the Great Elector, reorganized the state along absolutist lines. Regaining control of his territories, during the later phases of the conflict he established an alliance with the Dutch Republic that proved especially useful during the negotiations to end hostilities. Thanks to the support of his Dutch allies, the Great Elector was able significantly to increase his territories in the Peace of Westphalia.

            After the Thirty Years War, Frederick William continued his efforts to strengthen and secure his state. In particular, he managed to play Sweden and Poland off against each other so skillfully that by 1657 he had managed to get both countries to recognize his full and independent sovereignty over Prussia. In 1701, his son, the Elector Frederick III, continued the Great Elector’s policies of making Brandenburg-Prussia as strong and independent as possible. In exchange for his support against Louis XIV in the War of the Spanish Succession, Frederick III received the recognition of emperor Leopold I for his assumption of a new and more exalted title – King – at least in those territories he held outside the Empire, in other words in Prussia. Although still technically only Elector in Brandenburg, which was inside the Empire, he crowned himself King Frederick I in Prussia. The Hohenzollerns were no longer merely nobles, but royals. 

The Prussian army. King Frederick William I,[xxv] who assumed the throne in 1713,[xxvi] spent his career building Prussia into a great European power. He established an efficient government bureaucracy and led the nation toward economic self-sufficiency. Most importantly, he continued the policies of his grandfather, the Great Elector, by building a powerful army.[xxvii]  Frederick William loved the army; he regularly wore a uniform and spent a great deal of time with army officers.[xxviii]  “At the table,” his daughter once wrote, “nothing else was talked of but economy and soldiers."[xxix] 

            Frederick William reorganized the army to make it more efficient and powerful. By the end of his reign in 1740,[xxx] Prussia had the fourth-largest army in Europe. The man who did the most to enhance Prussian power, however, was Frederick William’s son and heir, Frederick II, who became known as Frederick the Great. 

Frederick the Great of Prussia. Taken from

Frederick the Great.[xxxi] Frederick II was very unlike his father. As a youth, he displayed a keen interest in French art and philosophy and at first showed no interest in military life. When Frederick was ten years old, his father, hoping to instill a strong sense of discipline in his son, devised a strict schedule for the young boy: 

Monday he is to be awakened at six o'clock, and he must then say a short prayer. As soon as he has done this, he shall put on his jacket and comb out his hair. While he is combed he shall take tea and breakfast at the same time, and this must be finished before half past six o'clock. From seven to nine o'clock [his tutor] Duhan shall work at history with him; at nine o'clock [the court chaplain] Noltenius shall come, and he must instruct him in Christianity till a quarter to eleven. Duhan shall describe maps to him from two to three o'clock. From three till four o'clock he is to work at morality, from four till five o'clock Duhan shall write German letters with him.[xxxii] 

Although Frederick resisted his father's attempts to mold him into a strong king, he eventually absorbed his father's dream of Prussian power.

The War of the Austrian Succession. Within a few months of inheriting the throne at age 28,[xxxiii] Frederick II[xxxiv] embroiled his country in a war with Austria. He seized the Austrian province of Silesia,[xxxv] which was heavily populated and rich in minerals and industry. Frederick did not want a lengthy war, so he offered the 23-year-old[xxxvi] Austrian empress Maria Theresa[xxxvii] an alliance with Prussia and his vote for her husband, Francis, in the coming election for Holy Roman Emperor.[xxxviii]  Maria Theresa rejected his offer, and her rejection resulted in the so-called War of the Austrian Succession. Soon Bavaria, Spain, Saxony, and France joined in, each hoping to expand its territory at Austria’s expense. The alliance of these nations was overwhelming, and Austria was forced to sue for peace. In 1748[xxxix] Maria Theresa signed a peace treaty that relinquished Silesia to Frederick II.[xl]

The First Global War: the Seven Years' War

Prussia's victory in the War of the Austrian Succession, however, only intensified European rivalries. Eventually these rivalries led to a European war that was fought around the world. Unlike the War of the Austrian Succession, the Seven Years' War (1756–63)[xli] was fought not only on the European continent but also on the high seas and in European colonies and trading posts throughout the world. In Europe, the war continued the struggle between Prussia and Austria as Maria Theresa sought to regain possession of Silesia. Beyond Europe, it was primarily a contest between Great Britain and France for global power. Consequently, as Great Britain and the English king’s Hanoverian territories supported Prussia, Austria formed alliances with France and Russia.

The war in Europe. In Europe, the Prussians appeared strong, but not invincible. In 1757[xlii] Frederick II’s forces defeated the French forces in Saxony and prevented Austria from reclaiming Silesia. Two years later, however, a combined Austrian and Russian army soundly defeated Frederick's army, and it appeared that Frederick might lose the war.

By 1762, with virtually all of Europe allied against him, Frederick was on the verge of total defeat. Two developments saved him from disaster. His British and Hanoverian allies finally began to commit themselves to fighting the French on the European continent; and his archenemy, the empress Elizabeth of Russia – daughter of Peter the Great and the driving force behind the alliance of Austria, France and Russia – died. Elizabeth’s heir, her nephew and adopted son Peter III, who was himself originally a German prince, was an ardent admirer of Frederick. Repudiating his aunt’s policy, immediately after assuming the throne Peter ordered Russian forces, which had occupied Berlin and were on the verge of annihilating Frederick’s army, to withdraw to Russia. In effect, under Peter III Russia had switched sides! It was the breathing space that Frederick needed to regroup sufficiently to hold the rest of his enemies at bay. 

The war overseas. Although much of the fighting took place in Europe, the war had erupted after British and French forces clashed in North America, where the Seven Years' War was referred to locally as the French and Indian War. In North America the French had made alliances with many Native Americans to prevent the British settlers from expanding their colonies. After a string of initial French successes along the western frontiers of the British colonies early in the war, in 1759[xliii] British general James Wolfe[xliv] attacked the French defenses at Quebec. [xlv] In the ensuing battle, Wolfe's forces crushed the French, although Wolfe himself was mortally wounded in the fighting. [xlvi] The British victory at Quebec effectively marked the end of the French Empire in North America. Meanwhile, further south, British forces also conquered France's African slave-trading stations and cut off the French West Indies sugar plantations from their supply of slaves and manufactured goods.

            Britain also challenged France's position in other parts of the world. In India, officials of the British East India Company found themselves under attack by the French and their local Indian allies, particularly the nawab, or viceroy, of Bengal. After initial setbacks, however, in 1757 a Company official, Robert Clive,[xlvii] leading a Company army of both British troops and Indian sepoys, counter-attacked the French-supported provincial ruler of Bengal,[xlviii] Suraj ad-Daulah, at the Battle of Plassey.[xlix] Soon after the battle began, many Bengali officers were killed, and the Bengali soldiers fled. As Clive later reported the engagement:

The whole army being visibly dispirited and thrown into some confusion, we were encouraged to storm . . . their camp. . . . On this a general rout [disorganized retreat] ensued, and we pursued the enemy six miles, passing upwards of forty pieces of cannon they had abandoned.[l]

In fact, Clive had virtually ensured the victory by negotiating secretly with important officers of the nawab before the battle – in particular, he had bribed the nawab’s commander-in-chief, Mir Ali Khan. With Clive’s promise to make him nawab in Suraj ad-Daulah’s place, Mir Ali deserted the field, taking his men with him. This treachery allowed Clive to achieve victory at Plassey with little fighting and minimal casualties. Clive was as good as his word, and he soon placed Mir Ali on the viceregal throne of Bengal.

Clive’s campaigns effectively broke France’s hold in India and the British soon gained a virtual trade monopoly within the subcontinent. Victory at Plassey and in other important battles of the war opened the door for the expansion of the British East India Company’s power throughout the Mughal Empire. By 1765, the Company had become the official ruler, under the now nominal authority of the Mughal emperor, not only of Bengal, but also of Orissa, Behar, and the Deccan – in effect, the British East India Company had become the single greatest power in India[li]

British success in the Seven Years’ War was largely due to the brilliant leadership of William Pitt the Elder.[lii] When Pitt joined the British Government as Secretary of State in the first year of the war, he promised to do his best “in that service to which I have the glory . . . to be unalterably and totally devoted.”[liii] Pitt had the ability to inspire people to follow his leadership and support his cause. He also had an inspired understanding of the importance of sea power for Britain’s long-term security and prosperity. Devoting the resources of the state to building up the Royal navy, under his leadership Britain had established itself as the greatest sea power in the world  by 1759[liv].

Aftermath of the War in Europe

The Seven Years War officially ended in February 1763 with the signing of the Treaty of Paris and the Treaty of Hubertusburg. The war ended not because of any decisive victories, but because neither side had the will to continue the fight. In Britain, King George III, first of the Hanovers to be raised in England rather than Germany, had only ascended the throne in 1760 and had little enthusiasm for continuing the costly war. Prussian strength too had been exhausted and Prussia had only been saved from total defeat by Russia’s timely withdrawal from its alliance with France and Austria in 1762. Equally weakened by the conflict, and with their treasuries depleted, France and Austria were also ready for an end to hostilities.

As a result of the peace treaties, France lost nearly all of its North American colonial lands. The British got control of Canada[lv] and all of Louisiana east of the Mississippi, as well as Florida from Spain. They also remained the predominant European power in India. On the European continent, on the other hand, no territory changed hands – all lands reverted to their owners at the time of the outbreak of hostilities. Most significantly, however, this meant that Prussia kept Silesia, thereby assuring its position as one of the leading European powers.

The end of the war also had significant consequences in Russia, albeit not as part of the peace settlement. In his rush to save his idol, Frederick the Great, Peter III had squandered all of Russia’s gains during the war, alienating many of his nobles and especially the army. Within a matter of months, both nobles and army supported a coup that deposed Peter III from the throne. Forced to abdicate in favor of his despised wife Catherine in July 1762, within a week Peter himself was assassinated. Meanwhile, Catherine, who had begun life as a relatively minor German princess, Sophie of Anhalst-Zerbst, was crowned sole empress and autocrat of Russia. She would be known to history as Catherine the Great.

The war had other long-term consequences. During the war, both Prussia and Austria had drained their treasuries, and France in particular had gone even more deeply into debt – compounding an already crushing burden of debt left by Louis XIV’s wars. Even the “victors” had suffered. The global scope of the conflict had been enormously costly for Britain and, in addition to treasure Prussia had lost a significant percentage of its population. As they realized the costs of the war in both lives and wealth, the European powers became reluctant to fight again, and a period of peace descended on the continent.

Even so, European monarchs remained eager to expand their national boundaries in a never-ending search for security, and the power and wealth that would provide it. Poland, weakened by an on-going conflict with Sweden, as well as a disastrously ineffective government split between an elective monarchy and a fractious nobility, soon proved an easy and irresistible target for its stronger neighbors. In 1772[lvi] Frederick II of Prussia and Catherine II (Catherine the Great) of Russia carried out the First Partition of Poland, in which they each seized a generous portion of their weaker neighbor’s territory. To preserve the balance of power in Europe they offered the Polish province of Galicia[lvii] to Maria Theresa.[lviii] In 1793,[lix] together with Prussia, Catherine carried out the Second Partition of Poland, leaving Poland only a tiny strip of land wedged between the great powers of Prussia, Russia, and Austria. In 1795 even that disappeared in the Third Partition of Poland.[lx] 

Catherine the Great of Russia. Taken from

            While Poland was being divided, Russia and Austria looked to the weakening Ottoman Empire for further possibilities of expansion. The Austrians and Russians saw themselves as Christian peoples fighting against Muslim invaders. They also had more secular reasons for wanting to expand their territories—a desire for wealth and power. Catherine the Great made an alliance with Joseph II of Austria, with the intention of dividing the Turkish-held Balkans.[lxi] Russia gained control of the Black Sea and the Crimea.[lxii] Austria, too, expanded eastward at the expense of the Turks.

Section 1 Review

IDENTIFY and explain the significance of the following:

Navigation Acts

Frederick William I

Frederick the Great

Maria Theresa

Seven Years' War

French and Indian War

Robert Clive

William Pitt

George III

Catherine II

LOCATE and explain the importance of the following:







1.   Main Idea  Why were Great Britain and France rivals?

2.   Main Idea   How did Prussia become a major European power?

3.   Geography: Human-Environment Interaction  Why was the Seven Years' War considered the first global war?  How did geography affect the course of the war?

4.   Synthesizing  How did rivalries between European nations change the balance of power in Europe?  In the world?  In answering this question, consider the role played by (a) the ongoing Anglo-French rivalry; (b) the growing strength of Prussia; and (c) the impact of the Seven Years' War.