Western Civilization^2 lesson 75

(1) What, in a nutshell, was the Industrial Revolution?

The Industrial Revolution took place from the mid-18th century to the mid-19th century, beginning in Britain and spreading like wildfire through the rest of Europe and the Americas soon after. The explosion of technology and inventions heralded a new age for the western world. With machines and mass production of goods taking a huge burden off the shoulders of the people, the standard of living skyrocketed. The population boomed, income increased dramatically, and agriculture no longer required that almost all of the populace farm, so the masses were free to sell their labor in factories. Textiles were the first industry to be revolutionized with the invention of the spinning jenny and the cotton gin. Mills were invented soon after but since they lacked the vital quality of mobility, another invention soon took its place: the steam engine! Along with the steam engine came the locomotive; a speedy and efficient way to transport the common folk. For the people of the 18th century, this was as monumental a deal as the invention of cell phones! Coal and iron consequently evolved into their own mammoth industries. The Industrial Revolution was such an extreme influence on the world that it is second only to the domestication of animals and plants. It was not just a revolution for the rich, but literally changed the world for everybody.

(2) What was the standard-of-living debate?

The standard-of-living debate is an argument over whether life was made better or worse for the common people during the industrial revolution. According to historians R.M. Hartwell and E.P. Thompson, the debate has finally come to an end. Previously, it was universally thought that the average people’s lives became desolate and replete with backbreaking labor, but if the industrial revolution presented these people with access to previously inaccessible and cheaper goods than ever before, wouldn’t the common consensus be that the industrial revolution benefited the people of the 18th century? Stop for a minute and think about what life was like before the revolution took hold of the western world. 98% of the population had previously been involved in agriculture where working conditions were far worse than in any factory and so people almost gladly welcomed factory jobs as an acceptable means to feed themselves and their families. People were freed to sell their labor and enter contracts with factory owners. Working their way to a higher class suddenly became an actual possibility. According to Nicholas Crafts, the period from 1760-1860 showed a doubling of real income per capita in England. The reason that no-one thinks of this logic when comparing the two theories is because the majority of early historians were all Marxists and biased their research of living and working conditions during the mid-18-19th centuries, which in turn inadvertently biased today’s historian’s research. Fortunately, we now realize the truth of the matter: even though the average person’s life during the industrial revolution was miserable by today’s standards, there is no doubt that the revolution was a steam-powered blessing to everyone.

(3) What were the different arguments that combined in Britain to pave the way for the abolition of slavery in that country’s overseas colonies?

Slavery has been around since the beginning of time and was a vital part of the most famous ancient civilizations throughout history including Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, and Rome. This practice was nothing new when the New World was discovered; so Portugal, Britain, the Netherlands, and France were quick to jump in the game. However, slavery was repulsive.  The enslaved were chattel, property, whipped, and denied food, clothing, shelter, and family. Eventually, the practice was considered despicable, and several arguments combined in Britain to pave the way for the abolition of slavery. The most commonly used argument was that of natural rights: everyone owned themselves and their destinies. In the 1640s, John Locke refined the Levelers’ arguments of self ownership and re-presented them to society. Meanwhile, the Quakers in Britain expelled all slave owners from their ranks. One of their leaders, William Wilberforce, pushed Parliament again and again to abolish slavery. And he did succeed. Parliament passed a law terminating slavery in Britain just a few month after he died. There was also an economic side to the argument to free the slaves; they all required lodging and food, even when they were not actively working. Why pay? While Britain argued that the slave trade vessels trained sailors, enabling them to join the military and protect the country, slave trip conditions were actually so vile that sailors dropped like flies, decreasing the amount of available men to serve in the Navy. Slave free areas began to emerge and citizens banded together to buy the freedom of as many slaves as they could afford. All of these arguments combined to slowly ensure the eradication of slavery in the British Colonies. Even though slavery has been around forever and many of the great civilizations of our time have utilized it to rise to power, for the last 200 years, Western Civilization has reached its pinnacle without the use of a single slave.

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