The eighteenth century was an era of radical political transformation, social upheaval, and far-reaching change that reverberated across the Atlantic. As new ideas began to challenge traditional political structures and hierarchies, people increasingly debated the rights of individuals and the proper limits of royal and religious authority. Many, such as Toussaint Louverture, the leader of the Haitian Revolution (Figure 7.1), were inspired by the philosophical movement known as the Enlightenment, which embraced the principles of reason and intellectual optimism. Enlightenment ideals were only partially realized. But the growing spirit of critical thinking ultimately inspired a series of revolutions that radically transformed political and economic life.
In the American Revolution, colonists’ rejection of arbitrary monarchical power and taxation expanded into a full-fledged demand for national independence. The French Revolution also represented a rejection of traditional royal privileges and the inauguration of a new political model. In neither case, however, did the demands for freedom and inclusion extend to Black people, Native Americans, women, or religious minorities. As the first sustained and successful challenge to the institution of slavery in the Atlantic world, the Haitian Revolution, more than any other conflict of the eighteenth century, resulted in the most widespread radical change. Rather than being universally supported, however, each of these three revolutions and their embrace of newfound freedoms met with a reactionary backlash, the effects of which reached into the modern world.