18th Century – 7 Historical Events that took place in the 18th Century

The 18th century is often associated with the Age of Enlightenment, a time when intellectual and philosophical pursuits reached their heights, establishing modern ideals such as liberty, progress, and happiness. But this new way of thinking also brought about significant change on the world stage and Revolution both in the Old World and the New. In this article, learn about 7 major events that happened in the 18th Century (1700s).

1. The War of Spanish Succession (1701-1714)

Battle of Ekeren, part of the 18th Century War of Spanish Succession
Battle of Ekeren, 1703.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

When the Spanish King Charles II died childless in 1700, he named Philip, the grandson of French King Louis XIV, as his successor. The rest of the European powers, concerned about a French state becoming too powerful, formed the Grand Alliance to oppose the appointment. After over a decade of warfare, and initial successes for the French, the Treaties of Utrecht, Rastatt, and Baden in 1713 and 1714 ended the war with a compromise. While some key land changed hands which strengthened the British in particular, the main goal was accomplished by the Alliance. Philip was accepted as King, but he had to agree to always keep France and Spain separate, ultimately maintaining the balance of power on the continent.

2. Mass expansion in China (1735-1799)

Emperor of China for much of the 18th Century (1700s), Qianlong Emperor
Qianlong Emperor in Old Age.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

During the latter years of the 17th century, famine, political instability, and natural disasters wreaked havoc on progress on China, but with the 64-year rule of Qianlong Emperor, the Qing dynasty was being shaped into something resembling modern China today. Throughout the 18th century, Qianlong steadied the economy, expanded the country’s borders, and oversaw the population almost treble. Culturally, he improved Chinese literacy and eased regional tensions that had previously splintered the country, redefining it as a multiethnic nation. A skilled military leader, Qianlong conquered many neighboring nations, leading the Qing dynasty to its peak in 1790 as one of the largest Empires in history. 

3. British Industrial Revolution begins (1760)

Spinning Jenny
An early Spinning Jenny on display at the Helmshore Mills Textile Museum.
Credit: Clem Rutter // CC BY 3.0

Prior to the introduction of machines, steam power, and factories, manufacturing was a laborious, manual process, resulting in slow output and high costs. 18th century Inventions such as the steam engine in 1712 (improved upon in 1765 by James Watt), the Flying Shuttle in 1733, the Spinning Jenny in 1764, and the Cotton Gin in 1794, allowed for quicker, more efficient, and far larger production. The first thing to benefit from these advancements was the textile industry (the dominant industry in the country), but soon affected all industries and walks of life, contributing to a boom in population, higher household income, and a better standard of living. The Industrial Revolution went on to encompass much of Continental Europe and the United States over the next 80 or so years, but its beginnings in Great Britain established the nation as the world’s leading commercial power.

4. The American Revolution (1765-1791)

George Washington on horseback during the American Revolutionary War battle of Princeton in 1777.
George Washington at the 1777 Battle of Princeton.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Following the end of the French and Indian Wars in 1763, the British imposed stricter trade regulations and taxes on the 13 American colonies to help cover the costs. Beginning with protests such as the Boston Tea Party in 1773, the British and Americans were at war two years later. After a few years of inconclusive battles, the French and Spanish joined the American side by 1779. The British surrendered to the Americans in 1781 but continued fighting the French and Spanish until 1783 when a peace treaty was signed recognizing the United States of America as an independent nation. Washington was named the first President in 1789, and the Revolution officially ended in 1791 with the signing of the new Constitution.

5. James Cook explores the Pacific (1768-1779)

Portrait of the 18th century explorer James Cook
Portrait of Captain James Cook.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

James Cook set off aboard the HMS Endeavour in 1768, on what would become the first of three major voyages. Rounding Cape Horn, he reached Tahiti in 1769, then went on to explore vast reaches of the uncharted ocean, finding various islands and claiming them all for the British. Later that year, Cook and his crew reached New Zealand, mapping the coast, before continuing on to Australia in 1790, claiming the East coast for Britain and naming it New South Wales. His second voyage between 1772 and 1775 discovered more Pacific islands and disproved the long-held belief in a gigantic, temperate southern continent called Terra Australis. His third and final voyage beginning in 1776 was the first time Europeans encountered Hawaii, and it was here he was killed by natives in 1779. 

6. The French Revolution (1789-1799)

Storming of the Bastille in 1789.
The Storming of the Bastille, 1789.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

With tempers rising in France due to growing inequality, poverty, and a collapsing economy, calls for reform throughout the 18th century grew louder and louder. Louis XVI called an assembly in attempts to placate, but the Ancien Régime was unable and unwilling to offer the sorts of changes needed. The Storming of the Bastille in 1789, led to the abolishment of the monarchy shortly after, ending 200 years of Bourbon rule. The First French Republic was formed in 1792, followed a year later by the execution of Louis XVI (and his wife Marie Antoinette). The other European powers battled with France during the Revolutionary Wars to put a Bourbon back on the throne, in what would become the Napoleonic Wars the following century. The French Revolution ended officially with Napoleon’s bloodless coup d’etat in 1799, bringing him to power as First Consul. 

7. The end of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (1795)

Last monarch of Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth
The last monarch of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, King Stanisław II August.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

One of the largest and most powerful nations in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth would vanish without a trace in the eighteenth. Decades of constant warfare, an economy propped up by serfs, and a political system equal in theory but dominated by Poles, in reality, all served as the basis of internal conflict and a weakening of the state. As Western Europe exploited the New World and flourished, the Commonwealth stagnated and became effectively a vassal state of Russia. Its eventual dissolution came via three partitions at the hands of Austria, Prussia, and Russia. The first in 1772 saw as much as half of its total territory taken, with the second in 1793 and the final in 1795 wiping what remained off the map completely. There would be no Polish state again for 123 years.  

If you enjoyed this article, be sure to check out 7 Historical Events that happened in the 17th Century!


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