Review: "The Age of Revolution and Reaction, 1789-1850"
Throughout Charles Breunig’s book, The Age of Revolution and Reaction: 1789-1850, the author examines 19th Century European history from the time of the French Revolution to the revolutions of 1848. While the book’s main purpose is to provide a detailed overview and analysis of the first half of the 19th Century, Breunig also branches away from this general survey in many ways.
Outside of his descriptive overview, Breunig attempts to demonstrate how events and figures (such as the French Revolution, Napoleon, the Congress of Vienna, and the Industrial Revolution) all aided in the overall erosion of the “old regime” that existed within European society during this time. This erosion, as he shows, helped to implement the beginning of a “new era” that emphasized liberty, freedom, nationalist pride, and patriotism. Such sentiments, he argues, helped lead to a gradual decline in both the power and authority of European monarchs; a form of government that had ruled the European continent for centuries, unchallenged.
Breunig's Main Points
While the French Revolution inspired and developed basic elements of liberalism, Breunig argues that the conquests of Napoleon and the decisions made by the Congress of Vienna are all factors that helped spread liberalism to a continental scale (outside the boundaries of France). Breunig continues to develop this argument further by demonstrating how the social upheaval of the Industrial Revolution helped to solidify a growing desire for liberal ideas among the common people as well. As he states, the Industrial Revolution not only resulted in the advent of new technology and new forms of production, but also helped usher in a stronger and more cohesive middle class; one that helped promote conflict among the various social classes of Europe. Breunig asserts that this discontent, in turn, encouraged Europeans to disrupt the existing social hierarchy and governments already in place; replacing them with various forms of constitutions and laws that promoted the equality of all classes.
This social conflict finally reached a boiling point, he argues, with the emergence of the 1848 revolutions. While these revolutions ultimately failed in the end to secure the freedoms that Europeans desired, Breunig argues that the failures of the protests served as a learning experience for ordinary Europeans on how to achieve victory in the future. Consequently, Breunig argues that the revolutions served as a great “turning point in the history of nineteenth-century Europe” that eventually led to dramatic social and political changes in the decades that followed (Breunig, 257).
Much of what Breunig argues throughout his book is convincing and logical. It is clear, given his examples, that the spread of liberal ideas and the challenges to absolute rule across the European continent was directly tied to social and economic revolutions occurring throughout the century. With the absence of figures such as Napoleon, and the absence of events such as the Congress of Vienna and the Industrial Revolution, it is quite possible that the ideas originally undertaken by disgruntled French citizens may have never spread beyond the boundaries of France. Revolutions, wars, and social change are all powerful forces in their own right. When elements of each are combined and intertwined like they were in the 19th Century, however, Breunig clearly demonstrates their ability to bring about dramatic change.
All in all, I give Breunig's book 5/5 Stars and highly recommend it to anyone interested in a general history of Europe during the first half of the nineteenth-century. Definitely check it out if you get a chance!
Do you agree with Breunig's thesis?
Questions for Further Discussion
If you choose to read this book for yourself, attached below is a list of questions to help facilitate a deeper understanding of the text:
1.) What was Breunig's overall thesis/argument? Did you find his argument to be persuasive? Why or why not?
2.) What was Breunig's objective in writing this book?
3.) What were some of the strengths and weaknesses of this work? Are there any particular areas that the author could have improved?
4.) What type of primary source material does Breunig rely on in this work? Does this help or hinder his overall argument?
5.) What type of audience is this book intended for? Can both scholars and general audience members, alike, benefit from the contents of this work?
6.) What did you like most about this work?
7.) Does Breunig's work challenge any sort of scholarship?
Breunig, Charles. The Age of Revolution and Reaction, 1789-1850. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1980.