The Scientific Revolution gave rise to a intellectual movement—the Enlightenment. Enlightenment thought provided the philosophical foundations for the American Revolution. Britain lost its colonies in North America to the newly formed United States, while Spain and Portugal held onto their profitable Latin American colonies.
Section 1 The Scientific Revolution
Sixteenth-century Europeans began to question the scientific assumptions of the ancient authorities and to develop new theories about the universe. Nicholas Copernicus, Johannes Kepler, and Galileo Galilei revolutionized astronomy. Copernicus claimed that the sun, not the earth, was at the center of the universe—an idea considered heresy by the Catholic Church. Equally revolutionary were Isaac Newton's explanations of gravity and the movement of the planets. There were breakthroughs in medicine and chemistry, and numerous women contributed to the body of scientific research. The new view of the universe affected Western philosophy. The Frenchman Rene Descartes, the first rationalist, declared that matter could be independently investigated by reason. Francis Bacon, an English philosopher, developed the scientific method—a system for collecting and analyzing evidence.
Section 2 The Enlightenment
The Scientific Revolution gave rise to the Enlightenment, an eighteenth-century movement that stressed the role of philosophy and reason in improving society. Enlightenment intellectuals, known as philosophes, were chiefly social reformers from the nobility and the middle class. They often met in the salons of the upper classes to discuss the ideas of such giants as Montesquieu, Voltaire, and Diderot. In the economic sphere, Adam Smith put forth the doctrine of laissez-faire economics. The later Enlightenment produced social thinkers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and an early advocate of women's rights, Mary Wollstonecraft. Salon gatherings, along with the growth of book and magazine publishing, helped spread Enlightenment ideas among a broad audience. Most Europeans were still Christians. However, the desire for a more spiritual experience inspired new religious movements, such as the Methodism of John Wesley.
Section 3 The Impact of the Enlightenment
The Enlightenment influenced both art and politics. The baroque and neoclassical styles of art endured, while a more delicate style, called rococo, emerged. The works of Bach, Handel, Haydn, and Mozart represented one of the greatest periods in European music. Novels attracted a middle-class audience. The Enlightenment interested the absolutist rulers of Europe. However, only one, Joseph II of Austria, attempted far-reaching reforms based on Enlightenment ideas; they were largely a failure. The reforms of Catherine the Great of Russia and Frederick the Great of Prussia were far more limited. Territorial disputes in Europe and in the colonial empires of Britain and France produced the War of Austrian Succession, followed by the Seven Years' War. In the end, France lost India and most of North America, and Britain emerged as the world's greatest colonial power.
Section 4 Colonial Empires and the American Revolution
In the sixteenth century, Portugal came to control Brazil, while Spain established an empire in the Western Hemisphere that included parts of North America and most of Latin America. Portugal and Spain held onto their Latin American colonies for over 300 years. During that time, they profited richly by exporting Latin American gold, silver, and other natural resources and farm products. Spanish and Portuguese officials and Christian missionaries played important roles in Latin American societies. In North America, British control over its colonies began to unravel over issues of taxation. Multiple crises led the Americans to declare their independence in 1776 and to fight Britain until its defeat in 1783. The Articles of Confederation that formed the United States were soon replaced with a Constitution, which created a stronger central government. The Bill of Rights added important freedoms derived from the natural rights expressed by the philosophes.