Unit 5 Overview: Conflict, Crisis, and Reaction in the Late 18th-Century

4 min readnovember 4, 2021

Eric Beckman

Eric Beckman

AP European History 🇪🇺

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Unit 5 Overview: Conflict, Crisis, and Reaction in the Late 18th Century

Welcome to Unit 5, the last of three units spanning 1648 to 1815. Unit 5 focuses on political events in the second half of the period and beyond. These events were intertwined with economic and intellectual developments. 
📄 Study AP European History, Unit 3: Absolutism and Constitutionalism 
📄 Study AP European History, Unit 4: Scientific, Philosophical, and Political Developments

Commercial Rivalries

During this time, European commerce (buying and selling for profit 💸) grew rapidly as merchants and companies used worldwide economic networks. European states competed economically by promoting businesses from their own countries and building overseas empires, particularly in the Atlantic World. This competition sometimes led to conflicts (including wars) in and around the Atlantic and the Indian Oceans 🌊.
The rivalry between Britain and France led to worldwide wars fought in Europe, the Americas, and Asia. By 1815m Britain had clearly replaced France as the greatest European power 💪. In Asia and Africa, the Portuguese and Dutch competed with Britain and France, too. Ultimately, Britain controlled much of India, and the Dutch controlled the East Indies (present-day Indonesia) through their respective East India Companies.

Image from Wikipedia

Francis Hayman’s painting of British victory at the Battle of Plassey in India, 1757

Models of Political Sovereignty

As seen in the first four units, sovereignty refers to the highest political power to make and enforce rules—disagreements over how sovereignty should work contributed to revolutions and wars.
🎥 Watch: AP European History - Absolutism vs. Constitutionalism

The French Revolution


Several factors led to this unit’s most important development: the French Revolution. Before its Revolution, an absolute monarchy 🤴 ruled France. King Louis XVI (16th) faced significant financial and political problems. The bourgeoisie (who often had at least some wealth but were not noble), peasants (small farmers), and urban workers were often frustrated with their lack of privileges and political power. Meanwhile, nobles had privileges, but many noblemen wanted political influence. Coincidentally, bread shortages in the late 1780s created suffering. Many people used Enlightenment ideas 💡 about individual freedom and governmental legitimacy to express their desire for change in the face of these challenges.

Image from Wikipedia

French print showing commoners carrying Catholic clergy (church officials) and nobles, 1789

First Phase: 1789-1792

The French Revolution began in 1789 with rebellions in the country and the cities. Simultaneously, representatives of the common people and some clergy and nobles established a constitutional monarchy. In Paris, people attacked royal authority, such as the Bastille and the Palace at Versailles, while revolutionaries wrote ✍️ the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen and eliminated noble privileges. Women participated in crowd violence, but men excluded them from formal politics. Many men directly participated in the new government by voting. The revolutionary government took overland from the Catholic Church to raise money 💰.

Image from Wikipedia

Crowds attack the Bastille, 1789

Second Phase: 1793-1794

The following two years included more radical (far-reaching) changes. Maximilien Robespierre and his associates in the Jacobin party made France a republic (no monarch, sovereignty held by at least some people). The Republic executed Louis XVI and began a Reign of Terror 😱, meant to frighten people into supporting the revolution. The Jacobins attempted to help poorer people by controlling bread 🍞 prices. They also sought to de-Christianize France. The radical Republic successfully defended France from invasion by foreign monarchies and then exported the revolution through their own invasions. 

Political and Social Effects

The French Revolution was a worldwide 🌎 development. Saint-Domingue, a French colony in the Caribbean, was the scene of a dramatic revolution. Free people of color and enslaved people revolted against oppression in a successful revolution that created an independent republic: Haiti. In Europe, condemnation of the violence of the revolution contributed to the development of conservative ideology 🧠.

Image from Wikipedia

19th-century painting of the Haitian leader Toussaint Louverture


Napoleon Bonaparte dominated European affairs from 1799 to 1815. A general during the revolution, Napoleon gained control of the republican government and eventually crowned 👑 himself emperor of France.
Napoleon preserved some elements of the Revolution (particularly the equal treatment of men by the law) while reversing popular sovereignty by ruling as a dictator. Napoleon used large armies and effective military 🪖 tactics to gain control over much of Europe through frequent wars. These wars inspired new ideas of nationalism in France and the countries that it controlled.

Image from Wikipedia

The French Empire under Napoleon, 1812

Eventually, a coalition of European countries defeated Napoleon’s armies. The international negotiations 🤝 for peace that followed these wars are known as the Congress of Vienna (one guess as to where they happened). The negotiators attempted to reestablish a balance of power ⚖️ in Europe and worked to prevent revolutions.

The Romantic Movement

Starting in the mid-1700s and accelerating during the French Revolution, many European scholars and artists 🎨 challenged the Enlightenment obsession with reason by championing natural processes and human emotions. This movement is known as Romanticism, and it had a profound influence on European thought 💭 into the 1800s. Jean Jacques Rousseau influenced Romanticism and French Revolutionaries. Consistent with this turn away from pure reason toward emotion, Christianity revived, with John Wesley’s Methodism a notable example.

Image from Wikipedia

Francisco Goya’s The Third of May 1808, 1814, depicts emotion and nationalism 

🎥 Watch: AP European History - Napoleon
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🎨Unit 1 – Renaissance & Exploration
⛪️Unit 2 – Reformation
👑Unit 3 – Absolutism & Constitutionalism
🤔Unit 4 – Scientific, Philosophical, & Political Developments
🥖Unit 5 – Conflict, Crisis, & Reaction in the Late 18th Century
🚂Unit 6 – Industrialization & Its Effects
Unit 7 – 19th Century Perspectives & Political Developments
💣Unit 8 – 20th Century Global Conflicts
🥶Unit 9 – Cold War & Contemporary Europe
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