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Big Era Seven: Landscape Unit 7.2

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The Atlantic Revolutions as a World Event
1750 - 1830 CE

Why This Unit?

In global terms the idea of liberty as popular sovereignty(the people as the source of the government’s legitimacy) has some limited precedent in the past, for example, in the various ancient Greek city-states. In the eighteenth century, however, it was really brand new as an explicit idea. Enlightenment thinkers like John Locke and Montesquieu argued that political legitimacy rested with the people, not from monarchs who claimed they had received it from God. Once the idea of popular sovereignty was applied in the British North American colonies, its appeal spread around the world. Throughout the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, leaders in many countries struggled with the ideas and implementation of liberty, popular sovereignty, natural rights, and democracy. In some places these ideas prevailed, at least to some extent, while in others monarchy or other forms of authoritarian government reasserted themselves. Sometimes, as in the case of Haiti, the rhetoric of liberty was perpetuated, but it had little substance in the series of dictatorships that ruled the country.

This unit highlights two main ideas:

  • One is that liberty and related ideas became a global, not just Western, issue in the course of the nineteenth century. These ideas do not “belong to the West” alone because in fact they were interpreted and struggled over in different ways depending on cultural contexts and circumstances.
  • The other idea is that in relation to all of world history, the political changes in this period were new and seemed utterly bizarre to kings, queens, and aristocrats. They represented revolutionary new ways of thinking and acting worldwide.
The Atlantic world encompasses all the landmasses that border the Atlantic Ocean: Europe, North America, South America, the Caribbean Islands, and Africa. Historians who noted the convergence of political revolutions in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries called these political shifts “the Atlantic revolutions.” For students of this period, it is important to recognize how much the revolutions inspired and affected each other. The American Revolution drew on ideas of the European Enlightenment. In turn, the success of that revolution in creating a modern republic deeply influenced the French, Haitian, and Latin American revolutionaries in separating themselves from perceived political oppression. Ultimately, we can see these revolutions as starting points for new attitudes about politics and society, moving subjects to begin to see themselves as citizens and slaves to seek freedom and equality with even more vigor. All of the revolutions shared the political goal of liberty, but their leaders applied the concept of political liberty differently in the United States., France, Haiti, Mexico, Venezuela, and other countries.  The period of the Atlantic revolutions was a time of great but also diverse change.

This unit poses a series of problems for students. In the first lesson, they will read a brief background essay on the problems and issues that the leaders of the revolutions wanted to deal with, as well as some relevant excerpts from Enlightenment thinkers such as John Locke and Montesquieu. Then students will discuss how those problems and issues might be solved by implementing “liberty”, that is, political independence from the previous regime and the safeguarding of popular rights.

Unit Objectives

Upon completing this unit, students will be able to:

1.) Analyze how philosophers and revolutionaries defined liberty in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

2.) Trace and compare timelines of the main events of the revolutions.

3.) Compare revolutionary leaders’ perception of liberty.

4.) Identify the concept of liberty in constitutions.

5.) Trace influences of the Atlantic revolutions on revolutions later in history.

Time and Materials

This unit would best be done in a week of forty-five minute classes. If time is limited, any lesson can be done on its own. Materials required are included in the unit.

Table of Contents

Why this unit?


Unit objectives


Time and materials




The historical context


This unit in the Big Era time line


Lesson 1: Definitions of Liberty

Lesson 2: The Contagion of Revolution?
Lesson 3: Leaders’ View of Liberty
Lesson 4: Liberty Rhetoric of Other Nineteenth-Century Revolutions
This unit and the Three Essential Questions
This unit and the Seven Key Themes
This unit and the Standards in Historical Thinking
Correlations to National and State Standards
Conceptual links to other lessons

Complete Teaching Unit in PDF format

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