Investigative Question

How were most societies organized in the 1700s?

Students begin tenth grade world history with a survey of the world in 1750. This question can frame students’ initial explorations: How were most societies organized in the 1700s? Students analyze maps of the gunpowder empires (Qing China, Mughal India, Ottoman Empire, Safavid Persia, Spain, France, England), trade routes (Atlantic World, Pacific/Indian Ocean, and world trade systems), and colonies. The teacher explains that in 1750, people were living at the very end of the pre-modern world. Although there had been many differences in peoples’ experiences depending on their location, culture, and language, certain broad patterns were present in most states and empires.

Most states and empires were ruled by one leader, called a king, tsar, sultan, emperor, shah, or prince. Students can consider the comparative question: Who held power in the 1700s? Why? This ruler was usually, but not always, a man who came from a dynasty, a family of rulers. Dynasties changed all the time, when kings were defeated and overthrown, but the winners would then set up a new dynasty under one leader. The tsar or sultan got his legitimacy from his birth into the royal family and the support of religious and political elites. Most emperors claimed that they had been chosen or blessed by divine power, and that they ruled on behalf of God to keep order and justice in the society. The question What was the divine right of kings? helps students consider the construction of monarchic governments and societies.

Besides the royal family, there were elite groups in that society who had political, military, or religious power, and owned wealth and land. These elite groups went by different names in each state or empire, such as nobles and scholar-officials, but they had privileges — that is, special rights that ordinary people did not have. Elite status was often based on birth. There were not many elites, either, as they constituted about 3 to 5 percent of the population.

Below the elite groups, there was a small middle class. But the majority of people in the world worked as farmers and had very little wealth or material possessions, no education, and no political power. The reason that this poor farmers group was so large was because energy, power sources, and technology were limited in the pre-modern world. Ninety percent of the people had to work full time at farming, spinning thread for cloth, and doing other repetitive manual jobs to produce food, clothing, and shelter for everyone. The only power sources were human, animal, wind, and water. There was enough surplus in the society only for a small percentage of people to have more than basic food, clothing, and shelter.

Dynasties and elite groups defended their power, wealth, and privilege through customs of social order, force, and propaganda. They usually resisted giving power to lower social groups for fear that the nobles or other elites would lose their wealth and privileges. In all societies, customs of social order were hierarchical, meaning that people were unequal. Some people were higher and considered better than ordinary people.

This inquiry set is designed for the first student inquiry of the grade 10 course. Instead of reviewing material from grades 6 and 7 and/or tracing the growth of democracy through the Greeks, English, etc., the first framework unit aims to set the stage by reviewing the world in 1750. Because 1750 is an arbitrary date, the sources in this set range from the sixteenth to the early nineteenth centuries. The unit highlights power relations in the premodern world, both in terms of the types of government that existed in the major states and the unequal social structures within those states. This inquiry set teaches students about the opposite of democracy, the social and political conditions that gave rise to the Enlightenment and the democratic revolutions studied in the second unit.

Before embarking on this set, the teacher can use maps to familiarize students with the major powers, their locations and the areas that each controlled, and trade routes and systems, such as the Atlantic World and East Asian / Indian Ocean trade. The teacher should also explain that these were all agrarian economies, with the majority of people being poor farmers or peasants.

Once that groundwork has been laid, students are ready to explore images and texts. This is an excellent opportunity for teachers to introduce how to source a document. Some of the sources show autocratic rule by a monarch. Almost every powerful state and empire in the mid-eighteenth century was a monarchy headed by a single ruling figure, usually male. Although his title differed by the state or region, early modern monarchs were either descendants of a dynasty or conquerors who then tried to establish a dynasty.

There was considerable variety in the amount of power monarchs held by themselves and that which was shared by various elite groups. In China, for example, the Qing emperor was the “Son of Heaven,” but he relied upon ethnically Chinese scholar officials and Manchu bannermen (military leaders) to carry out his orders. To some extent, he shared power with them. His power was constrained by Confucian custom as well. Every monarch wanted to increase the amount of power he and his officials had and decrease the amount of power that other elite competitors or regional lords held — that is, to centralize authority over the state.

The first three sources showcase the strategies kings used to centralize power and increase their legitimacy in the mid-1700s. These included the use of grand ceremonies, elaborate dress, extensive retinues of courtiers, and grand building programs, in addition to the assembly of the latest military technology and armies. Sources 2 and 3 emphasize the isolation and distance of the ruler from visitors, as well as the splendor of the palaces themselves. In the Palace of Versailles — a building that housed not only the king but also 10,000 nobles and their families, innumerable servants, and lavish gardens — Louis XIV aimed to evoke the same feelings of awe, admiration, and fear as did the Qing emperors.

Although he wrote about sixteenth-century French kings, Jean Bodin’s legal defense of autocratic “sovereignty,” On Sovereignty, described the power that all powerful kings, emperors, sultans, and tsars claimed for themselves (Source 4). The similarities in the size and opulence of palaces, claims to authority, elaborate ceremonies, and displays of wealth and power characterized eighteenth-century monarchs across Afroeurasia. You can include the question What was the divine right of kings? and the text from James I, Speech to Parliament, in this source set or teach it separately. The concept of the divine right of kings clearly applied widely throughout the eighteenth-century world.

The remaining sources reveal the social hierarchies and unequal relationships of different social groups. Although the names of the elite groups and the exact system of ranks varied in each society, no eighteenth-century society practiced equality. The ability of the elite group (nobles, scholar-officials, landowners) to continue their lavish lifestyle was dependent on controlling subordinate groups, particularly peasants, serfs, or slaves who did the agricultural work. Slavery was the reality for millions of Africans transported to Brazil, the Caribbean, and the United States (Plan of a Ship for Transporting Slaves Source 5). Whether the emphasis was on ceremony and deference, as the scholar-official Wang Youpu lectured to Chinese villagers (Source 6); on punishment for disobedience, as in Empress Catherine the Great’s Decree on Serfs (Source 7); or on forced labor of Native Americans in Spanish California (Source 8) — social order depended on inequality. Make sure students understand that there were multiple forms of inequality in the eighteenth-century world. Inequality was universal, but the form of inequality was often different. Historians often analyze inequality in terms of race, class, and gender.

This inquiry set is designed for the first student inquiry of the grade 10 course. Instead of reviewing material from grades 6 and 7 and/or tracing the growth of democracy through the Greeks, English, etc., the first framework unit aims to set the stage by reviewing the world in 1750. Because 1750 is an arbitrary date, the sources in this set range from the sixteenth to the early nineteenth centuries. The unit highlights power relations in the premodern world, both in terms of the types of government that existed in the major states and the unequal social structures within those states. This inquiry set teaches students about the opposite of democracy, the social and political conditions that gave rise to the Enlightenment and the democratic revolutions studied in the second unit.

Before embarking on this set, the teacher can use maps to familiarize students with the major powers, their locations and the areas that each controlled, and trade routes and systems, such as the Atlantic World and East Asian / Indian Ocean trade. The teacher should also explain that these were all agrarian economies, with the majority of people being poor farmers or peasants.

Once that groundwork has been laid, students are ready to explore images and texts. This is an excellent opportunity for teachers to introduce how to source a document. Some of the sources show autocratic rule by a monarch. Almost every powerful state and empire in the mid-eighteenth century was a monarchy headed by a single ruling figure, usually male. Although his title differed by the state or region, early modern monarchs were either descendants of a dynasty or conquerors who then tried to establish a dynasty.

There was considerable variety in the amount of power monarchs held by themselves and that which was shared by various elite groups. In China, for example, the Qing emperor was the “Son of Heaven,” but he relied upon ethnically Chinese scholar officials and Manchu bannermen (military leaders) to carry out his orders. To some extent, he shared power with them. His power was constrained by Confucian custom as well. Every monarch wanted to increase the amount of power he and his officials had and decrease the amount of power that other elite competitors or regional lords held — that is, to centralize authority over the state.

The first three sources showcase the strategies kings used to centralize power and increase their legitimacy in the mid-1700s. These included the use of grand ceremonies, elaborate dress, extensive retinues of courtiers, and grand building programs, in addition to the assembly of the latest military technology and armies. Sources 2 and 3 emphasize the isolation and distance of the ruler from visitors, as well as the splendor of the palaces themselves. In the Palace of Versailles — a building that housed not only the king but also 10,000 nobles and their families, innumerable servants, and lavish gardens — Louis XIV aimed to evoke the same feelings of awe, admiration, and fear as did the Qing emperors.

Although he wrote about sixteenth-century French kings, Jean Bodin’s legal defense of autocratic “sovereignty,” On Sovereignty, described the power that all powerful kings, emperors, sultans, and tsars claimed for themselves (Source 4). The similarities in the size and opulence of palaces, claims to authority, elaborate ceremonies, and displays of wealth and power characterized eighteenth-century monarchs across Afroeurasia. You can include the question What was the divine right of kings? and the text from James I, Speech to Parliament, in this source set or teach it separately. The concept of the divine right of kings clearly applied widely throughout the eighteenth-century world.

The remaining sources reveal the social hierarchies and unequal relationships of different social groups. Although the names of the elite groups and the exact system of ranks varied in each society, no eighteenth-century society practiced equality. The ability of the elite group (nobles, scholar-officials, landowners) to continue their lavish lifestyle was dependent on controlling subordinate groups, particularly peasants, serfs, or slaves who did the agricultural work. Slavery was the reality for millions of Africans transported to Brazil, the Caribbean, and the United States (Plan of a Ship for Transporting Slaves Source 5). Whether the emphasis was on ceremony and deference, as the scholar-official Wang Youpu lectured to Chinese villagers (Source 6); on punishment for disobedience, as in Empress Catherine the Great’s Decree on Serfs (Source 7); or on forced labor of Native Americans in Spanish California (Source 8) — social order depended on inequality. Make sure students understand that there were multiple forms of inequality in the eighteenth-century world. Inequality was universal, but the form of inequality was often different. Historians often analyze inequality in terms of race, class, and gender. The three paragraphs that follow were excerpted from a longer piece on public law written in 1576 by Jean Bodin, a French lawyer and writer. The paragraphs are confusing to the reader because they vacillate between different text genres, and because the writer employs a variety of reference devices that obscure agency. He also uses unfamiliar vocabulary and a relatively archaic rhetorical style. To help students understand Bodin’s text and, more importantly, think about the historical significance of the piece, the text has been broken down into its functional parts, followed by questions to spur further thinking and discussion. Before the class begins this sentence deconstruction activity, you may want to refer to the Sentence deconstruction guide handout.

Since there is nothing greater on earth, after God, than sovereign princes, and since they have been established by Him as His lieutenants for commanding other men, we need to be precise about their status so that we may respect and revere their majesty in complete obedience, and do them honor in our thoughts and in our speech. Contempt for one’s sovereign prince is contempt toward God, of whom he is the earthly image….

We may thus conclude that the first prerogative of a sovereign prince is to give law to all in general and each in particular. But this is not sufficient. We have to add “without the consent of any other, whether greater, equal, or below him.” ….

But if the prince is sovereign absolutely, as are the genuine monarchs of France, Spain, England, Scotland, Ethiopia, Turkey, Persia and Moscovy - whose power has never been called into question and whose sovereignty has never been shared with subjects - then it is not the part of any subject individually, or all of them in general, to make an attempt on the honor or the life of the monarch, either by force or by way of law, even if he has committed all the misdeeds, impieties, and cruelties that one could mention. As to the way of law, the subject has no right of jurisdiction over his prince, on whom all power and authority to command depends….

Directions

1. For each passage, first define the bolded terms (or others that are unfamiliar to your students) and then have students complete the related sentence deconstruction chart in pairs or groups of three.

sovereign: someone who has supreme or ultimate power, such as a king or queen (monarch)

lieutenants: in this context, signifies someone of high rank who can represent the highest power (God)

precise: exact or accurate

status: position or standing

prerogative: right or power

consent: permission to do something

subject: in this context, someone under the control of a higher power (like a king or prince)

jurisdiction: right or authority to make decisions (often legal)

2. With the whole class, go over each completed chart to make sure students understand how the parts of the text function and give meaning.

3. After students complete the first four columns of the chart, have them use that information to discuss the questions in the last column.

4. Have students complete the text genre organization activity that follows each chart.

5. Direct students to connect the source back to the original investigative question: How were most societies organized in the 1700s?

Handouts

10.2A The World in 1750 Student Handout

10.2A The World in 1750, Sentence Deconstruction Sheet

10.2A The World in 1750 Teacher Key

  • The Library of Congress. The Library of Congress’ Primary Source Analysis Tool supports an inquiry model of instruction by asking students to first observe, then reflect, then question. Their customizable tool includes specific prompts for student interrogation of books and other printed materials, maps, oral recordings, photographs and paintings, and many other types of primary sources.
  • The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). NARA has developed a vast collection of document analysis worksheets, ready for classroom use. Their website offers teachers a wide collection of customizable tools – appropriate for working with photographs, maps, written documents, and more. NARA has also customized their tools to meet the needs of young learners, and intermediate or secondary students.