I like to joke occasionally that I consider the eighteenth century the beginning of everything. That’s an exaggeration, I know. But by that I mean the second half of that century sees the beginnings of “ourselves” in a myriad of ways that we today would easily recognize.
We have moved well-beyond what nearly all of those people living then would have imagined the future to be. While, for instance, Thomas Jefferson, who owned enslaved persons, held that African men in that degraded position still possessed an innate human equality with white men, he also wrote (privately) that he could not abide the idea of any woman in government. (A “woman’s trade” was to produce children and maintain “domestic felicity.”) It was still widely accepted that a man should own a goodly amount of property (usually land) in order to vote (because owning property meant you had a true stake in the society). The likes of LGBT equality would have simply been unfathomable to them.
Yet Jefferson’s noting he believed women were unsuited to government also meant that he had at least thought about it. It was by then among the many other no longer “unthinkables.” He, and so many others of that time, helped get “a process” started.
With France’s defeat by Britain in America in 1763, we see the beginnings of the “modern” Great Britain, France and United States that we all live in today.
Spurred on by growing literacy, in that late eighteenth century we see ideas we take now as givens, particularly the equality of all people (including women), discussed and debated on an increasingly wide scale for the first time. (The first anti-slavery bill appeared in the U.S. Congress in 1790.) We see the first real efforts to separate an individual’s personal religious belief from our earthly governance. The opening of the “Industrial Revolution” occurred hand in hand with a rapidity of inventiveness that today we have come to expect as much as a new iPhone every year. (The first humans to fly – in a hot-air balloon – did so in 1783 in Paris.) We see the beginnings of the international trade, corporations, and even “tourism” (travel for simply the pleasure of it) with which we today can easily identify.
If we could chat with someone who lived in “1794,” his/her language would be “antique” to us, but the bulk of the ideas the person voiced would be strikingly in line with our own. Yes, if they could see it our casual daily technology would UTTERLY ASTOUND them, yet as thinkers they are not “alienated” from us. In many respects, we owe our “iPhones” to them.
And even a novel set in that late eighteenth century seems “modern” compared to our house here in Hertfordshire now. We don’t know its exact age. However, based on what we’ve been told and have been able to piece together, it started out as a middle to late 1600s cottage.
For example, this is the original hearth frame (with a modern wood burner insert and tiles):
Underneath that frame, you can nearly stand up to where most of the original chimney has been blocked off. We don’t know why there’s a gap to the left-side brickwork (where I’ve placed some books). Overall, though, the size of it indicates it was the center of the then cottage – for cooking and heat.
The cottage has itself has been expanded and modernized several times over the centuries. Numerous individuals and families whom we’ll never know much about (if we ever learn anything at all about them) dwelled in this house when Jefferson and other men on the far side of the Atlantic were signing the U.S. Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia in 1776, when across the English Channel the former King of France was guillotined in 1793, and when a child named Alexandrina Victoria was born in Kensington Palace in nearby London in 1819. It’s astonishing if we think about it.
Today, even the idea of Britain and France and America going to war with each other is inconceivable. Britain has its second woman prime minister, and the fact that she is a woman hardly raises an eyebrow. We are about to see the son of an East African leave office after being re-elected as U.S. president, perhaps to be succeeded by a woman.
Our world is no more “perfect” than it ever is. There are troubles galore. However, on balance if he could see us I think one Thomas Jefferson would actually be greatly impressed and pleased by what “the future” has become.
Have a good day, wherever you are in the world. 🙂