Europe's economy underwent its greatest transformation between the late-18th and the late-19th centuries. The decades of the Industrial Revolution brought a continent whose economy had been based mostly on agriculture and trade into a new era of mass production, heavy industry, and titanic economic growth. The Industrial Revolution brought benefits (greater wealth) and blights (pollution and urban poverty) with which we still live today.

As its name implies, the "Industrial Revolution" is best known for ushering in new forms of manufacturing and production, especially that of heavy industry. But the widespread introduction of this new form of production was dependent upon two pre-existing conditions - wealth and labor. The surplus wealth necessary to kick-start the Industrial Revolution was to come from great increases in agricultural productivity. Equally important, the Industrial Revolution required a larger labor supply, or, simply put, more people. ("Revolutions" usually refer to political events. How might an economic transformation also constitute a revolution?)

The "Demographic" Revolution

Between 1700 and 1800, western Europe experienced a major demographic transformation. The population rose dramatically. In the 18th century, the population of Europe jumped from about 110 million to about 190 million. Let's look at the population growth in some key countries.





19 million

28 million


9 million

16.5 million


17.5 million

38 million


2 million

9.5 million


8 million

28 million

This massive rise in population was to provide crucial labor for the Industrial Revolution. Why did the European population begin to rise in the early-18th century? Historians still debate the causes. The increase was due, at least in part, to a decrease in the death rate, itself a consequence of famines having become less common and plagues becoming less endemic. These gains did not generally lead to longer life spans (Europeans in the 18th century had a life expectancy of only about 30 years!), but they allowed more children to survive into adulthood. The population increase might also have been helped along by a climbing birth rate (itself perhaps a "recovery" response after demographic decline). In addition, slightly better living conditions in the second half of the 18th century allowed young adults to establish households a few years earlier than they previously could. This, in turn, allowed families to have children a few years earlier.

An exploding population was not necessarily a benefit to countries that were, in the 18th century, generally very poor and organized economically around subsistence agriculture. Traditionally, a rising population had raised the demand for food and goods, but it had also always overwhelmed a land's productive capacities. Population explosions in earlier centuries had often resulted in catastrophic corrections such as famine and plague, which returned the population to a lower level. The increase in population during the 18th century turned out to be quite different. While it raised demand, and hence helped to spur on the Industrial Revolution, the population growth did not outstrip the growth of economic productivity. For the first time in history, the terrible cycle of economic surplus, population growth, overpopulation, and famine was broken.


These changes eventually sparked what historians term a "vital revolution," or transition from one demographic pattern to another. Since more children survived infancy, families could eventually afford to have fewer children. By the mid-19thcentury, the pattern of many births and early - usually infant - deaths was transformed to one of fewer births and later deaths. Life expectancy became significantly higher (today it is well over twice what it was in the 18th century). The main short-term benefit of the demographic revolution was a dramatic increase in surplus labor in agricultural economies. (In what ways might population levels impact politics? What might be the result of sudden increases and decreases in the population level of the United States?)

The Agricultural Revolution

More people meant a need for more food. Another crucial precondition of the Industrial Revolution then was a massive increase in the productivity levels of agriculture. So entwined were the agricultural revolution and the demographic revolution that it is hard to say which came first; each was dependent on the other. The greatly increased production of food in the 18th century was due to a variety of factors:

New methods of crop rotation boosted the yield per acre.

The integration of cropland and land used for the raising of animals provided much-needed fertilizer.

The introduction of new plants, such as legumes, replenished the soil and provided the feed necessary for grazing animals.

The potato, a new crop from America, became a valuable source of nutrients in people's diets. A small plot of potatoes could sustain an entire family, and therefore encouraged population growth.

Improvements in drainage opened up new fields to cultivation.

Another important agricultural development was that of the "enclosure" of farmland, a change that transformed the economic and social structure of the countryside. Traditionally, peasants had owned and worked strips of land scattered throughout a community. Also, a sizable portion of the total land, known as the "commons," was used by all of the peasants for the grazing of animals or as a source of wood in winter. The "enclosure movement" achieved two ends: it consolidated the strips of land together into unified blocks, and it divided the common land into private farms. The enclosure movement was a painful process that went against the interests of many peasants and caused a great deal of social protest. Enclosure had begun in the Middle Ages but accelerated dramatically in the 18th century. Economically, the enclosures allowed more efficient (and profitable) agricultural output.

One of the leading historians on the social effects of the enclosure movement is J.L. Hammond (The Skilled Labourer, The Town Labourer, The Village Labourer). Consolidating the scattered strips of farmland among families was a process which had taken place during earlier centuries, and was less disruptive than privatizing the commons. Many marginal peasants (known as cottagers or "cotters") had depended on access to the wood and grazing rights on the commons, and some historians have argued that enclosures drove hundreds of thousands of the poorest farmers from the land and turned them into urban laborers. At the same time, other scholars contend that the number of farmers did not decrease, and that a majority of peasants were properly compensated. In any case, many of the poorer farmers, such as the "cotters," could no longer support themselves. They became agricultural laborers on the mid- to large-sized farms that were created.

Painful though the process of enclosure was, the agricultural revolution as a whole provided the food necessary to feed Europe's burgeoning population. Furthermore, in the most economically advanced countries (like England), an actual surplus of agriculture was created, allowing England to export food to other countries. The profits from these exports were to provide crucial funds for the development of industry.

Free Markets

In addition to demographic and agricultural revolutions, another precondition for the Industrial Revolution was the advent of free economic markets. Markets are arenas for economic activity, and free markets are those that are not subject to much social or governmental regulation. There are many different types of free markets:

  1. Free labor markets, wherein workers and employers can freely contract for work without guild regulations
  1. Free capital markets, wherein funds can be borrowed and loaned among private individuals without much government interference
  1. Free trading markets, which are more or less free of tariffs (either internal, within a country, or external, among countries). This allows trade to develop with greater speed and freedom from restraint.

Free markets have been embraced at various points in Europe, but at no time more than during the last two centuries. Old regulations, established by trade guilds, or by governments, in the interest of common goals (or based on mercantilist philosophy), were increasingly rejected in the 18th and 19th centuries. Indeed, free markets, because they are intended to free individuals to act economically in their own interests, often became one political goal of enlightened thought and liberalism. In several respects, the political and social climate proved increasingly favorable to capitalism and economic expansion in the 18th century. Particularly in England, where there were few legal barriers to the free exchange of goods, wealth became broadly distributed, and credit easily available. As a result, the market grew and continued to expand. Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations, published in 1776, expressed and justified the growing confidence of many people in the productive potential of a free market. (How does the doctrine of free markets support the basic political theory of liberalism?)