The Ottoman Empire and Western interference

The history of the Ottoman Empire has often been characterized as one of “decline.” Given what you know about the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century, is this description apt? Why or why not? If not, how else might we characterize Ottoman history until 1918? 

The 19th century Ottoman Empire forged itself under a banner of nationalism similar to how other nations of the modern era did, by strengthening centralized control and by bringing together disparate groups of religious and ethnic peoples to form a more perfect union, and to protect itself from European interference. The empire was vast in land, resources, power and people and to do so would require not just the democratic theories and ideals mostly borrowed from Europe, but a coerced and at times forced sense of nationalism. If one is going to state a “decline” in the Ottoman Empire, there is an implied comparison with nations that did not decline during this same period, and when you compare the trials and tribulations of the Ottoman Empire to that of America, France, Germany or other countries of western and central Europe, you find many similarities in how these nations were built. Had the Europeans not intervened and interfered with the efforts of the Young Turks, Mustafa Pasha, and others attempting to bring about reform, this period of the Ottoman Empire likely would be regarded as a period of intense nation building and cultural reforms European states could only dream of.

The characterization of a decline in the Ottoman Empire can be categorized into the loss of territory, the continued massive borrowing of money and technology from Europe, and the infighting due to the tumultuous changes taking place as the efforts of the Ottoman state attempted to unify all people of the empire. They did so by growing the size of the military and the number of civilians working for the central state, forming its own educational network “largely based on west and central European models” (Quataert, p.62). Also between 1829 and 1856, the state attempted to remove the cultural disparities based on religious beliefs between Ottoman subjects and promoted the idea of equality for all citizens, which led to infighting, violent protests and wars.

The notion that violence and infighting in a rapidly changing vast empire was a sign of decline is at best based on mythos and a fanatical adversity to religious indifference. Europe underwent similar changes in defining the nations and nationalities that make up its current form, and the bloodshed of the American Civil War, slavery, and the genocide of the American Indian define the comparatively young country of America to this day.



While it is true that much of the Ottoman Empire lost its international power due to the extensive borrowing of money and technology from Europe during the 19th century and due to the revolts and wars that made Tsar Nicholas I of Russia call it “the sick man of Europe”, this should not insist the people were suffering. The Ottoman Empire was not able to import goods from far away colonies much like Britain and France could, and so a period of domestic trade flourished. While this may have weakened the Ottoman Empire’s role in the global system, it strengthened its culture. Instead of exporting goods and services mainly to Europe and persisting in somewhat of a vacuum with other states of the empire, urban centers flourished with citizens sharing a common memory and identity across religious and ethnic backgrounds.
Continue reading The Ottoman Empire and Western interference

Was the American Revolution revolutionary?

This is a response to an Augsburg history class forum question regarding Terry Bouton’s Book, “Taming Democracy”

The revolutionary war was revolutionary in that ordinary Pennsylvanian’s were able to force the reluctant gentry into declaring independence from Britain and disregarding British law to the point where war broke out.

It was revolutionary in that Britain’s foreign policy was so bad (Stamp Act, Townshend Act, banning of printed currency) it forced the American colony to resort to guerilla warfare tactics of rebellion and forced upper class creditors to default on their loans from England, risking their reputation with other foreign banks.

It was revolutionary in that for a brief moment in time, people were able look beyond their own needs and see there was an opportunity for everyone to live better through a democratically elected and represented central government. (according to various publications, written by those who, a) could write and b) had the funds and resources to publish)

It was revolutionary in that the upper class gentry were simply waiting for “the people” to fight the revolutionary war for them, so that they could then impose their version British rule. A complete coup de tant and usurpation of the public and commonwealth whom they so relied upon to build, feed and clean for them. It was a stroke of genius if not absolute dumb luck.

It was revolutionary in that ordinary people believed being rich was sinful and un-Christianlike. It is perhaps easier to want economic equality in times of extreme and common poverty, than when in times of general affluence.

The implications of the revolutionary period, one where “the gospel of moneyed men” was the chief driver for the downfall of all the promises a democracy would have brought the middle and lower classes, are as follows;

  1. “The people” is a temporary and multitudinous faction representing only the needs of a believed internal majority – represented by those willing to speak up, and potentially join the gentry.
  2. American democracy will forever be ruled by those willing to take power, whether it be representing their version of “the people” or flat out representing corporate interests and corporate interests only.
  3. There will always be a majority of the people that do not completely trust government, because they believe government does not trust them. Take for example the “Rings of Protection” in chapter six of “Taming Democracy”. Within each ring was a centre of individuals, intellectually capable of revolting against injustice in their own unique way – not because they feared retribution of the state tax collector and being sued, but because their conscience told them taking money from poor people was wrong, especially when it is given to people that weren’t poor. These beliefs weren’t of their own making, they were inspired by witnessing everyday life of the common man. They also believed (and were justified) that no matter how well they did their job for the gentry, the gentry ultimately did not trust their word.
  4. A democracy organized by the people will usually lead to limited success. Once working class soldiers and farmers were shown the life of a gentlemen, they were generally turned off of the ideas that got them elected in the first place. Take for example the new land bank that was supposed to replace and take down the Morris private banks and their minimum $20 currency notes. As soon as those elected to build the bank were tempted by Robert Morris, with promises of riches and affluence, they turned away from their constituencies.
  5. An American democracy will generally consist of the few representing the many – which is problematic at best. The hope that the few will be the most fair, talented, educated, and most concerned with providing justice and a good life for the “common good” is then completely necessary for anyone participating in the democracy. Only those who feel they can do a better, fairer job will attempt to rise above the rest and only those who are comfortable with the status quo will continue to wallow in discontent. (as evidenced by the myriad of Pennsylvanians who would refuse to revolt even when they believed the new American government was nearly and basically the same as the King of England)