U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Downplaying the American Revolution (2)

This continues my post from last week which argued against the significance of the American Revolution. As I mentioned earlier, this essay is self-consciously polemical—so feel free to give me a hard time.

We often say that the modern period, the 19th and 20th centuries, witnessed fast paced changes that explain the rise of a new modern consciousness. However, for many Europeans and indeed many inhabitants of the widening Atlantic world the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries were no less, if not more, turbulent times. They learned of new continents across the seas, encountered new peoples with diverse cultures, and imagined the world and even the cosmos anew. Many of them during this period radically changed their religion. Though most Europeans remained Christian, those who embraced Protestant Christianity viewed their relationship with god and their society on new terms. New sects and cults with radical ideas seemed to capture the imagination of millions. Others adopted foreign religions as their older traditions did not seem well adapted to the changed landscape they now inhabited. Some societies witnessed most of their brethren die, while others were violently kidnapped from their homelands and put to labor on the other side of the Atlantic.

New findings in science and new ideas about the make-up of the cosmos compounded and reinforced these transformative trends. Novel ideas about the nature of political entities challenged the foundations of existing systems of governance and groundbreaking ideas about the most basic of social structures, which had until then held society together, challenged traditional forms of authority.

The very emergence of the Atlantic world was fueled both by new seafaring knowhow, but no less so by novel financial schemes and institutions backed by force. The logic of capitalist enterprise or what Sven Beckert aptly calls “war capitalism” stood at the center of these projects, as commodities backed by armies crisscrossed the Atlantic and made the fortunes or spelled the misfortunes of millions.(1) Economic transformations underscored the movement of millions of people from rural to urban areas and across the Atlantic, as cities ballooned from small towns to enormous concentrations of humanity and new settler colonies appeared on the western side of the Atlantic.

Put in this context it is no surprise that rebellions started to haunt established orders. Indeed, I would like to suggest viewing rebellions/revolutions as the foam on the water, while deeper systemic changes in people’s basic assumptions occurred slowly in the depths. Here I think it is particularly productive to investigate what it is that renders a rebellion ‘revolutionary.’ Though many have argued this question, it seems that the most common sense answer to this is that revolutions are rebellions in which a radical change in the very logic of that society is imagined and carried through.(2) If we for instance compare the English Revolution to the Great English Peasant Rebellion of 1381, we will find that both brought their grievances to the king, but while during the Peasant Rebellion no one seriously thought of challenging the King’s authority, during the English Revolution they executed him. Furthermore, radically different ideas appeared during the mid seventeenth century, which questioned the traditional order of things. Not only the Parliamentarian supporters of the Commonwealth imagined politics anew, but such radical agendas, such as those espoused by The Levellers, fundamentally questioned the powers that be and captured the imagination of many.

Such ideas did not emerge out of thin air. It is  clear that Puritan ideas were quite central to the English Revolution. However, perhaps no less so Humanist ideas about the enticing possibilities of a “new world,” such as those promoted in Utopia by the zealous Catholic Thomas More, sowed the seeds of revolution. Furthermore, the very realization that seemingly eternal hierarchical institutions such as the Catholic Church could encounter such a radical challenge to its hegemony, as the Protestant Reformation mounted, surely made the world seem more volatile.

While histories of the French and English Revolutions often address these transformations, it seems to me that American historians for the most part regard “their” revolution as a first. Not only do they disregard both English Revolutions of the 17th century, they too often neglect anti-colonial rebellions/revolutions in the American hemisphere such as the Haitian Revolution—let alone Tupac Amaru. While both the Haitian Revolution and the Tupac Amaru Rebellion were to a degree inspired by the American Revolution, would it not be more fruitful to view the anti-colonial upheavals in the Atlantic as part of a whole rather than viewing the American Revolution as sui generis?

To be sure, usually American historians turn to the two “Toms” to address the intellectual underpinnings of the more radical ideas of the American Revolution, Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson. However, when they do so they usually couch them within the tradition of the Enlightenment which gives an impression that in order to understand the American Revolution we need to go back to Locke. Only seldom do they mention that Locke’s thinking was greatly influenced by Dutch thought and political culture he encountered while in exile in Holland, and wrote in the context of the debates leading up to the Glorious Revolution.(3) This lack of historical context is even worse when Americanists choose to discuss Hobbs out of the context of the English Revolution. I am not saying here that we should teach Hobbs or Locke more, for we do that quite enough, but that we should teach the ideational contexts within which Locke, Hobbs, or Harrington for that matter, could write what they did.(4)

In other words, it seems more compelling to explain the American Revolution as a symptom of the slow but sure transformation of the consciousness of European peoples in general, and Britons more specifically, within the context of a vibrant Atlantic world. A combination of forces converged during the Early Modern period to challenge the once predominant notion that the world conformed to a godly and hierarchical cosmological order that placed god, king, patriarch, and man at the center of the concentric spheres of cosmos, polity, family, and the body, respectively. Europeans scrambled not only to make sense of their changing universe, they sought to take advantage of their new circumstances. Thus, for instance, we can view during these years a more contentious struggle over the place of the individual in society, over the institutions of marriage and the family, and over the categories of men, women, and children. Indeed, scholars such as Thomas Laqueur, Roy Porter, and Dror Wahrman have demonstrated how such struggles transformed even the prism through which Europeans viewed themselves as subjects and as men and women.(5)

Thus, when American protestors started to voice ideas that fundamentally challenged the authority of the British empire over the colonies in texts like “Common Sense” and the Declaration of Independence, and even earlier on in various local manifestos, they did so because  the soil was ripe for such ideas. It had ripened over many decades of experiencing the Atlantic world from their specific angle. Taxes in the end were just a contingent feature. It could have been many things. Though the way it happened certainly, to a degree, affected the form the American republic took, from a longue durée perspective I am not sure that, broadly speaking, the Revolution as we know it mattered as much as we think it did.


[1] In Empire of Cotton: A Global History Sven Beckert suggests that “mercantile capitalism” is a misnomer for this stage of capitalism and that the term “war capitalism” better accounts for it.

[2] Of course, what constitutes a ‘radical’ rather than ‘reformist’ agenda is also a subject of much disagreement, but I will leave it at that. I am working here under the, admittedly contestable, assumption that the North American rebellion of 1775-1783 was radical and thus revolutionary.

[3]For those interested in how Dutch models influenced the outcome of the Glorious Revolution, I greatly enjoyed reading Lisa Jardine’s Going Dutch: How England Plundered Holland’s Glory (2008), though it is a bit too sanguine about the period for my tastes. It’s also one of the loveliest books to browse through.

[4] As I see it, this is part of the problem many have with Pocock’s analysis of James Harrington in The Machiavellian Moment, which he couched within a framework of what he himself called “tunnel history.”

[5] Thomas Laqueur, Making Sex, Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud (1990); Roy Porter, Flesh in the Age of Reason: The Modern Foundations of Body and Soul (2004); Dror Wahrman, The Making of the Modern Self: Identity and Culture in Eighteenth-Century England (2004).