Review: Janet Polasky, Revolutions Without Borders

Janet Polasky, Revolutions Without Borders: The Call to Liberty in the Atlantic World. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015.

R. R. Palmer’s Age of Democratic Revolutions famously had no room in its two volumes for what many of us now recognise as the most revolutionary of them all—the one in Haiti between 1791 and 1804.[1] Janet Polasky has written a version for our own time, in which black men and white women mingle with the better-known protagonists of American, French, Dutch, and other, less successful revolutions in the last quarter of the eighteenth century. Revolutions Without Borders is no analytical, comparative account, but an histoire croisée in which people and texts are constantly on the move, interacting with each other in all sorts of ways, setting off unexpected sparks.

Polasky’s book is delightfully unencumbered by visible theoretical apparatus or historiographical call-backs. Most of the time, it’s a series of linked stories that pull us, in vaguely chronological order, back and forth across the Atlantic and the Alps, with excursions south to Sierra Leone and east to Warsaw. The argument these stories make, I think, is for a more inclusive and expansive age of revolution than the one we are familiar with. In that sense, it synthesises trends in social and transnational history that have been going on for decades, and packages them for a public beyond the academy.

What Polasky also does is restore to the scene the many revolutions that failed and were swept aside: in Geneva, and the rest of Switzerland, in Poland, Belgium, Ireland, and Guadeloupe. Ironically, the cause of most of these failures was their clash with successful revolutionary states, namely France. As much as American and French revolutionaries inspired imitators, they also soon came to fear them and attempt to control them—as Polasky points out, it was governments in these new states that brought the age of revolution to an end. The more real the borders of these states became, the greater the tension between them and the cosmopolitan revolutionary ideal.[2]

So, if you’re committed to avoiding a nation-centred framework, how do you organise the material in a book like this? The solution in Revolutions Without Borders is chapters that notionally (and sometimes really) cohere around different types of sources: pamphlets, letters, novels, proclamations. “This book could be read as an extended essay on sources,” Polasky writes. But it’s her weakest point. She doesn’t let analysis of texts, structures of distribution, or complex ideas about the public sphere interfere with the stories her sources are telling, so we don’t learn much about how print and post shaped revolution other than the fact that they were vital.

A short chapter on novels and a long one on correspondence, together in the book’s middle, are the main vehicle by which women enter Polasky’s story. Revolutionary “husbands, wives, and lovers envisioned a domesticity not confined to the home that was often quite different from the lives they had left behind before the revolution.” Yet Polasky struggles to portray women like Nancy Shippen and Ruth Barlow as more than people with severely circumscribed choices, and marriages that disappointed them. It seems to me that, here, she is telling another story—an all too familiar one—about revolution’s failure.

Perhaps all revolutions are failures; perhaps all history is the history of failed revolutions. Revolutions Without Borders would like to treat revolutions’ “shortcomings, contradictions and inconsistencies” primarily as “testimony to the daring of [their] vision,” but with her focus on outsiders and itinerants, the Paines and Wollstonecrafts, the radicals and the dreamers, Polasky can’t help but make her story a romantic tragedy. They find their reflection in “the men, women, and children of the Arab Spring who struggled, but who will not be cast as the heroes of a new democracy.” The Atlantic age of revolution was succeeded by a renewed age of empire; which is not to say those struggles were for nothing. As for their consequences: it is, as ever, too soon to say.


[1] R. R. Palmer, The Age of Democratic Revolutions: A Political History of Europe and America, 1760-1800, 2 vols.  (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1959-64). There are actually a few references, now easily findable with Google Books, but Haiti doesn’t appear in the index to either volume. See David Patrick Geggus and Norman Fierling, eds., The World of the Haitian Revolution (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009), viii.

[2] Polasky doesn’t, however, delve into the question of how the age of revolutions helped create national identities—and with them, new political and cultural borders. See Linda Colley, Britons: Forging the Nation, 1707-1837 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992); David Waldstreicher, In the Midst of Perpetual Fetes: The Making of American Nationalism, 1776-1820 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997).

5 responses

  1. Thanks, Tom. This is a good review of an excellent book. It was time we had an update on Palmer’s narrative, for all the reasons you point out. One thing that struck me, though, was how much we, as historians in a global age, wish our revolutionary actors were cosmopolitans. Many were interested in the broader atlantic world of international relations, yes, but they often framed it in a way that still centralized their own particular perception of the nation-state. Our attempts to de-centralize the nation-state in our historical narratives—an impulse I both sympathize with as well as participate in—should not lead to de-valuing the importance of the nation-state to our actors of study.

    • If we think of the age of revolutions as a formative era in conceptions of nationhood and the state (and thus “borders”), then there’s room both for those who helped make nation-states, and those who imagined something different. I agree Polasky emphasises the latter group over the former, but she also makes clear those guys were the losers in the end (if by “the end” we mean the nineteenth century!).

  2. Thanks for this review of a book that I learned much from. One of the things that it helped me to realize is that Age of Revolutions scholarship gives surprisingly short shrift to the 1780s, focusing more on events that we tend to locate in the 1770s or 1790s. For this intermediate period, I actually think that Palmer offered more than most modern scholars, at least up until Polasky. Hopefully this book will help those of us who study the revolutionary Atlantic to build the 1780s into our synthetic accounts more coherently.

  3. This sounds like an interesting book, but my goodness, Tom…

    “Polasky’s book is delightfully unencumbered by visible theoretical apparatus or historiographical call-backs,” and, “She doesn’t let analysis of texts, structures of distribution, or complex ideas about the public sphere interfere with the stories her sources are telling, so we don’t learn much about how print and post shaped revolution other than the fact that they were vital.”

    I can’t tell if this is praise or condemnation.

    • Thanks for the comment, Prof Sadosky! I don’t think either praise or condemnation should be the primary purpose of a review. Clearly there are advantages and disadvantages to the way Revolutions Without Borders is written, and I tried to bring both of them out here. At the end of the day, I think we need books like this as well as books that do more heavy theoretical and historiographical lifting. Making an argument through telling stories isn’t the only thing we do, but it is at the core of the historian’s craft.


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