What Happened to the “Democratic” in the “Age of Democratic Revolutions”?

PalmerThis past semester I taught a course on “18th Century Atlantic Revolutions: America, France, and Haiti,” which included both undergraduate and graduate students. (I wrote about the assigned readings at my personal blog.) I’d like to highlight a central theme that I emphasized throughout the course as a way to discuss historiographical and pedagogical questions.

To give my grad students a sense of the field’s starting point, I had them read R. R. Palmer’s classic 2-volume The Age of Democratic Revolution: A Political History of Europe and America, 1760-1800 (1959, 1964; 2014), recently combined and re-published by Princeton University Press. Advancing through the semester and reading much more recent books, the dated nature of Palmer’s book is readily apparent. Most obvious is its avoidance of Haiti. (At an AHA panel on the Age of Revolutions last January, Nathaniel Perl-Rosenthal mention that it’s basically an academic ritual to mention this whenever discussing Age of Democratic Revolution.) Palmer also focuses on high-end (and male-centric) intellectual history, ignores economic interests and intersections, and only engages the nations whose revolutions “succeeded.” This last point is obviously problematic, of course, given what happens in France after their Revolution. But as Janet Polasky’s recent book shows, a more comprehensive view can be gleaned through looking at revolutionary moments that did not have successful outcomes. Like any book published over a half-century ago, even a classic book like Palmer’s, there are plenty of holes to acknowledge.

But I want to focus on another framing element of Palmer’s book that limited its grasp, one that appears in his very title: the classifying of the revolutions as “democratic” in nature. Or, perhaps more specifically, invoking a particular and narrow definition of “democracy,” anyway.

It wasn’t a novel idea to claim that the political revolts at the end of the eighteenth century marked the beginning of “modernity.” (Conceptions of “modernity,” of course, are problematic themselves.) Americans are quick to highlight the importance of our own revolution, and Europeans have always emphasized the centrality of the French. But finding the origins of something is often a practice in defining a desired ending. And in the 1950s and 1960s, during the beginnings of the Cold War, the desired ending was a democratic society. So when looking at the American, French, and Polish revolutions, Palmer sought—and found!—the provenance of a trajectory toward democratic order, an insistence on social mobility, legal equality, and political liberty. The Age of Democratic Revolution was birthed in an Age of Democratic Defense.

My students—both undergraduate and graduate—were prone to like this narrative. (It reaffirms America’s importance in introducing freedom, after all.) But I tried to push back on this impulse from the very start. In the American context, this is easily done by centering the question of slavery throughout our discussions. I had my undergrads read David Waldstreicher’s Runaway America: Benjamin Franklin, Slavery, and the American Revolution (New York: Hill and Wang, 2004) to recognize that while many forms of servitude faded away during the eighteenth century, that just made the perpetuation of the slave institution simultaneously more conspicuous and important. When we dissected the Constitutional Convention debates we focused on the potent fear many of the framers had for populist rule. “The people,” Roger Sherman said, “should have as little to do as may be about the Government. They want information and are constantly liable to be misled.” My students were surprised to learn that “democracy” was a bad word during the period. “The evils we experience flow from the excess of democracy,” noted Elbridge Gerry. “The people do not want virtue, but are the dupes of pretended patriots.” We had energetic debates in class around questions like, “Was the American Revolution a conservative event?” and “Was the Constitution a fulfillment or betrayal of the ‘Spirit of ’76’?” Based on the essays students wrote for their exams, I was impressed with the nuanced answers they came up with.

OathThings got even more tricky when we turned to the French. But even with the radical escalation of republican legislation from within the assembly, and the violent push for justice and equality from without, we were able to see the centralization of authority within committees and the foregoing of due process in the quest for revenge. (The very nature of the revolution revolved around pledging assent to a small group of charismatic instigators.) This climaxed, of course, with the Committee of Public Safety and the Prairial Law. Robespierre, of course, justified these actions by declaring that the “terror” must restore order during revolutionary moments. Some of our best class discussions centered around the “democratic” and “lasting” nature of the many revolutionary laws passed between 1789 and 1794.

But I was especially happy with our engagement with the Haitian Revolution, particularly the writings of Toussaint Louverture. On the one hand, there are few things more democratic than the abolition of slavery. Yet my students and I were struck with how committed Louverture and many of his co-revolutionaries were to monarchical rule. For a variety of reasons that we discussed in class, many believed an authoritative figure was the best way to preserve liberty and stability. (Though, of course, the forced plantation system was far from unfettered freedom.) Once independence from France was secured, the nation’s government became less democratic in nature. (Though, again, without slavery.) No wonder Haiti didn’t fit into Palmer’s narrative.

In short, I tried to get my students to recognize the inchoate and contested nature of “democracy” during this crucial era. Far from a predetermined trajectory toward what we came to celebrate as democratic rule, it was a much more contested and topsy-turvy battle over centralized control and populist excess. We closed the semester by discussing how today’s emphasis on these “messy” origins highlights our own reservations concerning democratic practice. My conceptions of the Age of Revolutions is shaped by living in the Age of Trump.

Kloppenberg.jpegOne quick concluding note to bring the historiography up to date. Though I’m only a couple hundred pages in (with several hundred to go!), James Kloppenberg’s brand-new and long-awaited tome on the subject, Toward Democracy: The Struggle for Self-Rule in European and American Thought (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016) is a natural inheritor of Palmer’s legacy. (Though the book covers from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries, the true heart of the book is in the period covered by Palmer.) But “democracy” in Kloppenberg’s hands is very different than in Palmer’s. For one, Kloppenberg focuses on the “ironies” of the democratic tradition, which emphasizes the fact that it was far from a predestined or clean process—indeed, there were nearly as many reversals as there were advances. (He also shows that people other than white men participated in this tradition.) And given the attention Kloppenberg gives to Jean-Jacques Dessalines, American slavers, and the European aristocracy who retarded democratic progress in the early nineteenth century, it is clear that readers won’t leave the book assuming a teleological progression toward a democratic ideal. While Toward Democracy may be too big for the undergrad classroom—though select chapters might work well—I’m excited to assign it in future grad seminars.

So perhaps the solution to the “democratic” problem in the “Age of Democratic Revolutions” is not to drop the adjective entirely, but rather to re-question its meaning altogether.

7 comments on “What Happened to the “Democratic” in the “Age of Democratic Revolutions”?

  1. robtaber says:

    Ben: Thanks for this fantastic write-up! I appreciate you sharing so much about the class and your students’ experiences. Two thoughts:

    It’s significant, I think, that we don’t call these classes “Age of Democratic Revolutions,” but rather “Age of Atlantic Revolutions” or, simpler still, “Age of Revolutions.” We go hunting for the societies that best represent trans-Atlantic movement and efforts to resolve questions poised by the Atlantic experience: slavery, self-government, privilege and hierarchy. So Haiti instead of Poland. As you point out, this complicates our view of democracy, making it one strand of the political discussion instead of the logical conclusion, and centers slavery in the discussion.

    I am further persuaded to spend more time next go-around on the US experience, and I encourage those designing courses to spend at least some time on Latin America if at all possible. Dessalines (and Bonaparte!) make more sense when placed in dialogue with Iturbide, Pedro I, and Bolívar. Doing so broadens the discussion regarding African slavery and indigenous rights. It also provides a lot of meaty material on form of government and representation that provides new perspective on Restoration France and the turn to Jacksonian democracy in the US. In the interest of keeping things brief, I will point to just one resource that’s too-often left off of these lists: the reader edited by Sarah Chambers and John Chasteen, Latin American Independence.

    • Benjamin Park says:

      Yeah, I really do feel bad about skipping the Latin American Revolutions. BUT TIME IS OF THE ESSENCE.

      • robtaber says:

        Indeed. It’s most naturally a 15-to-16 week course, imo, which is what I’ll lean on to justify what short shrift I’ve given the American Revolution in times past. Maybe an 18 week course so we can TEACH ALL THE THINGS! #PolandForever

  2. […] is a great time to be working on the Age of Revolutions, which I’ve blogged about a couple times this […]

  3. […] the continent. Dun’s new book, then, continues that trend. (I’ve written a bit about how the Age of Revolutions historiography has evolved over at The Junto a few months ago.) I imagine it’s already become a truism that you […]

  4. […] the continent. Dun’s new book, then, continues that trend. (I’ve written a bit about how the Age of Revolutions historiography has evolved over at The Junto a few months ago.) I imagine it’s already become a truism that you […]


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