Q&A with James Alexander Dun

dangerous-neighborsJames Alexander (Alec) Dun is an Assistant Professor of History at Princeton University. He has published articles in the William and Mary Quarterly and the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, as well as a number of chapters in edited volumes on race and identity, radicalism and revolution, slavery and antislavery. His first book, Dangerous Neighbors: Making the Haitian Revolution in Early America (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016), appeared last year. We are grateful that he took the time to answer some of our questions. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

Re-Conceiving the Age of Revolutions in the Age of Obama

Plum PuddingRevolutions: What are they good for?

The organizational concept of “The Age of Revolutions” has been on my mind a lot lately. First, I recently finished a full book manuscript that includes a version of that phrase in its title, so I’ve naturally been engaging with that literature quite a bit. Second, I’m preparing to teach a course titled “Eighteenth-Century Atlantic Revolutions: America, France, and Haiti” this semester, which will begin next week. And finally, I’ve had a review copy of Nathan Perl-Rosenthal’s excellent Citizen Sailors: Becoming American in the Age of Revolution (Harvard UP) sitting on my desk for a few months, struggling to come up with a more professional way to say “Go Out And Buy This Excellent Book Right Now.”  Continue reading

“Terrorism” in the Early Republic

Detail from Death of MaratLate last week, Americans learned about an armed takeover of a federal wildlife refuge in Oregon. It was initiated by a group of men who have an idiosyncratic understanding of constitutional law and a sense that they have been cheated and persecuted by the United States government. The occupation comes during a time of general unease about national security and fairness in policing. As a result, some critics have been calling the rebels “domestic terrorists,” mostly on hypothetical grounds. One of their leaders, on the other hand, told NBC News that they see themselves as resisting “the terrorism that the federal government is placing upon the people.”

I do not propose to address the Oregon occupation directly. However, since the topic keeps coming up lately, this seems like a good opportunity to examine the roles the word terrorism has played in other eras. As it turns out, Americans have been calling each other terrorists a long time.

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Roundtable: Academic Book Week—How Should We Write History?

abw_logo_finalThis week is Academic Book Week—“A celebration of the diversity, innovation and influence of academic books.” There are events, special promotions, and competitions running in Britain between November 9 and 16, 2015. Perhaps the most provocative and interesting competition #AcBookWeek is running is a public vote on “the academic book that has most changed the world.” The entrants include Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, E. P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class, and Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man. There are sixteen other entries, which are equally wide-ranging.[1] Although the list makes for interesting reading, voting is closed. But do not fret, Junto readers, we are running a roundtable on a similar, yet distinct, topic. This week, several Juntoists will discuss an academic book that has shaped their work. Continue reading

The American Revolution: People and Power

huntington-gateIt’s increasingly clear that, while the era of grand syntheses may be over, there will be no shortage of provocative new work on the American Revolution. Last week the Huntington Library hosted the third major conference on the revolution in as many years, following those organised by the McNeil Centre in 2013 and the Massachusetts Historical Society back in April. The American Revolution: People and Power may have been smaller than its two predecessors, but what it lacked in scale it made up for in intellectual focus and cohesion. In this post, rather than giving a straightforward recap, I’ll report what I took away as the headlines. Continue reading

Socializing, Speculating, and Speaking French in François Furstenberg’s Philadelphia

François Furstenberg. When the United States Spoke French: Five Refugees Who Shaped a Nation. New York: Penguin, 2014.

Furstenberg CoverOn the Fourth of July, 1794, two former members of France’s Constituent Assembly gazed from a window across New York’s Bowling Green. Both had arrived in the United States just that year. Back in 1789, they had helped to launch a revolutionary movement for liberal and constitutional reforms. But as the Revolution grew ever more violent and threatened to destroy them, they fled France. The United States, they thought, would be a suitable refuge: the republican spawn of the British government whose constitution they so admired, the new nation whose Enlightenment principles would guard them from the threats of the Parisian mob. They must have been unnerved to see “a host of pro-French radicals” marching towards them that day, the rabble-rousing Girondin ambassador Edmond-Charles Genet at the fore, “singing the Marseillaise and other republican songs,” and hurling insults up to the windows where the émigrés stood watching (80). Continue reading