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

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. Continue reading

The Week in Early American History

TWEAHIt seems to have become a tradition to open this post with a weather report for New England. This morning we’re looking at a slushy Sunday, which while annoying is quite an improvement over the snowpocalypse of a few weeks ago. In any case, a little sleet/snow won’t stand any longer between you and your weekly supply of links. On we go!

Continue reading