Historians in an Age of Revolution

Nuit_Debout_-_Paris_-_41_mars_01Do we live in revolutionary times? It’s tempting to imagine so. Bernie Sanders’ promise of “a political revolution” resonated with surprising numbers of Americans, especially the young. The Nuit Debout has captured some of the same spirit in France. Dramatic moments like the Oxi vote in Greece and the Umbrella Revolution in Hong Kong have followed the so-called Arab Spring and global Occupy movement. In spite of their failures and betrayals, those movements seemed to reveal revolutionary sentiment in east and west.

Yet in a recent interview for Dissent, David A. Bell, a historian of the French Revolution, put something of a counterpoint. “If we look at the broad sweep of modern history from the eighteenth century to the present,” he said, “we see that revolution has lost its salience as a political concept.” 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

“Barbarities, Extortions and Monopolies”

American colonists’ protest against the 1773 Tea Act involved more than just the Boston Tea Party; and it was provoked by more than just a tax. What sharpened the edge of colonial frustration was the short shrift given to American business interests in the balancing-act of imperial administration—and the triumph, by contrast, of the East India Company. American merchants and smugglers were the big losers in a larger effort to bail out the struggling corporation. As John Dickinson put it in his second “Letter from the Country,” the British policy aimed “not only to enforce the Revenue Act but to establish a monopoly for the East India Company, who have espoused the cause of the ministry; and hope to repair their broken fortunes by the ruin of American freedom and liberty!”[1] Continue reading