Revolutions Without Borders

Yale University Press. 392 pages. $35.

In the late 18th century, the British colonies on the American continent declared their independence from Britain. There was a long war. There were formal declarations. There were pamphlets and newspapers spreading the views of the effort to replace royal sovereign with the sovereignty of the people (well, at least the white male property owners).

If such a movement happened today (oh, say in Cairo or Tripoli), the news would spread instantaneously on various electronic media controlled by the individuals who witnessed or participated in that revolt. Janet Polasky explains how the 18th-century version of instant communication fostered revolutions along the coasts of countries and colonies of the Atlantic Ocean in “Revolutions Without Borders.”

Polasky tells how quickly news and ideas spread from America to Europe and to Africa and the Caribbean during the period of revolution that started in Philadelphia and Boston, spread to the Holy Roman Empire and to the Netherlands and then to France and Sierra Leone and Saint Domingue.

Polasky begins her story by focusing on pamphlets. Most Americans are aware of the work of Thomas Paine whose pamphlets rendered such memorable phrases as “These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country…” (“The American Crisis”); “… it is the pride of kings which throws mankind into confusion” (“Common Sense”); “… though the flame of liberty may sometimes cease to shine, the coal can never expire” (“The Crisis”).

Pamphlets could be produced quickly and inexpensively. A gentleman crossing the Atlantic or traveling in Europe could tuck a pamphlet into his coat and carry it undetected into a country where the rhetoric of revolution was welcomed by many. The words of revolutionary pamphleteers, such as Paine, were welcome inspiration in Europe as they had been in America.

While pamphlets served as kindling where there were warm embers, newspapers and clubs provided the steady heat of revolution, and journals and letters provided a kind of “coal” to assure that the flame was passed on.

On both sides of the Atlantic, readers were eager to become informed of events and ideas so they could participate in their own governance — a privilege just recently confined to the aristocracy.

Polasky says: “If pamphlets opened revolutionary discussions, newspapers amplified the political debate, often escalating the incendiary rhetoric of clubs. Political news was in such demand that clubs … often regulated the time a reader could monopolize a newspaper before passing it along.”

Journals provided first-hand accounts of the revolution experience, sometimes written from memory long after the events they chronicled. Letters were more immediate and more personal; they conveyed the observations and reactions of people involved in revolutionary activities and provided intimate portraits of the people involved in this Atlantic political upheaval.

The journals record Europeans’ reaction to the persistence of slavery in the newly minted United States of America. Thomas Jefferson’s neighbor, Tuscan merchant Fillipo Mazzei “asked how it was possible ‘that after the famous revolution succeeded in America, that after the principles were established for new governments that breathed liberty and equality, slavery could still exist in the United States.’”

While most of the people recording their observations were American or European, some free blacks wrote journals, too. One such is “The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano,” or Gustavus Vassa, the African. Equiano’s story begins in Africa. He recounts his experience of being captured, being brought to America to work as a slave, and purchasing his freedom. He then spent much of his life traveling between continents and challenging “fixed identities held by many” in the early 19th century by using multiple identities. He was “a native of Africa,” but he was “almost an Englishman.” He was even popular on the lecture circuit, promoting sales of his book.

Correspondence — personal letters — provide a perspective of life amidst revolution that cannot be communicated by pamphlets, newspapers or journals. One such long-term correspondence is that between William Short and Alexandrine Charlotte Sophie de Rohan-Chabot, the Duchesse de la Rochefoucauld (known as Rosalie).

Short was an American and a member of the diplomatic corps. He served his “adoptive father” Thomas Jefferson as secretary when Jefferson represented American interest in Paris. Short became involved in the salon life of Paris, and he and the duchess became friends and lovers.

During the years of The Terror in France, their correspondence (and the machinations required to assure that letters were delivered) provide insight into the challenges to the normalcy of life. Their relationship relied almost solely on correspondence, so we are privy to the sort of exchanges usually delivered in person and not recorded.

All this exchange of information and ideas illustrates the cosmopolitan nature of the world of revolution on both sides of the Atlantic. Polasky: “In this global era” we are reminded “that the roots of internationalism are as old as the nation-states. Struggles for human rights have connected the Atlantic world for more than two hundred years.”

In “Revolutions Without Borders,” Polasky offers a buffet of information about the various aspects of revolution in the late 18th and early 19th centuries that should satisfy the palates of most historians. The advantage of such a buffet lies in it ability to whet the appetite for more. If these pages do not satisfy your hunger, it is easy to follow the chapters’ information to other, more filling research.

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