- Profiles of Revolutionaries in Atlantic History, 1700-1850
For historians of the Atlantic World or those searching for a genuine introduction to the subtheme of the revolutionary "Atlantic History," this book will disappoint. The connections to recent Atlantic World scholarship remain confined to the title; nowhere is there any acknowledgement of the thorny chronological and geographic boundaries of Atlantic history, of the clash between nationalist and socio-cultural interpretations of Atlantic identities (French, British, or Iberian "Atlantics," Black/African Diaspora, "Red," "Green," or Moravian Atlantics), or any attempt to situate the revolutionaries profiled here within the emerging tripartite framework of Atlantic history outlined by David Armitage. As the introduction by R. William Weisberger clearly reveals, this is Atlantic history by assertion only.
This is a shame, since the collection has much to recommend it as a more traditional, encyclopaedic introduction to canonic figures in the "long revolutionary century" from the late Scientific Revolution c. 1715 to the nationalist and republican uprisings in 1848. Although the articles are uneven in stylistic quality and length and include some rather bizarre choices (a two-page profile of Molly Pitcher?), as is true of most such collections, the editors have done a good job [End Page 261] of uniting a generally solid core of scholars covering a diverse array of leaders. The works collectively suggest the centrality of republican nationalism in Europe and the Americas, while reinforcing the role of the early United States as both national model and revolutionary midwife.
At their best, several of the essays offer not only intelligent reappraisals of their subjects, but comment on the tension between a presumed universalism of a nationalist, republican revolutionary ideology and the compromises and inconsistencies resulting from particular actions in particular places. On the American side of the Atlantic, William Pencak presents Ben Franklin as a "jester figure" (p. 58) who relied in his writing on marginalized characters such as elderly women ("Silence Dogood"), free black artisans ("Blackamore"), and of course unlettered yet sage farmers ("Poor Richard") to expose the mistreatment of women, the hypocrisy of religious figures, and the pomposity of social elites. In Pencak's view, Franklin sought not to undermine colonial American society, but to strengthen it; accordingly, he presents Franklin less as revolutionary figure and more in the Bailyn-esque (if one might coin a phrase) tradition of the American Revolution as purifying movement, a return to first moral and political principles. David Geggus, renowned for his nearly 40 articles on revolutionary Haiti, has crafted a smart, short, engaging analysis that follows the rise of Toussaint L'Ouverture from coachman to wily military commander and architect of an independent Haiti-in-the-making. In the process, Geggus analyses the many controversies over the "real" Toussaint and the "air of mystery he deliberately cultivated" (p. 127). While being an attempt to set the record straight on L'Ouverture at one level, the essay works even better as meditation on the perils of making definitive pronouncements on the actions of public figures. Finally, Joan Supplee traces the European background of Argentine liberator José Francisco de San Martín, noting among other things his genius for applying lessons transatlantically (such as his "ability to train American soldiers in European cavalry techniques" (p. 166), which proved instrumental in gaining Argentina's independence.
On the European side of the Atlantic, Benjamin Reilly analyses the life of French revolutionary ideologue and diplomat Jacques-Pierre Brissot in a long but thoughtful essay to discover the "roots of [his] ill-fated diplomacy" (p. 187). Reilly's goal is to determine whether Brissot's policy disasters (notably in thrusting an unprepared France into war with the First Coalition in 1792) emanated from his own ideological commitment or were more symptomatic of what François Furet derided as the "Manichean" tendency in revolutionary discourse. Reilly charts a middle path, suggesting that "Brissot's accusations reflected, as much as initiated, wider revolutionary trends" (p. 212). Seymour Drescher reprises his earlier scholarship on Alexis de...