From Empire to Humanity: The American Revolution and the Origins of Humanitarianism by Amanda B. Moniz (review)
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From Empire to Humanity: The American Revolution and the Origins of Humanitarianism. By Amanda B. Moniz. ( New York: Oxford University Press, 2016. Pp. 174. $74.00 cloth; $72.99 ebook)

Extensively researched, meticulously documented, and elegantly phrased, From Empire to Humanity: The American Revolution and the Origins of Humanitarianism makes a case for the American Revolution to be recast as a critical moment in the development of the global [End Page 417] humanitarian impulse. Amanda B. Moniz convincingly argues that political salience in the revolutionary moment moved the boundaries of moral responsibility from an ethnically or religiously conscribed one within empire to a universal philanthropy. She suggests that some men in the medical community constructed their identities as benefactors of mankind in a period defined by new borders, self-fashioning, and self-promotion amid the fracturing of British imperial identity.

Building off the work of Eliga Gould and others, Moniz frames her narrative around the assertion that the Revolutionary period was a defining moment in globalization. She uses letters, family papers and memoirs, poetry, novels, and records of charitable campaigns, all placed in conversation with an impressive array of scholarship. Methodologically similar to Ian Tyrell’s Reforming the World (2010), Moniz uses biographies of key activists to trace both the ruptures in and the construction of global connections as they changed over time. The monograph is rich in detail, designed to appeal to upper-division college students and scholars of humanitarianism, and adds to the transnational historiography of medical philanthropy.

Barely 170 pages long, the book offers an introduction, seven chapters, and an epilogue. Chapter one underscores the philosophical underpinnings of society on both sides of the Atlantic between 1700 and the 1760s, a time when “doing good” was cited as “the most pleasant enjoyment in the world” (p. 33). Chapter two is strategically targeted, using selected biographies of middling society from the 1740s to the 1770s to present an evocative outline of the transatlantic social landscape. The chapter, like others, is infused with detail, but Moniz guides the reader with carefully positioned signposts highlighting the place of “family, religion, medicine, print culture and … slavery” (p. 52). Chapter four transitions into the early postwar period, illuminating the rupture in charitable cooperation. Here she sets her gaze on letter writing, notably the transatlantic correspondence between American physician Benjamin Rush and Briton John Coakley Lettsom. Their personal relationship, she proposes, was the foundation of a fledgling worldwide philanthropy based on the notion that men were free to “swap ideas with faraway [End Page 418] friends” to promote progress in medical knowledge (p. 96). Chapter five is noteworthy, highlighting the colorful life of John Howard as one of the most celebrated philanthropists of the period, his journeys totaling more than forty-two thousand miles at a personal cost of more than £30,000, exemplifying the emerging global philanthropic sensibility.

The sharing of knowledge in all professional fields was a sign of the times in the eighteenth century, with the medical profession at its core organized around saving lives. The book’s assertion that medical knowledge shared across boundaries was an expression of beneficence thus seems problematic. Moniz, however, strengthens her argument by highlighting connections between the new resuscitation techniques shared within the worldwide medical community and the premier philanthropic initiative of the period, the antislavery campaigns. She differentiates this initiative from the nineteenth-century campaign against smallpox to illustrate change. “In the 1780s and ‘90s,” she concludes, “men, and increasingly women, knit their pre-Revolutionary Atlantic community of their youth back together through philanthropy” (p. 156). The upheavals of the later French and Haitian Revolutions fractured cosmopolitanism. These personal relationships would not be rebuilt; instead an impersonal and institutionalized global governance of philanthropy took root.

Bela Kashyap

BELA KASHYAP is a doctoral candidate at the University of Cincinnati. She is currently working on her dissertation on American diplomatic relations in Singapore in the postwar period.

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