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Journal of World History 11.2 (2000) 392-394

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Book Review

Transatlantic Radicals and the Early American Republic

Transatlantic Radicals and the Early American Republic. By MICHAEL DUREY. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1997. Pp. xi + 425. $45.00 (cloth).

Since the publication of Caroline Robbins's The Eighteenth Century Commonwealthman in 1959, a series of groundbreaking studies by Bernard Bailyn, John Pocock, Gordon Wood, and others have radically transformed our understanding of American political culture during the eighteenth century. Turning away from an emphasis on the indigenous sources of American politics, these historians instead located the origins of American political culture within an English republican tradition that, in turn, owed much to the civic humanism of the Italian Renaissance. The direction of this work--with its emphasis on the transmission of political ideas of the Old World to the New--signaled a reorientation in the study of American politics and a break with the older Turnerian assumptions of progressive historians like Charles Beard. At least until recently, the idea of a "republican paradigm" had itself become paradigmatic for historians of colonial America and the early republic. Ironically, however, the success these historians enjoyed has inhabited others from exploring any further the process of ideological transmission which was so central to their work. With the possible exception of John Pocock--who regards American political ideology as relatively static and unchanging--each of these historians viewed the period of the American revolution as a decisive break with the political past. If the European settlers of colonial America shared in a broader Anglo-American political discourse prior to the 1770s, after 1776, and certainly after the ratification of the Constitution (which Wood has called "the end of classical politics"), this was no longer the case. From the revolution onwards, the trajectory of American political development has been shaped by forces and ideas present within American society.

However, as Michael Durey's interesting new study of transatlantic radicalism during the 1790s makes clear, European political ideas continued to influence the development of American political culture even after the passage of the Constitution. During the last decade of the eighteenth century the French Revolution shook Europe to its foundations, sending shock waves through the broader Atlantic world. As Durey's work shows, the dissemination of revolutionary ideas in the United States owed much to radical political exiles from England, Scotland, and Ireland, who fled from British government persecution during the 1790s and sought refuge in the United States. Seasoned political activists like John Binns, William Duane, James Thomson [End Page 392] Callender, Matthew Carey, and scores of others (Durey identifies over 200 radical exiles in all) came to America deeply imbued with the democratic ideas of another Anglo-American exile, Thomas Paine. Once there, many of them threw themselves into American partisan politics. Operating for the most part on the left wing of the Jeffersonian Republican party, they formed a "radical phalanx dedicated to the defeat of Federalism and the promotion of a democratic, egalitarian society." Duane, for example, was the editor of the Philadelphia Aurora, the most important Jeffersonian newspaper of the day, and Callender (before he turned on Jefferson and broke the Sally Hemmings story), was a tireless Jeffersonian propagandist. Appealing to an urban constituency of mechanics, small masters and shopkeepers, these radical activists were harshly critical of the direction in which Federalists like George Washington and Alexander Hamilton were leading the country. Their ideological leadership probably played a crucial role in converting urban working men from Federalism to Republicanism during the 1790s, thus making possible the election of Thomas Jefferson to the American presidency in 1800.

Durey's main interest is in the transmission of Paineite ideas from Europe to the United States. This is an important topic. In fact, the influence of Paine on American politics in the 1790s has been greatly underestimated and the reception of his two major works of the period, The Rights of Man and The Age of Reason, has been almost completely neglected. However, although the political exiles traced...


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