- Soundings in Atlantic History: Latent Structures and Intellectual Currents 1500-1830
Soundings in Atlantic History, edited by Bernard Bailyn and Patricia L. Denault, explores the diverse connections and ideas that formed a "pan-Atlantic intellectual world uniting London and Buenos Aires, Halle and Boston, Paris and Lima, Lisbon and Philadelphia" (42), with an eye to explaining not only the development of a distinct Atlantic culture in the period between 1500 and 1830 but also the dynamic economic edge enjoyed by the Atlantic cultures in comparison with the rest of the world in the following centuries (7). As a whole, it skillfully weaves narratives of British, Spanish, French, African, and North and South American origins, thereby reflecting the breadth of the Atlantic world and its intellectual culture. It is a welcome addition to the burgeoning literature on the Atlantic world.
In his introduction to the book, Bernard Bailyn states that historians have now reached a stage where they are able to "surmount the complexity and tyranny of local detail" and examine the Atlantic region's larger history, and more successfully reveal "the lines of coherence, some of the submerged linkages and superstructures that bound the region together" and the ideas that stemmed from these linkages (3). Unlike other works, such as David Armitage's and Michael Braddick's The British Atlantic World, 1500-1800, which see the early modern state's fingerprints on the development of the Atlantic, Bailyn implies that state politics matter only insofar as they freed individuals to act in their own interests. Informal economic, scientific, religious networks that consequently developed were "not of rational designs but of multitudes of individual and group efforts to achieve limited personal and corporate goals" (42). Over time, unfettered by state control and without fear of regulation by a greater power (as existed in east Asia where the Chinese and Indian empires defined foreign mercantile practice), the agglomeration of these networks undercut the fragmented national and religious identities that characterized the early modern [End Page 428] period and contributed to the emergence of a region with a "coherently historical," rather more uniform, Euro-American cultural imprint (7).
The essays within explore various aspects of the creation of the multifarious networks and the effect that the existence of these networks had on corporate and individual patterns of thought. It is difficult in a short review to explore the merits of each of the collected essays, but several stand out. David Hancock's magnificent re-creation of the world of Madeira wine merchant George Frey argues that supply and distribution networks depended increasingly on trusted agents and brokers who, despite working and living "within contexts shaped by geography, climate, technology and policy" (119), increasingly organized the Atlantic world, physically and intellectually, to best meet the same mercantile and commercial goals. Rosalind Beiler demonstrates that Quaker, Pietist, and Mennonite networks, initially developed as the means for exchanging information about religious persecution, became conduits for both financial assistance and migration, facilitating the flow of "information and people throughout Europe and the British Atlantic" (236). Both Neil Safier and Beatriz Dávilo highlight the impact that Anglo-American political ideas, particularly a free press and demands for broader political participation, had on the intellectual and social development of South America and its citizens.
The final essay, Emma Rothschild's "The Atlantic Worlds of David Hume," revisits many of the themes prevalent in the other essays throughout the book, such as slavery, commerce, migration, war, and the spread of news, thereby serving to reiterate the book's salient points and acting as its unofficial summation. Her essay not only contextualizes David Hume's work, showing how he was firmly ensconced in an Atlantic context, but it also surmises that Hume's experience would have been shared by many other contemporaries. It is a clever essay, the impact of which is heightened by its placement at the end of the volume.
Delimited by Bailyn's introduction and Rothschild's conclusion, the book succeeds in outlining the...