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Historically Speaking May/June 2005 The President's Corner Franklin W. Knight We live in a period of profound change. We who have witnessed the dawn of the 21st century, along with our fathers, have experienced things that our ancestors could never have imagined: devastating wars, political upheavals, and economic change on an unprecedented scale. But most of all we have witnessed a series of spontaneous revolutions in technology that allow us to telescope time, distance, knowledge, and information . In another period of rapid and disturbing change in the 18th century, the thoughtful French philosophe the Abbé Raynal pondered in the opening pages ofhis multi-volume work, A Philosophical and Political History of the Settlements and Trade ofthe Europeans in the East and West Indies: Everything has changed, and must change again. But it is a question, whether the revolutions that are past, or those which must hereafter take place, have been, or can be, of any utility to the human race. Will they ever add to the tranquility, the happiness , and the pleasures of mankind? Can they improve our present state, or do they only change it? Raynal's questions are still germane today. We in the humanities sometimes face change with foreboding; and sometimes with hope. I think that although the past century has not been inordinately kind to the humanities, there is room for hope. On the assuaging assumption that it is always darkest before the dawn, I think that this exploding information technology may result in a renaissance in the humanities. So this is no time to surrender to our darkest instincts of doubt and dismay. In the late 18th century the Jamaican planter and slave owner Bryan Edwards witnessed the mighty conflagration on the Plaine du Nord of the French colony of Saint-Domingue. Later he remarked to his colleagues in the British parliament: "The times in which we live will constitute an awesome period in the history of the world, for a spirit of subversion has gone forth that sets at naught the wisdom of our ancestors and the lessons of experience." Edwards was lamenting the beginning of the end of aristocratic political privilege in Europe, but he also foresaw clearly the profound implications for his class of those three great revolutions that were engulfing his previously complacent world: the American, the French, and the Haitian Revolutions. Englishmen were slowly recovering from the American Revolution when they were confronted with those in France and Haiti. Their world would never be the same. In 1783 the American Revolution brought forth an independent political republic. England lost some very important overseas colonies in 1783, and the politics of empire were forever changed. Legacies of the French Revolution resonate today in the importance we give to nationalism and the nation-state. The French Revolution started the process of turning a disparate group of social classes, peasants, and urban dwellers into a consolidated body of French citizens. The Haitian Revolution, on the other hand, may indeed have unleashed what Kenneth Ramchand and Anthony Maingot have described as a "terrified consciousness" among all societies across the length and breadth of the Americas in 1804. But it undoubtedly bequeathed liberty and equality—although not fraternity—to a large group of formerly oppressed people and released incalculable cultural creativity in the former slave colony. These revolutions resulted from the long period ofchanging thought and attitudes that is generally described as the Enlightenment. Many writers of international reputation contributed to the intellectual ferment. These included David Hume, Francis Hutcheson, Guillaume-Thomas François de Raynal (whom I quoted before as the Abbé Raynal), Adam Smith, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, William Robertson, and Georges Buffon. Their ideas are still heatedly discussed, but the consequences ofthe series ofrevolutions that followed throughout the 19th century are clear. The monumental upheavals of the long 19th century convinced Europeans and May/June 2005 · Historically Speaking Western-influenced colonials of the transcendental importance of individualism and rationality. As William Woodruff expressed it in The Impact of Western Man, "right became what the individual conscience determined; truth became what the individual reason recognized." Rudyard Kipling expressed it more succinctly as "The White Man's Burden." The 19th century linked modernization...


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