The article revises the traditional conceptualization of the “Atlantic history” in the age of revolutions that also became the classic case for theories presenting nations as instigators of imperial collapses. Jeremy Adelman asserts that the study of imperial crises and the study of the origins of nationalism in colonial societies should inform each other more than they do. The article demonstrates how bringing these two separate fields of scholarship together, and questioning the tacit and not-so-tacit beliefs upon which they rest, can reframe the complex passages from empires to successor states, free from some of the teleologies of decline and triumph. First, presumptions about the inevitability of imperial decline in the “age of revolutions” have cast the tensions and upheavals of the period as a sign of the sclerosis and demise of transatlantic systems, when they might better be thought of as responses to imperial adaptations. There was little that was inevitable about imperial demise. Second, revolutions were imperial in nature; that is, they were part of empire-wide transformations in that they yielded new social practices in defining the internal life of sovereign politics, as efforts to put empires, and their parts, on a different footing in order to confront external pressures. Revolutions did not begin as secessionist episodes; “nations” emerged as products of tensions wrought by efforts to recast the institutional framework of imperial sovereignty.
These arguments suggest a different approach to the axial shift from Atlantic empires to nation-states. They raise the prospect of altered historical sequelae, the possibility of inversions and backslidings, historic starts that went nowhere and others that never caught on despite the efforts to impose national conventions and structures on them. If the nation-state is not considered the automatic post-cursor to empire, the variety of routes, including a host of “might-have-beens,” needs to be restored to the narrative about the age of revolutions. Indeed, for many corners of the Atlantic world, what emerged from imperial revolutions was not the antithesis to empire, but the revitalization of the notion of empire itself; to many contemporaries, the nation did not necessarily define itself in opposition to empire. There was a sense of the politics of imperial revolutions, their “chain of disequilibria,” which was more important than the cohering nationalist drive to bring an end to empire. In the age of imperial revolutions, events and their meanings were not so easily compressed into a notion of historical time that yielded to the emergence, if not triumph, of nations. The article reconsiders histories of Atlantic “imperial revolutions” in the light of this theoretical program.