- Remembering Early Modern Revolutions: England, North America, France and Haiti ed. by Edward Vallance
New York: Routledge, 2019. Pp. 222.
Historians of all stripes face the fundamental challenge of reconciling past events with the production and influence of their legacies. As Michel Rolph Trouillot brilliantly outlined decades ago in Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (1995), scholars must struggle to “acknowledge both the distinction and the overlap between process and narrative” (p. 23). This can prove especially burdensome for those documenting revolution. Memories of decisive events are almost immediately transformed to bend to the needs of new states, ideologies, identities, and political reconfigurations. Making things more complex for students of the “Age of Revolution” is the interwoven nature of so many global uprisings. Emerging out of a 2017 conference on memory and political upheaval, Remembering Early Modern Revolutions explores how five of these events were commemorated and rehashed both within and between the regimes that emerged from them.
Each chapter in this volume focuses on the legacy of one of the principal moments of Western political revolt in the period: the English Civil War, the Glorious Revolution, and the American, French, and Haitian revolutions. Almost every contributor offers comparisons between at least two of these. Comparing revolutions is anything but novel—insurgents made those links at the time, after all—but the volume’s exploration of the evolving nature of remembrance offers fresh insight into the destabilizing effects of time on the meaning of particular revolutionary narratives. Historical memory, then, was not simply important to evolving national identities, but to a global transformation of the very concept of revolution. Taken together, the chapters paint a portrait of a centuries-long dialog within the Atlantic world about the nature of rights and historical precedents in the struggle to define and create radical change.
Britain’s seventeenth-century political disturbances take on a highly prominent role throughout the volume. Edward Legon and Ian Atherton examine the domestic legacies of the English Civil War, with both finding a great deal of [End Page 426] popular cohesion around its meaning. According to Legon, Roundhead tales of the “good old cause” created a narrative about a longstanding Protestant effort that predated, and outlived, the immediate concerns of the Civil War. This propped up a big tent under which many Britons, despite significant social and ideological differences that were not always aligned with Parliament, could support a vague cause for expanded liberties. Atherton argues along similar lines. He contends that local commemorations of the period were thanksgivings of deliverance from its worst effects rather than opportunities to dig up old grievances. Thus, while a national consensus never emerged about the regicide, smaller constituencies could come together in remembrance of it. Other contributors see deeper effects of the Civil War. Edward Vallance tells the story of Mark Noble’s 1798 historical account, Lives of the Regicides, which cast an empathetic eye toward the most radical agitators of the previous century. Despite Noble’s professed loyalism, the publication severely hurt his reputation, as any degree of antimonarchical sentiment during the French Revolution came under extreme scrutiny. For French reformers of the time, however, the ideological philosophies of the English Civil War proved helpful. Myriam-Isabelle Ducrocq writes about the revival of James Harrington’s 1656 treatise Oceana in Thermidorian France. Harrington’s call for an immortal constitution appeared to be the exact cure for a nation whiplashed by so many political turns.
The chapters on France’s revolution are equally wide-ranging. Emilie Mitran’s close reading of the diary of Gouverneur Morris shows the limits of American support for republicanism in Europe. Morris witnessed the Revolution firsthand, and believed that French insurgents lacked the virtues and social equanimity with which Americans were supposedly blessed. The Revolution’s radicalism terrified Morris, but inspired generations of agitators. Stéphanie Roza profiles the direct impact that Gracchus Babeuf’s theories on property and communal ownership had on socialists, including Karl Marx, a half-century later. That form of radicalism convinced many in France, well into the next century, that...