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Revolutionary Ideas in the Atlantic World

Janet Polasky—

The interconnections of today’s global society are inescapable. So why should we imagine that the founding fathers dreamed of freedom in isolation? The Atlantic World had never been as tightly interconnected as at the end of the eighteenth century. Two centuries before the Arab Spring, without electronic social media or even an international postal system, ideals of liberty and equality in various languages inspired philanthropists transporting freed slaves to Sierra Leone, haunted governors of Caribbean colonies, informed novelists, and were proclaimed by revolutionary armies marching down the Italian peninsula. Difficult though it is for us to imagine an interconnected, cosmopolitan world before the invention of the internet, in fact revolutionary ideas traveled back and forth across the Atlantic, starting in America and reaching four continents before 1800.

Revolutions seemed to be erupting everywhere in the decades after 1776. A Belgian pamphleteer proclaimed as his neighbors unfurled Patriot flags over Utrecht: “Over half of the globe, all men utter but one cry, they share but one desire. Humanity, united in action after being oppressed for so long under tyranny, rises up with pride to reclaim a majestic and powerful liberty.” From the Americas to Geneva, the Guinea coast, and the Andes, revolutionaries challenged the rule of tyrannical kings and over-reaching nobles. On plantations carved out of Caribbean islands by enslaved labor, and among the slave-trolling entrepreneurs of West Africa, the possibility of insurrection lurked, terrifying overseers and government officials alike. Rumors coursed the Atlantic with the ocean currents. Where these rebellions founded independent nation-states that have endured, we celebrate them. The other struggles, equally hard-fought, have been largely forgotten, consigned for the most part to the dustbin of history.

So how did these ideas travel between continents in this age of revolution before Twitter and Facebook? Documents had legs, then as now. At the end of the eighteenth century, revolutionaries wrote letters, lots of letters. They spent hours at their desks. Worried who might intercept their correspondence in an era of incessant war when letters carried by well-meaning friends also simply went missing, husbands and wives, government agents, and revolutionaries sent multiple copies via carefully-chosen couriers over different routes, sometimes in code. Events were happening in such rapid succession, from slave revolts and sugar plantations in flames to assembly votes of amnesty, that the governor of Saint Domingue protested he would need daily ships sailing back to France to convey the news.

It wasn’t only correspondence. Revolutionary pamphlets written during these turbulent decades were no respecters of national borders, either. Thomas Paine’s Common Sense inspired revolutionaries in Amsterdam and Dublin as well as Philadelphia and Boston. Stories of American victories in their War for Independence, recounted in the Gazette de Leyde, were read by the Polish king’s advisers in Warsaw. “The fermentation is universal,” French journalist Camille Desmoulins informed his readers. Fortunately for historians, theirs was a culture that took the printed word seriously. These eighteenth-century revolutionaries left a paper trail to track their ideas as they traveled back and forth across the Atlantic.

History doesn’t repeat itself, but historians do. They ignore these widely dispersed paper trails while they privilege the same founders’ tales. To limit our history of the eighteenth century to the revolutions that prevailed, the American and French Revolutions, is to forget that history is replete with dead ends, movements that surged and fizzled or were suppressed. Uninformed, we cannot imagine the rich variety of revolutionary alternatives in our own world. Instead, we assume that the revolutionary movements against the autocratic regimes of our day will eventually, with just a little assistance, follow in the steps of George Washington or Maximilien Robespierre. We are baffled by the uncertain outcomes of uprisings in Tunisia and Libya, surprised by Egyptians or Syrians who, like eighteenth century revolutionaries in Cap Français or Geneva or Freetown, borrowed their ideas of citizenship from disparate sources, sometimes from their neighbors, other times from legends of their own past. If we look for liberal democracy in every upheaval, from Romania to Egypt, we will inevitably be frustrated by what we find. Revolutionaries who challenge dictators will not necessarily turn out to be liberals, nor will their struggle follow a path any of us had expected based on what we know.

Understanding flows in both directions, from the past to the present, and from the present to our understanding of the past. To forget the messiness of the past is to be condemned to judge the present limited by the blinders of a small set of national narratives. My friend John Voll of the Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding suggested that like the eighteenth-century revolutionaries who ventured beyond borders, “Muslim militants are working to create non-national, revolutionary narratives and many of our policy makers have difficulty in understanding that.” Revolutionaries from out-of-the-way places who struggled against unbeatable odds two hundred years ago have much to say to readers living in a world where revolutions of all sizes have varied, unpredicted, and interconnected outcomes. We ignore them at our peril.


Janet Polasky is Presidential Professor of History, University of New Hampshire, and the author of three previous books. She lives in Portsmouth, NH.


Further Reading:

Revolutions without Borders: The Call to Liberty in the Atlantic World

Featured Image: Battle of Grenada, 2 July 1779 by Jean-François Hue via Wikimedia Commons in the public domain

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