I hope on my account you will become a good American,” the Marquis de Lafayette, the French aristocrat who fought in the American Revolutionary War, wrote to his wife in 1777. He was expressing the goal of reformers around the globe for the succeeding century.
“American”, in Lafayette’s sense, was shorthand for a person committed to replacing monarchies with republics and oligarchies with democracies. It was the meme for an Enlightenment approach to government. Even when the sovereignty that called itself America stumbled over its many contradictions, Américanisme raced ahead worldwide. Lafayette’s “Americans” could claim any nationality, and did.
Their movement transformed humanity. As The Expanding Blaze persuasively documents, the Revolution of 1776 “commenced the demolition of the early modern hierarchical world of kings, aristocracy, serfdom, slavery, and mercantilist colonial empires, initiating its slow, complex refashioning into the basic format of modernity”.
Jonathan Israel takes aim at the hoary mischaracterisation of 1776 as sui generis, a myth that grew up around the initial failures of democracy elsewhere. A historian of modern Europe, he rejects American exceptionalism. Instead, he restages bristling Old World debates that attained their first practical expression in the New World. Experiments in republicanism, federalism, constitutionalism and bicameralism popped up from Amsterdam to New Zealand after the United States won independence. Nearly every revolutionary faction in the United States inspired counterparts on other continents. Between 1776 and 1848, America presented a spectre as alarming as Bolshevik Russia did in the 1930s: the “primary model” of an effective revolution with universal application successfully re-engineering social relations. Its very existence caused teacups to rattle in saucers worldwide, as aristocrats contemplated the ruin of their estates.
The Expanding Blaze charts the course of an “Atlantic Revolution” sparked by continental intellectuals and forged in America, the “crucible” of modernity. The Revolution of 1776 blew embers across Western Europe, the Caribbean and Latin America. Few revolutionaries “adhered consistently to their publicly proclaimed emancipatory ideals”, and reforms could be reversed. In Latin America, republicanism took swifter hold than democracy. In Great Britain, democracy emerged without republicanism. Not until a century after 1848 did a Universal Declaration of Human Rights attract signatures worldwide.
But beginning in 1776, writes Israel, America “introduced universal and equal human rights, freedom of expression and the press, and republican liberty generally, as well as concerted efforts to end oppression of minority ethnic groups and establish an international code curtailing the curse of war”.
Israel finds ample evidence in “sister” revolutions, beginning with the Dutch democratic revolt from 1780 to 1785 (a subject he has plumbed previously). Like the French revolutionaries, self-described Patriots in the Netherlands explicitly credited the United States as their inspiration, although they failed to achieve America’s success. Instead, as in France and later Spain, the nobility fought back and restored aristocratic privileges. Nonetheless, in the fullness of time, constitutionalism won out. Republicanism spread. Representative government became a nearly universal norm, praised even in the breach.
Canada, Haiti, Greece, Ireland and Poland figure in the author’s dramatis personae, too, and he takes pains to develop their stories. Readers willing to scrutinise the entire Breughel-like canvas will find much reward in Israel’s artful painting of the tumultuous period between 1776 and 1848. The Expanding Blaze is studded with interesting facts and reasonable guesses, such as that the quiescence of European reformism after 1848 may be explained by the extraordinary exodus from Germany, “depleting the continent’s revolutionary underground”. One might add that the American Civil War, the bloodiest internal conflict of the century aside from China’s Taiping Rebellion, gave emulators pause as well. Even so, in novelist James Fenimore Cooper’s memorable phrase, America’s example continued “silently operating on Europe for half a century”.
The essential thesis of Israel’s book is so sound, accurate and overdue that one wishes it were not encumbered with ancillary theories of more dubious merit. Although he devotes most of the volume to American events, his treatment of them is less sure than his examination of the European ones that are his scholarly specialty. He plays favourites with men and philosophies he admires, and gives short shrift to those he believes undermined America’s democratic promise. Indeed, with a cockade pinned to his cap, he rides a hobby horse across 700 pages telling the story of the United States more or less according to Tom Paine, an incendiary from whom even Thomas Jefferson distanced himself.
Israel argues there were two, incompatible strains within the Revolution. The conservative triumvirate of George Washington, John Adams and Alexander Hamilton supposedly steered events in a counter-revolutionary direction, and away from the more exemplary vision of Jefferson. “Informal aristocracy and the old system, not democracy,” we read, “was their goal.” For proof, Israel relies upon the interpretations of Jefferson, Paine and others who became the partisan rivals of the first two presidents and the man who did most to build the machinery of government, Alexander Hamilton (pictured inset).
A simple litmus test of the author’s willingness to take both sides seriously can be found in the index. Jefferson’s entry consumes 36 lines; Paine spreads out over 31. In contrast, Adams merits only 18 lines, while Hamilton, the primary author of The Federalist Papers proposing a new constitution, claims a scant 15. More important, the author accepts as fact the calumnies that even audiences of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton: An American Musical now know to be spurious.
For example, Israel blithely denounces Hamilton’s effort to raise taxes to pay for the new government, and honour war debts to both veterans and foreign banks, as a measure to “accelerate wealth transfer from the wider public to the East Coast elite” and reward speculators “at the taxpayer’s expense”. Jefferson, whose bitter enmity helped lead to Hamilton’s tragic death, could not have said this better – though he repeated it, and paid pamphleteer Philip Freneau to write it, many times over. Israel calls Hamilton’s treatment of the veterans with whom he served “appalling”, despite the fact that the Secretary of the Treasury was the man who engineered a way to pay their long overdue pensions.
Adams receives more favourable consideration. But here, too, Israel’s examination is glancing. It’s odd that, in a book of such prodigious length, the author does not quote Adams himself but rather the critics who beat Adams about the ears with his own words. Historian Joseph Ellis, who has written in more balanced fashion about both sides of the debate, acknowledges that by “natural aristocracy” Adams simply meant that some are born with greater advantages. They possess beauty, inherited wealth, excellent temperament or extraordinary brains. Society should try to benefit from their unearned virtues while protecting others without them. Adams was decidedly not what Paine accused him of being (and Israel seems to agree), a champion of privilege.
Lastly, Jefferson and Madison get a light going over on slavery, the greatest evil of the age. They felt “trapped”, Israel says, without mentioning that Washington freed his – and that Hamilton worked for abolition.
Even so, The Expanding Blaze makes an important, necessary and convincing argument overall. Despite cracks in the cauldron and rubble in the mix, the early United States was the crucible of modernity. The world gave its peoples and ideas to America, and good “Americans” like Madame de Lafayette sent it spinning in a new direction.
Elizabeth Cobbs holds the Melbern Glassock chair in American history at Texas A&M University and is the author of The Hamilton Affair.
The Expanding Blaze: How the American Revolution Ignited the World, 1775-1848
By Jonathan Israel
Princeton University Press
Published 27 September 2017
Jonathan Israel, professor emeritus of modern European history at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study, grew up in North London and studied history at Queens’ College, Cambridge, during what he describes as “one of its most brilliant phases in historical studies”. He was initially drawn into Hispanic studies and a doctorate on 17th-century Mexico at St Antony’s College, Oxford (1967‑70), which included a year at the Colegio de México in Mexico City.
After producing a number of major works about Dutch Spanish, English and Jewish history, Israel moved to Princeton in 2001. “I have travelled around the country a good deal since”, he says, “and came to find it more and more fascinating.” Furthermore, “as an Enlightenment scholar concentrating on Europe but involved also with the non-European world”, he “became particularly interested in the paradox that the American Enlightenment and Revolution have had enormous impact on the modern world, while US, European and Latin American scholars treat the ‘American Enlightenment’ as rather marginal, and the American Revolution in a strictly ‘national’, rather parochial, way, rather than as a global event that profoundly affected everyone at the time and later.”
The revolution itself, in Israel’s view, can best be seen as “a ceaseless fight between…aristocratic republicanism [and] democratic republicanism – the clash between the view that the American republic should be directed by vested interests, veiled with commonplace platitudes to make it more generally palatable, and the view that it should serve the interests of the populace as a whole”. This clash was “never resolved and is a kind of key to Western ‘modernity’, in that a parallel duality infused many of the revolutionary upheavals of the era 1789-1848 in Europe and Latin America and a great deal of the political history of modern Britain”.