Belgum on Lerg and Tóth, 'Transatlantic Revolutionary Cultures, 1789-1861'

Charlotte A. Lerg, Heléna Tóth, eds.
Kirsten Belgum

Charlotte A. Lerg, Heléna Tóth, eds. Transatlantic Revolutionary Cultures, 1789-1861. Leiden: Brill Academic Publishers, 2017. 292 pp. $134.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-90-04-34953-7.

Reviewed by Kirsten Belgum (University of Texas) Published on H-TGS (December, 2018) Commissioned by Alison C. Efford (Marquette University)

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Transferring Ideas of Revolution and Reform

For several decades, cultural historians have been challenging the limitations of writing history based on the confines of the nation-state. They have instead argued for the importance of examining the history of ideas, cultural artifacts, and movements in the context of transnational exchanges. In the late 1980s, Michel Espagne and Michael Werner introduced the term “cultural transfer” (Kulturtransfer in German, and transfert culturel in French) in their work on various intellectual engagements between France and German lands.[1] A decade later, concepts such as entangled history (histoire croisée or Verflechtungsgeschichte) emphasized a multiperspectival approach to writing transnational cultural history.[2] In contrast to both comparative history and global history, the focus here has been on understanding the processes that led to the transfer of ideas and to their transformation in new contexts.

Transatlantic Revolutionary Cultures, 1789-1861, published by Brill in 2018, demonstrates how useful the concepts of transfer and entanglement can be for comprehending the interconnectedness of modern cultural and intellectual history. Ably edited by Charlotte A. Lerg and Heléna Tóth, the volume presents nine disparate case studies accompanied by an introduction and short epilogue. Individually and as a whole they shed new light on the movements and impetus for political change that occurred in linkages between Europe and North America during this period.  

Geographically, the contributions achieve a significant reach. On the eastern side of the North Atlantic they touch on events and actors in Britain, France, Spain, the German lands, Italy, and Hungary. The western side of this region includes various locales in the United States, Haiti, Cuba, Nicaragua, and the Yucatán of New Spain. The topics and cultural domains that the volume presents are equally diverse, ranging from theatrical performances, visual caricature, and politically symbolic clothing to constitutions, heroic hagiography, military action, and social programming, all in the space of 260 pages. The array of primary sources is equally broad, including newspaper reports, cultural reviews, biographical documents, eyewitness accounts, material culture, and literature. They are discussed in a highly readable style throughout. 

Despite the temporal, geographic, and thematic diversity, the volume gains coherence from a productive amount of overlap and amplification of subthemes. If the Haitian Revolution is the focus of the first essay, by Raphael Hörmann, who reexamines with new sources the rise of the image of the Black Jacobin, it resurfaces in Michael L. Miller’s piece on the imperialist role of central European revolutionary exiles in Central America. Similarly, George Washington is the key figure in Charlotte A. Lerg’s essay on early nineteenth-century national historiography in the United States, France, and Germany, only to reappear as a foil for Lajos Kossuth in Miller’s essay as well. And Kossuth is also central to Heléna Tóth’s discussion of an obscure and long-forgotten Austrian play (by Adam Würth) about the Hungarian Revolution.

Likewise, what otherwise might strike the reader as a random assortment of sources and documentary evidence reveals patterns that connect the disparate historical and geographic examples. Thus, while Tóth’s essay tracks Würth’s drama from German-speaking central Europe, where it was published in book form, to the United States, where it was staged, Marc Lerner’s study of a wildly different play, James Sheridan Knowles’s version of William Tell compares its performances and reception in Britain and the United States. The revolutionary power of visual symbolism in Hörmann’s work on Black Jacobins is taken up in Mischa Honeck’s contribution on the wide circulation of revolutionary fashion, from anti-establishment facial hair and “Hecker hats” to the popularization of the shirts worn by Giuseppe Garibaldi. Two essays also discuss calls for political constitutions, albeit in markedly different contexts: Ulrike Bock recounts the disparate reception of the Spanish Constitution of 1812 in competing Yucután cities of Campeche and Mérida, while Anne Bruch traces the shifting importance of the American Constitution among Italians during the Risorgimento.

The last essay, by Peter Fischer, stands a bit at odds with the rest of the work, focusing on reform movements rather than revolution and extending well beyond 1861. It beneficially reminds the reader, however, that despite the widespread interest in revolution and reform, most middle-class intellectuals of the era, with the exception of handful of bourgeois revolutionaries, served the interests of existing states.

Another unifying element is the use of common secondary sources. This stems in part, no doubt, from the workshops held at the University of Munich that provided the foundation for the edited volume. It includes the citation in many chapters of the work (here and elsewhere) of other contributors and of the workshops’ keynote speakers, Leora Auslander and Timothy Mason Roberts. Roberts, whose book Distant Revolutions (2009) is cited by at least half of the contributors, concludes the volume by acknowledging the challenges of connecting such an extended period of revolution.

One conclusion we can draw from this mixture is that this period of revolution coincided with the temporal and spatial shrinking of the world due to the increased ease and speed with which people, things, and news traveled, a point made explicitly by Roberts in the epilogue. He also mentions the relative “porousness of international borders” and the potential for displacement (or “rootlessness”) on the part of revolutionary actors (pp. 254-55). This raises the question of class and privilege. While many of the revolutionary figures discussed in these essays, from the Hungarians Kossuth and Lajos Schlesinger to the Italians Giuseppe Mazzini and Garibaldi and beyond, spent considerable time in exile, their ties to transnational intellectual circles allowed them a lasting influence that their lower-class compatriots most likely did not enjoy.

It also becomes clear in several cases that the “revolutionary” fervor of many of these individuals was far from consistent. The ambiguous political goals of some of these “revolutionaries” come to the fore in several of the contributions. Miller, for example, discusses the dubious way in which the “cause of liberty” (including opposition to slavery in the United States) for some former Hungarian revolutionaries becomes the “liberty to … pillage” in other national contexts, such as Haiti and Nicaragua (p. 207).

In closing, one might question two terms that frame the scope of the work. The first pertains to periodization. The editors chose a starting point of 1789 because the French Revolution resonated so profoundly through Europe in the decades that followed and that year saw the ratification the US Constitution. Yet, several essays refer back to events of the American Revolution itself or to Washington not only as a president but as a general, so that a starting date of 1776 for this “revolutionary era” might have been more appropriate. In the second instance, the term “revolution” could productively be expanded by “reform.” As the contributions themselves emphasize repeatedly, revolutionary moments were interspersed by even longer periods of restoration and movements for liberal reform.

But these suggestions do not diminish the compelling contribution of the volume as a whole. Each chapter exemplifies the richness that is to be gained for regional and national history by tracing influential transatlantic connections. Taken together, these case studies paint a complicated, complex, and imbricated picture of cultures and ideas in contact. The volume serves as a model for graduate and undergraduate seminars and for scholars interested in exploring the benefits of focusing on networks of influence and borrowing that crisscrossed the Atlantic in multiple directions and to diverse ends.


[1]. Michel Espagne and Michael Werner, eds., Transferts: Les relations interculturelles dans l'espace franco-allemand, XVIIIe et XIXe siècle (Paris: Editions Recherche sur les civilisations, 1988).

[2]. Michael Werner and Bénédicte Zimmermann, “Vergleich, Transfer, Verflechtung: Der Ansatz der Histoire croisée und die Herausforderung des Transnationalen,” Geschichte und Gesellschaft 28 (2002): 607–36.

Citation: Kirsten Belgum. Review of Lerg, Charlotte A.; Tóth, Heléna, eds., Transatlantic Revolutionary Cultures, 1789-1861. H-TGS, H-Net Reviews. December, 2018. URL:

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