REV: Brunelle on Blaufarb, 'The Revolutionary Atlantic: Republican Visions, 1760-1830: A Documentary History' and Desan and Hunt and Nelson, 'The French Revolution in Global Perspective'

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Ed. note: reposted from H-Atlantic 
Suzanne Desan, Lynn Hunt, William Max Nelson, eds.
Gayle K. Brunelle

Brunelle on Blaufarb, 'The Revolutionary Atlantic: Republican Visions, 1760-1830: A Documentary History' and Desan and Hunt and Nelson, 'The French Revolution in Global Perspective'

Rafe Blaufarb, ed. The Revolutionary Atlantic: Republican Visions, 1760-1830: A Documentary History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017. 528 pp. $37.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-19-989796-4Suzanne Desan, Lynn Hunt, William Max Nelson, eds. The French Revolution in Global Perspective. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2013. vi + 236 pp. $75.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8014-5096-9; $24.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8014-7868-0.

Reviewed by Gayle K. Brunelle (California State University, Fullerton) Published on H-Atlantic (December, 2021) Commissioned by W. Douglas Catterall (Cameron University of Oklahoma)

Printable Version:

The French Revolution on a Global Stage

Globalization refers to how trade, war, ease of transportation, and human mobility have created an increasingly densely interconnected world. Historians know that globalization was closely connected to many historical changes everywhere in the world over the past millennium. Yet scholars struggle to pinpoint how globalization acted as a causative factor or was a consequence of specific historical processes or episodes, including for such watershed events as the French Revolution.

Historians have developed several approaches to grapple with the problem of conceptualizing global history. One response has been the growth of regional subfields in which networks and interconnections can be more easily tracked and examined. Among the most successful of these as a category of analysis is the Atlantic world. Another approach has been to eschew the term “global” entirely in favor of more restrained or precise and measurable terminology, such as cross-cultural, international, or cosmopolitan. Another option is to narrow the field of investigation to a specific theme or topic—gender, slavery, or religion, for example—where concrete evidence of globalization’s causes or effects can be discerned. Each approach results from the methodological demands of “doing history,” the need to sift through evidence tied to specific times and places to support hypotheses and draw conclusions. When it comes to global history, this usually results in case studies that, ideally, can, in the aggregate, be examined synthetically.

The two books under review here exemplify these differing approaches. The older of the two, The French Revolution in Global Perspective, is a collection of essays that began as a set of conference papers presented in 2011 at the Consortium on the Revolutionary Era in Tallahassee, Florida. The introduction, by editors Suzanne Desan, Lynn Hunt, and William Moss, and the concluding essay, “Every Revolution is a War of Independence,” by Pierre Serna, offer some contextualization and synthetic conclusions. The rest of the essays are case studies that explore both the influence of globalization on the origins and development of the French Revolution and its consequences beyond France’s borders. Most of the contributors avoid the terms global or “globalization” in their essays because, the editors suggest, of the intense scholarly debates surrounding globalization’s “definition and chronology” (p. 4). Moreover, despite the global aspirations of the book, most of the essays focus on the French Revolution in a European or Atlantic basin context. The near absence of Africa or Asia, except for Ian Coller’s chapter, “Egypt in the French Revolution,” exemplifies the dilemma of defining globalization, explaining how the causes or consequences of discrete historical processes or events were global, or applying a so-called global approach to a specific historical moment or problem.

The editors offer a succinct definition of globalization: “Globalization is the process of increasing interconnections across the globe” (p. 4). Such a broad conceptualization allows for a huge variety of approaches, necessary for a collection of essays. But it also allows each contributor (and the editors) to avoid the question of how geographically broad or culturally deep proffered interconnections need to penetrate for a particular case study to demonstrate a truly global dimension. The editors contend that taking a global approach to the Revolution will break the stalemate between proponents of a socioeconomic interpretation of the Revolution versus an approach emphasizing culture, politics, and ideology. Scholars will no longer need to choose between the competing interpretive frameworks, because a global approach facilitates discerning interconnections among disparate evidence and discrete historical examples.

All of the essays in The French Revolution in Global Perspective contain solid research and analysis, but they are uneven in the extent of their global viewpoint. They are divided into three sections addressing the role of global factors in the origin, internal dynamics, and consequences of the Revolution. The most successful in terms of the volume’s stated aims is the first, on origins. Three of the four essays focus on the ways in which increasingly dense networks of world trade and finance exacerbated France’s rickety financial structures and internal social tensions. Michael Kwass’s “The Global Underground: Smuggling, Rebellion, and the Origins of the French Revolution,” argues that smuggling played a key role in funneling to ordinary French people products and profits from Asia and the New World. When the French government clamped down on this “emergent global underground,” the result was rebellion that helped set the stage for revolution (p. 30). Lynn Hunt, in “The Global Financial Origins of 1789,” focuses on the 1787-88 fiscal crisis. France in the 1780s possessed ample wealth and a growing share of world trade. But the pursuit of a global empire forced the French government to borrow in globalized credit markets, hence losing control of its own finances and provoking a financial crisis. In “The Fall from Eden: The Free Trade Origins of the French Revolution,” Charles Walton contends that a disastrous 1786 Anglo-French commercial treaty devastated French trade and manufacturing, thus undermining public support for the government on the eve of the Revolution. The final essay in this section, Andrew Jainchill’s “1685 and the French Revolution,” analyzes political culture rather than economics. Jainchill examines the impact of antimonarchical literature produced by the Huguenot diaspora, which he argues soon became a Huguenot “international” (p. 59). The criticisms of the French monarchy these Huguenot writers produced deeply influenced Revolutionary ideology and literature. Jainchill’s point is valid, but he is wise to opt for the term international, since most Huguenot exiles remained in Europe or the New World and their literature reflected European debates about religion, government, and liberty.

The essays in the second section are firmly based in Europe and France’s Atlantic trade and colonies. William Max Nelson’s “Colonizing France: Revolutionary Regeneration and the First French Empire” explores how early anthropological conceptualizations regarding France’s North American and Caribbean subjects shaped ideas during the Revolution about how the French peasantry could be “regenerated” and transformed into French citizens. Suzanne Desan’s “Foreigners, Cosmopolitanism, and French Revolutionary Universalism” assesses the growing sense among many revolutionaries that their Revolution was, indeed had to be to survive, cosmopolitan and universal. Although in practice this translated initially into offering French citizenship to eighteen non-French European and American “‘friends of liberty and universal fraternity,’” this act was meant to be a first step in extending the Revolution across the globe (p. 95). Denise Z. Davidson, in “Feminism and Abolitionism: Transatlantic Trajectories,” scrutinizes the links between two ideologies with universalizing aspirations, feminism and abolitionism.

The third section, “Consequences,” centers on the Revolution’s reach, before and after Napoleon’s rise to power. Ian Collier argues that the French occupation of Egypt, 1798-1801, was a “high watermark of the global territorial expansion of the Revolution” that also demonstrated the limits of French Revolutionary universalism (p. 117). Still, Egyptians adopted and adapted aspects of the Revolution to suit the culture and politics of Egypt, rather than simply following France’s lead. Amanda Spieler’s “Abolition and Reenslavement in the Caribbean: The Revolution in French Guiana” and Rafe Blaufarb’s “The French Revolutionary World and the Making of the American Empire, 1788-1796” return us to the Atlantic basin and the consequences of the Revolution for transatlantic slavery and American westward expansion.

Pierre Serna’s closing chapter, “Every Revolution is a War of Independence,” examines the universalism of the Revolution in the light of revolutions from the early modern period to the present. All revolutions, Serna avers, are about the construction of freedom and independence from colonialism. For Serna, the French Revolution was as much a war of independence, and a struggle for decolonization, as every other revolution before or since. The French Revolution was a global event, because revolution is always a global phenomenon driven by similar forces worldwide.

In his recently published primary source reader, The Revolutionary Atlantic, Rafe Blaufarb eschews the global perspective of The French Revolution in Global Perspective. Blaufarb’s reader focuses instead on the Atlantic world, beginning with the Enlightenment philosophers whose views shaped the ideological contours of the Atlantic revolutions, followed by a chapter on the economic and political strains on the European empires that set the stage for revolution. His third and fourth chapters concentrate on the American Revolution, the fifth and sixth on the French Revolution, and the remaining chapters discuss Haiti and Latin America. The Atlantic perspective of the book renders it more marketable than a more globally oriented reader. There is both a rich body of historical literature and an abundance of primary sources related to the outbreak of revolutions in Europe and its Atlantic empires, and courses on Atlantic world history have burgeoned in recent years.

Blaufarb’s interpretive framework is founded on R. R. Palmer’s The Age of the Democratic Revolution: A Political History of Europe and America, 1760-1800 (1959). Blaufarb concurs with Palmer’s thesis that during the final decades of the eighteenth century, a “relatively coherent revolutionary movement” reverberated throughout Europe and its colonies, and, like Palmer, Blaufarb emphasizes political ideas (p. 2). Although he does not deny the importance of economic tensions in preparing the ground for revolution, ultimately Blaufarb is convinced that it was ideas—what he terms the unique “republican vision” of the late eighteenth-century Age of Revolution—that carried the revolutions forward (p. 6). Blaufarb seeks, however, to expand Palmer’s perspective to include the Global South, indigenous peoples, and subaltern imperial subjects, not just as recipients of ideas from Europe but as active participants in the revolutions struggling to apply the republican vision to their own situations and to gain liberty for themselves. Although not everyone would agree with Blaufarb’s decision to emphasize politics and ideology, as a strategic choice Blaufarb’s approach is wise. The result is a geographically broad, densely packed book that is also structurally coherent.

Blaufarb’s reader is likely more Eurocentric than some instructors would prefer, but for better or worse the political ideologies informing the Atlantic revolutions were mostly formed in Europe. The reverberations of the American and French Revolutions sloshed like a seiche wave around a globalizing world, changing form through creative interactions with non-European societies, many of whom carried out their own revolutions inspired by, but by no means imitating them. The French Revolution in Global Perspective offers a thought-provoking initial foray toward a global understanding of that revolution, but the strong European and Atlantic focus of most of the essays shows that, until further research unearths more evidence of the Revolution’s truly global and globalized reach, the Atlantic world will remain at the heart of teaching and scholarship on this topic.

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Citation: Gayle K. Brunelle. Review of Blaufarb, Rafe, ed., The Revolutionary Atlantic: Republican Visions, 1760-1830: A Documentary History and Desan, Suzanne; Hunt, Lynn; Nelson, William Max, eds., The French Revolution in Global Perspective. H-Atlantic, H-Net Reviews. December, 2021. URL:

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