In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Political Participation in the Nineteenth-Century Atlantic World

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews

Atlantic History Political Participation in the Nineteenth-Century Atlantic World
Marieke Polfliet
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 August 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0154


Political participation in the 19th-century Atlantic world is related to a process that encompasses the development of political consciousness and practices among peoples in Europe and America. European and American political historiographies of the 19th century have used different concepts to characterize processes leading to the political participation of the masses. In the United States, the concept has been described as the era of “democratization”; in Europe, scholars described it as a “politicization” process, whereas Latin America has long been considered apart from these expressions of “modernity.” These different characterizations all encompass the study of the expansion of suffrage rights and the constitution of party politics, but they also include the development of “public spheres” through sociability structures and associations, the development of the press, and the expression of civic cultures through demonstrations and collective mobilizations. First, the Atlantic dimension of these phenomena includes the comparison among the evolutions of political systems, in which similar trends—development of political parties, debates on the expansion of the right of suffrage, and development of education and information—led to different results, in a transatlantic perspective. The founding influence of Alexis de Tocqueville’s analysis is still perceptible and discussed in this field. Beyond assessing the level of democracy and modernity of political practices of each society, the examination of common patterns in public life and civil society offers important insights into the development of political consciousness, through sociability structures as well as conflicting processes. Next, the Atlantic perspective also suggests the reading of 19th-century revolutionary episodes in the Caribbean, Latin America, and Europe as opportunities for direct involvement in political action with a global impact on the Atlantic world. Finally, structural transformations of 19th-century societies sharpened the issue of political participation for those not included in white men’s democracy—whether because of their race, gender, class, or ethnicity—an issue that affected the Atlantic space as a whole and challenged its stability.

General Overviews

Contextualizing 19th-century political participation in an Atlantic perspective requires an understanding of the global transition from the old regime to modern times, evoked in the world perspective of Bayly 2004. The major dynamics of economic transformations and the rise of capitalism, coupled with societal changes and ideological transformations, are the object of Eric J. Hobsbawm’s classic analysis (Hobsbawm 1962) and considered in a renewed global framework in Armitage and Subrahmanyam 2009. As of the early 21st century, Atlantic political histories of the 19th century do not yet exist; however, the complementary use of European and American general histories includes accounts of political transformations. Soutou 2007 offers a new bibliographic synthesis on European political evolutions, Bethell 1985 evokes political life in 19th-century Latin America after the independence, whereas Wilentz 2005 focuses on the political transformations and democratic developments in the United States.

  • Armitage, David, and Sanjay Subrahmanyam, eds. The Age of Revolutions in Global Context, c. 1760–1840. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.

    Stimulating questioning of the concept of revolution, stressing the global and large chronological perspective that accounts for the revolutionary transformation of world societies between the 18th and 19th centuries. It challenges the diffusionist model of one revolution influencing the others, as it stresses global evolutions of economic and demographic patterns and their repercussions in colonial empires. The inclusion of Africa and Asia in the framework of revolutions is particularly compelling.

  • Bayly, Christopher Alan. The Birth of the Modern World, 1780–1914: Global Connections and Comparisons. Malden, MA, and Oxford: Blackwell, 2004.

    Overview on the 19th century, adopting a global perspective, reflexive and narrative, with a thematic/chronological organization. Of particular interest for a discussion on political history are chapters 3 and 4 (pp. 86–169) on converging revolutions and political legitimacy, chapters 6 to 8 (pp. 199–323) on the emergence of nations and states and their interaction with peoples, and chapter 11 (pp. 395–431) on the reconstruction of political and social hierarchies at the turn of the 20th century.

  • Bethell, Leslie, ed. The Cambridge History of Latin America. Vol. 3, From Independence to c. 1870. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

    Synthesis on the history of Latin American countries since their independence, with both a thematic and a national focus, including general political evolutions. Useful for contextualizing the period and regional differences (especially with the inclusion of Brazilian and Haitian history in addition to Hispano-American countries). Volumes 4 and 5 of this eleven-volume set focus on the post-1870 period.

  • Hobsbawm, Eric J. The Age of Revolution, 1789–1848. London: Abacus, 1962.

    Classic Marxist approach covering the extensive events of the 19th century. The first book of the tetralogy primarily focuses on Europe but integrates a world perspective with the study of the impact of revolutions and the development of capitalism and imperialism. Highlights the ideological, economic, and societal transformations of the 19th-century world, completed by The Age of Capital: 1848–1875 (London: Cardinal, 1975), and The Age of Empire: 1875–1914 (New York: Pantheon, 1987).

  • Soutou, Georges-Henri. L’Europe de 1815 à nos jours. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2007.

    New synthesis on the political history of 19th-century Europe with actualized primary and secondary sources, a compared chronology, and a focus on major issues and debates, including international relations and the democratization process.

  • Wilentz, Sean. The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln. New York: Norton, 2005.

    A pre–Civil War political history of the United States focusing on the centrality of the political transformation associated with democratization and party politics, considered as an autonomous sphere overshadowing the economic transformations.

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