In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section The Age of Atlantic Revolutions

  • Introduction
  • France
  • Britain and Ireland
  • Africa
  • Haiti and the Caribbean

Atlantic History The Age of Atlantic Revolutions
Patrick Griffin
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 June 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0352


Should we call the broad dynamic that gripped the Atlantic from 1750 to 1850 the “Age of Revolution” or the “Age of Revolutions?” The question of the “s” goes to the heart of the ways that historians have struggled to place national stories into a broader whole and whether they have stressed national distinctiveness or shared processes and legacies. Lately, the answer seems to be both. The so-called age occurred within a system, it was locally inflected, and one of its defining features centered on how many revolutionary movements (as well as counterrevolutionary) were tied together by peoples, events, and ideas. It’s hardly a surprise, therefore, that the literature on what we call the “Age of Atlantic Revolution (or Revolutions)” is as broad and as deep as the ocean itself. It could include the histories of the many nations that emerged from the period. Scholars have written about and argued over all of the places touched by the age because the age created so many nations. The debates over the meanings of nationhood and national origins are the most heated of any field. The stakes, in other words, have been and remain high, and shelves groan with all the national histories written about the period. A survey of the literature could incorporate imperial histories of the transatlantic governing structures that fractured through reform. An article like this could also include all of the work done on global warfare that was unleashed by revolution. This article cannot chart all of it. It will try to give the reader a sense of how the idea of Atlantic revolution(s) has developed and how it has played out in the many littoral regions touched by revolution in the late 18th and early 19th nineteenth centuries. Because the literature is so vast, this essay will not cover primary sources. Where would one begin or end? It will instead focus on work recently done on the subject, with a particular emphasis on Atlantic connections. It does so for a good reason. Over this past generation, we have witnessed a resurgence of the Atlantic framework. With the rise of the “new” Atlantic history, more and more historians have begun re-investigating older national and regional stories in light of the larger context of the Atlantic. They have been teasing out how and why different regions were bound together, even those living on the peripheries. We are now living in a new golden age of the Atlantic. It should also be noted that much of the best work has been done in English or has been translated into it. For that reason, the essay will stress the Anglophone literature. Finally, because it cannot survey all the work done, it aims to give the reader a sense of representative works that have defined the ways we are now placing discrete regions into the larger story.

General Studies

There has been a literature on the age as long as there have been Atlantic Revolutions. But the modern field as we know it was really born through the work of two historians: R. R. Palmer and Jacques Godechot (Palmer 1959–1964 and Godechot 1970). Democracy was born through the age, they argued, and by making this move Palmer in particular was suggesting that the old Marxist notion of a grand revolutionary tradition which excluded America but tied France into the histories of the Soviet Union and China was wrong-headed and ahistorical. America and France, both believed, were bound together. Since he published his two-volume work, Palmer has come under criticism for not examining the role of women during the age, focusing too intently on the North Atlantic, and ignoring Haiti. These issues have been since addressed by historians. Other foundational works view the period as a historical turning point, such as Hobsbawm 1962. These sorts of studies now tend to employ Atlantic lenses. Two great examples are Bayly 2003 and Osterhammel 2014. Since the time of Palmer, Godechot, and Hobsbawm, we have seen an effervescence of Atlantic studies spurred by the rise of the Atlantic paradigm. Most have focused on connections and entanglements, such as Polasky 2015, and many take a consciously comparative approach Elliott 2006; Klooster 2009; Langley 1996). What had been discrete Atlantic worlds are now seen as intersecting and sometimes colliding. Blaufarb 2007 offers a model essay in this regard. System and circulation for all of these authors would be the two operative words. Representative works range from studies that discuss changes in the Atlantic system, such as Greene and Morgan 2009 and Canny and Morgan 2011, to those that cover how Atlantic-wide changes led to imperial reform and then revolutionary ferment. Some good examples of historians that focus on the imperial dimensions of the age are illustrated in the works Fradera 2019 and Adelman 2008. War still draws scholars who study the age. See, for instance, Forrest, et al. 2016. Comparative studies of ideas have long fascinated those interested in the age (see Venturi 1991), and—as evidenced by Kloppenberg 2016 and Baker and Edelstein 2015—still do, but ideas are often construed in new ways, such as in Knott 2016. Comparative studies of slaves, slavery, and abolition have long been seen as central to the age, as we see with Blackburn 1988; however, they have exploded in number with the rise of Atlantic history. Good examples include Drescher 2009 and Oldfield 2013. Fullagar and McDonnell 2018 explores indigenous peoples during the age through a comparative lens. This volume is a great jumping off point to a topic sure to become more central to the study of the age in years to come. Similarly, we have seen a growth is the number of scholars working on creoles and their relationship to revolution, as seen in Simon 2017 and Landers 2010. Lately, though most firmly root their work in the Atlantic paradigm, we have seen a few studies place the age in a global context, such as Armitage and Subrahmanyam 2010. Finally, more and more scholars are studying the role and experience of women—and gender—during the broad age. They are doing so in more nuanced ways than in the past, and almost all are rooting national studies in an intellectual milieu that was both Atlantic and broadly revolutionary. For that reason, they are listed here. For America, Linda Kerber was doing work well ahead of her time (Kerber 1980). Oberg 2019 demonstrates how the field in early America has caught up. A French study of note that also makes these moves is Jarvis 2019. Smith 2006 and O’Brien 2009 do as much for Latin America and Britain respectively. Sarah Knott has produced perhaps a roadmap to the future in terms of the sophistication of her arguments and her broad scope in Knott 2014. Moore, et al. 2012, in bringing together a group of texts, amply demonstrates how the field has changed in the past generation. We have come a long way since Palmer.

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