As we enter Week 5, I feel that I am slowly beginning to grasp the idea of producing a ‘transnational history’ of my own volition. The two sources that have been most useful in coming to grips with transnational history are definitely Saunier’s Transnational History and the ‘AHR Conversation: On Transnational History’ in the American Historical Review. The main appeal of transnational history is that it opens up broader analytical possibilities than global history in understanding complex linkages, networks and actors – something that I want to replicate fully in my own project.
As a result of the fact that transnational history allows for the examination of particular regions, whilst maintaining the study of connected works, I have decided to demarcate the transatlantic area in the late 18th – early 19th centuries as my subject focus. Whilst a specific question still eludes me, my chosen area of study is the connection of Enlightenment philosophy within the American and French Revolutions. The subject offers countless possibilities which, whilst making choosing a specific question difficult, ensures that whatever I do choose will have plenty of room for exploration.
Another layer to my project is the micro-historical/biographical approach which it will take. Life histories help us to recognise the different streams that an individual has been in, allowing for greater scope in making connections and uncovering flows. Tracing the flow of immaterial items such as ideas is particularly challenging as they do not move in a cascade, rather they disseminate slowly, appropriated in different places at different paces, with the origin not always being easily attributed to one specific place.
To aid such difficulties, I have decided that I shall focus on a number of individuals that spanned the two events. Whilst I need to do much more research on this subject, the two immediate actors that come to mind are Thomas Paine, author of the revolutionary pamphlet Common Sense, and Thomas Jefferson, American Ambassador to France between 1785 – 1789, later becoming the third U.S. President in 1801. Officially, the American Revolution spanned 1765 – 1783, whilst the French Revolution occurred between 1789 and 1799. However, with the need to study the impact of ideas, the build up and aftermath of these events are also in the spotlight, providing a relatively large period of time that my project will incorporate. Once again, the specific examination of individuals will aid this project in providing focus across such an expansive time period, directing the essay away from a narrative re-telling of events and towards an analytically transnational perspective on the flow of Enlightenment philosophy between the American and French Revolutions.
In light of the direction that my project is taking, I have decided that my short essay will take a methodological format, outlining the benefits of connected histories alongside the study of the individual. Aided by the sound example of connected history under Subrahmanyam, and Maya Jasanoff’s Liberty’s Exiles regarding biographical history, my short essay should provide a clear insight into the potential of casting such a perspective on what are two very similar occurrences in the late 18th century.