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.

Project Beginning to Take Shape…

4 thoughts on “Project Beginning to Take Shape…

  • February 19, 2021 at 4:45 pm

    Hi Douglas, I think the stuff you’re looking at is pretty exciting and so I thought I could potentially offer some alternative angles to view this period of history from. I guess I would begin with some questions: are the exchange of ideas you are referring to merely Trans-Atlantic, or are they Pan-European? Are they a product of European Enlightenment finding its praxis in North America and France, or is the American Revolution as a result of English ideas surrounding the state and law? In other words, should we separate the influence which Thomas Paine had in America from that which Jean-Jacques Rousseau had in France, or, to what degree are they connected?

    From a particularly national viewpoint, I thought I would also give a bit of my understanding of how these ideas and events were received in Britain, which I hope may give you another avenue of research to explore. It’s interesting that these ideas were not merely national, nor did they reflect national blocs acting in national interests. It is a bit obvious to say that not everyone in the colonies supported the American Revolution and that not everyone in France supported the French Revolution (otherwise there would be no need for a revolution to take place). However, what could be highlighted is the fact that there was a division in support in Britain as well. For instance, the Whigs at the outset of both the American Revolution and the French Revolution were supportive of the revolutionaries. The most notable of these figures in the American case were Pitt the Elder, Edmund Burke, and, of course, Thomas Paine. Expounding this point, there was one view I read once which argued that the reason why the American Revolution ended when it did was not because of French intervention or Yorktown (victory at the Battle of the Saintes supposedly nullified the military setbacks which both of these supposedly caused, according to this view), but because Whiggish Parliamentary pressure had forced Lord North into seeking peace. Similarly, at the outset of the French Revolution, Whiggish Parliamentary rhetoric was overwhelmingly supportive of it, and even when Edmund Burke broke ranks with his Reflections (1790), arguing that the Revolution would break down into disorder and violence, Thomas Paine’s response, the 1791 Rights of Man, proved significantly more popular. Whiggish support for the Revolution carried on until the violence became too much for Whiggish philosophy to justify.

    So, as well as the questions I began this comment with, I also thought I would offer this little piece of history regarding Parliament’s reactions to such events to show how I agree with you that these events are connected by a similar line of philosophical thinking (at least in Britain, for the average revolutionary on the ground in France and America this potentially wasn’t the case). The fact that Whiggish rhetoric in Britain supported both causes through similar arguments suggests this! However, again, the extent to which the Whigs shared the philosophical vision of either band of revolutionaries could be a point for exploration. So, therefore, an emphasis could be placed on proving that these ideas were genuinely transnational in content, rather than merely a number of differing national philosophies coalescing together at a similar point in time (I know you already emphasised this in your blog, so you can probably ignore me).

    I guess, just on a smaller note, in terms of how to approach this, if you decide to take this as an intellectual history, examining the ideas held within the texts of a few select individuals could be aided by looking at the Cambridge school of intellectual history. I know John Dunn wrote about the ideas surrounding the French Revolution, and that JGA Pocock and Quentin Skinner have also shown how this method can be applied to European thought in the late-18th Century. Hope some of this helped or was at least of some interest!

    • February 20, 2021 at 1:41 pm

      Hi Rory, thank you very much for your comment. The question of Pan-European approaches is one that I am yet to decipher and I agree with your views.

      I was aware of British involvement, but wasn’t aware of the suggestion that the Revolutionary War culminated with an excessive amount of pressure on Lord North from Whiggish Parliamentarians.

      I will certainly be looking into this further and thank you again!

  • February 22, 2021 at 3:52 pm

    Hi Doug! You really seem to have a good grasp of what you want to achieve with your project. I would like to offer some further avenues of investigation which you may find some interest in pursuing. Doing a module on the French Revolution last semester we did a lot on the impact of the Enlightenment on the French and American Revolutions and supporters and opposers to the Revolutions across the Atlantic such as in Britain and America.

    However, one of the areas which I was intrigued by the most was expanding the transatlantic area to include French colonies such as Saint Domingue (modern day Haiti), and some lesser-known French colonies, and American plantations. Investigating how these areas were affected by the Revolutions especially by their ideas, and by extension how the enlightenment played a role in slave uprisings such as the Haitian Revolution. Expanding the locations studied which were impacted by the revolutions could offer exciting alternative insights which may contradict dominant beliefs about these important revolutions for the Western world and how the revolutionary ideas and values were received outside of the global north.

    Furthermore, Conrad argues (on the Global History Podcast) that good global history needs to include post-colonial perspectives as otherwise it wouldn’t be attuned to the different power hierarchies at work. This could make for an interesting investigation to see how the ideas and values of the revolution contradicted the existence of slave plantations and the slave trade, and could potentially expose the hypocrisy of ‘Life, Liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ and ‘Liberty, Equality and Fraternity’. This could perhaps also look at how attitudes towards slavery and colonisation changed in these places as a result of these revolutions or if plantations were even affected at all by the revolutions. Even the attitudes of prolific figures such as Jefferson and their revolutionary ideas could be looked at and how it related to their own owning of slaves and views on slavery.

    Good Luck with the rest of your project!

    • February 22, 2021 at 5:57 pm

      Hi Angus,

      Thank you very much for your comments!

      It is great to hear about the numerous avenues that my project can take and once again, I must confess that much of what you have suggested here was not something that I was aware of.

      I look forward to exploring these ideas more!

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