The Expanding Blaze: How the American Revolution Ignited the World, 1775-1848

The Expanding Blaze: How the American Revolution Ignited the World, 1775-1848

by Jonathan Israel


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A major intellectual history of the American Revolution and its influence on later revolutions in Europe and the Americas

The Expanding Blaze is a sweeping history of how the American Revolution inspired revolutions throughout Europe and the Atlantic world in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Jonathan Israel, one of the world’s leading historians of the Enlightenment, shows how the radical ideas of American founders such as Paine, Jefferson, Franklin, Madison, and Monroe set the pattern for democratic revolutions, movements, and constitutions in France, Britain, Ireland, the Netherlands, Belgium, Poland, Greece, Canada, Haiti, Brazil, and Spanish America.

The Expanding Blaze reminds us that the American Revolution was an astonishingly radical event—and that it didn’t end with the transformation and independence of America. Rather, the Revolution continued to reverberate in Europe and the Americas for the next three-quarters of a century. This comprehensive history of the Revolution’s international influence traces how American efforts to implement Radical Enlightenment ideas—including the destruction of the old regime and the promotion of democratic republicanism, self-government, and liberty—helped drive revolutions abroad, as foreign leaders explicitly followed the American example and espoused American democratic values.

The first major new intellectual history of the age of democratic revolution in decades, The Expanding Blaze returns the American Revolution to its global context.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691176604
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 08/29/2017
Pages: 768
Sales rank: 597,057
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.40(h) x 2.70(d)

About the Author

Jonathan Israel is professor emeritus of modern history at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. His many books include Revolutionary Ideas: An Intellectual History of the French Revolution from “The Rights of Man” to Robespierre and A Revolution of the Mind: Radical Enlightenment and the Intellectual Origins of Modern Democracy (both Princeton).

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First Rumblings

"What do we mean by the Revolution?" asked Adams, writing to Jefferson in August 1815. "The War? That was no part of the Revolution. It was only an effect and consequence of it. The Revolution was in the minds of the people, and this was effected, from 1760 to 1775, in the course of fifteen years before a drop of blood was drawn at Lexington." The real, meaningful Revolution, contended Adams (much like his radical opponent Paine), occurred in the vigorous, divisive deliberations of the colonial legislatures, in pamphlets and newspapers, prior to 1775, when the "steps by which the public opinion was enlightened and informed concerning the authority of Parliament over the colonies" were taken. For Adams, the crucial 1774 revolutionary Congress "resembled in some respects, tho' I hope not in many, the Counsell of Nice [i.e., Nicaea] in ecclesiastical history," the gathering of bishops and theologians for the first ecumenical council of the Church in 325 AD. Churchmen assembled from across the Roman Empire "compared notes, engaged in discussions and debates," and resolved numerous profound disagreements, sometimes by one or two votes, that subsequently went out "into the world as unanimous."

The years 1760–74 prepared Americans for the Revolution. In the vast global contest for empire between 1756 and 1763 — in America called the French and Indian War — Britain's victory over France and Spain had been overwhelming. But in the Thirteen Colonies the struggle had bequeathed a legacy of intransigent disputes and political difficulties that soon proved highly divisive. By 1763, Britain had triumphed on land and sea and become indisputably dominant in Asia, Africa, the South Seas, and the New World. With France almost wholly ejected from Canada and India, Spain stripped of the Floridas (including territory to the west of modern Florida), Britain, with her incomparable fleet, presided over the globe more entirely than any power previously in history. However, this unprecedented success accrued at the cost of considerable maritime and commercial disruption and massive financial outlay, saddling the British Crown and taxpayer with a gigantic national debt requiring the continuance of high taxation in England, Scotland, and Ireland and, as it seemed in London, a pressing need to exact greater resources on a regular basis from the American colonies (besides India and the East India Company).

The empire was thought to need a more coherent, robust imperial administration not only in Canada and the Floridas, and also the Caribbean where several valuable islands had been wrested from the French, but additionally over the sparsely populated Indian regions west of the Alleghenies, extending military and administrative control in the Ohio Valley and over the inhabitants of the borderlands between Nova Scotia and New England where the war accelerated an expansion that had begun earlier. For the first time, protecting western frontier settlements and managing relations with the Indian peoples west was largely removed from the colonists' hands. In October 1763, an imperial decree fixed the new boundaries and provisionally forbade establishing new settlements, and assigning land, beyond the main ridge of the Allegheny mountain barrier. A standing army, based partly in Canada and the Floridas, and partly on the western edge of the Thirteen Colonies, settled in as a peacetime garrison, buttressing Britain's expanded global empire. In addition, British ministers sought to regulate shipping, imports, exports, and customs duties in North America and the Caribbean, especially by increasing import duties and excluding Dutch, French, and Spanish imports (a policy pursued under the Navigation Acts since 1651) in a tighter, more organized, imperially oriented fashion than in the past. Ministers aimed to tighten control over importing into the North American market so as to more strictly exclude competing European textiles and other goods and more systematically benefit England's manufacturers. To this end, the Crown strove to suppress the clandestine traffic (still largely in Dutch hands in the Middle Colonies and New England) and as far as possible "prevent intercourse of America with foreign nations." Very popular with merchants and the public in England who felt the rules were not being imposed stringently enough, this restrictive policy worked to the clear disadvantage not only of European traders but also of merchants throughout the colonies and in Florida also the Creek Indians, who much preferred to continue their dealings with Cuba and with visiting vessels from other neighboring parts of Spanish America. Whether the Thirteen Colonies still needed protecting or not, Florida, Canada, and the Mississippi Valley as well as the British Caribbean obviously did; and it was taken for granted in Parliament that the colonies must contribute more substantially to the cost of this burgeoning imperial umbrella.

A measure that provoked a furious and unprecedented reaction was the 1765 Stamp Act, a substantial duty on all legal transactions, property purchases, royal licenses to practice law, and newspapers, designed to shift part of the imperial burden shouldered by the British taxpayer onto the Americans. Designed to extend imperial control as well as increase tax revenue, the Act met with an angry reception from New England's farmers and hugely antagonized local opinion in Boston, a town of some 15,500 inhabitants and North America's third largest city, but a port somewhat depressed since the 1750s and, for the first time, enduring economic distress and poverty. An agitation developed in August 1765 that was unparalleled in the colonies' history. Week after week the demonstrations continued, punctuated by burning of effigies, and soon stoning officials and the occasional demolishing of a royal official's house, culminating in five days of organized mass protest that paralyzed the entire city. The ferment transformed public affairs in New England and the city's character. Massachusetts's governor, Thomas Hutchinson, spoke of a "new model of government" gripping Boston with obstructive local committees and crowded, obstreperous town meetings hampering practically everything relating to port administration, customs and trade regulation, functioning of the law courts, and routine town affairs. The street leader of the 1765 Boston Stamp Act protests, the people's "Masaniello" as Hutchinson dubbed him (alluding to the leader of the Neapolitan popular uprising of 1647), was an unruly Scots cobbler, Ebenezer Mackintosh (1727–1816), a rough populist. His role was symptomatic of how profoundly the agitation had penetrated Boston society's lower strata as well as infuriated the merchant elite, creating a peculiarly complex situation.

Those higher up the social scale deliberately fostered the growing rowdiness, which extended northward as far as the towns in Maine, instigating artisan crowd organizers like Mackintosh behind the scenes via a secret committee of elite citizens, the "Loyal Nine," formed in 1765 to fight the Stamp Act. The Loyal Nine was the conspiratorial predecessor of larger subversive local cliques that formed in Boston, and soon many other places, calling themselves the Sons of Liberty. The town's top merchants and ruling elite, with the brewer Sam Adams (1722–1803) well to the fore, remained in close touch with the artisan street activists; but, at the same time, the insurgents' unruliness rendered them uneasy. Massachusetts's principal opposition figures — Sam Adams, John Adams, and John Hancock — were especially perturbed, indeed disgusted, by the pillaging and wrecking of several mansions in late August 1765, including that of Massachusetts's governor where everything was smashed up, the furniture destroyed, legal and administrative documents seized, and the cellars emptied.

Violence against officials and their property erupted in various towns. Mackintosh, who led the 26 August nighttime foray that wrecked the governor's mansion, became known as the "Captain General of the Liberty Tree," alluding to a large elm in the Boston city center dubbed "the liberty tree." Protesters erected a liberty pole with a flag nearby, soon a popular symbol for revolt against "tyranny" to which slogans were affixed — among them "Vox populi, vox dei." The liberty tree ritual spread to Worcester and other disaffected Massachusetts towns, marking the initiation of revolutionary ceremonial surrounding the liberty tree, the most renowned emblem of late eighteenth-century transatlantic revolutionary insurgency, and an enduring reminder of how closely the American and other revolutions were interlinked. Despite the reviled Stamp Act itself being hastily repealed to the glee of the colonies' citizens in 1766, resistance to imperial exactions, subtly prompted by the Massachusetts and Virginia legislatures and fed by widespread popular agitation, proved unrelenting. The crisis and profound distrust the Stamp Act excited subsided, moreover, only briefly being followed by other considerable, if less ambitious, revenue-raising measures.

Unrest and opposition to British fiscal and anti-smuggling measures seethed through the late 1760s, thoroughly souring relations between England and the colonies. But the disaffection also revealed deep fissures within American society. Among the principal modes of protest against the Stamp Act were localized nonimportation drives boycotting British imported manufactures and commodities, most notably at Boston. In 1768–70, renewed efforts to apply pressure to rescind import duties newly imposed under the Townshend Revenue Act of June 1767, again commencing in Boston, prompted further local boycotts. Housewives ceased buying British-imported tea, wines, paper, textiles, and other items, obstruction supported by numerous artisans but opposed by merchants and retailers. The latter, though, finding themselves loudly denounced at meetings and in newspapers, had to comply, first in Boston, then New York, and finally, after considerable delay, Philadelphia, where resistance to boycotting proved tenacious. Resented by some, boycotting appealed to many including staunch Calvinists averse to lavish consumption of wines and luxuries. That revolution and business often clash subsequently remained a familiar background theme. By early 1770, the boycott movement had permeated most colonies but, after a brief surge until October 1770, suddenly lost momentum and collapsed. Nonimportation was nevertheless crucial to the Revolution's history, the 1768–70 boycotts being the first generalized attempt to enforce a consensus of organized opposition to Britain's imperial system, coercing reluctant citizens into compliance, and the first revealing the true depth of division in American society.

After briefly subsiding, a fresh surge of popular protest against Britain's imperial apparatus of control and trade regulation gripped town and country, now reaching even relatively remote places. By the early 1770s, the growing friction was sufficiently obvious to become a topic of international comment. Newspaper readers either side of the Atlantic began discussing America's increasingly troubled relationship with the British Crown. The philosopher David Hume (1711–76) took a gloomy view of the situation as early as March 1771 when he considered "our Union with America" something that "in the nature of things, cannot long subsist." Hume was far from alone in already expecting an ugly and massive rupture. A close French observer convinced America would soon experience a "civil war" between rebels and loyalists was François-Jean, marquis de Chastellux (1734–88), an associate of the philosophes d'Holbach and Diderot, who from July 1780 served as a major-general in the French expeditionary force in Virginia under Rochambeau. The brewer Sam Adams, a leading figure in the Massachusetts assembly, later assured the prominent Philadelphia physician Benjamin Rush (1746–1813) that independence was his dearest wish already "seven years before the war" began.

The unrest culminated in the Boston Tea Party of 16 December 1773. This commotion arose from British efforts to tighten procedures for tea imports in response to the backlog of unsold tea in England caused by the boycotting campaign and by illegal Dutch tea imports to America, to strictly exclude foreign tea, strengthen the monopoly of the East India Company, and raise tea import duty — among the few colonial imports capable of yielding a substantial surplus to the royal treasury. Intended to boost revenue, expand royal control, enhance monopoly at the expense of American merchants, and curb smuggling, this measure provoked furious resistance at Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston. Bostonians especially denounced the new rules for landing, checking, taxing, and distributing tea consignments from incoming vessels. When masked protestors boarded a newly arrived ship and hurled its East India cargo overboard, the episode had an unprecedented impact. "This is the most magnificent movement of all," recorded John Adams; "there is a dignity, a majesty, a sublimity, in this last effort of the Patriots, that I greatly admire. The people should never rise without doing something to be remembered, something notable and striking. This destruction of the tea is so bold, so daring, so firm, intrepid and inflexible, and it must have so important consequences, and so lasting, that I cannot but consider it as an epoch in history." Royal ministers in London, unwisely losing patience and perhaps overly influenced by the outraged reaction of the British papers and in Parliament, responded with ill-advised severity. They enacted a batch of Coercive Acts, also known as the Intolerable Acts, aimed at bolstering royal authority and punishing Boston, among them the Boston Port Act closing the harbor until compensation for the destroyed cargo was paid. Still more resented was the Massachusetts Government Act outlawing unauthorized gatherings and town meetings and introducing royal appointees to replace the regular council elected by the legislature's lower house to appoint the colony's officials and judges. Commencing in Boston where street, tavern, and public protest meetings boiled over, resistance to the Coercive Acts spread across the Thirteen Colonies.

Opposition was fomented especially by the Sons of Liberty committees, the clamor receiving support from many but not all segments of colonial society. Backing also came from sections of the main Protestant churches, especially those traditionally hostile to the Anglican (Episcopalian) Church given that the latter maintained especially close and longstanding ties with England and the Crown. Churches of Calvinist background, the Congregationalists and Presbyterians, were undoubtedly the most prone to sanction the growing resistance with John Witherspoon (1723–94), president of the College of New Jersey (today Princeton University), among the foremost in this respect, though it should be noted that even in these churches many preachers preferred to remain silent. On 17 May 1774, the Dutch Reformed congregations of New York and New Jersey held a "Day of Fasting and Prayer" against the Coercive Acts. At Albany, where many Dutch Reformed Church members joined, there was a noticeable overlap between lay members of church councils and the membership of Sons of Liberty committees. Foremost was the Boston Committee of Correspondence, an organization created in 1772 by a group of highly literate, radical-minded professionals sworn to counter British imperial sway, which they denounced as despotic and oppressive. These individuals forged a network of communication linking Boston with Worcester and other Massachusetts backcountry towns, as well as neighboring colonies, designed to coordinate resistance and the opposition's methods and publicity effort. In this way, they brought quite remote places stretching into what is today upper New York State, Maine, and Vermont within the continuing agitation's orbit. Boston's success encouraged the spread of parallel "committees of correspondence" all over the colonies.


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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations ix

Introduction: The American Revolution and the Origins of Democratic Modernity 1

1 First Rumblings 25

2 A Republican Revolution 36

3 Revolutionary Constitutionalism and the Federal Union (1776–90) 70

4 Schooling Republicans 90

5 Benjamin Franklin: “American Icon”? 113

6 Black Emancipation: Confronting Slavery in the New Republic 140

7 Expropriating the Native Americans 158

8 Whites Dispossessed 174

9 Canada: An Ideological Conflict 191

10 John Adams’s “American Revolution” 211

11 Jefferson’s French Revolution 246

12 A Tragic Case: The Irish Revolution (1775–98) 285

13 America’s “Conservative Turn”: The Emerging “Party System” in the 1790 321

14 America and the Haitian Revolution 361

15 Louisiana and the Principles of ’7 385

16 A Revolutionary Era: Napoleon, Spain, and the Americas (1808–15) 423

17 Reaction, Radicalism, and Américanisme under “the Restoration” (1814–30) 456

18 The Greek Revolution (1770–1830) 495

19 The Freedom-Fighters of the 1830 512

20 The Revolutions of 1848 Democratic Republicanism versus Socialism 547

21 American Reaction (1848–52) 568

Conclusion: “Exceptionalism,” Populism, and the Radical Enlightenment’s Demise 600

Notes 615

Bibliography 683

Index 727

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"With The Expanding Blaze, Jonathan Israel more than makes good his claim to be the only real successor to Enlightenment historians Peter Gay and R. R. Palmer. Indeed, Israel surpasses both, by joining their themes and ambitions in a single totalizing vision. His book combines a sweeping interpretation of the Enlightenment and a comprehensive account of the age of democratic revolution."—Johnson Kent Wright, Arizona State University

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