The Expanding Blaze: How the American Revolution Ignited the World, 1775–1848
by Jonathan Israel.
Princeton University Press, 2017.
Hardcover, 768 pages, $40.
We know what partisanship is without invoking Aristotle. We see it all around us, especially after collective tragedies when one or both of our unscrupulous political parties blames the other for using the circumstances to serve their own narrow ambitions instead of the larger good of the nation. Where Aristotle’s definition differs is its emphasis on the narrowness itself, of partisanship as an incomplete idea. He tells us in Politics that, well before these different and competing political ends are incompatible with each other, they’re fundamentally incompatible with a complete, whole, and true conception of the common good. The emphasis shouldn’t necessarily be that they only serve their own ends, but that they offer only a partial view of the total truth of reality.
Jonathan Israel’s The Expanding Blaze: How the American Revolution Ignited the World, 1775–1848, despite being an epic and sprawling tome, is partisan in both the colloquial and Aristotelian senses. It’s obese with compelling anecdotes and overflows with fascinating historical personalities. Yet in oversimplifying political theories and human characters in order to sell a flimsily constructed dichotomy of good radical democracy versus evil mixed government, it remains partial, fractured, and incomplete.
Over more than six hundred pages Israel expands on a premise that he lays out succinctly in the introduction. “The American Revolution,” Israel writes, “preceding the great French Revolution of 1789–99, was the first and one of the most momentous upheavals of a whole series of revolutionary events gripping the Atlantic world during the three-quarters of a century from 1775 to 1848–49. Like the French Revolution, these were all profoundly affected by, and impacted on, America in ways rarely examined and discussed in broad context.” What Israel suggests here is more than simply an inspiration echoing from one political upheaval to another, but, as the title of the book (taken from a poem by Freneau) implies, a single contiguous entity weaving its way across time and place: The Eternal and Universal Revolution.
By thinking of the American Revolution as something untethered from specific contexts, unique to both time and place (however inspirational to the Dutch, Irish, and French), a dichotomy in chiaroscuro is painted. On one side is the blaze itself, the forces of goodness and light that battle against odds for an unmitigated liberty of the human spirit. Opposing them are the ignorant and evil forces of darkness. And there are no shades of gray in between, nor room for subtlety. For Israel, these oppositional forces can be most clearly seen in the struggle between the radical democrats such as Franklin, Jefferson, and Paine and the advocates for mixed government represented by Adams, Hamilton, Jay, and Washington. If the purpose of the revolution wasn’t simply to extract ourselves politically from the British Empire, but the transformation of “all humanity” through universal rational principles of suffrage and equality, then anyone dragging their feet by insisting on things like an independent judiciary is simply and cruelly anachronistic.
These oversimplifications of both motive and ideology are misleading, but they are certainly dramatic, and make for great reading. Israel’s book is nothing if not addictive, and though the ideological foundation of the book might be disordered and confused, there are smaller fascinating stories told within this larger framework. For instance, there’s the story of how integral Hessian troops were to the British war machine, and the effect their conscription had on German politics. Israel writes:
Constrained by the Glorious Revolution’s anti-military tradition, and the English gentry’s aversion to any large standing army at home, which meant that there was no large pool of veteran troops to draw on, and the king’s reluctance to raise fresh united regiments given the urgent need to deploy trained men, Parliament solved the resulting strategic dilemma by hiring seventeen thousand (supposedly) trained and equipped troops in Hesse, Württemberg, and other German states (but not Prussia). These were to fight alongside the British under their own officers. In this way, a mercenary foreign army became integral to the British war machine in America and part of the complex interaction between the Revolution and the wider world.
So far, something everyone has learned in high school history classes. But Israel then goes on to describe the predictably destructive effects of petty German princes scouring the countryside for young men to send to an unnecessary (for the German peasants at least) war on another continent: “reduced farm productivity on incomes and tax revenues … widespread ill feeling … a vast tangle of disrupted apprenticeships, disused plots, deferred and broken marriages, and abandoned wives and children.”
The effects of the displacement of the German peasantry continued even after the surviving soldier’s return:
Controversy over how the British payments should be assigned dragged on for years, with the noble disgruntlement aggravated by shortage of servants, coachmen, and valets for their own service caused by the relentless recruiting. The manifest injustice of it all inflamed local passions and helped form fresh cells of political subversion among professors, students, booksellers, and journalists with ties to the Illuminati, a secret underground sprouting everywhere in Germany in the mid-1770’s.
This is Israel at his best, illustrating in coherent terms how the fluttering of political butterfly wings on one side of the world could cause a tsunami on the other.
But it doesn’t always work, and Israel, so eager to express his own political sentiments, often strays from the cogent register of cause and effect. Terentianus Maurus wrote Pro captu lectoris habent sua fata libelli, or “Books have their destinies according to the abilities of the reader.” Perhaps the same could be said about revolutions. To directly blame the Terror of the French Revolution on American responses to the Stamp Act is like blaming Jodie Foster for President Reagan being shot.
Political and historical oversimplification invites contradiction. The most glaringly obvious is Israel’s casting of Jefferson, a slave owner, as an “iconic” revolutionary without giving much analysis to the ways in which slave-owning shaped the Virginian’s political opinions. Then there is the deeper but more subtle dissonance. There is something almost Leninist in how Israel so easily exalts the minority intellectual class pushing for the sort of revolution he personally approves of. “Revolutions, then,” he writes, “are not shaped by sociability or general attitudes but by organized revolutionary vanguards marshaling their own distinctive political language and rhetoric, including apt slogans, as a means of capturing, taking charge of, and interpreting the discontent generated by social and economic pressures.” He himself admits that “Setting aside monarchy and instituting a republic in America, like abolition of the French monarchy in September 1792, in fact had very little to do with established or slowly changing general attitudes,” and that the American Constitution “contradicted everything the people were used to.”
His prose drips with condescension when he writes that most of the American Revolution’s initial local leaders were from humble backgrounds, people who worked in taverns or forges, and who
“in most cases had never heard of republicanism or writers like Sidney, Harrington, or Locke. The Enlightenment did not interest most people. However, just as in the French Revolution later, these semiliterate artisans taking the lead in 1765–66, and again in 1774–76, were not equipped to concert a wider strategy or draw up a political and constitutional plan. Their energy was crucial but also undirected, unruly, and potentially counterproductive. Most had little conception of the wider implications, so that during 1774–75 the growing armed rebellion conspicuously lacked any guiding concepts as to what final political and social outcome was intended.
Of course, Israel, a professor of modern history at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, considers himself among the select few qualified to interpret and guide the General Will of the People, past and present. No need to bother with counter arguments, either from conservative liberals such as Adams or the personification of counterargument himself, Edmund Burke (who receives only a few passing mentions in the book). No need to take seriously the experiences or values of American blacks and Haitians (Israel writes, “Most Virginia blacks, moreover, like those of Haiti, and Europe’s peasant rebels, were far from sharing in the revolutionary republican enthusiasm of a few literate and articulate revolutionaries. Rather, they believed their faraway monarch was indeed glorious and in intention their benevolent protector.”). In this essentially Whiggish history of liberation, all our struggles (well, their struggles) terminate in the perfect moral imaginations of the men qualified to explain and decipher human freedom to the masses. Men much like Professor Israel.
In a sense, Israel’s Manichean history is written in the perfect mode for our age of #Resistance. There are two sides to history, good and bad, and don’t bother too much with the contradictions this overly simple division pastes over. Although Israel writes an interesting story, it isn’t necessarily true to life. Life, being so full of contradictory ideas and messy with experience, turns out to be quite counterrevolutionary.
Scott Beauchamp is a writer and infantry veteran whose previous work has appeared in the Paris Review, The American Conservative, and Bookforum, among other places. He lives in Maine.