The Americas in the age
of Revolution: 1750-1850
By Lester D. Langley
Yale University Press, 287 pp., $35
"All that part of Creation that lies within our observation is liable to change. Even mighty States and Kingdoms are not exempted."
Twenty years before British troops marched into the Massachusetts countryside and triggered the "shot heard round the world," John Adams couldn't have been more prophetic. Over the next century, revolutions swept the New World and ended the grip of British, French, and Spanish colonial rule.
Much has already been written about the revolutionary age of the Western Hemisphere. But in "The Americas in the Age of Revolution, 1750-1850," Lester D. Langley, a history professor at the University of Georgia and author of "America and the Americas" and "The Banana Wars," offers an intriguing, fresh, and somewhat persuasive comparative study of three of the most important revolutions in this hemisphere: the American Revolution of 1776, the Haitian revolution that began in 1791, and the revolutions that engulfed Spanish America and ended in the early 19th century.
On a basic level, all three revolutions arguably point to the triumph of classical liberalism - to the termination of unjust foreign rule and to the implementation of what the British philosopher John Locke called the natural rights of man: life, liberty, and property. Government, according to Locke, was legitimate only when it applied to popular sovereignty and when the ruled consented to being governed.
However, on a deeper level the revolutions were much more complex and not quite so rosy. The American Revolution, Langley argues, was important because it struck at the social, political, and economic roots of empire - and provided the rest of Latin America with a useful example for combating colonial rule.
At the same time, though, it was also deeply troubling and paradoxical. For while it may have terminated British control, substantial inequalities of wealth remained and "liberty" was hardly a relevant term for blacks, Indians, and women.
The Haitian revolution, which Langley terms "the revolution from below," was perhaps the most remarkable and extensive because it was a revolution led by slaves. Yet, partly because of the naivet of the black liberator Toussaint-Louverture, the implementation of a forced plantation labor system after the revolution was still a denial of freedom for the "freed" slaves.
Finally, while the revolutions in Latin America marked the end of Spanish domination, the legacy of such revolutionary leaders as Jos de San Martn and Simn Bolvar was one of militarism and social and political hierarchy. The gulf between an elite minority and an impoverished majority became increasingly wider, and the legitimacy of governments was often upheld by brutal force.
Unfortunately, Langley fails to adequately explore the contemporary implications of these revolutions - perhaps the most interesting and useful aspect of his study. For example, what, if anything, does the failure of the American Revolution to establish equality along racial, gender, and class lines say about American history or contemporary American society?
Moreover, at times Langley goes too far in minimizing the importance of the American Revolution.
He writes, for instance, that "US leaders crafted a liberal nation-state, designed to serve the interests of the few, and learned the political art of sharing power while pretending they were servants of the people. They created necessary and instructive fictions ...."
Although it is undeniable that the American Revolution left in place a social system of gross inequalities, the establishment of a society based on the Lockean principles of liberalism also made progress possible - as demonstrated by the Civil War, Teddy Roosevelt's antitrust reforms, FDR's New Deal, and the civil rights era of the 1950s and '60s.
While "The Americas in the Age of Revolution: 1750-1850" would likely be a difficult read for someone with little or no background knowledge of North American and Latin American history, it is nonetheless a useful comparative study of three very important revolutions - revolutions that had a profound impact on the history of the Western Hemisphere.
* Seth G. Jones is on the Monitor staff.