Americans and Revolutionaries

Revolutions: Reflections on American Equality and Foreign Liberations

by David Brion Davis
Harvard University Press, 130 pp., $19.95

Revolutions is a very timely book, more timely surely than the author, David Brion Davis, Sterling Professor of History at Yale, could have realized when he presented it as the William E. Massey Lectures in the History of American Civilization at Harvard University in May 1989. Since that date revolutions have occurred with great rapidity in Eastern Europe, and their end may not be yet in sight. How will the United States respond to all these repudiations by Communist nations of their revolutionary past? What meaning does revolution today have for Americans whose country was itself born in revolution? And what is the relationship of equality to revolution and how do our ideas of equality change in response to foreign revolutions? Davis’s short book offers us some historical perspective for dealing with questions like these.

Revolutions is composed of three lectures or chapters entitled “The American Revolution and the Meaning of Equality,” “America, France, and the Anxieties of Influence,” and “The Struggle to Preserve a Revolutionary America.” The book is not history as such, certainly not any sort of narrative account that takes us from one point in the past to another. It is instead, as the subtitle makes clear, a set of personal reflections on the theme of equality and foreign revolutions in American history, concentrating on the era of the founding fathers and their “exuberance and disillusion over the French Revolution,” which Davis says became “the prototype or paradigm for international revolution” until at least 1917.

As a series of reflections or ruminations, the book necessarily wanders about, both in time and space, from 1789 to 1848 to 1989, from Haiti to Seneca Falls to Tiananmen Square. It is leisurely and erudite, in keeping with its original lecture format. And it is punctuated with informed references and quotations from everyone from V.S. Naipaul to Mikhail Gorbachev. The book is a fitting expression of the immense learning and imaginative insights of one of America’s most distinguished historians.

Although there have been several studies of America’s responses to foreign revolutions, including the late William Appleman Williams’s programmatic book, America Confronts a Revolutionary World: 1776–1976 (1976), Davis believes that none of them adequately conveys “the extraordinary complexity” of America’s reactions to revolutions elsewhere in the world. Because many “detailed investigations” are needed, he says, before we can reach a sound synthesis of the subject—“a synthesis grounded in the social history…that discovers long-term continuities, traditions, reenactments, and symbolic meanings”—his book can be “no more than a pilot study.”

Davis here is being much too humble. Asserting that his book is just an initial probe into a complicated subject is good rhetorical strategy for a historian who wants to roam freely over two centuries in less than a hundred pages; but it seems doubtful that a longer book based on more detailed studies would change Davis’s opinion on these matters very much. After almost a half century of pondering the problems of American history, Davis knows pretty much what he thinks about…

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