Historians have become more cosmopolitan these days. Many of them have broadened their horizons and have begun to escape from the traditional preoccupation with their own national pasts. Historians of the United States in particular have become increasingly skeptical about their long-existing habit of interpreting America’s past as a matter of what is called “exceptionalism.” Indeed, some historians have come to think of American “exceptionalism” as a kind of bogey that must be exorcised from the American historical profession and indeed from the culture at large.

For these historians American “exceptionalism” has not meant merely that the United States has been different from other countries. All nations are different from one another, and all have unique histories. But Americans seem to have exaggerated their sense of uniqueness. They have tended to think of their nation not just as different but as specially or providentially blessed, as somehow free from the larger tendencies of history and the common fate of nations.

Since the late 1960s this belief in American exceptionalism has eroded in a variety of ways. Many intellectuals have concluded that the United States no longer has a favored place in the vanguard of history. The country’s history does not seem exceptional after all: the United States is not exempt from history’s constraints and contingencies. The conflict in Vietnam convinced many that the moral character of the United States was not different from that of other nations. Americans, it seemed, no longer have any uniquely transcendent part to play in the world in promoting liberty and democracy.

At the same time America’s sense of difference from Europe, on which its exceptionalism was originally founded, has slowly disappeared as European nations have achieved standards of living and degrees of freedom and democratic political stability that are equal to, if not higher than, those of the United States. Even the conservative celebrator of America Irving Kristol admits that America now is “a middle-aged nation,” not all that different from the older nations England and France. “American exceptionalism,” he says, is virtually over. “We are now a world power, and a world power is not a ‘city on a hill,’ a ‘light unto the nations’—phrases that, with every passing year, ring more hollow.”1 For the first time in our history we Americans are confronting the fact that the United States may be just another nation among nations without any special messianic destiny.

Without its sense of exceptionalism American history is losing much of its former close ties to the nation. Throughout the Western world one traditional role of history was to promote a sense of nationhood. But with a weakening of nationalism and the development of more critical and less chauvinistic kinds of history over the past several decades, that role is changing. For the most part, history is no longer designed to inculcate patriotism, build a national identity, and turn immigrants into citizens. Instead, many historians have begun emphasizing racial, ethnic, and gender diversity, which has tended to dilute a unified sense of American identity. Some American intellectuals are even promoting a new intellectual globalism that seeks to transcend all national loyalties and even the idea of national citizenship. Some, such as the philosopher Martha Nussbaum, argue for a civic education that cultivates a citizenship of all humanity, not of a particular nation. Since national identity is “a morally irrelevant characteristic,” students should be taught that their “primary allegiance is to the community of human beings in the entire world.”2

Although these sorts of shifts in perspective may not be the only force explaining the growing cosmopolitanism of historians, there is no denying the recent broadening of historical scholarship. Historians of the United States no longer confine themselves to the nation’s borders; they now increasingly see the past of the United States as part of the larger history of the Atlantic world, if not of the entire globe. Although the concept of an Atlantic civilization goes back at least to the eighteenth century, it was only in the cold war years immediately following World War II that historians like R.R. Palmer and Jacques Godechot attempted to describe it in some depth and develop it historically. Yet it is only in the past several decades that dozens of historians have begun to make the idea of America’s involvement in a larger Atlantic world central to their work.

Many historians of colonial America, for example, no longer concentrate exclusively on the thirteen continental British colonies that became the United States in 1776. Many now place the history of the United States within the setting of the entire Atlantic basin, including Western Europe, West Africa, the Caribbean and South America, and the rest of North America. See, for instance, Atlantic America, 1492-1800, the first volume of D.W. Meinig’s The Shaping of America,3 which seeks to present the history of the United States within the broadest possible geographical perspective. Subjects such as the history of the slave trade, slavery, and African-American assimilation can no longer be understood within the confines of what became the continental United States. We now have to range from villages along the Gold Coast of Africa to the Cape Verde islands to Curaçao, Martinique, and Barbados to New Orleans, St. Augustine, and the Chesapeake, dealing with the colonies and trade routes of five different European states in the Atlantic world.


Since George Bancroft published the first volume of his ten-volume History of the United States in 1834, historians of early America had investigated the American colonial past as a means of understanding the origins of the United States; now many of them study American colonial history as simply a vital part of the pan-Atlantic system in the premodern era. As nationhood has receded in importance, historians have become interested in early America less for its own sake and more for what it reveals about the ways premodern Western society became modern.

Perhaps the most important consequence of this broadened perspective for American colonial history has been its embrace of the peoples of Hispanic America. Some early American historians like Mathew Mulcahy and Russell R. Menard have called for entirely new conceptions of America’s colonial past, new conceptions that would “think of colonial history as a history of all of the Americas.”4 Many would now like to reintroduce the hemispheric perspective that historian Herbert E. Bolton tried and failed to make stick in the 1930s—a perspective that placed United States history in a comparative frame with Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, and the countries of South America.

Some historians have argued that the history of Santa Fe in 1776 is just as important to American cultural identity as the history of Boston in 1776. As exaggerated as some of these proposals might at times appear, most are not the idle chatter of a few multicultural-minded historians. In fact, the Institute of Early American History and Culture in Williamsburg, the center for early American studies in America and the publisher of the leading journal in the field, The William and Mary Quarterly, announced in 1994 that it planned “to diversify its agenda”5 by reaching beyond its traditional commitment to study the British North American colonies in order to investigate the other peoples of the Atlantic world and especially those of Hispanic America. Early American historians now have concerns other than simply the origins of the United States.

With these expanded horizons and the weakening of the belief in American exceptionalism, early American historians in particular have inevitably become more interested in comparing what happened in North America with what happened elsewhere in the Western Hemisphere. British America was not the only place in the hemisphere that experienced encounters between European colonizers and indigenous peoples or that imported African slaves or that broke away in revolt from a European imperial power.

The history of slavery and race relations in America and other parts of the Western Hemisphere has been the subject that has been most thoroughly and richly compared—beginning with Frank Tannenbaum’s Slave and Citizen: The Negro in the Americas of 1946 and continuing on to the more recent comparative studies of both slavery and abolitionism by Stanley Elkins, David Brion Davis, Herbert Klein, Eugene Genovese, Carl Degler, Seymour Drescher, and Robin Blackburn. Gradually, however, other experiences common to the Americas besides slavery are being studied and compared. Johns Hopkins University has long had a program in Atlantic History and Culture, Harvard has created a center for the study of Early Modern Atlantic History, and the John Carter Brown Library in Providence, the largest repository in the world of printed texts dealing with the Americas in the colonial period, has recently established a Center for New World Comparative Studies.

Colonial historians of British America and Latin America are increasingly teaching joint comparative courses at various universities, and more and more of them are publishing works that compare developments in the two continents of the Western Hemisphere. Peggy Liss has written about the eighteenth-century networks of trade and ideas in Atlantic Empires.6 Patricia Seed has compared Ceremonies of Possession in Europe’s Conquest of the New World, 1492-1640.7 Anthony Pagden, in his Lords of All the World, has compared Spanish, French, and British ideologies of empire between 1500 and 1800.8 John H. Elliott, the Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford, has launched a major large-scale comparison of Spain and Britain in the colonial Americas, of which several articles have appeared. And now Lester D. Langley has written a comparative history of three revolutions in the Americas: the American Revolution in 1776, the 1791 slave revolt in the French Caribbean colony that became Haiti, and the prolonged Spanish-American struggle for independence that ended a half century later.


Langley, who is research professor of history at the University of Georgia, is the author of a half-dozen or so books on Central and South America, often in relation to the diplomatic policies of the United States. This, however, is his first full-scale attempt at comparative history, and it is one of the few comparisons of the eighteenth-century hemispheric revolutions ever made.

Writing comparative history is hard work. To compare his three revolutions Langley has had to read and digest hundreds of monographs in several languages, and then he has had to organize his findings in some sort of comprehensible order. But how does one do this? How does one actually write comparative history? Political scientists and sociologists like John Dunn and Jack Goldstone are interested in comparing revolutions, but they have purposes distinct to their disciplines: they compare in order to compile generalizations about revolutionary social behavior, about the structural conditions that breed conflict and rebellion, that will presumably help them understand revolutions in the future. But historians have different purposes. They are interested not in making generalizations about social behavior for the future but in describing and explaining particular events in the past. How does comparative history help do this? The great French historian Marc Bloch once remarked that the comparative method was designed not to hunt out resemblances but to emphasize differences. But of course without resemblances there can be no meaningful comparison, even if that comparison eventually results in stressing differences.

Writing as a historian, Langley naturally tries to avoid generalizations about social behavior. Sometimes, however, he forgets his discipline and slips into asserting some sociological generalizations of his own, as when he says “the true revolutionary can never admit of ambiguity or contradiction in the waging of the cause.” But for the most part, as he says, he is less concerned with addressing structural matters of revolutionary causation and consequence than with “exploring the particularity” of each of his three revolutions. Consequently, he neatly divides his book into three parts and in each part presents a narrative of between sixty and seventy pages, outlining what he sees as the principal events and characteristics of each revolution. He presumably hopes that the juxtaposition of these brief narratives will illuminate and enrich our understanding of all three revolutions in a way that a description of each alone could not do. Unfortunately his expectation is not borne out as successfully as he hopes.

The problem here is partly owing to his writing. Not only are his sometimes cryptic descriptions of the revolutions hard to follow, largely because he presumes that the reader already knows pretty much what happened, but the book itself is hard to read because of its clumsy prose and inadequate editing. It is marked throughout by dangling participles, shifting subjects, and ambiguous pronoun references. Langley also has the disconcerting habit of inserting quotations into his narrative without identifying for the reader whether they are the words of eighteenth-century participants or of present-day historians.

Still, the problems of his comparative history go beyond simple matters of expression. Langley’s first section deals with the American Revolution, which is described as “the revolution from above.” It arose in a society that was very different from those in the other parts of the Western Hemisphere. The population in 1770 numbered a little over two million, 80 percent of whom were whites of European descent. There were about 400,000 black slaves, mostly located in the Southern colonies. The existence of mulattos, mestizos, and other mixed races was scarcely acknowledged by Anglo-Americans in the mainland colonies. By 1770 the native Indians east of the Mississippi had been reduced in numbers to about 100,000 and had been relentlessly pushed to the edges of the expanding white settlements. (In Langley’s book this kind of basic demographic data is absent or hard to come by; there is, for example, no entry for “population” in the index.)

Langley cites dozens of different works on the American Revolution, many with perspectives and arguments at odds with one another, but he somehow harmonizes them. He describes both the attempts of British officials in the 1760s and 1770s to overhaul the empire—partly by extracting tax revenues from the colonists—and the efforts of the patriot Whig elites to mobilize the American populace into resistance and eventually into revolution. He seems to believe that these elites, including such figures as Samuel Adams and Patrick Henry, were uncertain and apprehensive about the popular forces they were rallying; he makes much, for example, of the rioting and violence in the period leading up to the Revolution, which he thinks arose essentially as a result of poverty, even though eighteenth-century white Americans in general probably had the highest standard of living in the world.

At any rate the Revolution set forth ideals of liberty and equality that had contagious effects in expanding political participation and in challenging traditional elite rule. In some parts of the country black slaves who fought the British were even granted their freedom. Yet, Langley writes, because the revolutionary leaders feared social disorder, they sought strenuously to limit the social forces unleashed by the Revolution and were largely successful in doing so. “The inequities in wealth that had characterized prerevolutionary British America remained.” Their revolution thus became a “social revolution promised but left unfulfilled.” By 1800 the revolutionary leaders had no further need of a large professional army and could safely reduce the nation’s military force to a small frontier constabulary. Because the people of the United States “had been mobilized for war, but the experience had not militarized society,” they “escaped dictatorship or militarism” and the fate of the Latin American republics.

Langley next describes the Haitian Revolution, which he calls “the revolution from below.” It began in 1790 on the French colony of Saint Domingue on the island of Hispaniola with an uprising of free coloreds. The free coloreds, a diverse group who numbered about 30,000 and included French-educated planters, tradesmen, artisans, and small landowners, had been infected with French revolutionary principles and now demanded equality with whites. The whites numbered about 40,000, but they were bitterly divided between the more prosperous grands blancs and the disorderly petits blancs, who had not found secure places in the island’s economy. Beneath the whites and the free coloreds were 500,000 African slaves.

Neither the whites nor the free coloreds realized the extent to which their civil war was affecting the slaves. In August 1791 the slaves on the northern plains rose up, soon becoming a force of twelve thousand that began killing whites and destroying plantations. Brutal retaliation by the whites did not stop growing numbers of slaves from deserting the plantations. Confronted with this rebellion from below, French officials sought to forge an alliance between the whites and the free coloreds and sent 6,000 troops to put down the rebellion. But the whites and free coloreds were so divided by factions that the fighting became worse and eventually spilled over into the Spanish portion of Hispaniola. With the end of the French monarchy and the outbreak of war between France and England in 1793, English forces invaded the island and soon became entangled in the brutal racial wars. Although the great ex-slave leader of the revolt, François-Dominique Toussaint L’Ouverture, tried to preserve a multiracial society, he could not contain the chaos that spiraled into the rebellion’s eventual goal of eliminating both slavery and whites.

With the failure in 1803 of Napoleon’s effort to recover the colony for France, Haiti joined the United States as the second independent state of the New World; but unlike the United States Haiti succeeded in ending slavery and proclaiming racial equality at the moment of independence—achievements that prevented the United States from diplomatically recognizing the new republic until the time of the Civil War.

Although the Haitians had already endured more than a dozen years of civil war and seen their land devastated and a third of their population killed, their miseries were not over. Toussaint’s successors tried to conquer the Spanish portion of the island and warred among themselves for two decades. By the 1820s decades of rebellion and violence had left Haiti impoverished and militarized; yet because it was the only nation in world history ever created by slaves, it remained an inspiration to blacks in bondage everywhere in the New World.

In his third section Langley describes the many rebellions and wars of independence that broke out in Latin America in the aftermath of the American, French, and Haitian revolutions. Although there are points of similarity, in many crucial respects the Latin American colonial empire was very different from that of British North America. Out of a total population of 13.5 million in Latin America in 1800 there were 3.5 million whites, most of whom were American-born (creoles); there were only about 30,000 Spanish-born (peninsulares), who were sent out by the Crown to staff the offices of the imperial bureaucracy. Although many creoles managed to secure a share of these imperial offices, their local power remained dependent on the law and institutions radiating from the Crown in Spain. Unlike the American politicians in the British colonies, these creole leaders in Latin America never developed popular representative institutions like the North American colonial assemblies that existed outside the imperial bureaucracy and contested its authority.

Yet the Latin American revolutions originated in circumstances similar to those that precipitated resistance and revolution in British North America; they were touched off by the attempts of Spanish officials both to tighten their control over and to raise revenues from their empire during the last third of the eighteenth century. Although the Spanish creole elites were as angry at the new taxes and the arbitrariness of the imperial reforms as the British-American patriots were, they were reluctant to resist imperial authority directly and to move toward independence in the relatively aggressive manner of the British-American leaders. Unlike the North American leaders, they were a minority amid a mass of mestizos, mulattos, Indians, and slaves whose passions they feared exciting. Despite being inspired by the example of the successful North American revolution against imperial authority, they also knew from the experience of Haiti the dangers of arousing a revolution from below.

Yet Napoleon’s invasion of Spain and his removal of the Spanish king from the throne in 1807-1808 made change inevitable and aroused calls for independence. Still, the creoles hesitated. Liberators like Simón Bolívar and José de San Martín realized they could never win the struggle for independence without mobilizing the lower orders of Indians, slaves, and those of mixed descent; yet they also feared that the social consequences of such a mobilization might make the costs of independence too high. So the creole elites equivocated and took away privileges and rights even as they promised them, and repressed the lower orders even as they freed them.

By 1826 both Spain and Portugal were finally driven from the New World, with Spain retaining in America only the islands of Cuba and Puerto Rico. Seventeen Spanish American states and Brazil achieved independence, but their revolution, says Langley, became “the revolution denied.” The initial calls for liberty ended with desperate searches for authority. Successive Latin American leaders realized that they could contain the chaos and violence released by independence only by granting military authority to local chieftains or caudillos. Latin America, Bolívar concluded on the eve of his death, was “ungovernable.” Order could be maintained only by force.

In a fourth part of his book, which is entitled “The Revolutionary Legacy,” Langley assesses the consequences of the various revolutions up to the mid-nineteenth century. Perhaps because he wants to expose the fiction of exceptionalism that Americans invented for themselves, he sometimes seems harsher in his judgments of the American Revolution and the United States than he is of the other hemispheric revolutions and states. What troubles him especially (and many other historians these days) is the failure of the American revolutionaries to abolish slavery entirely and to establish a truly democratic, equal, and pluralistic society. The revolutionary leaders should have known better, but nevertheless they went ahead and “excluded women and minorities from any meaningful participation in political life.” Langley seems implicitly to be suggesting some sort of utopian ideal against which he measures past American society. Thus he emphasizes “the persistence of impoverishment” and inequality in Jacksonian America. But one wonders: Poor and unequal compared to what? To other nations in 1830? Or to the present? Or to what ought to be? Just how is comparative history supposed to work?

Langley doesn’t see much good in what he calls Tocqueville’s America. The market economy may have appeared to rest on voluntary labor, but it was “in actuality a subtler form of coercion” than the indentured servitude it had done away with. (He does concede, however, that working in the market economy was not as bad as slavery.) The political leaders were hypocritical and cynical: they made up myths to hide the sins and inequities of the society and set up political parties as a democratic sham, “the surest means of keeping government out of the hands of the vaunted common man.” Yet most historians have asserted the contrary: that political parties, for all their failings, were the means by which America became the most democratic nation in the nineteenth-century world.

In Langley’s view, the early American elites, including Jefferson, not only were deceitful in their treatment of the Indians, but also hoodwinked the mass of whites about the western lands, which, Langley says, “disproportionately benefited the few”; the political leaders were able “to persuade the public that national expansion was for the people, not the developers.” Apparently Langley thinks that a few developers made killings in lands in the west at the expense of all the hundreds of thousands of settlers and squatters who moved there. In fact, most developers went bankrupt while the settlers steadily refused to pay what was asked for the lands and indeed eventually in 1862 pressured the government simply to give the land away.

Although Langley admits that the post-revolutionary United States was notably more successful than Haiti or Spanish America in integrating “disparate and conflictive social groups” into a common citizenry, he still finds fault with Jacksonian America for its exclusion of women, Indians, and blacks from the full benefits of the society. He suggests (no doubt correctly) that the Civil War might have been avoided if the US leaders had behaved differently and abolished slavery everywhere and forced the society to live up to its revolutionary promises by including the dispossessed within its ranks. Langley seems to believe that both the North and South American leaders throughout the entire period had more freedom of choice than they in fact had. Only by minimizing the powerful cultural and other historical circumstances impinging on the political leaders can he accuse them, as he does, of making “the wrong choices at independence.” It is always easier in retrospect to know what went wrong.

No doubt Americans in the early nineteenth century wanted to exclude blacks and Indians from their society as a solution to the problems of racial mixture and assimilation. But the policies of excluding and removing different “others” were not improvisations of the moment; their cultural sources went far back in European and American history. Patricia Seed’s comparative history of the different ways the European states took possession of the New World in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries points out that from the very beginning of colonization in America English culture tended to dispossess and exclude the non-English by building actual and psychological fences between people and by assuming that property belonged only to those who farmed and improved it. Such deeply-rooted ethnocentric habits of mind were not easily overcome and were still very much present in Anglo-American culture two centuries later.

Comparative history such as that in Seed’s book can help us to see things that we otherwise might miss. But Langley doesn’t clearly explain what he hoped his own comparative method would accomplish. He has told three stories one after another in all their particularity, but he has a great deal of trouble, especially in his painfully contorted introduction, in explaining what these particularities add up to. He notes the importance of theory for comparative studies of revolution, but he realizes that any theory applied to these revolutions would be simplistic and would miss all “the nuances of the particular.” He says that his revolutions are more easily described than explained. He repeatedly laments that virtually everything about these different revolutions is too complicated, ambiguous, and confused for explanation, and that none of the prevailing theories of revolution can encompass them. He puts forward some sort of “chaos theory,” involving both “local disorder” and “creative adaptability,” but then immediately dismisses it as “inadequate.” In frustration he suggests the weather as a metaphor or model for the revolutions, both being predictable and unpredictable at the same time. Ultimately, however, Langley concludes that the only thing the revolutions “had in common was chaos and complexity,” which meant that their dynamics did not follow a linear pattern. “What explained the character of these revolutions,” he writes, “was their chaotic form.” The leaders who realized this could adapt creatively and be successful. Washington, for example, “won the war in the Pennsylvania countryside because he adapted to its chaotic patterns.” But Bolívar “failed as a postrevolutionary leader because he could no longer survive in a chaotic world.”

Contending that everything is too complex, ambiguous, and chaotic for coherent explanation is not what we usually expect from a historical account. Certainly writing comparative history is difficult, and Langley should be commended for the great efforts he has made. But in this case the aims and methods of such history remain too vague and loosely defined. More than anything else, Langley’s book suggests that if the revolutions in the hemisphere are to be compared, we need a clearer approach to their similarities and differences than anything we have had so far.

This Issue

November 20, 1997