Hot Dreams of Liberty

British Library, London/Bridgeman Images
Thomas Paine advertising his services ‘to any nation or people under heaven who are Desirous of Liberty & Equality’; cartoon by Isaac Cruikshank, 1792

That subject—the common, comparative, and interactive aspects of the lives of the people in the four continents that surround the Atlantic basin, which lies at the heart of Polasky’s book—has had a remarkable recent history. Based on the concept that the Atlantic region can be viewed as a whole, as a historical unit in itself that transcends national and local boundaries, it took its present form in the early 1990s and has flourished in historical writing ever since, though it is little known outside academia.

The outpouring of publications within academia has been prodigious. Essays came first. Between 2002 and 2010 twenty-nine volumes of collected essays on Atlantic history appeared, in three languages. Between 1998 and 2013 thirty book-length monographs on various aspects of the subject were published in this country alone, six in the single year 2008. With this impetus the publishers got serious. From Oxford University Press in 2011 came a Handbook of the Atlantic World, 1450–1850 (611 pages, thirty-seven essays); from Princeton University Press in 2015 a Companion to Atlantic History (500 pages, four substantial essays, 128 topical mini-essays); from Brill (in the Netherlands) an ongoing book series entitled The Atlantic World: Europe, Africa, and the Americas, which by April of this year included thirty-five volumes. Conferences on the subject have appeared everywhere: in Germany, France, England, Canada, and various places in the US. And the subject has settled into history curricula, in courses, seminars, and informal discussion groups.

The attraction of the subject, once glimpsed, was obvious, and grew as the literature on it deepened and matured. It was intriguing; it helped explain developments and circumstances otherwise obscured. “Events we explained in terms of local dynamics,” one historian wrote, “are revealed to be above-water fragments of submarine unities.” Further, it provided a large-scale context within which local histories could find more elevated, broader relevance. And for North Americanists it provided a natural association with the mainstream of European and Latin American history, extending their parochial scholarship into a wider world.

The concept of Atlantic history, which had had little traction before 1995, developed so swiftly that by 2010 some historians had become Atlantic world weary and the basic idea was in danger of becoming passé. And indeed the entire subject has never been free from criticism, even by some who themselves contributed to it.

One of the most common charges was that the subject was shapeless. What were its limits? The chronological boundaries were clear. The distinctive Atlantic world took form in the early sixteenth century with the European discoveries and conquest of the Americas, and lost its basic structure in the late eighteenth century with the destruction of European imperialism in the Americas, the beginning of…

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