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 the end of the Atlantic slave trade, and the economic transformation of the industrial revolution. But what were its spatial boundaries? How far did it extend? What did it include? To these questions Polasky’s book provides some intriguing answers.

“The Atlantic world,” she writes, “had never been as tightly interconnected as at the end of the eighteenth century” when “revolutions cascaded through all of the continents bordering the Atlantic.”

From the Americas to Geneva, the Netherlands, Ireland, the Belgian provinces, France, Saint-Domingue, Guadeloupe, Poland, Martinique, Sierra Leone, Italy, Hungary, and Haiti, revolutionaries challenged the privileges of aristocrats, clerics, and monarchs to claim their sovereignty.

Polasky’s aim, in this deeply researched book, is to search out and trace the fortunes of a distinctive group of radical reformers who traveled beyond the bounds of their native lands to promote the cause of universal human liberties. Itinerants, “cosmopolites,” they saw the world and its possibilities for reform with fresh eyes, and dreamed of a new, better world to come. To do this she has organized the chapters not by the sequence of events but by the kinds of documents available, successively pamphlets, memoirs, narratives, newspapers, and official decrees. And within these chapters, each with its distinctive documentation, she explores the fortunes of the itinerant reformers.

The great and famous figures of the revolutionary era are there, but only in passing. Polasky is more interested in people who did not have “lasting fame” but whose lives reflect the breadth and passion of the “Atlantic Revolution broadly cast” and whose “ideals reverberated throughout the Atlantic basin”—people like the aristocratic Dutch pamphleteer Joan Derk van der Capellen, who led the Dutch Patriot Revolution of 1787 and declared that “the flame that burns in America will spread quickly, engulfing all of Europe, littered as the continent is with flammable material”; and the peripatetic French journalist, pamphleteer, and revolutionary activist Jacques-Pierre Brissot, who believed, despite his experiences in America, that citizens of the new nation treated one another as brothers and equals.


Among her other subjects are the novelist Betje Wolff and her partner Aagje Deken, who fled the Netherlands after the collapse of the Patriot Revolution but who got into trouble in France for denouncing the use of violence. There is Georg Förster, a German naturalist and academic who toured the globe with Captain Cook, promoted Enlightenment ideas, and became an organizer of the short-lived, democratic Mainz Republic (1793) until forced out by Prussian troops, to die in exile in Paris; and the English poet Helen Maria Williams, an eyewitness to the bloody upheavals of the French Revolution who nevertheless wrote glowing reports of what she had seen.

Polasky also writes of Anna Maria Falconbridge, who chronicled the settlements in the new world of Sierra Leone; Jefferson’s secretary, the diplomat William Short, who was torn between his enjoyment of Europe and his duties at home; Joel Barlow, a frustrated Connecticut poet who ended up in the toils of American diplomacy and business dealings in Europe; and the Genevan pastor Étienne Dumont, who witnessed the revolution in Paris and returned home to help create what the Genevan revolution of 1782 had only suggested, “an enduring revolution for equality and citizenship.” (Polasky provides a six-page Dramatis Personae to help the reader identify the more obscure people she discusses.)

Similarly, Polasky concentrates not on the major upheavals in France and North America but on the “utopian dramas” in the peripheries: revolts in Brussels, Brabant, and other districts of Belgium; in Geneva and other cantons of Switzerland; in Guadeloupe and Amsterdam; in Ireland, Sierra Leone, and Scotland. Like the three revolts in Belgium between 1776 and 1789 fought for freedom by “shoeless, untrained Belgian militia,” they all “fizzled out,” swept aside by Austrian, French, Prussian, or Russian troops. But though these efforts proved to be “dead ends, unrealized dreams of liberty, and forays into a new world,” they left behind testimonies of the daring of their leaders’ vision; they “shook the Old Regime”; and they forecast revolutions to come that would “awaken slumbering people and send a chill up the backs of aristocrats and despots throughout Europe.”

Thus Poland’s constitution of 1791, endorsed by both Paine and Burke, was suppressed by Russian troops within a year, but the resistance movement, which had been led by Thaddeus Kościuszko, a hero of the American war, survived and led to a countrywide insurrection that ended in 1794 in a massacre of thousands and the partition of Poland by Russians, Austrians, and Prussians. Though defeated, the revolutionaries were celebrated as martyrs in the cause of liberty and Kościuszko was dubbed the Washington of Poland.

Organized as the chapters are, by modes of expression, there is no singular sequence of events in the book, no overall narrative, but in each case there are one or more micro-narratives and a wealth of information, largely in anecdotal form, that allow one to see how lesser rebellions for popular reform intersected, sometimes paradoxically, with the great transformative movements of the time.

Polasky notes, for example, in the chapter on pamphlets that the tyrant the Belgian revolutionaries were rebelling against was the reformist emperor Joseph II, one of the most enlightened rulers of the era, who they declared “had tyrannized the Belgian People & reduced them to…Slavery.” Likening the Belgians’ efforts to preserve their traditional local privileges to the struggle of the Americans against Britain, the Belgians identified Joseph II with the notorious Philip II of Spain and their local efforts with the “larger Atlantic revolution.”

From the private journals one finds comments and experiences otherwise lost, like those of the Genevan Dumont, who in Paris in 1789 recorded his observations of the interior of the Bastille and the “astonishing events” that happened there. “In the space of a week,” he wrote, we “have lived a century.” Horrified by what he had seen in Paris, Dumont was caught in the dilemma of being too radical for Geneva and too moderate for France.

The chapter on narratives concentrates on the frustrations of the free blacks in revolutionary America, dispersed to Nova Scotia, the West Indies, London, and Sierra Leone in search of true freedom and citizenship. This is a sprawling, complex story told through the biography of the famous Olaudah Equiano, the former slave who opposed the slave trade in Great Britain; the accounts of John Clarkson, the first governor of Sierra Leone and his abolitionist brother Thomas Clarkson; the lives of the religious freedmen Boston King and David George; and involving pan-Atlantic webs of antislavery sentiment. It concludes in the Freetown Revolution in Sierra Leone, crushed, paradoxically, by an influx of Jamaican maroons (former slaves) in search of land to farm.

Newspapers (chapter 4), in an era when literacy of artisans and tradesmen increased radically (one third of Londoners, Polasky writes, read a weekly newspaper), exploded in numbers and circulation in these revolutionary years. They carried news not only of the major events but of the humblest, most obscure efforts at insurrection and amplified the political debates, plans, and programs, from Philadelphia to Warsaw. Their influence became especially important through the increase in the number of social clubs in both France and England, where newspapers were available and which became popular sites for political debates.


The chapter on fiction centers on the writings and feminist politics of Mary Wollstonecraft but involves also the Dutch novelists Isabelle de Charrière, Betje Wolff, and Aagje Deken. They were prolific (Wolff and Deken, Polasky tells us, together published some 10,000 pages of novels and commentary) and they confronted through fiction, with an eye on Rousseau, the question of women’s place in an emerging ideal society and the likelihood and benefits of the true liberation of women. This theme is carried on in the next chapter, on marriage and love affairs seen through correspondence between husbands, wives, and lovers.

Here Polasky’s documentation is especially rich and the contrasts in marital fortunes vivid—contrasts exemplified by, on the one hand, the bitter, tumultuous married life of Nancy Shippen Livingston, in love with Louis Otto, a young French diplomat, but forced, in traditional ways, to marry the wealthy Henry Livingston, a domineering rake who ultimately divorced her on the false ground of infidelity, and on the other the blissful, idealized New World partnership of Ruth and Joel Barlow, whose letters overflow with affection. The Barlows “had decided that in America, young women could freely choose their own companions, and young men did not require inheritances to earn their way.”


Tate Gallery, London/Art Resource

Mary Wollstonecraft; portrait by John Opie, circa 1790–1791

The chapter moves on to another romantic tale, of William Short’s hopeless pursuit of the Duchesse de la Rochefoucauld. She was intrigued, for a while, but she knew well the impossibility of marrying her idealistic, ardent lover who dreamed of an American idyll, with her, in a transformed world. She dropped him gently, at one point on the pretext that she had to take care of her grandmother. The chapter concludes with an account of some unfamiliar views and experiences of Saint John de Crèvecoeur, the famous commentator on American life, the “American Farmer,” and his daughter’s marriage to none other than Louis Otto.

Otto appears also in the next chapter, on decrees. What once was conceived to be the dawning of universal peace became a series of invasions in the name of bringing liberty to oppressed peoples. In this single chapter Polasky traces the cascade of newly invented, short-lived principalities that came and went as the French armies overran the Rhineland, Belgium, Switzerland, and northern Italy, and sought to overthrow English rule in Ireland. She ends the chapter with a “Caribbean Epilogue,” describing how “Haitian revolutionaries secured their independence by defeating the armies of the soon to be crowned emperor of the French.” The history of French expansion in the early Napoleonic years is immensely complicated, but Polasky has managed to sketch the story and keep the main theme clear—that what had started in the lesser principalities as “idealistic, peace-promoting universalism” had become a world of brutal upheavals dominated by cannons and bayonets.

At the end of the book Polasky writes an elegiac chapter on the ultimate misfortunes of the cosmopolitan travelers who had hoped and striven, in the early revolutionary decades, for the establishment of “universal benevolence” throughout the Atlantic world. By the 1790s their hopes for universal liberty were fading, overcome by the force of nationalism in which they could play no part. The people she has discussed, whose voices had rung with idealism in support of revolutions without borders, had lost credibility and had ended poorly. Brissot, a moderate Girondin who had dreamed of creating a universal confederation of the friends of liberty and truth, had been guillotined; William Short lived alone, “politically adrift”; Kościuszko was first celebrated as a revolutionary hero when he returned to America, but left when he was denounced as pro-French and a mercenary; Barlow had died of consumption in Poland, leaving his widow to fight loneliness in the harsh American democracy; and Paine, after his tumultuous years in Europe, died in New York, attended at his funeral by a cortege of six.

All of the “cosmopolitans” were marginalized by the post-revolutionary nationalism. Yet their struggles for universal human rights, Polasky concludes, “have connected the Atlantic world for more than two hundred years” and “remind us of the impermanence of the borders that obstruct the travel of restless itinerants and their ideals.”

Revolutions Without Borders, its text documented in fifty-nine pages of endnotes and a section on sources that lists what must be several hundred works, is a solid and imaginative work of scholarship. Polasky has gone far toward accomplishing her main purpose, to reveal the

interconnected struggle for universal human rights that spanned the Atlantic and stretched across continents…. From small city-states located in the heart of Europe to islands off the coast of West Africa, revolutionaries shared their dreams of a new world, filling in the arc of the Atlantic Revolution between the American and the French revolutions.

She had difficulties to overcome. The structure of the chapters, defined by different types of documentation, invites repetition and overlap since individuals expressed themselves not in one but several media. The criteria for identifying “itinerant revolutionaries”—“cosmopolitans”—are vague and elusive. People who had no “lasting fame” cannot include Paine, who is featured throughout the book. Some of the narratives within the chapters are so extensive or, as in the case of the Caribbean upheavals, so complex that it becomes hard at times for the reader to keep the main themes in mind.

More important is the question of spatial dimensions. Polasky extends her reach beyond Europe and western Africa to the “cauldron of insurrection” in Saint Domingue, Guadeloupe, and elsewhere in the Caribbean but includes the Italian principalities only in connection with the Napoleonic invasions. They might well be included in the “cascade” of cries for reform and liberation, to judge from Franco Venturi’s elaborate study of reform movements in eighteenth-century Italy (not mentioned by Polasky though it covers precisely the events in Geneva, Holland, and Belgium that interest her).*

Some of the Italian principalities were hotbeds of reformist zeal, and the struggle of the Corsicans for independence from France produced its own cries for liberty led by Pasquale Paoli, who should surely qualify as one of Polasky’s “cosmopolitan travelers.” And it was Cesare Beccaria, the leader of a group of young reformers in Milan, who wrote one of the most widely read tracts of the time, On Crimes and Punishments (1764). That small book swept across Western Europe, from Tuscany to Scandinavia and Russia, and especially to North America, and not only set the goals for universal reform of judicial systems but by clear implication promoted the utopian idea of society as a community of free and equal men.

The links of Polasky’s European “cosmopolites” to Latin American rebels and reformers, who also crossed borders, are more remote. Their great upheavals would come later, and in any case the situation in Spanish and Portuguese America was different from that of Europe, if only because of the dominance of the Catholic Church and the complexities of race. But there were early signs of the revolutionary zeal that would within a single lifetime transform that world. One thinks of the Brazilian intellectuals who sought out Jefferson in Paris for advice on political reform, the overseas students at the University of Coimbra in Portugal who devoured accounts of the American Revolution, and the passion of the martyred Brazilian “Tiradentes” (Joaquin da Silva Xavier), who kept in his pocket a copy of the French translations of the American state constitutions, though knowing no French he had to ask others for translation. So, too, in these years Túpac Amaru led his fatal rebellion in Peru, and the revolt of the Comuneros in Colombia set off its own cascade of local uprisings.

But despite the difficulties Polasky faced in developing her study of a distinctive aspect of Atlantic history at the point of its maximum cohesiveness, she has added to our knowledge of the aspirational breadth and something of the inner lives of the itinerant would-be revolutionaries. Her “cosmopolitan” idealists failed in their utopian programs but they left behind testimonies of their passionate concern for rights that transcend physical and legal boundaries and apply to humanity at large.