Book Review – ‘Revolutions Without Borders: The call to liberty in the Atlantic world’ by Gavin Murray-Miller

By Gavin Murray-Miller, published November 2020


The ‘Age of Atlantic Revolutions’ is the veritable substance of history. It marked a period rife with political upheavals that transformed the world and larger-than-life figures shrouded in the allure of romantic mythology. As Janet Polasky herself admits in her latest book Revolutions Without Borders, the late-eighteenth century appeared ‘an era when anything seemed possible’. Polasky masterfully recounts the heroic struggles for freedom and emancipation that cut across the Atlantic world. Her overall message in chronicling these events is hardly opaque: the transnational revolutionary movements of the era clearly reveal that the roots of internationalism are as old as the nation-state itself. The pitched battles for liberty during the period gave rise to an idea of international solidarity and common values which continues to resonate today, according to Polasky. It is this overarching vision which guides her examination of the many ‘traveling revolutionaries’ that come to life in the pages of Revolutions Without Borders, as its nine chapters detail the experiences of men and women who moved between revolutions in their support of universal republicanism and the liberation it promised. The breadth of Polasky’s study is commendable, as it links revolutionary politics in Paris with slave uprisings in the Caribbean and the localized skirmishes of Belgian patriots with the larger events that would embroil the European continent during the French Revolution.

The transatlantic ferment at the centre of Revolutions Without Borders is not simply relegated to collective political action either, and it is in this respect that Polasky’s study makes a strong contribution to Atlantic revolutionary history. Much of her focus is on texts and print culture, or what Polasky describes as ‘documents with legs’. Each chapter is organized around an ‘alternative political sphere’ that existed largely outside government and state institutions.

It is an under-statement to claim that she has written a beautiful book that explores the personal lives of individuals just as much as the larger historical events that shaped them. The book certainly does justice to her desire to recover ‘the rich variety of revolutionary possibility in the past’ (p. 12). However, one wonders if the book is perhaps too beautiful. Its affirmation of a common humanity and espousal of cosmopolitan values betrays the ideological proclivities of its author and tends to replicate much of the romanticism and mythologising that characterized the era. While grand declarations of fraternity and international solidarity abounded during the period, Polasky rarely considers to what extent revolutionary self-fashioning may have been misleading or even disingenuous.

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Filed under: Atlantic | American Revolution | Eighteenth Century | French Revolution | Other (Eighteenth C)
Subjects include: Miscellaneous | Strategy & Diplomacy

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