The Age of the Democratic Revolution: A book review by Bob Morris

The Age of the Democratic Revolution: A Political History of Europe and America, 1760-1800
R.R. Palmer
Princeton University Press (2014)

A brilliant synthesis of immensely complicated historical issues

In his highly informative Foreword, David Armitage quotes Franco Venturi ‘s opinion of this book: “a masterpiece about the revolutions of the past born of an inspiring debate with the revolutions of our own time.” That is high praise from another world-renowned historian of the Enlightenment with a special interest in the roots of revolutions in Russia, thirteen colonies in North America, and France.

I read this book in combination with another, Jonathan Israel’s The Expanding Blaze: How the American Revolution Ignited the World, 1775-1848. I highly recommend both. Palmer’s classic work is an updated edition of what were two volumes: the first (“The Challenge”) published in the first in 1959 and the second (“The Struggle”) in 1964, also by Princeton University Press.

As Armitage correctly points out, Volume 1 explains how the insurgent force of egalitarian “democracy” encountered the resurgent energy of entrenched “aristocracy” in legislative bodies throughout the Atlantic world. In Volume 2, Palmer examines the proliferation of revolutionary movements across Europe both before and then in juxtaposition with the French Revolution.

As Palmer explains in his Preface to Part 1, this book may be thought of ” as an attempt at a comparative constitutional history of Western Civilization at the time of the French and American Revolutions; but ‘constitutional’ is to be understood in a broad sense, without much emphasis on formal provisions, and in close connection with the political, social, and intellectual currents and the actual conflicts of the time.” (Page 3)

Then in the Preface to Part 2, Palmer observes “The connecting thought is that in the years from about 1760 to 1791 or 1792, the period of the earlier volume, revolutionary movements against aristocratic forms of society made themselves evident in many countries, but that except in America they were either crushed or, as in France and Poland in 1791, were of very doubtful success so that a ‘challenge’ had been issued which awaited resolution by further ‘struggle.'” (Page 375) In Part 2, Palmer traces the fortunes of both revolution and counter-revolution to about the year of 1800.

These are the subjects of greatest interest to me:

o Palmer’s concept of “historical synthesis”
o The social challenges unique to democracy and aristocracy
o The nature and extent of one revolution on another (or others)
o The advantages and disadvantages of social evolution re social revolution
o Balancing public authority with private rights
o How and by whom defining characteristics of “constitutional” are determined
o The defining characteristics of “liberty,” “equality,” and “fraternity”
o Most valuable lessons to be learned from each major revolution
o Most common “incubators” of revolution
o Whether or not Palmer’s book is (as Talmadge suggests) “a dawn mistaken for a sunset”

These are among Palmer’s thoughts as he concludes his masterpiece:

“All revolutions since 1800 in Europe, Latin America, Asia, and Africa, have learned from the eighteenth-century Revolution of Western Civilization. They have been inspired by its successes, echoed its ideals, used its methods. It does not follow that one revolution need lead to another or that revolution as such need be glorified as a social process. No revolution need be thought of as inevitable. In the eighteenth century there might have been no revolution, if only the old upper and ruling classes had made more sagacious concessions, if, indeed, the contrary tendencies toward a positive assertion of aristocratic values had not been so strong.” Therefore, Palmer concludes, “If a sense of inequality or injustice persists too long untreated, it will produce social disorganization.”

Those who share my high regard for this book are urged to check out Israel’s aforementioned The Expanding Blaze as well as John Ferling’s Setting the World Ablaze: Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and the American Revolution, Derek Beck’s Igniting the American Revolution: 1773-1775 and The War Before Independence: 1775-1776, and Rick Atkinson’s The British Are Coming.


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