The Age of Revolutions: And the Generations Who Made It

Image of The Age of Revolutions: And the Generations Who Made It
Release Date: 
February 20, 2024
Basic Books
Reviewed by: 

What makes a successful political revolution? Are revolutions driven from the top down or bottom up? Why do some revolutions seem to produce a more detrimental political system than the one they replaced? These are some of the questions answered in this new volume that examines the political and social revolutions that happened across the Atlantic on three continents from 1760–1825. The author does not examine revolutions from a military or political theory  perspective, although these are mentioned in passing, but as cultural, societal, and class struggles to break free of the hierarchical and caste systems in which they began.

This volume introduces a completely different way of examining familiar events such as the American and French Revolutions while featuring less well-known events such as the revolutions against the Spanish Empire in Latin America. All of the case studies consider the process and outcome of the organization of political groups, often coming from different strata of society and how these groups either cooperated or competed for political power and leadership of the revolutionary movement.

A familiar example of this is the beginning of the American Revolution where very wealthy colonists like John Hancock and Samuel Adams conducted their resistance against what they considered unfair British taxation very differently than many of the groups styled as the Sons of Liberty composed of working class and tradesmen. Although these groups had similar motives for their resistance, they used completely different means to express their resistance and often competed for political and social power of the burgeoning “Patriot” movement.

Following on his view of political organizing and movements happening within the changing, but not completely replaced old political and social order, the author makes a compelling case that even within a revolutionary cause, there remains, at least in what he terms the first generation of the movement, a lingering remnant of the social and economic hierarchy that created the cause. Many of the political elite of the new American nation eventually advocated for the creation of a strong central government under a new Constitution in the decades after independence that seemed to cement some of the old order of direct taxation of the people, a national legislative body, and an overriding court system.

By expanding the scope of his volume to include Latin America and other revolutions such as the slave revolt on the island of Santo Domingo, the author not only provides a look at similar revolutionary efforts, some successful and others that were brutally repressed, he also provides an entirely new cast of reformers, some of them women who wielded a significant amount of political power as they tried to influence societal change, showing that revolutionary movements of the era were not an exclusive male domain.

Of course, the darker side of these revolutionary movements is examined as well, including the retention of slavery in America and the devolution of the French Revolution into chaos, terror, and eventually a consolidation of power under Napoleon. The Napoleonic Era introduced its own changes to the political, social, and cultural landscape of Europe. The sweeping away of much of the old French ruling hierarchy with the demise of Louis XVI began the transformation of not only France, but eventually Europe into a more nationalistic and homogenous setting leading to the brief reemergence of the monarchy in France.

The author then develops his thesis further by examining the second generation of revolutionaries, those politicians raised in the changed political landscape that either reinforce the political and social effect of change or attempt to curtail those changes to their own advantage.

In the United States, the successors to the Founders, while extending the idea of republicanism and social mobility for some, were forced to confront the enduring effects of slavery and its pernicious influence on American politics amid the growing divide between North and South on the extension and protection of slavery. Similar issues are explored in Latin America as the second generation of revolutions take place, now led by military leaders such as Simon Bolivar, that show the continued link between military action and political revolution.

The author then concludes with an assessment of the historiography of “revolutionary studies” through the 20th century, positing that earlier interpretations of the effectiveness of political revolutions on long term societal and cultural change were somewhat incomplete as they did not always account for how these same revolutions opened up new divides between haves and have-nots that arose from the gradual dissolution of the old order.

But what became common to all of the situations examined by the author was the need for new political organizing across the social landscape to make change enduring, even if it was imperfect. This is an important and sweeping study of this critical period of political change that shows revolution was not something confined to Europe and the new United States, but a slow process that changed the political landscape of much of the Atlantic Ocean region.