Joanna Innes, Mark Philp, Re-inventing Democracy in the Age of Revolutions: America, France, Britain, Ireland, 1750-1850, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2013.
This an important book on the origins of our modern democracies. The title says it all: democracy was re-imagined during the Age of Revolutions in the Atlantic world. National contexts interacted with the Atlantic dynamics of revolutions and republicanism — whether it was embraced or fought — to produce a new political regime, which then became a defining feature of the 19th century.
The approach is commendable: three authors explore one country, two at the beginning and at the end of the period, and then one reviews the entire period. The United States, France, Great Britain and Ireland are thus explored. The concluding chapter “Synergies” tries to draw out conclusions.
The greatest fragility in this book in my opinion is the fact that most articles (except one or two, for instance Laurent Colantonio’s take on Daniel O’Connell’s mass mobilisation in Ireland in the early 19th century), when they question the word ‘democracy’, do so by summoning and using political literature but not much actual practices (beyond voting, which could also concerns only a small portion of the people). As such, they are about the political elites, and the book as a whole does not really give us a picture of what democracy meant for the ‘lower orders’ and why many of them actually mobilized to defend it, to demand it, especially from the beginning of the 19th century onwards. Democracy, whether it be defined as a regime giving equality or as the sovereignty belonging to the people, is thus explained, but for whom it was designed remains unexplored, for a large part.
None the less, the greatest achievement, I think, of this book, especially the concluding chapter, is to show how ‘democracy’, associated that it was by all the cultural and political elite of the Enlightenment with ancient and chaotic, populist city-states or Rome, was first and foremost used by those who derided the attempts to address the ‘people’ or the ‘lower orders’, as Irish-born, British-imperialist Edmund Burke did. In fact, Burke and other critics of democracy were those who imposed the word in the public sphere before its proponents used it as their own. As it is often the case, conservative thinking was quite perceptive in identifying what threatened its monopoly. Indeed — and this another blind spot of this book — by focusing on democracy, the book adopts the language of its opponents, since its defenders defined themselves more eagerly as ‘republicans’. As such, it would have been really useful if the book had tried to incorporate reflections on republicanisms.
This is why the most interesting chapters (the bias of this reviewer are not stranger to this) are those devoted to Great Britain and Ireland, since it is in these countries where ‘democracy’ was seen as a threat to fight that it was the most sharply defined, because it was a vital stake in the definition of the states there. It also explains, I think, why the most cosmopolitans ‘salesmen’ of democracy and republicanism hailed from these countries. I am thinking of Thomas Paine, of course, but also of all these United Irishmen who found refuge in France and in the United States where they contributed to a much democratic redefinition of the republics there — or where they failed to do so, in France, and then left for the United States.
As the last paragraph of this review attests, this is an important book because it invites us, as David Bell also recently did, to renew the research on the common threads that linked the Atlantic world at the end of the 18th century and early 19th century in a broad movement that defined our modernity. It is a challenge, because who is able to master all the national historiographies to be able then to connect the threads? It can only be a cooperative endeavour, and this is what this book offers us: an example of cooperation between historians, specialists of their areas, whose combined insights leads to a greater one.