Review of To Begin the World Over Again: How the American Revolution Devastated the Globe
The inspiration for the title of Matthew Lockwood’s vibrant globetrotting survey of the historical waves generated by the American Revolution comes from a famous passage in Thomas Paine’s Common Sense. In his inspirational 1776 pamphlet, Paine offered a key to unlocking American republican sensibilities, by intermixing a powerful and convincing argument based on intuitive logic with a prose style that was uncomplicated, localised, close to home, and brutally concise. Lockwood’s provocative volume is the polar opposite: it is lavishly styled and lengthy (though very accessible), deeply littered with extravagant personalities and places, but organised around a premise that feels flimsy, because while the canvas is extensive, the underlying logic and view of historical causation is blurry and partial.
Lockwood sets out to convert readers to the notion that the American Revolution was the preeminent engine of change in a series of far-flung locales way beyond Philadelphia, having effectively injected British imperialism with a new momentum that would transform transnational geopolitics and population flows – and more than that, proposing that much of this transformation brought disruptive and impoverishing consequences for “the vast majority of Earth’s inhabitants” (p.9) including people in South America, China, India, Ireland, the Crimea, Africa, and beyond. In chapters that often sparkle with a fine command of social and political history and a shrewd appreciation of personal agency and ambition, we are treated to a grand tour of features such as the British penal system, the diplomatic machinations of Catherine the Great and the Qianlong Emperor, the military careers of Horatio Nelson and Charles Cornwallis, and much more.
Lockwood’s emphasis on the plight(s) of ordinary people is very welcome, especially because he has liberated himself spatially from the historiographical cemetery that addresses the extent of class conflict in America. By far the most enjoyable feature of the book is his careful and wide-ranging legwork to identify how biographical junctures overlapped with larger institutional or structural developments, and to bring people of all backgrounds to the foreground – usually selecting figures and episodes from secondary literature, but sometimes deploying new and vivid archival insights or linkages (as in the case of the Old Bailey records), to find genuinely “forgotten personal stories” (p.9). He ably demonstrates that there were a myriad of connections radiating outward from the American Revolution (and especially the war and its costs), and that these deserve a more prominent position within our understandings of the event’s impact. In the process, Lockwood shows a flair for leading us through eclectic subject areas and offering rich context – readers will appreciate the 360 degree perspective they amass on global developments that intersected with Britain’s American traumas and imperial reconfiguration, though specialists in each of those areas will find little that is revolutionary.
The impressive rigour of exposition and the range of coverage, though, often leave the actual argument some distance in the background, and it is a reflection of this awkwardness that Lockwood chose not to devote at least some of his discursive energy to mapping out the two most obvious (and well documented) ways in which the American Revolution catalysed sweeping changes: its contribution(s) to the French Revolution and its recalibration of power relations vis a vis indigenous peoples in North America. In place of such self-evident and important vectors, To Begin the World Over Again dwells, again and again, on less palpable connections – that are artfully but often problematically linked to the loss of the thirteen colonies and the costs of the war.
That Lockwood neglects or sidesteps a more nuanced sense of causal matrices within the giant developments he traces doesn’t just do a disservice to the complexity of the period – when things “tended to be interactive” as Christopher Bayly understated it in his more comprehensive assessment (The Birth of the Modern World, tellingly beginning in 1780, and crucially incorporating economic and demographic factors). It also undermines, ironically, Lockwood’s stated desire to challenge notions of American exceptionalism. The author draws on a metaphor of a stone splashing to critique Americans’ obsession with their internal revolution and its “stubbornly national focus” (p.4), explaining that his readers will be following the ripples travelling outward, and claiming that other scholars “have failed to adequately complicate the story” (though, as a sidenote, it is hard to share his characterisation of Gary Nash and Alan Taylor’s work as having described the “goals and ideals of the revolution…[as] an example of America at its best” (p.5)). But without attending to or acknowledging the other stones and boulders that were dropping into historical ponds all over the world between 1750 and 1840, whose waves and ripples danced around and interplayed with those energised by American events, Lockwood sometimes sacrifices credibility to over-simplicity and at times, bombast.
In the quest to make a splash, of course, some interpretative claims need throwing high, and especially so in a work that, commendably, reaches out to general readers – with minimal references to the Founding Fathers. This is epitomised in the subtitle, part of a new-fangled trend (compare Lockwood’s How the American Revolution Devastated the Globe to Jonathan Israel’s similarly hefty synthesis, this time about ideologies, subtitled How the American Revolution Ignited the Globe!). But too much historical hyperbole accompanies Lockwood’s final sections in multiple chapters, where we learn that the American Revolution “birthed” (p.37) the modern carceral state, that it “spawned” (p.80) greater government monitoring in Britain (though anti-Catholic paranoia was hardly new, and much more extensive measures would be pioneered in the 1790s in the panicked shadow of the French Revolution), that the war “gave birth to the Irish nation” (p.118) and “inspired” (p.177) or sowed South American independence; it “signalled the birth of the “British Empire” in India” (p.297) and provided the roots of the “depopulation of native peoples far away in the South Pacific” (p.354). Not content with conceiving the American Revolution as merely a model, midwife, catalyst, mordant, or raising agent – or just something that lightly salted pre-existent trends – Lockwood delivers the Second Anglo-Mysore War affectedly as the “Indian theater of the American War” (p.273) – though the First war took place over a decade earlier in the late 1760s, overlapping with other origins that comfortably predated the American War (including Bourbon reforms in the Spanish Empire, or key episodes of London rioting).
Though from a completely different scholarly orientation then, Lockwood’s schismatic decentring of the hoary story of the birth of the United States, and his emphasis on catastrophic global impacts on future lives, suffers from some of the same weaknesses as Gordon Wood’s claims (in The Radicalism of the American Revolution) that celebrated the Revolution’s domestic achievements by staking an open-ended claim to future events. Like the prison hulks with which the volume starts, the American Revolution can surely only carry so much, and only last for so long. Lockwood has done a fine job of mining much of what was interesting about the historical changes and imperial opportunities that the American Revolution precipitated, having followed or located multiple seams among people all over the world, and his gripping account remains valuable for this. But what he makes of the metal rings a little hollow. Though not as sexy as giving birth to everything, an alternative phrase of Paine’s (originally posed as a rhetorical question, and still topical) might have served as a better line of approach than the United States beginning the world again: “What have we to do with setting the world at defiance?”
To Begin the World Over Again: How the American Revolution Devastated the Globe by Matthew Lockwood. Yale University Press. 2019. 512 pp.