A Book Review
The principal premise of Rapport’s book is that the capital cities of London, Paris and New York (the first US capital) through their buildings and landscapes profoundly influenced the American and French Revolutions and the Gordon Riots in London. He posits how “the spaces and buildings in these cities both symbolically and physically became places of conflict, how the cityscape itself became part of the experience of revolution and may even have helped shape its course.”
While an exciting and potentially promising perspective, Rapport does not convincingly support his central theme. All the cities had similar cityscape components including government buildings, churches, taverns, parks, jails and spaces which played roles in rebellious activities. However, each revolution had different core objectives; the French sought to eliminate class distinctions and nobility, the American Revolution fought for independence, and the Gordon Rioters demanded religious orthodoxy. While cities layouts and public buildings played a rebellious role, they were not the crucial factors in establishing and achieving these overarching goals. Also, readers will perceive important unanswered thematic questions including:
- Why was New York City more central to the American Revolution and not a larger Philadelphia or the initial hotbed Boston?
- With the British controlling New York City and several other large cities for much of the war, is there a better case to be made that small towns/rural areas were the central focus of the American Revolution?
- What was unique about the New York and Paris cityscapes that led to revolutions? How do they differ from the cityscapes of other late 18th Century revolutions such as the Haitian Revolution?
- Did New York City and Paris uniquely impact their country’s revolutions or are there similar patterns in the 19th and 20th Century revolutions?
- Why was Thomas Paine so successful in America but not in the French Revolution?
However, it would be a mistake to dismiss Rapport’s volume. He provides a highly readable and enjoyable overview of the revolutionary activities in these three cities. His emphasis on buildings, parks, and other places gives the reader an gripping birds-eye perspective on revolutionary events. Further his references to contemporary names and places provide a guide to those wishing to visit or locate the sites of revolutionary activities.
I recommend The Unruly City to both casual readers interested in a period survey of the 18th Century revolutions and to serious scholars as an example of the need to thoroughly validate their central premise with cogent supporting arguments. Also, I encourage analyzing the 19th Century European revolutions to evaluate if more conclusive parallels can the drawn from the impact of cityscapes (including the same ones multiple times) on a wider range of revolutionary activities.
Benjamin Carp provides an alternative view of the role of cities (of which New York was only one of many) in the American Revolution. He concludes that cities were instrumental in starting the war, but during the war lost their relevance to the countryside. Carp presents compelling statistical evidence of decreased city relevance through pre and post-war population estimates. See his book Rebels Rising: Cities and the American Revolution.