Book Review

Janet Polasky Revolutions Without Borders – The Call to Liberty in the Atlantic World (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2015)

Too often historians interpret events solely during the periods they occur and fail to take into account the impact of the era they are studying on subsequent events and people. Janet Polasky in her book Revolutions Without Borders rectifies this with respect to the American War of Independence. Her well researched volume starts with the American Revolution and ends after the French Revolution. In between she interprets other Atlantic World Revolutions including those in Haiti and Continental Europe.

Some of her most interesting passages are those which describe Revolutionary events in smaller European countries many of which are not in existence as separate countries today and their revolutionary activities are lesser known to many Americans. While often overlooked, these nascent revolutionary activities throughout Europe included the Netherlands, Genoa, Belgium and Poland. While these Revolutions did not lead to lasting results, they were highly influenced by the American and French Revolutions.

As opposed to a straight narrative, Polasky employs the written word to demonstrate the relationships and interrelationships among the revolutions. Each chapter highlights on form of communications. There are chapters on:

  • Pamphlets
  • Journals
  • Oral narratives
  • Newspapers
  • Rumors
  • Fiction
  • Letters and correspondence
  • Decrees and diplomatic documents

By focusing on communications, she demonstrated how ideas and news disseminated among regions and across oceans. Travelers had a big impact by speeding up the velocity and engendering movement of ideas. Further, many thought leaders believed they were citizens of the world and easily moved between revolutions and countries.

Revolutionary War historians will especially be interested in the post American Revolution activities of Thaddeus Kosciusko, a general revered today by many people for his significant contributions. However, when Kosciusko returned to the UNited States after participating in revolutionary activities in Poland, he was shunned and after a short period returned to Europe.

I highly recommend Polasky’s book to remind us that to properly interpret our own periods of interest, we must look forward to analyze the impact on future events. Revolutionary War historians who only focus on the eight years of war, miss the wider assessment of the impact of various political, military and social changes during the revolutionary era.