Book Review

Lockwood, Matthew. To Begin the World over Again: How the American Revolution Transformed the Globe. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2019.

“How the American Revolution devastated the globe.”

In his new book on the global implications of the American Revolution, Professor Matthew Lockwood grabs your attention with this arousing thesis. He posits that because of the North American rebellion, the British accelerated their imperial ambitions in other parts of the world and pursued them with less respect for both human rights and indigenous sovereignty.

Lockwood’s 513-page tour de force covers the next 150 years of British empire-building in Ireland, Africa, Asia, and Australia, all linked back to purported follow-on effects of the American War for Independence. He offers detailed descriptions of the post-1783 history of each of these regions. For instance, after American independence, petty criminals in Britain could no longer be exported to the United States. Alternatively, the British opened a penal colony in Australia and, as a result, devastated the aboriginal population.  This horriffic policy is offered as an example of Lockwood’s thesis.

One of the hardest challenges for historians is to distinguish between correlation and causation. This is where Lockwood’s ambitious thesis falls apart. In the case of British criminal policy, the driver for exporting criminals emanates from the British point-of-view on morality and personal character, not from something unique in North America. If the American Revolution did not happen and the British continued to expand southern penal colonies, wouldn’t indigenous populations be decimated in North American just like the British did in Australia? The driver of the negative outcome of prisoner transportation was the UK government’s land grab and British culture, not the newly independent Americans.

While Lockwood’s thesis is overly ambitious, his book is well worth reading. He places the American Revolution in the context of global events, a severely under-researched area of historical study. Further, he asserts that from a worldwide colonial and trade perspective, the British greatly benefited from the outcome of the American Revolution, a conclusion that I heartily concur. For more on the war’s consequences, see an article that I wrote entitled, How the British Won the American Revolution arguing that the British were better off after American independence.

However, it is a “stretch too far” to tag the American Revolution as causing the evils of British imperialism during the next 150 years. Perhaps Lockwood’s thesis would have been better supported by a concluding chapter. A summary of his arguments would have permitted Lockwood to bring together events emanating from common causes and demonstrate causation among the many imperial actions described in his book. Missing this opportunity, he ends with a chapter on the opium trade with China. Indeed, this stain on China’s sovereignty was the result of the 19th-century global competition waged by American and European powers for trade and empire. However, how the American Revolution caused the opium trade remains unclear.

For information on the conflict outside the United States, see, books on the Global Conflict.