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The evil repercussions of the American Revolution

Book review of TO BEGIN THE WORLD OVER AGAIN-How the American Revolution Devastated the Globe

Alex von Tunzelmann | NYT 

Cover of To Begin the World Over Again: How the American Revolution Devastated the Globe. CREDITS:
Cover of To Begin the World Over Again: How the American Revolution Devastated the Globe. CREDITS:

Thomas Paine’s aspiration for the revolutionaries of 1776 was “to begin the world over again” in America. In his colorful and ambitious new transnational history, Matthew Lockwood pays very little attention to that. He is interested in how the ripples caused by the American Revolution affected everywhere outside the modern United States. The narrative hops from Britain and Ireland to the Spanish Empire, Russia, India, Australia, Africa and China, with a glittering cast of historical characters, including Catherine the Great, Tupac Amaru II, Horatio Nelson, Tipu Sultan and the Qianlong Emperor.

Lockwood’s thesis in To Begin the World Over Again is bolder than a repetition of the well-known facts of foreign involvement in the Revolutionary War. The subtitle of his book — “How the American Revolution Devastated the Globe” — and his introduction set out eyebrow-raising claims, including that this is “the story of how Britain won the American Revolution.” Partly as a result, he writes, “for the vast majority of Earth’s inhabitants, who did not give a damn about a civil war in British North America or the ideas and ideals that inspired it, the American Revolution was a disaster.” He finds it at the root of a long list of ills, including increasing authoritarianism within Britain itself and the wider British Empire, the failure of Irish, Indian and Peruvian movements against imperialism, the Russian conquest of Crimea, the establishment of penal colonies in Australia and the growth of the global opium trade.

Lockwood, an assistant professor of history at the University of Alabama, has a keen eye for a good yarn, and there are enthralling glimpses here of individual lives buffeted by the American Revolution. John Randall was born into slavery in Connecticut in 1764, joined the British Army as a teenager to fight against his American enslavers, escaped back to Britain with his regiment, stole a watch and was transported to Australia aboard the First Fleet. John Aitken was a Scottish burglar, highwayman and self-confessed rapist who traveled to America and returned to operate as a sort of primitive terrorist for the American cause, setting off incendiary devices (without as much effect as he hoped) in British dockyards until he was caught and hanged in 1777.

But Lockwood’s grander claim that the Revolution “devastated the globe” relies on the reader’s sense of a “butterfly effect”: that the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil can set off a tornado in Texas. What soon becomes clear even from the evidence Lockwood presents is that all of these events had much deeper pre-existing causes and in many cases more immediate triggers than Betsy Ross flapping a flag.

In his chapter on Russia, for instance, Lockwood notes that Prussia, Austria, Sweden, Denmark and Russia “had been at each other’s throats for generations.” In India, he shows that the Second Anglo-Mysore War — which he calls “the Indian theater of the American War” — occurred in a context of multiple conflicts involving Indian states, European powers and companies across swaths of India, not least the First Anglo-Mysore War, which happened a decade before the American Revolution.

To Begin the World Over Again explores the interesting story of the British turning to Australia as a penal colony when they were unable to continue sending convicts to America, but it is stating the point quite strongly to claim that as a result “the American Revolution had fundamentally altered the lives of tens of thousands, sending countless poor and downtrodden Europeans across the globe against their will.” Was all that really the American Revolution’s fault? Should it have failed? From the stories here, it would seem that the globe was already doing a pretty good job of devastating itself before 1776.

Lockwood intends his book to be political: “In order to undermine … a solipsistic isolationism in foreign affairs we must complicate and challenge the lazy idea of America’s exceptionalism, and to do this we must complicate the story of its foundational moment.” Yet by tracing all these intricate and disparate global events back to the American Revolution, To Begin the World Over Again creates a new iteration of exceptionalism that claims the Revolution was not only America’s foundational moment, but the whole world’s.

The Revolution was a major event in world history. But was it really this important to everyone, everywhere, immediately? When this book describes British cities after the Revolution in terms of “the swirling chaos of postwar London” or says that “the jails of Manchester were already packed with the thieves and beggars that had proliferated in the postwar city,” it implies those places were physically affected by the fighting. Yet Washington did not besiege Notting Hill or Wigan.

On the French Revolution, a global event one might have thought was notably influenced by the American Revolution, To Begin the World Over Again has surprisingly little to say. There is no chapter on France, and where it is mentioned elsewhere the focus is on prerevolutionary affairs. In his chapter on Crimea, Lockwood notes the cost to the French treasury of participating in the American Revolutionary War: “1.6 billion livres (not including interest) — more than twice the annual revenue of France.” He remarks, “In a few short years the French financial crisis would help to push the French people to follow the example of the American Revolution and begin a revolution of their own.” That’s it; the narrative swiftly moves to Scandinavia. The effects of the American Revolution on France merit considerably more attention, and might have strengthened the book’s argument.

To Begin the World Over Again does not end with a conventional conclusion. The last chapter, on Anglo-American competition for Chinese trade, finishes abruptly with the assertion that “once more the effects of the American Revolution had rippled out from the Atlantic, aiding the expansion of the British Empire and undermining its imperial rivals.” This is a pity. Having proposed such an audacious thesis, and collected a lot of interesting but not self-evidently cohesive or decisive information, the book needs to draw its ideas together and make its case that the American Revolution devastated the globe. As it is, though much of the material here is lively, enjoyable and compelling, the thesis is not persuasive. Rather than being either a unique global inspiration or a unique global devastator, perhaps in the 18th century America was just not the only game in town.

How the American Revolution Devastated the Globe
Matthew Lockwood
Yale University Press
523 pages; $30

© 2017 The New York Times News Service

First Published: Mon, November 04 2019. 01:42 IST