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Revolution for Export

John Swift

The Expanding Blaze: How the American Revolution Ignited the World, 1775-1848, by Jonathan Israel, Princeton University Press, 768 pp, $39.95, ISBN: 978-1400888276

This is a whale of a book. It is copiously large in scope and physical format, occasionally clumsy in language and of questionable judgement, but compellingly powerful in its overall impact. It comes to 755 pages, of which 615 are text, including an introduction and conclusion; the balance comprises reference notes, an extensive bibliography of over forty pages divided into primary and secondary sources, and an index. It is handsomely produced, printed on heavy paper, and illustrated; my hardcover version, together with its dust-jacket, weighs no less than 1.42 kg.

As Israel’s title implies, his study covers two major subjects: first, the American fight for independence and the principles upon which it was based, and second, the impact of that struggle and these principles outside the nascent United States. His narrative and analysis deal first with the American story, which is then returned to intermittently; it features Thomas Paine and Benjamin Franklin in detail, others of the Founding Fathers, the turn towards conservatism and religion from the mid-1780s onward and an account of how poorly blacks, native Americans and less prosperous whites fared during and after the revolutionary war. The external influence sections begin with the américaniste impact in France and the relationship between the American and French revolutions; it goes on to consider how events in the Thirteen States impacted on Canada, Ireland, Haiti, Spain and Latin America, the Netherlands, Belgium, Poland and Greece in the period up to and including 1848.

Professor Israel’s principal interest lies in the clash of competing ideas, particularly Enlightenment ideas, rather than in cultural or societal developments. In this regard, he returns to a major theme of his earlier works, namely the basic and long-lasting split within the camp of reformers between radical enlightenment and moderate enlightenment factions. The latter followed Sydney, Locke and Montesquieu in stressing the importance of hierarchy, property, aristocratic and/or elite leadership, religion and a mixed political system. John Adams is the prototype in the US. The former were disciples of Brissot, Condorcet, Diderot, Helvetius, Raynal and Vico and in the US included Paine, Franklin and Jefferson, as well as Frenau, Barlow, Coram and Palmer. This overarching distinction between radical and moderate revolutionaries lends his work a compelling unity of interpretation but at some cost to subtlety and coherence in respect of how some individuals developed or changed their ideas over time.

While impressive, the book is not without blemish. Although the bibliography is striking, the references are dull, almost exclusively noting page numbers only. Conor Cruise O’Brien is listed under “C” for Cruise, and both Fintan and Louis Cullen have their names misspelled. The writing is clotted and convoluted, not always easy to understand; Israel has a particular weakness for unhinged participles in overly long sentences and his use of the article is strikingly uncertain. In the American textbook manner, his book is also massively repetitive, as if each chapter was drafted for a different audience or for particularly slow students; a full or lesser list of French or American “radical enlighteners” (his phrase) is given in almost every chapter. A further example of his insensitivity to language is his persistent use of the description “American Revolution”, which is frequently capitalised. As his text makes clear, little enough was done for many years after 1784 to reform state constitutions, disestablish religious authorities or, especially, to abolish slavery. Overall therefore, I believe that this worthwhile study could be made more so by being reduced in length and by more rigorous editing for readability and clarity.

Israel writes more as a polemicist than as a historian. In general, he clearly favours the radicals over the moderates, believes that the American and French revolutions shared the same basic trajectory until June 1793, and sees Robespierre, Danton, Saint-Just and the Montagne not as radical revolutionaries but as despotic and perverse betrayers of the whole reform movement. These views are not unreasonable, but the case should be made rather than assumed. To describe the idea that the American Revolution differed fundamentally in character from the French as an “insidious myth” begs many questions; and the view of John Adams, mentioned but not developed, that the true revolution lay not in the war of independence but in the changes in people’s minds due to concentrated controversy in legislatures, newspapers and public prints, deserves more detailed consideration. And following his radical mentors, his views on the religious instinct in man and on Christian churches are reductive almost to the point of parody.

In his account of the origins of the war of independence, Israel stresses delay and contingency; there was nothing inevitable about war or independence before mid-1776. True, the British victory in the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763) had come at a high cost, and strengthened London’s interest in reinforcing mercantilist legislation and enforcing higher taxes elsewhere. But Britain was not trying to impose arbitrary rule or imperial control similar to that operating in Ireland or India; and the American radicals did not begin by aiming at a break rather than conciliation. The change occurred when Congress conservatives, led by Pennsylvania, blocked demands for independence by two votes; Philadelphia, the first city of the colonies, erupted; raucous public meetings, demonstrations and riots brought about a change in that state’s delegation, a swing by the majority of states towards independence and eventually, a new constitution for Pennsylvania drafted by Benjamin Franklin and his radical friends, with an expanded electorate and enhanced democratic tendencies. The Declaration of Independence followed on the fourth of July.

Franklin might be seen as the most attractive of the Founding Fathers: more literate than John Adams, less ambiguous than Washington was as president, and without Jefferson’s blemishes. He was an autodidact and a self-made man economically; he worked as a printer from the age of twelve, and later as a journalist and publisher and was successful enough to be able to retire as a gentleman in the early 1740s. What distinguished him most from his Patriot confrères was his modesty and his modern sense of humour; among his published works are both an “Advice to a Young Friend on Choosing a Mistress” and “Rules by which a Great Empire may be Reduced to a Small One”. He was, in addition to being a political thinker and leader, an enthusiast for music and chess, a world-renowned inventor and scientist, especially in the “electric branch of natural philosophy”, as well as being an accomplished diplomat. Although unorthodox in religion (described here as a Deist, almost an Atheist), he was a traditional moralist, believing in the necessity of virtue and integrity for personal happiness and the well-being of society.

Israel’s well-rounded portrait stresses in particular Franklin’s caution in coming to considered positions of political principle and his consistency in defending those positions once adopted. Thus he was undeviatingly conciliationist, at some political cost to his reputation in the Thirteen States, before 1774; considered himself both Anglophile and Francophile to about that date; was a slaveowner as a young adult, freed his slaves in the early 1770s, and became a cautious abolitionist. With his colleague Anthony Benezet, he helped guide the first enactment for the abolition of slavery through a Western legislature in March 1780. The last public document he signed, in February 1790, was a renewed appeal to Congress for the prompt outright abolition of slavery in America.

More generally, Franklin was from his youth anti-monarchist and anti-aristocratic; anti-authoritarian in both politics and religion, he favoured disestablishment and the involvement of the state in education, regular elections and unicameral legislatures, a broadened franchise and equality of rights. Like Paine but without Paine’s stridency, he saw the revolution as a “programme of social and moral amelioration”, not just for America but for mankind. Israel sums him up as an icon on multiple levels for Enlightenment man, but more divisive in key respects in the young United States than is often acknowledged. It is not surprising that in the US today he is most often commemorated as an exemplar of the ethos of hard work, thrift, community spirit and self-governing institutions rather than as an advocate of universal human rights.

In contrast to his treatment of Franklin, what Professor Israel has to say about Thomas Jefferson seems confused and contradictory. On the one hand, he sees Jefferson as the quintessential American enlightener; he emphasises his belief in “the common people”, provided they are informed and educated; he notes that by 1775-76 he had developed a conception of human rights as natural, primary and transcending any written constitution and he goes so far as to say that for Jefferson all peoples, with their distinctive cultural and physical features, are formed by the same set of universal laws. But he also details how, as president, he forsook many of his earlier principles, abandoning, for example, his earlier advocacy of guaranteeing native Americans possession of their lands and integrating them into American society for an opposite policy of “organised pressure” and large-scale “purchases” of Indian land west of the Appalachians.

Jefferson’s views on blacks and their abilities, on slavery and its future in the United States were more unambiguously negative, and our author’s discomfort in dealing with them is all the greater. To say that Jefferson “harbored doubts regarding the equal abilities of blacks, especially privately”, strikes me as weasel language. Banning slavery north of the Ohio (in the Northwest Ordinance) carried the clear implication that it could continue in the Southeast. Jefferson blamed the British for introducing slavery into the colonies but he was always more worried about its effects on white workers and white slaveowners than about its basic injustice. He was a Virginian slaveowner, he treated his slaves badly and to the end of his life he believed that free blacks had no place and no future in the United States. His treatment of the only existing black republic, Haiti, paralleled his domestic actions.

Conor Cruise O’Brien challenged Jefferson’s status as an icon of American democratic republicanism in his 1996 study The Long Affair: Thomas Jefferson and the French Revolution. He did so on the twin grounds that Jefferson was an anti-black racist and that he was an originator of, and a chief intellectual force behind, the Nullification doctrine, that is, the belief that US states could and should consider null and void federal laws they regarded as intruding on the proper sphere of the states. Even if O’Brien is equally polemical in the opposite sense to our author, reading him again is also useful in pointing up a basic ambiguity in Israel’s treatment of Jefferson’s slowness to condemn the violence of the French Revolution. The so-called “Adam and Eve” letter of January 1793 made no mention of the September massacres of the previous year; and the first reference to Jefferson’s condemnation of Robespierre and the Jacobins is dated to 1795, by which time the change in popular feeling in America regarding the French Revolution was well under way and Robespierre was safely dead. Israel makes no reference to Jefferson’s comment on Shay’s Rebellion (Massachusetts, 1786-87): “The tree of liberty needs to be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure,” – except to call it notorious.

The material in this section is widely disparate and the detail overwhelming; and it seems to me as a non-expert that the treatment is more superficial and less incisive. The general case that rebels and revolutionaries in the eight named countries and Latin America were inspired by, and received an impulse from, the American example (and after 1803, from the memory of the French example) is convincing; but detailing each separate revolt and uprising from beginning to end may have, I believe, a blurring and weakening effect. As against this, the thirty-five pages given to the impact of the American rebellion and the French Revolution on Ireland in the run-up to 1798 constitute a highly readable and reasonably fair account of a fascinating period. Even where the narrative is less than fully balanced, the questions raised by it are important and worthwhile.

The picture drawn of the majority Catholic community in eighteenth century Ireland is the traditional, pre-1960s revisionist one. Catholics were subject to organised and brutally direct discrimination in almost every aspect of their lives, they were inferior in law and practice, being excluded from political life, the professions and especially from land ownership; by the 1760s, with over seventy per cent of the population, Catholics owned only fourteen per cent of the land. As seen by Burke, among others, the Williamite Settlement in Ireland was not a libertarian revolution but a reconquest.

Due to their dire poverty and lack of education, including widespread illiteracy, the Irish masses had no conceptual framework for discussing how to end the organised system of political, social, economic and religious dependency from which they suffered. Standard Enlightenment concepts – popular sovereignty, equality of status, inherent universal rights, freedom of thought and expression, parliamentary representation of the whole of society – were almost completely unknown.

According to Israel, the majority of Irish Protestants, both Anglicans and Dissenters, remained passively loyalist until spurred to a different perspective by rumblings of American discontent; only then did they begin to look for more equal representation and less subordination to British interests. The Patriots were always an uncomfortably small minority, as Franklin noted on his visit in 1771. In respect of political dissent in Ulster, Israel stresses the magnitude of emigration from the province to America – about twenty thousand people between 1769 and 1774 – and the natural sympathy of the emigrants and their relatives at home for the rebels. The third strand prompting radical changes in the late 1770s and early 1780s was the forced willingness of London to consider concessions, especially after the outbreak of war with France and the formation of the Volunteers. “Frightened into, frightened out of and frightened back again” was Burke’s comment. An Irish Land Act, a Free Trade Act and an act to increase the independence of the Irish legislature followed. With the winding down of the American War, and its eventual end, Irish pressure on London lost its effectiveness; that pressure was ending anyway with the failure of the Volunteers to come to decisions on Catholic membership of their body, or on further Catholic relief.

In giving this general background, Swift is not mentioned. Grattan, Flood and the parliamentary reform group are scarcely referred to, and the Catholic Committees not at all. Burke and Tone are quoted extensively as examples of the moderate and radical strands in the Enlightenment reform discourse. Professor Israel also makes good use of two less well-known contemporary commentators, James Gordon (History of the Irish Rebellion, 1803) and Theobald McKenna (Essay on Parliamentary Reform, 1793). Gordon was a perceptive and sympathetic observer of the moderately enlightened tendency, a Cork Anglican schoolteacher and rector, whom Israel typifies as “enlightened but lonely”. McKenna expressed the standard view of the Catholic bishops in the late years of the century that anti-monarchism, republicanism and the “democratical principle” were unnatural, pernicious socially and morally, and profoundly irreligious. Israel calls McKenna the foremost Irish Catholic political writer of the 1790s.

On Burke, Israel is, like many, ambivalent, but more critical than positive. He is less critical of Tone, whom he praises as a “radical enlightener”. In describing Burke’s position in the 1770s he maintains that while a better harmonisation of Ireland’s interests with those of Britain frequently engaged his attention, his unwavering aim was to strengthen the overarching imperial supremacy of crown, church, gentry, commercial elite and parliament. If the empire was to be preserved, “an authority sufficient to preserve unity must reside somewhere; that somewhere can only be England”. While this may not have been fully in accord with Burke’s later views, it is true that he believed the best that could be done with the “cruel, oppressive and unnatural chains” binding Ireland was mitigation of the worst abuses; and marginal amelioration of the worst injustices could only leave the basic structures of political, economic and religious repression and imperial ascendancy intact.

Burke is also rightly given credit for recognising that the growth in disaffection and subversion through the 1790s was a phenomenon most common to Dissenters and Anglicans, that “strong republican Protestant faction in Ireland”, many of whom had been persecuting the Catholic majority only a short time before. If Tone’s Argument on behalf of the Catholics of Ireland sold ten thousand copies and Paine’s Rights of Man went through seven Irish editions and reputedly sold forty thousand copies by November 1791, (outselling Burke’s Reflections on the French Revolution published a year earlier), it was self-evidently because they were being read by Protestants and ex-Protestants. But Burke was balanced in his views and temperate in language; while he was strongly anti-republican, he could also recognise the logic of the United Irishmen as “rational, manly and proper”; he was firm against those “beings of iron, the Atheists” but he equally had no doubt that responsibility for Ireland’s ills was to be divided between French ambition, British mismanagement and Irish bigotry. There is some irony in the fact that Israel is not afraid to quote one proponent of French doctrine in Ireland, the American Joel Barlow, on Burke’s “infuriate quill”.

Tone was ex-Anglican, upwardly mobile, university-educated, with some French, an avowed intellectual, equally contemptuous of aristocrats, clergy, businessmen and lawyers. By the late 1790s he was committed not only to Irish independence but to Paine’s “general emancipation of all mankind”. He also believed, “with a fervour bordering on millenarian expectation”, according to Israel, that a new order of things was commencing in Europe; “the doctrine of republicanism will subvert that of monarchy and establish a system of just and rational liberty”. On the basis of these beliefs, Israel calls him “no nationalist but a typical radical enlightener”. His thinking was equally wishful in believing that “if England sees all ranks and descriptions of Irishmen united and determined, she will balance, after the experience of America and France, before she will engage in a third crusade against the liberties of an entire nation”.

The problem with Tone, as father of Irish nationalism and as rational enlightener, is that he was a man in a hurry and his judgement was not equal to his energy or courage. In what is probably his best text, the Argument on behalf of the Catholics of Ireland (1791), he announced his twin aims. These were: “To break the connection with England, the never-failing source of all our political evils ... and to substitute the common name of Irishman for the past denominations of Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter.” But the 1798 rebellions, which he played a large part in instigating, led to the precise opposite. The connection with England was strengthened by the Act of Union of January 1801, the net effect of which was to embed Ireland more tightly in the empire. And as the (almost leaderless) rebellions spread, and repression became more savage, the conflict grew ever more vicious and blatantly sectarian. Indiscriminate slaughter strengthened the bitterness and division between the faith communities; the beginning of movement towards the common name of Irishman stopped and went sharply into reverse; it took another two hundred years, the spilling of much more blood and the waste of countless further lives before that promising momentum reappeared. The last section of this chapter in Israel’s book is rightly entitled “Irish Catastrophe (1798-1803)”.

Tone was aged thirty-five in 1798, old enough to have known better. Israel reports that he did know better but implies that he had no choice. He reports that, privately, Tone criticised his countrymen for the fact that they still ventilated their discontent in conventional, purely local ways; to him, they seemed incapable of taking a wider view, of thinking in terms of a full-scale democratic and secular revolution, incapable, in short, of becoming enlightened. Israel argues in addition that with the ending of the American war, and given that the Volunteers remained split on further Catholic relief, the “scope for exerting pressure without violence had hence largely vanished. From 1783 onward the choice was either acquiesence or underground revolutionary conspiracy”; and further, that with the outbreak of the French war ten years later, “the intensified crackdown compelled radicals to become armed conspirators and revolutionaries”.

This is either loose language or special pleading. Israel’s own text reveals that even within the ranks of the United Irishmen there were those, including Drennan, Thomas Emmet and the Catholics, who preferred a more cautious, limited strategy. From late 1791, Drennan was urging a longer-term campaign of civil disobedience and boycott, in imitation of the Americans, using publicity and purely legal means. “Why should we not refuse to pay taxes as well as America?” And outside the United Irishmen, there was still some scope, however limited, for working alongside the moderate parliamentary reformers, through the Catholic Committees and with sympathisers such as Burke and others. “Compulsion” existed therefore largely in terms of timescale; the next generation of national leaders certainly decried the movement towards underground conspiracy and armed force; primum non nocere – or, in the Irish idiom, not to make a bad situation worse – is a counsel of prudence in national politics as well as in medicine.

In his final summation of the Irish example, Israel states that democratic and egalitarian Enlightenment concepts were used “to mobilise the illiterate and barely literate against those upholding the harsh existing order but Enlightenment ideas could not be used powerfully or extensively enough to steer the agitation effectively or mitigate the vast disruption, violence, fanaticism and bloodshed that ensued”; and he invokes Gordon’s understanding that the worst of the tragedy was that the United Irishmen’s aspirations were not embraced or even understood by the rebel masses. I have little doubt that from the point of view of the populace at the time, the worst of the tragedy lay in factors infinitely more immediate, bloody and painful.

While, as this review has argued, there are elements in Professor Israel’s book which must be queried, it remains impressive in ambition and scope. Certain chapters demand to be reread and others will continue to provide valuable reference material for the influence of the US example elsewhere. This volume has improved immeasurably my understanding of the American war of independence and of the early years of the United States. It has given me a more rounded and subtle picture of the Founding Fathers, and particularly of Franklin, Adams and Jefferson. Most importantly, in the chapter on Ireland, it has provoked and stimulated me to develop and refine my own ideas about an important segment of Irish history, especially regarding the exaggerated deference still paid to the Sage of Bodenstown.


John Swift retired from the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs in 2006. His last posts were as ambassador to Cyprus, ambassador to the Netherlands and permanent representative to the UN (Geneva).