The Expanding Blaze: How the American Revolution Ignited the World, 1775–1848

On a scale of 1 (fie!) to 10 (huzza!)


Book Review: The Expanding Blaze: How the American Revolution Ignited the World, 1775-1848 by Jonathan Israel (Princeton University Press, 2017)


For Jonathan Israel, the American Revolution “was the crucible of democratic modernity” (24). But it played its role unwittingly, at times even unwillingly. While “moderation” dominated in America, writes Israel, it “could not prevent the Revolution’s radical dimension from capturing the outside world’s perception and interpretation of what the United States represented” (110). His book chases that “expanding blaze” to Canada, Holland, France, Ireland, Haiti, Spain, and Greece, among other countries, and their colonies through the 1850s.

Many of these revolutionary fires were quickly extinguished; their heat, soon forgotten, even denied by historians. In Canada, for instance—“the first country outside the Thirteen Colonies in which the American Revolution’s republican ideology was deliberately and systematically diffused” (193)—the “democratic movement of the 1820s and 1830s” soon faded “into distant memory” eventually being cast “as merely a localized French Canadian revolt” (210). Still, “America’s example would everywhere impact among peoples possessing the same grounds as the Americans for overthrowing exploitative systems that did nothing for the people except exact oppressive taxes and curb personal liberty; ultimately, America’s example would everywhere lead to the replacing of the totally unsatisfactory and oppressive existing order with free republics and open trade” (222). The “spirit of ’76” survived in nooks and crannies around the world, sometimes sheltering in “transatlantic underground conspiracy” (471). Its long-term impact, “enduring and immense” (600), offered “a universal model” for radical reformers everywhere.

Those familiar with Israel’s three, large volumes on the Enlightenment will find aspects of his newest book predictable. Like them, The Expanding Blaze is broad in scope. Reminiscent of R.R. Palmer’s The Age of Democratic Revolution (1959), Israel’s far-reaching approach has the potential to illuminate connections between ideas separated by place and time that might otherwise remain obscured. The risk in such breadth is that it misses contextual variations, unduly collapsing all into one. Critics of Israel’s account of the Enlightenment have convincingly demonstrated that by ignoring national contexts it obscures as much or more than it illuminates about the Enlightenment. But Israel marches on:

Both the American and French revolutions, and all the other supposedly ‘national’ revolutions, were essentially tussles between rival ‘democratic’ and ‘aristocratic’ variants of a single Atlantic Revolution, just as all the alleged ‘national’ enlightenments were in reality always battlegrounds between rival ‘moderate’ and ‘radical’ Enlightenment streams (4).

Israel’s universal Revolution, like his universal Enlightenment, is lopsided. The Age of Revolution was made possible, he writes, by “The deep incursion of Radical Enlightenment ideas” (431), not appeals to history, and by experience, “not social forces” (436). Israel’s heroes all hail from his “Radical Enlightenment,” just as they did in this book’s dry run, A Revolution of the Mind: Radical Enlightenment and the Intellectual Origins of Modern Democracy (2010). Those deemed “moderates” of the American Revolution—John Adams, John Jay, Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Rush, Gouverneur Morris, George Washington, and their heirs—are inconsequential. Mere followers of John Locke, Montesquieu, and British “mixed government” (258), these believers in “moderation” do not matter in Israel’s telling of the story. His blunt either/or pigeonholing of figures as “radical” or “moderate” oversimplifies what was often a messier, murkier, and more interesting experience. Israel’s approach distorts much about the basic natures of the Enlightenments and Revolutions he sketches while unduly homogenizing the widely-differing individuals who made them.

Similar oversimplification infects Israel’s descriptions of the historiography. For example, Henry F. May did not cast the American Revolution as “a struggle between two opposing transatlantic ideological wings”—the “moderate Enlightenment” and the “radical Enlightenment”—as Israel says he did (12). May’s several Enlightenment categories—or “forms,” as May at times styled them—included more than moderates and revolutionaries (a term he used more than “radical”), shifted with place and time, and frequently overlapped. Israel’s oversimplification is often a stepping-stone to his overstatement: “the American Enlightenment’s essential duality,” he overconfidently proclaims, “exactly paralleled the dual trajectory of the European Enlightenment” (15). “The basic rift between Moderate and Radical Enlightenment [characterized] eighteenth-century thought and culture everywhere” (291). For Israel, all is neat and tidy.

His theory in hand, Israel filters his sources and creates his narrative. One wishes he would not hold so tightly to his rigid divisions and unbending plot. A consequence of doing so is that many figures—Benjamin Franklin, Edmund Burke, James Madison, Noah Webster, and others—must be made to make sudden “lurches” or “shifts” as they “discard” one world view for another. How else could Israel account for their holding positions that are on opposite sides of the dividing line entrenched in his model? The closer one looks, the more Israel’s neat-and-tidy model breaks down. This is true even for his heroes.

For Israel, the three most important “architects of the radically reforming American Revolution” were Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and Thomas Paine. Paine fits Israel’s “radical” mold much better than Franklin or Jefferson. Paine, he writes, “injected into the American scenario something fundamentally new to the American scene: radical, universalist revolutionary discourse already for some time familiar in France but rarely echoed in America or Britain” (49). Indeed, a worthwhile theme of Israel’s account—one that should not be lost among his oversimplifications and overstatements—is Paine’s meaningful impact on both the French Revolution of 1789 and on South America’s nineteenth-century revolutions. Paine ought to have been celebrated in post-Revolutionary America; but he wasn’t, laments Israel. In 1809, following a period of excessive drinking (brandy by choice) Paine died, “generally despised.” Only a handful of mourners braved attending the funeral for the man who suffered “relentless near universal backlash” (415).

Israel struggles, unsuccessfully, to cram Jefferson and Franklin into this same radical mold. Jefferson is presented as “A classical ‘radical enlightener’”(246); he “was the most consistent, unambiguous, democratizing republican among the Founding Fathers” (247). But what to do about Jefferson’s dithering over slavery and his fear of racial tensions unleashed by the Haitian Revolution? Jefferson’s presidency, Israel postulates, forced him to switch sides in the radical/moderate divide: “This marked the point where Jefferson parted company with the radical philosophique tradition and the radicalism of his own youth” (384). The post-1800 Jefferson parted company with “the pre-1800 Jefferson” (395). But that way of seeing things ignores the fact that Jefferson’s expressions of racial inferiority long pre-dated 1800. Readers of this journal will not need to be reminded of Jefferson’s comments on black inferiority in his Notes on the State of Virginia, a book that was composed in the early 1780s amidst the American Revolutionary war. Israel does not take those remarks, or others, into account—he fails to mention Jefferson’s Notes at all. Had he, Israel would have had even more difficulty stuffing Jefferson into his one-size-fits-all radical mold.

Franklin is a tighter squeeze yet. Many of Franklin’s early writings and actions will not fit into Israel’s radical mold at all. For instance, Franklin of the 1750s often privileged history over philosophy, writing that “universal history,” not philosophy, was what ought to be taught to fix “the first Principles of sound Politicks . . . in the Minds of Youth” (103). So in 1774, following his time in France, he is made to have a conversion to radicalism: “If Franklin impacted impressively on Paris, France equally drew him, and in the politically crucial position in which he found himself, he further absorbed radical ideas and texts, increasingly discarding the strands of moderate outlook shaping his views before 1775” (124). While Diderot and Raynal portrayed Franklin as a philosophical radical in their Histoire philosophique (126)—a book Israel admires and cites repeatedly—should Israel believe them? Israel may want to claim Franklin as “a leading light of the ‘Radical Enlightenment’”(138) after 1775, but the historical record suggests differently. Franklin’s important speech at the Constitutional Convention in 1787, for instance, is anything but radical. In one of his final public addresses, Franklin openly displayed his life-long core of enlightened moderation, compromise, and conciliation. Arguing for the Constitution’s adoption, Franklin remarked (too ill to deliver the speech himself, it was read by a colleague):

Mr. President, I confess that I do not entirely approve of this Constitution at present; but, Sir, I am not sure I shall never approve it; for, having lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged, by better information or fuller consideration, to change my opinions . . . I agreed to this Constitution, with all its faults—if they are such; because I think a general government necessary for us, and there is no form of government but what may be a blessing to the people, if well administered.

He asked others “who may still have objections to it” to join him “on this occasion” and “doubt a little” of their “own infallibility.”[1] Forcing a radical turn on Franklin in 1774 ignores the moderate aspects of his later life and clouds our understanding of the American Revolution as a whole.

It also ignores radical aspects of Franklin’s earlier life. Israel writes: “Until the 1770s, [Franklin] had given relatively little time and thought to the slavery question. It was his enlightened Quaker friend Anthony Benezet’s influence, and discussion with Condorcet and the Paris radical philosophes, that prodded him further” (148). That imposes too neat a story and disregards known facts. As early as 1738 Franklin, in his early 30s, printed the anti-slavery pamphlet of his Quaker dwarf friend Benjamin Lay. This fact will not be found in Histoire philosophique, but any reader of Leo Lemay’s biography of Franklin will know it.[2]

Other figures seem equally uncomfortable playing the roles in which Israel casts them. Robespierre was a “traditionalist,” says Israel, distancing him from the true “radicals (276). And Napoleon? He “toweringly personified the ‘moderate’ late Enlightenment” (457). Israel’s model does not help us better understand these two figures, but their roles in the account shed light on Israel’s agenda.

One of Israel’s targets in the book is Hannah Arendt’s On Revolution (1963). Arendt aimed to differentiate the “moderate” American Revolution, based on “experience,” from the “radical” French Revolution, based on “intellectual theories.” Israel writes:

The contrast Arendt drew, between a French Revolution deemed fundamentally flawed—for her the starting point of the road that led to the Bolshevik Revolution—and a ‘republican’ American Revolution she described sympathetically—is left entirely erased once the Terror, debased Rousseauisme, and Robespierriste populist streak is properly characterized and separated from the French Revolution’s republican democratizing principles.(602)

“Giving due weight to the split between radical and moderate within the American Revolution,” Israel concludes, “means weakening [Arendt’s] distinctions to the point that they lose all their plausibility and force” (602). Emphasizing the radical element of the American Revolution allows Israel to see parallels with the revolution in France. But should Arendt’s basic point be written off so quickly? After all, the French Revolution did lead to the Terror and the Emperor Napoleon while the American Revolution produced the Constitution of 1787.

A fuller assessment would require more attention being given to the moderates that Israel decries. He is right, of course, to see that America’s moderate revolution was not immediately revolutionary for all Americans. Women did not gain much. The rights of Blacks and Native Americans were overlooked by most. “Understanding of the real nature of the Native Americans’ tragic plight and sympathy for their fate in the American Enlightenment,” writes Israel, “was to be found only in a few restricted circles—often specialists with intimate knowledge of their culture and customs” (173). But the Constitution of 1787 was an enlightened and revolutionary document. Providing for its own amendment, it opened the way for more change, leading quickly to the Bill of Rights, the eventual end of slavery, and soon to an expanding citizenry benefiting from the American Enlightenment’s tendency toward applying reason and experience for incremental improvement.

One could go on, but what is said above should make readers cautious of Israel’s account.


[1] Benjamin Franklin, “Speech In the Convention, at the Conclusion of Its Deliberations (1787),” in The Autobiography & Other Writings, ed. Peter Shaw (New York: Bantam, 1982), 324-26.

[2] Lemay’s work does not figure in Israel’s bibliography. It is not the only notable absence in a bibliography that also contains curiosities—such as a “3rd rev. ed,” an edition that does not exist, of E. C. Mossner’s The Life of David Hume. Israel’s text, too, is not without occasional slips and inconsistencies. America’s most famous lexicographer, Noah Webster, becomes “Noel Webster” (92); Charles Willson Peale sometimes goes by that name (176) but other times he is “Wilson” with only one “l” (416, 397); the final volume of David Hume’s History of England was published in 1762, not 1761 (338); John Adams’s Defense of the Constitutions was published in 1787, not 1786 (239). Citations and quotations are sometimes inaccurate. In one paragraph on page 605, for instance, a quotation from May’s The Enlightenment in America is misattributed to an essay he co-authored with David Lundberg, “The Enlightened Reader in America,” and in that same paragraph May is misquoted.

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  • Thanks for this review. I had been debating putting Israel’s volume on my reading list, which already has more books on it than I could possibly read, but think I’ll pass.

    That said, there’s still a gap in my understanding of how the rest of the world related to the American Revolution ideologically. (The power politics I get). Decades old high school history and undergrad classes in political theory and western civilization don’t quite cut it. Is the Palmer book you mentioned better? Other recommendations?

  • Thanks for this excellent review. I will take a look at the book. I did notice one point that is off: In writing about Franklin’s turn toward radicalism, you write that “So in 1774, following his time in France….” either the date or country is incorrect since Franklin was in England that year still as an American agent, and faced his grilling by the Privy Council. I always thought it was that event that radicalized him. In fact as late as the Boston Tea Party, Franklin thought it “an act of violent injustice.” He was still a “moderate.” His involvement in France beginning in 1776 may have deepened his radicalism, but the turn must have begun before that.

  • I did read Expanding Blaze, and found it informative regarding various revolutions, several of them unknown to me (e.g., Spanish, Greek, etc.). Because of the breadth of subject matter, the sketches are incomplete (e.g., Germany, Poland, etc.). Mark Spencer fairly criticizes the book for cramming figures into a Procrustean bed of a too-rigid typology. Also, Israel’s narrative is often weighed down by his compulsion to refer to every source, in an exercise of incessant list making. The grade given is, in my opinion, the right one. I would give the review a 10.

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