Revolutions Made and Unmade

In this outline, we return to the “big picture” of the age of revolutions. We look at the general processes across all of the Americas and compare all the revolutions. In particular, the outline focuses on how the differing colonial traditions (political, economic, and cultural) shaped the revolutionary paths and the outcomes of the wars for independence. We take a hard look at just how revolutionary these wars were during this extraordinary period of upheaval.

In this outline, we return to the “big picture” of the age of revolutions and to larger comparative and theoretical issues.

A. Now that we have seen successful wars for independence in more than a dozen nations, and failed movements in others, we will focus on the comparative features of all these colonies and nations.

    1. In particular, I want to emphasize the larger common processes that take shape across all of the Americas, from Canada to Argentina, in the era from the 1770s to the 1820s.
    2. I also want to stress the connections with what I have referred to as the larger Atlantic world.
    3. At the same time, I will draw out the important differences in the nations that emerge (and do not emerge) across the Americas.
    4. The structure for this comparative analysis will be organized around three key areas: politics, economics, and culture.
    5. I will first highlight the power of colonial traditions in shaping the processes of independence, then turn to the importance of the contingencies of the moment of revolt.
    6. I also take a hard look at just how revolutionary these wars were during this extraordinary period of upheaval.

B. We began these outlines with a discussion of the main themes of revolution and wars for independence.

    1. As I have emphasized, there was a broad range of cases, from those countries that truly experienced a fundamental transformation to those that entered into nationhood with little change.
    2. We have also seen that not all colonies rebelled against the metropolis and others rose up in revolt but failed to achieve independence.
    3. In one of the great “moments” of nation-building in the modern world, 19 new nations emerged in the Americas, but even more colonies continued their subservience to European powers.

C. Before I engage in the larger comparative analysis, let us briefly recap what we have seen.

    1. We began by looking at the common origins of the profound shifts that began to take place in the Atlantic world in the 18th century.
    2. We then turned to the American Revolution of the 1770s as the first in the series, followed by the Haitian Revolution in the 1790s.
    3. After these two great revolutions, we shifted our attention to Spanish America and focused on the more specific forces of change in the Spanish Empire.
    4. The next section of these outlines then concentrated on the wars for independence in Spanish and Portuguese America (about half the course).
    5. In the final set of cases, we saw that revolution and independence were not inevitable in this era.

The differing colonial traditions across the Americas play an enormously powerful role in both the processes and the outcomes of the wars for independence.

A. The political systems and cultures of the American colonies by the 1770s vary in important ways.

    1. There are three major colonial political regimes in the Americas by the 1770s: British, Iberian, and French.
    2. Within each of these major regimes, there are also variations that shape the trajectories of colonial revolts, especially in the British and Iberian Empires.
    3. In the broadest strokes, the already limited and constitutional monarchy of the British Empire had placed British America on a path distinct from the colonies of Iberoamerica with their strongly centralized absolutist monarchies.
    4. In all the cases we have seen, however, whatever the political culture, colonial elites (what I call Creoles) have emerged by the end of the 18th century.

B. The economic systems in the three major colonial empires had also developed in different ways by the end of the 18th century.

    1. Although all three systems were closed and jealously self-contained, the trading networks within the British Empire were much more open and vibrant than those in the Latin American colonies.
    2. The trading systems within Spanish, Portuguese, and French America were much more controlled from the metropolis, and trade among the colonies was highly restricted.
    3. The result had a powerful impact on the shape of colonial elites and their position in the aftermath of independence.
    4. New England, for example, had developed a vibrant and dynamic commercial and shipping system by the 1770s that would make it a strong competitor with the Europeans in the immediate aftermath of independence.
    5. Location, geography, and climate also mattered.

C. Culture is the most slippery and difficult theme to analyze, and it obviously overlaps with politics and economics.

    1. All the colonies in the 18th century were paternalistic, hierarchical, and built on privilege and inequality.
    2. These values were much more ingrained and pronounced in Latin American than they were in Anglo America.
    3. The ways in which these cultural values were challenged in the wars for independence were also quite different.

Although the colonial heritage of each colony had an enormously important role in setting the stage for rebellion and war, we cannot overlook the equally important role of the contingencies of the moment of rebellion.

A. The most important of these contingencies was the interplay of the key social groups in the “moment” of upheaval.

    1. The various elites, slaves, Indians, and lower classes in each colony responded to the collapse of the colonial regimes in different ways.
    2. At times, in colonies with similar colonial traditions and social structures, the results of warfare were very different because of the complicated and differing interactions of the key social groups.
    3. In slaveholding societies, for example, the processes and outcomes were often different from British North America, to Cuba, to Brazil.

B. Finally, one cannot avoid the powerful contingencies of leadership.

    1. Individuals do make a difference, and the quality of leadership in the movements plays a fundamental role in the processes of independence and its aftermath.
    2. Having a George Washington, a Simón Bolívar, or a Bernardo O’Higgins shows that individuals can matter as much as structures and long-term patterns and traditions.
    3. I am not suggesting that the wars for independence would not have taken place in these countries without these leaders.

C. The paths taken in the age of revolution were the results of the convergence of a number of key factors and forces.

    1. First, there was the impact of the long-term processes of modernization: the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, and the French Revolution.
    2. These common forces of change produced different explosions depending on wide variations in: social and racial structures, political cultures, economic systems, the timing of the wars, and the quality of the leadership that emerged in each region.
    3. I hope my series of outlines has persuaded you that there are clearly patterns that allow us to speak of this period and region as a coherent unit of study.
    4. In short, I hope that it is clear that there was, in fact, a period from the 1770s to the 1820s, across all of the Americas, that we can call the “age of revolution.”

Return to The Age of Revolution in the Americas


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