Consortium on the Revolutionary Era: 3 Reflections


Five southern American universities founded the Consortium on the Revolutionary Era in 1972 in order “to foster the study of Europe during the Revolutionary Period (1750-1850).” Fast-forward to 2018 and you will find that the conference has expanded well beyond Europe to include work on the Western hemisphere, as well as periods outside the traditional limits of 1750-1850.

Three of the Age of Revolutions’s editors — Bryan Banks, Katlyn Carter, and Rob Taber — attended this year’s conference in Philadelphia. In this post, they have collected their thoughts and offered brief reflections on the conference in general, and those panels they attended in particular.

Logo of the Consortium on the Revolutionary Era.

***     Bryan Banks’s Reflections     ***

Those well-versed in the large historiography of the French Revolution will know the American historian, George V. Taylor. In “Noncapitalist Wealth and the Origins of the French Revolution,” Taylor concluded that the French Revolution was a “political revolution with social consequences and not a social revolution with political consequences.”[1] Taylor’s point undermined the long standing Marxist explanation of the French Revolution as essentially bourgeois and capitalist. No one that I’m aware of towed an explicitly Marxist line at the Consortium on the Revolutionary Era this year in Philadelphia, but the idea of the revolutionary age as driven by primarily social or political motors was certainly still present.

The balance between the social and the political appeared in my panel on the importance of religion in the revolutionary age, but it emerged most vividly in the discussion of revolutions where slave labor and slave insurrection are at their conceptual hearts. In panels on transatlantic revolutionary cultures, race, and inequalities during the so-called “democratic age of revolutions,” the power of social structure and political ideology came to the fore. In the panel titled “‘Declarations of Rights’: Inequalities Born in Ages of Democratic Revolutions”  (see program here), a very productive Q&A followed equally insightful presentations. Did violent upheaval on the slave plantation precede any abolitionist, natural rights discourse, or were slaves driven to overthrow their slave system and colonial oppressors through indirect, osmotic, or direct engagement with political ideology? Did the Age of Revolutions propagate inequality because of the systemic constraints of the period or did the language of natural rights and sovereignty contain equal parts marginalization as liberation? Joan W. Scott addressed many of these issues in her book Only Paradoxes to Offer: French Feminists and the Rights of Man, but this year’s discussions at the CRE focused less on gender and more on issues of class, race, and representative politics. Integrating slavery in the narrative of the Age of Revolutions then might necessitate a fundamental rethinking of this social vs political debate. It is fitting for a conference dominated by historians to reinforce the idea that in history and the field of history: “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.”

I think it is also worth noting that the “culture of the Consortium” continues to be a big reason why I return often. The conference offers a space to present high caliber, rigorous work, and to receive in turn quality critique, while maintaining a culture of congeniality. I highly encourage those who are rather reluctant to travel to academic conferences give the Consortium a try.

***     Katlyn Carter’s Reflections     ***

What struck me at the annual Consortium for the Revolutionary Era conference this year was the prevalence of work with movement and identity at its core. Of course, as one person, it is only possible to experience a small slice of a conference like this. That said, these themes stuck out in a conference over which current events loomed large. From the opening keynote address in which Simon Bainbridge guided us through visions of leadership during the romantic era to Billy Smith’s closing lecture about the catastrophic 1793 Yellow Fever outbreak in Philadelphia, echoes of present crises resounded.

The notion of movement was central to a number of panels at the conference, whether of goods, ideas, practices, or people. In a panel on Franco-American diplomacy and exchange, Elizabeth Cross suggested that the story of Atlantic diplomacy is connected to that of the Compagnie des Indes; tracing the path and fate of a ship, she showed, can link developments long treated as distinct. Two panels were built around transnational exchange and emulation of political ideas and practices, gesturing to a growing trend in the political and cultural history of the revolutionary era. No one country experimented with new forms of political and social organization in a vacuum. The point was illustrated by studies like Micah Alpaugh’s identification of the links between political societies around the Atlantic World and Nicole Mahoney’s investigation of American efforts to replicate French salons as places of sociability. A panel on French émigrés emphasized the importance of people who moved across borders, specifically those fleeing the French Revolution and later trying to return. Sydney Watts and Mary Ashburn Miller both looked at how states attempted to manage the flow of people viewed as problematic. Here, as in many panels, the contemporary resonance couldn’t be missed.

At the risk of stating the obvious, living through a revolutionary era throws identities into turmoil. Though this is clear, asking exactly how and to what effect was the focus of a few panels. Aside from the émigrés, presenters talked about those who stayed, fought, resisted, or served in revolutionary governments, and made it to the other side. Intriguing work by Jeffery Stanley on the shifting legal identities of Free People of Color in Saint Domingue and Jeremy Popkin on a slave owner turned abolitionist emphasized how the tumults of revolution opened new possibilities, and new ways of thinking about racial identity and relations. A roundtable on “generations across the Age of Revolution” asked how such a watershed historical moment impacted those who lived through it and their future families. Denise Davidson pointed to the possibility of extending recent investigations of the impacts of trauma and memory on revolutionary actors across generations. Again, the current political tumult and the feeling of living in a transformative time hung heavy in the room, making the discussion feel all the more urgent.

***     Rob Taber’s Reflections     ***

I attended the CRE to follow the growing conversation among historians of France regarding events in revolutionary Saint-Domingue. I came away with new insights into the central role of race in the early nineteenth century.

First, there’s evidence of a robust conversation regarding the “prelude” of the Haitian Revolution. Historians trained in the French perspective are paying more attention to the events between the start of 1789 and the slave rebellion of the Northern Plain in August 1791. Jeremy Popkin, who has published on the governorship of General Blanchelande, continued this biographical trend with new work on Claude Milscent, a slave trader turned (eventual) abolitionist, building on work on Milscent by Alexandra Tolin Schultz. Milscent unites two conversations on the first half of the Haitian Revolution: the shifting politics of free planters of color and the emergence of Girondist abolitionism (see Sonthonax, Garran-Coulon). Meredith Gaffield discussed her doctoral work exploring the loyalties of the Regiment du Cap during momentous revolutionary events. Will Little has commenced an intriguing doctoral project on the politics of the colonial assemblies in Saint-Domingue. Finally, Jeffery Stanley presented important work on the Concordat of 1791, which brought to a temporary détente to Saint-Domingue’s West Province after free men of color led in the Rising in the West in late 1791. Stanley has done careful tracing of the transatlantic consequences of the Concordat, as well as its value for exploring a key question of the early revolution: is it possible to maintain slavery while undoing white supremacy? In the discussion that followed, John Garrigus asked if the politics of the Concordat represent something new, or an effort by free men of color to return to a time of greater fluidity of race. With new books by Terry Rey and Erica Johnson, I expect the conversation on the early Haitian Revolution to grow and deepen for the foreseeable future. 

And it’s vital that it does. During a “big ideas roundtable” featuring Jack Censer, Janet Polasky, Marcela Echeverri, and Jennifer Ritterhouse,  a historian of France in the audience asked about potential systemic, economic causes for the abolition of slavery. This is a longrunning debate in Atlantic studies, including the French decision to reimpose slavery and Haiti’s efforts to maintain plantation production while also maintaining a stout defense against re-enslavement. As historians and pundits turn more attention to the way that the expansion of democratic representation for some led to a limiting of the public sphere for others, the Haitian Revolution has much to teach. 

Those who gained political and economic power between 1776 and 1803 deployed conceptions of gender and race to enshrine their positions of power. Reflecting on the excellent roundtable on generations in the revolutionary era organized by Denise Davidson and chaired by Jennifer Heuer, I’m intrigued that so many of the contributions (including half of my own) focused on the relationship between fathers and sons across the era. I would be interested to see more explorations of intergenerational tensions along the lines of Davidson’s work with Anne Verjus. As someone interested in the influence of Romanticism on the hardening of racial categories, I was intrigued by Danielle Holtz‘s presentation on the way white leaders in the US South used Romantic ideas about the body politic and contagion to argue for the exclusion of free people of color in Jacksonian era. I expect that as more scholars of the revolutionary era read Ibram Kendi’s history of racist ideas, or reflect on the implications of Erica Dunbar Armstrong’s work on Ona Judge (presented at the Friday lunch), there will be a resurgence of work on Romantic influence on race, gender, and campaigns to restrict civil and political rights in the later Age of Revolutions.  

Title image: La Bastille (Paris) avant sa destruction.


[1] George V. Taylor. “Non-capitalist Wealth and the Origins of the French Revolution.” The American Historical Review 72, no. 2 (1967), 491.

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