Those familiar with the historical discipline will no doubt be acquainted with the many “turns” the profession has gone through since the rise of social history in the 1960s and 70s. Old Marxist paradigms and various forms of Whig history have fallen as historians increasingly turn their attention to cultural history, gender history, the history of race, and world history – to name just a few. In the case of the French Revolution, Lynn Hunt argues, all of these turns have left us in an “interpretative cul-de-sac.” And as David Bell and Yair Mintzker note in the introduction to their new volume, Rethinking the Age of Revolutions, the same could be said for the Age of Revolutions more generally. No Marxist class struggles overturning the aristocracy in favor of a nebulous bourgeoisie. No universal liberation ideologies manifesting idyllic democracies. We are spinning, turn after turn after turn, in a cul-de-sac. How dizzying!
Faced with no guiding “paradigm” for the Age of Revolutions and a course on that subject on the docket for this upcoming spring semester, I’ve decided to put the search for an interpretative paradigm to the side (at least until the end of the semester) and lean into the “turns” of the historiographical tilt-a-whirl. I have decided to embrace the Age of Revolutions and the power of the plural, because in its pluralism, we as educators can truly embed the value of diversity and inclusion in our pedagogies.
The course covers the American, French, Haitian, and Latin American Revolutions, with an emphasis on the global connections between each revolution and beyond. I will stress diversity, not only of each revolution but between each revolutionary experience, as well. Students will think of the American Revolution, not as a singular movement, but as the byproduct of diverse engagements and “ideological variants” — to borrow the phrase from William Sewell. In the syllabus, I underscore this point by referring to the American Revolution in the plural — “American Revolutions.” The same goes for the French Revolutions, Haitian Revolutions, and as is already customary, the Latin American Revolutions. The course will also weave in works by Bronwen Everill and Paul Lovejoy on the place of Africa in the Age of Revolutions towards the end of the semester. In each section of the course, we will focus on the political and military leaders prominent in the movement, but also on the ways in which socially, politically, and historiographically marginalized figures influenced the broader revolutionary movement, engaged with it, shaped it, and created spaces for themselves within it.
Each one of these “revolutions” will receive three weeks. The first will focus on the revolutions’ origins and context. The second will introduce students to the revolutionaries’ experiences, and will include primers on the significant historiographical debates within the field. The third will focus on the revolutions’ legacies. I have designed reading lists for students to consider these revolutionary upheavals in national as well as transnational terms. This embrace of the transnational character of the Age of Revolutions is deliberate in driving home the idea that these revolutions emerged from the various experiences of those within, but were also dependent on global processes.
The readings I have selected also reflect this pursuit of inclusivity and diversity. In the first week of the course (after acquainting students with the syllabus), we are focusing on “Finding the Age of Revolutions.” For this section, I have included three short readings. They are:
- Mary Sarah Bilder, “Introduction” in Madison’s Hand: Revising the Constitutional Convention (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015); 1-16.
- Carl Lokke, “Archives and the French Revolution” in The American Archivist 31, no. 1 (January 1968); 23-31.
- Michel-Rolph Trouillot, “The Three Faces of Sans-Souci: Glory and Silences in the Haitian Revolution” in Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (New York: Beacon Press, 2015), 31-69.
Each reading deals with three aspects of building and shaping archives — how individuals revised their own historical legacies, how historical events have shaped collections, and how, through the process of selecting, we create silences in our historical records. Taken together, they given agency to historical actors and the historian. People in the past and historians in the present “make” history and create silences in the process. With the readings in this particular set, I also hope to emphasize the diversity of the historical field. Histories of revolution have been produced by people of different genders, races, and professional backgrounds. Mary Sarah Bilder teaches in the Boston College Law School. Carl Lokke was a historian and an archivist. And Michel-Rolph Trouillot was a Haitian academic and anthropologist. These myriad perspectives help us to ask and explore different questions integral to understanding the revolutionary age.
The assignments in the class further underscore the power of plurality. Students will be responsible for a primary source project, a prospectus, and a final research paper. The primary source project will force students to consider a single event in the Age of Revolutions from the perspective of at least three different groups by locating primary sources that reveal their revolutionary experience. From this project, students will conceive of a larger research project exploring links or comparisons between different groups of socio-economic, gender, racial, national, or religious backgrounds. The project is intended to reinforce the importance of diverse actors in history.
It is my hope that this “paradigmless” approach to the Age of Revolutions, one that savors the locality, the cultures of each revolution and revolutionary experience, as well as their transnational and trans-cultural connections will drive home a more inclusive understanding of the Age of Revolutions, the field of history, and ultimately, the ways that diverse agents influenced historical transformations.
Bryan A. Banks, PhD is Assistant Professor of History at Columbus State University. He teaches courses on European and Atlantic history, the Age of Enlightenment, the Age of Revolutions, and historical writing. His current research focuses on Huguenot refugees during the French Enlightenment and French Revolution. He is the co-editor of The French Revolution and Religion in Global Perspective (Palgrave, 2017). Follow him on Twitter @Bryan_A_Banks.
 Lynn Hunt, “The Experience of Revolution,” French Historical Studies vol. 32, no. 4 (2009), 671-78.
 David A. Bell and Yair Mintzker, eds. Rethinking the Age of Revolutions: France and the Birth of the Modern World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), xiii.