November 1, 2019
The Evil Repercussions of the American RevolutionHistorians in the News
tags: American Revolution
Thomas Paine’s aspiration for the revolutionaries of 1776 was “to begin the world over again” in America. In his colorful and ambitious new transnational history, Matthew Lockwood pays very little attention to that. He is interested in how the ripples caused by the American Revolution affected everywhere outside the modern United States. The narrative hops from Britain and Ireland to the Spanish Empire, Russia, India, Australia, Africa and China, with a glittering cast of historical characters, including Catherine the Great, Tupac Amaru II, Horatio Nelson, Tipu Sultan and the Qianlong Emperor.
Lockwood’s thesis in “To Begin the World Over Again” is bolder than a repetition of the well-known facts of foreign involvement in the Revolutionary War. The subtitle of his book — “How the American Revolution Devastated the Globe” — and his introduction set out eyebrow-raising claims, including that this is “the story of how Britain won the American Revolution.” Partly as a result, he writes, “for the vast majority of Earth’s inhabitants, who did not give a damn about a civil war in British North America or the ideas and ideals that inspired it, the American Revolution was a disaster.” He finds it at the root of a long list of ills, including increasing authoritarianism within Britain itself and the wider British Empire, the failure of Irish, Indian and Peruvian movements against imperialism, the Russian conquest of Crimea, the establishment of penal colonies in Australia and the growth of the global opium trade.
Lockwood, an assistant professor of history at the University of Alabama, has a keen eye for a good yarn, and there are enthralling glimpses here of individual lives buffeted by the American Revolution. John Randall was born into slavery in Connecticut in 1764, joined the British Army as a teenager to fight against his American enslavers, escaped back to Britain with his regiment, stole a watch and was transported to Australia aboard the First Fleet. John Aitken was a Scottish burglar, highwayman and self-confessed rapist who traveled to America and returned to operate as a sort of primitive terrorist for the American cause, setting off incendiary devices (without as much effect as he hoped) in British dockyards until he was caught and hanged in 1777. James Leadner Cathcart was an American sailor born in Ireland who was among those taken captive by Algerian pirates and forced into slavery in 1785, after a British consul spitefully informed the Algerians that American vessels “were good prizes and wished them success in their attempts to capture those who refused allegiance” to Britain.
But Lockwood’s grander claim that the Revolution “devastated the globe” relies on the reader’s sense of a “butterfly effect”: that the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil can set off a tornado in Texas. What soon becomes clear even from the evidence Lockwood presents is that all of these events had much deeper pre-existing causes and in many cases more immediate triggers than Betsy Ross flapping a flag.
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