Reviewed by Matthew Schumann
Published on H-Diplo (September, 2008)
Commissioned by Christopher L. Ball
In Search of the Atlantic
If scholars of American foreign relations were to study the diplomatic history of North America before the War of Independence, what would it look like? What place would the future United States hold in international relations? How would it manifest its power in the realms of economics, war, power politics, and cultural exchange? Bernard Bailyn's conception of "Atlantic history" does not pretend to answer all of these questions, but it is, at least, an intriguing starting point.
Bailyn's goals in Atlantic History have little if anything to do with state-level diplomacy, and yet, the contents of his two major chapters, "The Idea of Atlantic History" and "On the Contours of Atlantic History," have everything to do with international relations more generally. Although Bailyn concentrates on the major themes of religion and economics, diplomatic history occasionally shines through as a significant motivating force. Thus, the field originated with strategic considerations of the twentieth century as much as with those of the early modern period, and the relationship between four continents--Europe, Africa, and North and South Americas--had as much to do with prevailing currents of international thought as with the currents of the ocean.
As Bailyn notes in the first part of "The Idea of Atlantic History," the field came as a byproduct of strategic considerations among high-level government officials and a politically literate press. Thus, some of the first proposals for academic study of the Atlantic came from the journalist Walter Lippmann, from 1917 through the 1930s, noting the responsibility of the United States for intervening in times of need among their cultural brethren in Europe. In the aftermath of World War II, government agencies on both sides of the North Atlantic, in particular, turned to scholars for historical explorations and explanations of the cultural and strategic bloc then developing in opposition to the nascent Warsaw Pact. It is perhaps more than coincidence that the treaty organization then forming--the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)--referred not merely to the suddenly united states of Western Europe who opposed Soviet ambitions, but also to a cultural bloc and shared histories that spanned a massive oceanic hinterland. That sense of a common heritage helped, in Bailyn's formulation, to propel early ventures into Atlantic history, while, as students of the early Cold War well know, it inspired some of the first permanent commitments of U.S. troops and strategic interests on the far side of the Atlantic.
As a nebulous region acting both as barrier and corridor, the Atlantic conflated and confounded the national histories to which scholars of an earlier era had grown accustomed. On the one hand, Charles Webster, an acclaimed historian of British diplomacy, disputed whether the region could really be considered an autonomous region worthy of its own separate scholarly field. After all, nobody could claim ownership over the thousands of miles of ocean that separated the new world from the old, and that arguably separated the international systems of Africa and the Americas from the one in Europe. On the other hand, Jacques Godechot and Charles Palmer, among a select few others in the 1950s, noted that the Atlantic also brought these continents together--that they had cultural and economic ties and a shared heritage that offered historical as well as strategic grounding for bringing together the Atlantic world of their era in contrast to a very different civilizational bloc on the frontiers of the Soviet Union. Bailyn thus sites the rise of Atlantic history squarely in the political realm.
As he traces the contours of the developing field through its evolutions after the 1960s, however, he more closely engages academia, leaving behind the diplomatic and strategic imperatives that underlay the field's foundations. He notes the emergence of history's cultural turn, with questions about the migration of one hundred thousand Palatine Germans from their Rhenish homeland to British North America, about gender distinctions among European migrants to New Spain, and about the networks of political patronage to which so many colonial officials were bound, regardless of the empire they served. These, too, are important issues, with demographic and informal political trends ultimately obtaining strategic significance as the populations and values of the old world came to shape the new--not only in their emergence as independent states but also in their impact on European trade and geopolitics of a later era. These considerations, however, lay outside of Bailyn's scope.
Diplomacy likewise hangs on the fringe of Bailyn's second essay, "On the Contours of Atlantic History." Continuing to emphasize those areas of history where the cultural turn is strongest, he emphasizes the destructiveness of the colonial conquest and the motivations of religion and trade. He notes, for example, how some of the same drives--such as utopianism and millenarianism--both inspired Europeans to cross the oceans in search of a new life of purity and innocence, and fed their bloodlust against native peoples who refused to play a cooperative part. The same applies to his discussion of transatlantic trade, smuggling, and corruption, which just briefly touches on formal diplomacy in his discussion of the origins of the War of Jenkins' Ear in 1739. More generally, he works with the exchange of labor and ideas, including the inspirations claimed by David Hume and Simon BolÌvar for their ideas on religion and politics. Overall, Bailyn's Atlantic world is predominantly the North Atlantic that he knows best (e.g., The Peopling of British North America: An Introduction , and To Begin the World Anew: The Genius and Ambiguities of the American Founders ), though with important considerations on a smaller scale for Latin America and the trades from Africa. It is odd, however, to see tiny Atlantic networks composed of a few hundred Rosicrucians and Moravians juxtaposed with the millions transported from West Africa and forced into slave labor. More clear, by contrast, is Bailyn's appreciation that North America, both before and after independence, fits into an international system more profound than the sum of its parts.
In sum, Bailyn offers a history in miniature of the evolution of Atlantic history, highlighting especially its origins and current contours, and drawing heavily on social, cultural, intellectual, and economic history. International relations enter his narrative as background and subtext--overlooked to a certain degree yet not to be ignored. For historians of American foreign relations, therefore, Atlantic History offers two related opportunities: one historiographical, in tracing the relationship between geopolitics and historians' interests in the twentieth century; and the other more historical, taking in what is known about culture, religion, economics, and demographics in the early modern Atlantic world of which North America was a significant part, and filling the apparently gigantic gap in our knowledge of its relationship to the era's geopolitics. Bailyn's work is thus invaluable as an introduction to Atlantic history and the place within it of North America before the War of Independence. It is no less important for its omissions, which historians of international relations are ideally suited to fill.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-diplo.
Matthew Schumann. Review of Bailyn, Bernard, Atlantic History: Concept and Contours.
H-Diplo, H-Net Reviews.
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