Upheaval: Americas' Story of Freedom

By Jones, Seth G. | The Christian Science Monitor, January 3, 1997 | Go to article overview

Upheaval: Americas' Story of Freedom


Jones, Seth G., The Christian Science Monitor


The Americas in the age

of Revolution: 1750-1850

By Lester D. Langley Yale University Press, 287 pp., $35 "All that part of Creation that lies within our observation is liable to change. Even mighty States and Kingdoms are not exempted." Twenty years before British troops marched into the Massachusetts countryside and triggered the "shot heard round the world," John Adams couldn't have been more prophetic. Over the next century, revolutions swept the New World and ended the grip of British, French, and Spanish colonial rule. Much has already been written about the revolutionary age of the Western Hemisphere. But in "The Americas in the Age of Revolution, 1750-1850," Lester D. Langley, a history professor at the University of Georgia and author of "America and the Americas" and "The Banana Wars," offers an intriguing, fresh, and somewhat persuasive comparative study of three of the most important revolutions in this hemisphere: the American Revolution of 1776, the Haitian revolution that began in 1791, and the revolutions that engulfed Spanish America and ended in the early 19th century. On a basic level, all three revolutions arguably point to the triumph of classical liberalism - to the termination of unjust foreign rule and to the implementation of what the British philosopher John Locke called the natural rights of man: life, liberty, and property. Government, according to Locke, was legitimate only when it applied to popular sovereignty and when the ruled consented to being governed. However, on a deeper level the revolutions were much more complex and not quite so rosy. The American Revolution, Langley argues, was important because it struck at the social, political, and economic roots of empire - and provided the rest of Latin America with a useful example for combating colonial rule. At the same time, though, it was also deeply troubling and paradoxical. For while it may have terminated British control, substantial inequalities of wealth remained and "liberty" was hardly a relevant term for blacks, Indians, and women. The Haitian revolution, which Langley terms "the revolution from below," was perhaps the most remarkable and extensive because it was a revolution led by slaves. …

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