Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

Citizens of a Common Intellectual Homeland: The Transatlantic Origins of American Democracy and Nationhood

Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

Citizens of a Common Intellectual Homeland: The Transatlantic Origins of American Democracy and Nationhood

Article excerpt

Citizens of a Common Intellectual Homeland: The Transatlantic Origins of American Democracy and Nationhood. By Armin Mattes. Jeffersonian America. (Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia Press, 2015. Pp. [xiv], 266. $45.00, ISBN 978-0-8139-3804-2.)

What may be most striking in a first perusal of this compelling history of the conceptual origins of Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America (1835-1840) is Armin Mattes's innovative approach, which can roughly be described as the unlikely but happy marriage between German conceptual history and an updated version of a much older method, one admired by the eighteenth-century revolutionaries themselves. Following Reinhart Koselleck's Begriffsgeschichte (conceptual history), on the one hand, Mattes presents a clear-sighted historical analysis of key political terms of the revolutionary period, including democracy, aristocracy, equality, and nation. And on the other hand, Mattes employs a historiographical tool familiar since the days of Plutarch's Parallel Lives, pairing and comparing two political thinkers from each side of the water (the Atlantic, in Mattes's case) to shed light on the interdependent, transnational nature of these concepts. The four chapters resulting from this methodological union find instructive connections not only between men directly engaged in dialogue, such as Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine, and Thomas Jefferson and Antoine Destutt de Tracy, but also between thinkers whose conversation depended on the mediation of a third party, as in the case of Friedrich Gentz and John Adams (who read Gentz in John Quincy Adams's translation), and between James Madison and Immanuel Kant, who were not biographically connected, but in whose cosmopolitan peace plans Mattes identifies parallels reaching down even to stylistic features--such as their respective reflections on governments of "angels" (p. …

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