Academic journal article Early American Studies

A Tale of Three Patriots in a Revolutionary World

Academic journal article Early American Studies

A Tale of Three Patriots in a Revolutionary World

Article excerpt

Théophile Cazenove, Jacques-Pierre Brissot, and Joel Barlow (1788-1811)

Tis essay is about the careers of three men who lived in the same revolutionary world and had one thing in common: the sale of American lands to the French and Dutch public. Focusing on these individuals allows me to investigate eighteenth-century Atlantic networks from a broad transnational viewpoint and to show that even more types of networks existed than Nicholas Canny described in his recent article - or rather, that some of these types intertwined with one another.1 The Revolutionary era is exceptionally ripe for investigation of these trans- Atlantic exchanges because of the increased migrations and connections to which it gave rise.2 Instead of applying traditional sociological methods that analyze the quality or quantity of ties between individuals and groups, or examine the way networks gather information, make decisions or express their convictions, however, my aim is to approach networks as a process. I am interested not only in conscious connections between individuals but also in how networks emerge from configurations of human and nonhuman actors and as the product of both agency and contingency.3 In other words, I approach Atlantic history through an alternative framework drawn from network theory, which looks at how things happened, who or what was involved, and who or what created agency.4

The method for studying networks that I employ, developed in the 1980s by Bruno Latour, Michel Callón, and John Law, focuses on process and agency.5 It is particularly relevant to a study of the late eighteenth century given the difficulties that bedeviled communication between the New and Old Worlds. To get a letter with instructions from the other side of the Atlantic, for instance, one had to wait for nine to eighteen weeks. And one had to hope that copies had been sent because letters could be lost or stolen. Misunderstandings and misinterpretations were common and could cause a lot of trouble. Other problems in trans-Atlantic communication were the intervention of unexpected third parties, the mobility of actors, and the vagaries of politics, finance, and economics. These difficulties were especially important for speculators, who stood to lose a great deal of money on erroneous information or instructions.6 But political actors faced similar problems; they, too, had to keep up with the pace of events. Failure to do so could have tragic results, as one of my characters, Brissot, discovered: he promoted a French republic too early, in July 1791, and then found himself trying to save the French monarchy too late, in the summer of 1792. Because of these mistakes, he lost his head in 1793.

First, after presenting the actors in question, this essay focuses on speculation, since the three actors were first and foremost doing business in America and Europe. But the three of them were also involved in the politics of their time - whether or not they wished to be - especially in the American and French revolutions. Their responses to the revolutions will be tackled in the second section. Finally, and before drawing some conclusions about the problems that complicated exchanges and connections, there is a section that enlarges the perspective and highlights the heterogeneity and variety of Atlantic networks, and the mobility and uncertainty that came with them.


In my narrative, actor number one is, in fact, America. Many Europeans (and some Americans, too) were fixated on the material, financial, or spiritual investments to be made in the New World. For some these involved lands or shares, funds or securities; for others ideals and principles were of primary interest. Here I focus first on so-called wild lands in which all three men were concerned. Théophile Cazenove (1740-1811) was an agent of the Holland Land Company, which was investing in America; Joel Barlow (1754-1812) was sent to Paris in 1788 to sell Scioto Company tracts; and Jacques-Pierre Brissot (1754-93) set out for America at the same time and for similar reasons. …

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