To Begin the World Over Again:
How the American Revolution Devastated the Globe
by matthew lockwood
yale, 512 pages, $30
The American Revolution still looms large in public debate. Depending on the speaker, it is either the source of our most cherished ideals or our most pernicious inequities. Small wonder, then, that historians tend to convey its significance in thundering pronouncements, alternating between soaring grandiosity and sneering contempt.
Matthew Lockwood’s To Begin the World Over Again: How the American Revolution Devastated the Globe offers a genuinely new, albeit strange, intervention in this debate. The subtitle suggests yet another book inverting American patriotic myths—freedom fighters into slave drivers; pioneers into ethnic cleansers. Lockwood, a professor of history at the University of Alabama, offers some obligatory gestures in this direction. But his book is not a polemic, although it occasionally tries to be.
Lockwood has, in fact, written two books disguised as one. The first is a learned, judicious, and richly detailed narrative history of many notable and obscure individuals whose fates were dramatically bound together with that of the British Empire in the late eighteenth century. The second book is a polemical, tendentious and confused thesis arguing that the American Revolution transformed the British Empire into a world colossus, with ruinous consequences for the world. The first book is impressive, scholarly, and cautious, even to the point of tedium. The second book is provocative, interesting, and absurd. It will help to consider each book separately.
Lockwood rejects the idea that the United States is “a uniquely moral and chosen nation.” He does not claim he is the first to criticize this idea, though he pretends scholars have only recently begun to “complicate and challenge the lazy idea of America’s exceptionalism.” The task is urgent, since “a stubborn adherence to the idea of American exceptionalism has helped create a narrow, jingoistic worldview and a selfish pursuit of American interests above all else.”
Yet only a few paragraphs later, Lockwood endorses American exceptionalism in inverted form:
The shots fired at Lexington and Concord in April 1775 echoed across the globe from the Atlantic coast to the English Channel, from Central America and the Caribbean to Africa, India, and Australia, heralding a new world that none could have predicted and few could have imagined.
It seems that hyperbole about the American Revolution is only simplistic when it is intended as praise.
Lockwood’s basic idea is that Britain’s “defeat” in America compelled leaders in London to reform and reimagine their empire in ways that proved dazzlingly successful. By the same logic, one might identify the Vietnam War as the event that secured America’s global predominance. As an ironic aside, it is perfectly defensible. But as a straightforward argument meant to organize and sustain five hundred pages of narrative history—well, even the most skeptical reader will be eager to see how he attempts to pull it off.
Lockwood makes no serious effort to demonstrate this arresting argument, aside from intermittently repeating it. The American Revolution virtually disappears in the thirteen lengthy chapters that follow his dramatic introduction. He instead devotes many pages to describing imperial rivalries occurring around the same time in every other corner of the globe—from South America to Africa to China.
These chapters demonstrate Lockwood’s considerable strengths as a historian. Each is a well-researched, engaging narrative that blends high politics with compassionate accounts of individuals who accommodated or resisted the pull of more powerful forces. Far from polemical or simplistic, these chapters mostly suffer from overfondness for narrative detail and a reluctance to step back and summarize the richly-layered complexities of the past. Lockwood’s insistence on the pivotal role of the American Revolution reappears throughout these chapters almost as though it were copied and pasted from a different book.
His first chapter, for example, describes the emergence of the British penal system in the late eighteenth century. It is learned, fascinating, and generally persuasive. The only problem is his repeated assertion that the American Revolution was somehow the pivotal event in this decades-long process. This obviously slights more fundamental causes like the demographic explosion in Britain and the Industrial Revolution.
But that is the least of it. A more serious objection is that his main argument contradicts the facts it is meant to explain. Lockwood argues that the American Revolution eliminated the thirteen colonies as outlets for exiles and other dangerous elements, creating a social crisis that spurred the British government to undertake dramatic reforms.
Yet Britain retained many other colonies, and war mobilization is an even better outlet for unemployed and restive men, as Lockwood acknowledges elsewhere. Above all, the reforms substituted “exile, imprisonment, and hard labor” as the punishment for a large proportion of crimes that had previously been punished by death, fines, or flogging. Thus, the loss of America as a penal colony provoked reforms that made Britain more reluctant to execute criminals and more likely to exile them. In short, the historical details he assembles suggest exactly the opposite of his overarching claims.
Happily, Lockwood does not apply the other element of his original thesis—that this outcome was devastating for those affected. Like any complex social transformation, the emergence of the prison system contained mixed consequences, diminishing the use of capital punishment and expanding the more subtly cruel system we know and ignore today.
Lockwood’s discussion of the British in India, to which he devotes nearly a hundred pages, is an unusually temperate and insightful treatment of an often-polarizing subject. That many millions suffered under the British yoke is beyond question, he writes. But it is also true that the conquest “could not have been accomplished without the active support and service of thousands, perhaps millions, of Indian people, many of whom directly benefited in the process.” Instead of moral simplification, Lockwood offers ambiguity: “There was no single Indian perspective, no one Indian culture nor one Indian experience.”
But Lockwood’s erudite and measured account is gravely distorted by his characterization of the future crown jewel of the British Empire as “the Indian theater of the global American Revolution.” This is an exaggerated version of the parochial exceptionalism that Lockwood deplores at the outset of his book.
The reader can’t help but be exasperated. Lockwood’s description of Britain’s conquest of India, and the experiences of those directly affected by it, is sober and nuanced. And yet it comes in a book that presents the American Revolution as a catastrophe for the whole world, precisely because it supposedly unleashed this same British Empire, in India more than anyplace else.
Why, then, has a manifestly capable scholar insisted upon a thesis that so blatantly misrepresents the substance of his work? The question is worth pondering, as a case study in the ongoing intellectual rot that encourages even serious historians to disguise themselves as canting political activists.
Adam Rowe is a historian in Dallas.