The Expanding Blaze: How the American Revolution Ignited the World, 1775-1848

Jonathan Israel, Professor Emeritus in the School of Historical Studies, has authored The Expanding Blaze: How the American Revolution Ignited the World, 1775–1848 (Princeton University Press, 2017), a sweeping history of how the American Revolution inspired revolutions throughout Europe and the Atlantic world in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

An excerpt from the Spring 2018 Institute Letter:

"The American Revolution created a new form of republic explicitly built on the principle of “liberty.” Yet the United States that emerged in 1787 was predominantly undemocratic and by and large not geared to promoting the welfare of society as a whole. The Revolution contained two divergent tendencies within it, rooted respectively in moderate and radical Enlightenment, and this inevitably generated a conflict of attitudes, values, and institutions that could not easily be resolved. On the one hand there was the powerful Lockean legacy. But Locke had justified a revolution, the Glorious Revolution of 1688, led by an aristocracy on the basis of everyone’s right to the pursuit of “life, liberty and property,” assigning property a decisive role in the possession and organization of power and authority. For Locke, the prime reason men enter into commonwealths placing themselves under government is for the “preservation of their property.” Substituting the “pursuit of happiness” for “property” in the Declaration of Independence consequently had far-reaching implications regarding the purposes of the state and the scope of its responsibilities. Where in Locke property is the basis of social division into classes, Jefferson’s formulation marginalized the principle of social class. The landless could no longer be regarded as either so marginal or so subordinate as in Locke. Where Locke nurtured a negative conception of liberty, centered on protection of property, for Jeffersonians liberty was a positive, developmental concept to be upheld and advanced by the state and its agencies. Where in Locke, education is essentially a private matter geared to issues of property without any public role, in radical Enlightenment education is a public matter and something to which everyone has a right. Whereas in Locke, popular sovereignty extends only so far as the “compact” between people and the executive power, in the political philosophy of Franklin, Jefferson, Paine, and Price, the people share continuously in the exercise of government through elections, representation, and the right to free expression of opinion. In the constitution for the colony of Carolina that Locke drew up for the Lords proprietors of Carolina in 1669, and helped revise in 1682, for example, he took care to avoid erecting a “numerous democracy,” slavery was retained, the Indians had few rights, and most colonists were left firmly subordinate to the great landowners, or “landgraves” as Locke termed them. Finally, Locke’s toleration ruled out secularism, excluding atheists from toleration by the state and placing Catholics and Jews in a subordinate position in relation to the theologically tinted responsibilities of the sovereign."

Learn more at Princeton University Press.