Jonathan Israel is Professor Emeritus of Modern European History in the School of Historical Studies at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. This interview is based on his new book, The Expanding Blaze: How the American Revolution Ignited the World (1775-1850) (Princeton, 2017).
JF: What led you to write The Expanding Blaze?
JI: I was chiefly motivated by the conviction that the historiography of the American Revolution had grown somewhat too parochial. The great body of literature on the topic that we have now is deeply concerned with America but not with the humanity and the world, for both of which the American Revolution seems to me to have been decisive. The place of the American Revolution in the wider revolutionary age (1775-1848) needed better defining, it seemed , and so did its relationship to the ‘The Radical Enlightenment’, a topic American historians – at any rate since Henry May, one of the first coiners of the term- still appear peculiarly reluctant to discuss.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Expanding Blaze?
JI: The book’s argument is that the American Revolution was the spark that created the expanding blaze that transformed the Western world by setting the basic model – democratic republicanism versus aristocratic republicanism- which shaped the early stages of the French Revolution (before Robespierre’s tyranny) and all the revolutionary movements of the Western world between 1782 (Geneva) and 1848. The key argument is that democratic versus aristocratic republicanism defines the inner logic of the American Revolution, and Radical Enlightenment versus ‘moderate Enlightenment’provides the ideological format, the ideas, that justify the two warring sides within the American Revolution.
JF: Why do we need to read The Expanding Blaze?
JI: The book is needed to help better situate the American Revolution than has been done in its world historical context and especially in its general Enlightenment context.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
JI: I am not an ‘American Historian’ but a historian of the Enlightenment. I see the American Revolution as a fundamental chapter in the history of world enlightenment.
JF: What is your next project?
JI: My next project is write a short book on the transatlantic origins of the modern Jewish revolutionary consciousness.
JF: Thanks, Jonathan!