Patrick Griffin is Madden- Hennebry Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame. This interview is based on his new book, The Townshend Moment: The Making of Empire and Revolution in the Eighteenth-Century (Yale University Press, 2017).
JF: What led you to write The Townshend Moment?
PG: I started the book with nothing more than a hunch. I had always been fascinated by the parallels and connections between Ireland and America in the eighteenth century. And two British brothers, Charles and George Townshend, at the very same moment held important positions that helped determine the fate of each place. Could their stories, if brought together, tell us more about Ireland and America and about the empire the brothers were responsible for? I began scratching the surface, and I discovered that their entangled story suggested a deeper set of questions.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Townshend Moment?
PG: At certain junctures of time and through contingent events, men and women come to believe they are living during critical “moments.” Empire and revolution are born through such ways of thinking.
JF: Why do we need to read The Townshend Moment?
PG: We need to read this story because it reminds how complex the past really is and how we, as actors, try to come up with simple ways to bring meaning to that complexity and act on that meaning in the present with an eye toward creating the future. The book offers on one level a dual biography of two larger-that-life characters who determined the fortunes of empire, as well as a comparative history of Ireland and America in the eighteenth century. It also explores, in a new way, the relationship between imperial reform and revolution at the beginning of the “Age of Atlantic Revolution.” Finally, it suggests how powerful people believe that they can comprehend and shape the forces of history and global processes of change to try to bring order to a system. Of course, they soon learn that people far away have other ideas. They, too, come to believe they can craft their own destinies, but ones often at odds with what those in power propose. This is a classic tale of hubris, a drama in fact.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
PG: I became an American historian by dumb luck, contingency, or Providence. I don’t quite know which. I was destined to be a Political Scientist. I started my graduate career doing Comparative Politics. I soon learned that I had talents in other areas. In a graduate program for history, I followed my passions, and they led me to the eighteenth-centiry Atlantic. I have been there ever since, and I imagine I will be there for a long time still.
JF: What is your next project?
PG: I am, speaking of hubris, working on a study of the Age of Atlantic Revolution(s). The parentheses matter here. I am not sure if the period gave birth to a singular event or to a plurality of events. We shall see. I am calling it, for lack of a better term, a provocation.
JF: Thanks, Patrick!