A hand-colored woodcut depicting the Stamp Act riots in Boston before the Revolutionary War (North Wind Picture Archives/Alamy Stock Photo)

After graduating from college, I interned at a refugee-resettlement agency in Philadelphia. One day, we took students in the vocational English class to see sites of the American Revolution: the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, the U.S. Mint. I gave them a capsule history of the revolution: we Americans got fed up with taxation and tyranny, stood up for liberty, and banished the Europeans back to their own continent. 

That was in 2013, when tossing off an incomplete or mythologized history didn’t seem to have the stakes it does now. These days we talk about the American Revolution differently—or, rather, the way we talk about it seems to matter more. On one extreme, it was a principled rebellion led by men of high virtue; on the other, it was a cynical gambit by oligarchs to keep their slaves. The founders either wanted liberty for all or riches for themselves. The United States was flawless in its beginnings or it was rotten from the start. 

In The Age of Revolutions: And the Generations Who Made It, Nathan Perl-Rosenthal offers a different narrative. Examining Atlantic revolutions that occurred between the 1760s and the 1820s, he groups their fomenters into two generations. The first came of age in a hierarchical world, and prevailing assumptions about class, caste, and mobility mostly prevented them from forming durable, democratic cross-class revolutionary movements. In this generation belong the American and French revolutions, Túpac Amaru II’s revolt in Peru, and other smaller rebellions in Europe. But these disrupted the status quo just enough that a second generation—the Napoleonic wars, the Haitian revolution, and the revolutions against Spanish rule in South America—could build the mass movements necessary to claim and maintain power. The second generation had a more authoritarian and conservative bent, but the world their revolutions made was one in which “republics and individual rights, though not necessarily equality, were in the ascendant.”

Perl-Rosenthal focuses on “what makes a revolution happen, in the most immediate sense, [which] is political organizing and political mobilization. Revolutionaries organize by making connections with one another and creating the means, informal or institutional, to work together toward common goals.” To show how these political alignments and movements begin and sustain revolutions, Perl-Rosenthal employs three kinds of historical study. The first is biographical: highlighting the lives of representative (though not necessarily well-known) figures in revolutionary movements. The second is examining “the practices of sociable and collective life”—the salons, coffeehouses, and parks where people gathered, debated, and acted. Third is studying visual and material culture, music history, and literature to assess the worldviews of the two revolutionary generations. The result is a fascinating, multifaceted history that manages to be both thorough and humane, one that can guide us through turbulent conversations about revolution, social change, and the meaning of our country’s origins.


Revolutionaries in both classes rebelled against inherited status and inequality, but the two classes operated “parallel” to one another and were often at odds in their means and ends.

The Age of Revolutions begins with a portrait of the hierarchical world of the eighteenth century, one in which social status was usually fixed at birth and class mobility was the exception. As colonial production created rapid economic growth and rising inequality throughout the Atlantic world, the wealthy and working classes had less and less to do with each other. When elites withdrew from public spaces into opulent homes, working-class people claimed those spaces and made them prime gathering spots of political organizing. “In places as different as the streets of Paris and Boston, the plantation fields of Saint-Domingue, and the market squares of Charleston, the lower sorts gained an unexpected measure of dominance,” writes Perl-Rosenthal. 

Revolutionaries in both classes rebelled against inherited status and inequality, but the two classes operated “parallel” to one another and were often at odds in their means and ends. The American Revolution is illustrative. While “a sizable and politically potent segment of North American colonists took umbrage” at new taxes levied by the British, class divisions prevented coordination and collaboration. When the British issued the Stamp Act, for instance, the two groups were united in common cause but employed different tactics: “Artisans and laborers, channeling traditions of popular protest, organized riots and targeted violence to prevent [it] from going into effect.” “Gentlemen,” on the other hand, “created an intercolonial conversation through polite letters” that required little direct action or commitment. Once the Stamp Act was repealed, these groups largely dissolved rather than organizing for sustained political action. Both movements shut Black people out of their ranks, even though they made up a quarter of the American colonial population. 

Perl-Rosenthal’s portrait of the American revolutionaries isn’t a flattering one. Ultimately, he argues that American independence had more to do with the bumbling responses of the British than the acumen of the colonists. Perl-Rosenthal focuses on the ability to organize politically rather than the wisdom of military strategy or the sophistication of the revolutionaries’ political or philosophical ideas. His claim, then, may be somewhat overstated. But it is true that the American revolutionary movement produced a fledgling country still stuck in the hierarchies of the old world.

The same is true of the revolutions in the Viceroyalty of Peru, in the heart of the Spanish empire in South America. In 1780, Túpac Amaru II and his wife, Micaela Bastidas, rallied Native peasants against the Spaniards. They sought to draw criollos (American-born colonists of Spanish descent) into their ranks, but these elites mostly sided with the Spanish, who brutally quashed the revolution. Later, the Spanish also cracked down on the criollos, who were left with few allies after the suppression of the majority-Native population. Perl-Rosenthal observes, “Both rebellions faced the same fundamental problem: the steep challenge of building cohesive and broadly based political movements in societies in which profound inequality structured and shaped the inhabitants’ worldviews.” 


The changes that the first generation of revolutionaries wrought gave rise to a second, one that was much more successful at creating mass movements. This new generation grew up in a world of uncertainty: the rigid hierarchies of their predecessors had come into question, and the rise and fall of political regimes was commonplace. Their “worldviews and cultural habits, shaped in the uncertain and turbulent society of the previous two decades, gave them a knack for large-scale mobilization that their elders had lacked.” But this mass mobilization was not always used for democratic or egalitarian ends. Across Europe, for example, representative assemblies had become the norm by the 1790s, but a few years later, Napoleon had gained autocratic control over the continent—and widespread popular support. It is common to discuss this shift as a kind of historical rewind or regression, but Perl-Rosenthal offers a different explanation: mass movements were being propelled “not by revolutionary ideals but by a cultural and generational shift.”

He holds up Napoleon as representative of this generation. His regime set about homogenizing the empire and making citizens “nominally equal.” It implemented a new administrative system, constructed a network of highways, subordinated Catholic clergy to state power through an agreement with the Vatican, and turned the army into a “mass political entity” that brought together diverse members of the population for a common purpose. “There is no avoiding the fact that the regime Napoleon created was in many respects quite conservative,” Perl-Rosenthal writes. He rolled back reforms of the previous decade that had established more rights for workers and women, and, most famously, reversed the abolition of slavery. For these reasons, some historians might prefer to call Napoleon a reactionary rather than a revolutionary. But Napoleon’s “shrewd” use of elections and referenda to demonstrate his legitimacy showed that he understood how times had changed—he needed the consent of the public to rule, even if it was ultimately to create a society of “equal if subordinate subjects.”

Americans were no more or less willing to sacrifice the rights of some for social cohesion than their South American neighbors.

Meanwhile, in South America, revolutionaries overthrew the Spanish and founded constitutional republics. These rebellions were often led by strongman generals, like Simón Bolívar and José de San Martín, who gained power from a military that acted as a socially unifying force. The result was countries with high centralization of power as well as illiberal features meant to preserve some kinds of freedom over others. Perl-Rosenthal notes that some historians cite these factors as a reason that countries in Latin America were “supposedly less stable and less democratic than the postrevolutionary states of North America and Europe.” But the United States under the single-party rule of the Democratic-Republicans “cannot be said to have been much more enlightened.” It’s uncommon for Americans to consider their own political history next to that of South America’s, but Perl-Rosenthal offers a compelling account of why we should. Not only were South American revolutionaries inspired by the United States Constitution and Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, but Americans were no more or less willing to sacrifice the rights of some for social cohesion than their South American neighbors.


Perl-Rosenthal offers several insights from his generational history. The first is that political change does not happen quickly. “There has long been a tendency…to focus on supposedly sharp turning points and dramatic transformations,” he writes. It is easier to think (as well as to teach) that the Declaration of Independence or the Storming of the Bastille changed those societies overnight. But those events are more of a mental shorthand than an accurate description of how political change happened. “Buying into this fantasy of instantaneous revolution has significant consequences—most damagingly, a potential loss of faith in the possibility of change if the transformation fails to drive as quickly as expected.” It’s the kind of discouragement or underestimation that can come after something like Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter protests, or Tea Party rallies. For better or worse, these movements brought incremental changes as well as a refocusing of political attention and will. Who knows what will come of them in the new world they’ve created?

Perl-Rosenthal calls his history “anti-exceptional” in multiple regards. On the one hand, the French and American Revolutions “are often celebrated for having invented the model of the stable, democratic-republican nation-state that dominates our world.” Other revolutions, like those in Haiti and South America, are often depicted as more autocratic. But the American Revolution had its own illiberal qualities and results. Perl-Rosenthal’s account demonstrates that the American Revolution was neither uniquely groundbreaking nor incomparably illiberal. Each of the Atlantic revolutions was “shadowed by its own old regime, by its protagonists’ habits and ways of seeing the world.” Those tensions are “an enduring fissure in the bedrock the Atlantic revolutions lay down, on which our modern political world is built.”

I would add two more lessons. The first is that mass movements are not necessarily egalitarian in their aims, and this shouldn’t come as a surprise. Social change does not inexorably lead to more liberty, equality, and fraternity; the kind of change that revolutions bring about depends on both the political goals of its participants and their ability to organize to achieve those goals. Marxist historians, in particular, have struggled to explain the “Janus-faced” nature of political transformations like the French Revolution. Some, like Bryan Palmer, see equality and other liberal norms as the essence of revolutionary politics; by this logic, Perl-Rosenthal explains, failures of equality were failures of revolution. But many of the revolutions Perl-Rosenthal studies were not failures in their aims. Refusing to recognize them as revolutions strips away the agency of the revolutionaries, who had other goals but were no less savvy in organizing for the political change they desired. 

The second is that the character of the American founding and the virtues and philosophies of the founders don’t have to bear the explanatory weight that we often give them. Perl-Rosenthal admits that “it can be dispiriting to reckon…with the pervasive illiberalism of the revolutionary era.” But one of the uses of this work is to “point to an exit from today’s heated debates about the illiberalism of the American Revolution.” We don’t have to “scour the North American experience for the unique virtues or vices that made the revolution illiberal” because we can see that illiberalism was a feature of all of the Atlantic revolutions. To this I add: we don’t have to find antecedents of our political goals in the founding for them to be legitimate. We can judge our political goals on whether they’re good or true, not whether the founders set us up to pursue them—or set us up for failure. The founding was a mixture of “proud accomplishments and vexing contradictions.” Both the accomplishments and the contradictions are products of the era’s fragile coalitions and entrenched beliefs. They need not bind us today.

The Age of Revolutions
And the Generations Who Made It
Nathan Perl-Rosenthal
Basic Books
$35 | 560 pp.

Regina Munch is an associate editor at Commonweal.

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Published in the June 2024 issue: View Contents
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