Lester Langley’s The Americas in the Age of Revolution, 1750-1850

The Americas in the Age of Revolution: 1750-1850 by Lester D. Langley

In The Americas in the Age of Revolution, 1750-1850, Lester Langley analyzes the chaos and complexity of the American Revolution (1776), the Haitian Revolution (1791), and the Spanish Wars of Independence (1810s & 1820s). Langley justifies his choice of revolutionary struggles by claiming that each event featured the involvement of popular forces in the overthrow of the legitimate political authority within a fight for colonial independence, and each remains a foundational historical reference in the national and political identity of the nations that emerged. Langley’s focus is not on the origins and outcomes of the revolutions he examines, or the intentions of the revolutionaries themselves.

Rather, Langley emphasizes the role of unavoidable or unforeseeable conditions or, particularisms, (such as impact of place/location, strength of counterrevolutionary movements, and unanticipated patterns of violence )that shaped the course of the wars, and the subsequent state-formation and the political cultures that developed in the Americas during the first half of the nineteenth century. Langley argues that his comparison of these three events paints a “portrait of hemispheric political culture” during times of widespread violence and transformation. Langley also claims his focus reveals the complicated ideological, racial, and class-based contradictions within revolutionary movements that relied on the very popular mobilization that threatened the social, political and economic dominance of the Creole leadership.(2)

Langley synthesizes secondary sources, primarily political and social histories, blending together an extensive number of works to provide a solid chronological narrative of the three revolutionary events he discusses. His work may be distinguished from other Anglo-centric treatments of the revolutionary age in the Americas by his inclusion of Haiti. Once Langley establishes the commonalities between his subjects he discusses each separately in a manner that underscores their differences. Langley first explores the American Revolution, what he calls ‘the revolution from above,’ in great detail, exposing the contradictions inherent within a republican “empire of liberty” (82) whose leaders used the rhetoric of natural rights and freedoms to galvanize a revolutionary public, but efficiently neutralized class and racial conflict by maintaining slavery and sponsoring westward expansion.

Langley then narrates the Haitian revolution, or the ‘revolution from below,’ capturing the machinations of the competing Colonial States, Britain, France, and Spain, in the Indies and Caribbean, the brutality of the conditions of the sugar trade and the ideological influence of Enlightenment philosophy on Haitian revolutionary leaders. Langley’s treatment of Haiti seems to be more of an account than an analysis, however, and the reader is reminded that when a historian uses complexity as his theoretical model, there can be a temptation to present a chaotic series of violent events as evidence proving a theory of chaos. Langley successfully communicates the themes that tie Haiti’s revolution to those of North and Spanish America, namely the contradictions within a revolutionary society that promises freedom but delivers only independence.

The Wars of Independence in Spanish America are characterized by Langley as the ‘revolution denied,’ and are treated, problematically, both as a single movement towards independence, and discreet and diverse examples of revolution and state formation. It is here that his theoretical method of complexity distracts from his central argument of commonality, for as he moves through time and space to narrate the history of Royalist Peru, Imperial Mexico and the Independent Republic of Colombia, his analysis becomes scattered and sometimes jarring. Ultimately, however, the second half of the book reveals Langley’s true intention: to compare the success of the American republic to the failure of the republics that emerged out of Spanish America.

Although he fails to revisit the political development of Haiti (a striking omission that calls into question both the author’s decision to include the nation and the overall integrity of his argument), Langley devotes the remainder of his book to a comparison of Tocqueville’s and Bolivar’s Americas of the 1830s, and then a final analysis of North and Latin America’s political culture in the 1850s. His conclusion seems to be that the United States constructed a successful national identity and effective state apparatus out of revolutionary chaos by articulating a narrative of American Exceptionalism, while maintaining social control and cohesion by marginalizing non-white inhabitants, while the South American republics did neither, but emerged as nations in fear of and in opposition to its citizenry.

The methodological approach used by Langley in America in the Age of Revolution, a synthesized comparison of wide-ranging revolutionary movements connected by the threads of chaos and complexity, seem almost to be camouflage for his attempts to answer the question: What went wrong in Latin America? He seeks his answers in examinations of the things each revolution and their leaders could not avoid, their particularisms, but neglects to investigate whether or not the political culture, national identity, and territorial ambitions of his most successful example, the U.S., undermined or sabotaged the integrity and viability of Latin American state-formation. However his thoughtful analysis of the political and social history of the region and time period is helpful, as is his exploration of the contradictions embedded within nineteenth-century republican ideology.

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