Review: Jonathan Israel, THE EXPANDING BLAZE

About eighteen months ago I queried at The Junto, “What Happened to the ‘Democratic’ in the ‘Age of Democratic Revolutions’?” The post was prompted by the last decade’s work that seemed to emphasize the conservative twist of the revolutionary movements that marked the last few decades of the eighteenth century. Most of this new work, I argued, broke away from the dominant model of R. R. Palmer’s half-century-old The Age of the Democratic Revolution, which posited this era as the age of modernity’s birth through republican revolt. However, I may have spoke too soon. Within that very year, two new books had just appeared that seemed to revisit the very nature of the age: James Kloppenberg’s Toward Democracy: The Struggle for Self-Rule in European and American Thought (Oxford UP) and Janet Polasky’s Revolutions Without Borders: The Call to Liberty in the Atlantic World (Yale UP). Both books, however, sought to directly challenge Palmer’s classic thesis.

Now, just another year later, however, we have another book to add to that shelf, though this one is more a project of reclamation than replacement.

Jonathan Israel, an emeritus professor at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, recently published The Expanding Blaze: How the American Revolution Ignited the World, 1775-1848 (Princeton UP). In many ways, it is the culmination of a series of significant, dense, and contested works on the enlightenment. Historians of Europe are well-acquainted with his productivity from the recent two decades, especially his sweeping trilogy of the enlightenment: Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity, 1650-1750 (Oxford UP, 2001), Enlightenment Contested: Philosophy, Modernity, and the Emancipation of Man, 1670-1752 (Oxford UP, 2006), and the Democratic Enlightenment: Philosophy, Revolution, and Human Rights, 1750-1790 (Oxford UP, 2011), all of which are rich in details and thick in pages (averaging around 800 pages). Though many historians contest his, well, radical conclusions, these books are standards on many comprehensive exams.[1]

There have been helpful overviews written of Israel’s primary thesis, but for our purpose I’ll only mention his argument that modernity’s origins were found in radical thinkers, most notably Spinoza, who challenged the dominant political, religious, and social structures of the day. They offered a much more materialistic, secular, and egalitarian model for society. This was, indeed, the radical enlightenment. On the other hand, figures like John Locke, typically seen as the heroes, are instead cast as proponents of the “moderate” enlightenment. These moderates blunted, rather than accelerated, democracy’s true origins due to their conservative approach. As you can imagine, this thesis is a touchstone for historians of European thought.

Israel then followed his trilogy up with a volume that left the grand narratives behind and instead zoomed in on the French Revolution: Revolutionary Ideas: An Intellectual History of the French Revolution from the Rights of Man to Robespierre (Princeton UP, 2014). This was a shift in his scope, but one that was meant to vindicate his earlier conclusions. The first few years of the French revolt, he argued, witnessed the climax of the impressive radical enlightenment that came before, only to be squandered by the tyrannical Robespierre who betrayed the movement’s original ideals. Though the volume seemed a natural culmination of Israel’s previous work, some historians argued that his infatuation with ideas blinded him to the work done by France’s commoners. (See, for example, the dialogue here and here.)

But does his model fit onto the American scene?

Israel is not shy in claiming that his work is an inheritor of Palmer’s original thesis that the American Revolution sparked “the origin of democratic modernity.” Indeed, he argues that such an argument, after decades of scholarly challenge from “cultural” historians, “needs vindicating, vigorous reaffirmation, and broadening beyond where Palmer himself took it” (600). In other words, he’s trying to out-Palmer Palmer. And he is far from shy about doing so:

“[The Revolution’s] political and institutional innovations grounded a wholly new kind of republic embodying a diametrically opposed social vision built on shared liberty and equal civil rights. The revolution commenced the demolition of the early modern hierarchical world of kings, aristocracy, serfdom, slavery, and mercantilist colonial empires, initiating its slow, complex refashioning into the basic format of modernity.” (2)

I appreciate a historian who doesn’t mince words.

Like his previous work on the enlightenment, where he posited “radical” versus “moderate” thinkers, Israel breaks the revolutionary debates into two different camps: the aristocratic (or those who believe in a “mixed” government, based on the British tradition, and the social order prevalent before 1776) and the democratic (or those more radical and for equality/emancipation). This is, in many ways, a direct response to Kloppenberg’s recent narrative, which argued that most American revolutionaries fit within rather narrow parameters, most of which were distinct from the French arena. In Kloppenberg’s model, the American democratic tradition was born within its own context.

But Israel is intent in proving the similarities between the American and French revolutionary moments, pursuant to his larger goal of deciphering a broader democratic moment, and to do so he is dedicated to finding practitioners of similar camps on both sides of the Atlantic. What the American Revolution inaugurated, then, was a decades-long fight between the moderates—like John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, and other F/federalists—who drew from Locke and “constituted an absolute obstacle to the forming of democratic society” (91) and the radicals—like Thomas Paine and the young Thomas Jefferson—who truly tried to reform society. By expanding the boundaries of debate, Israel hopes to cast the revolutionary net much broader.

But for such a wide net, The Expanding Blaze is surprisingly dedicated to only a few fish. If Israel is devoted to reclaiming Palmer, he is similarly eager to resurrect Paine. Indeed, Paine receives more analysis than anyone else in the entire volume. This should be expected, as Paine is an easy link between the American and French conflicts, as well as an easy figurehead for the more radical ideas of the era. But the degree to which Israel tethers his thesis to Paine is somewhat surprising: Thomas Jefferson’s refusal to follow Paine’s path, for instance, makes America’s third president a tragic figure in this story, a politician who sells his radical soul in his quest for moderate governance. After 1800, when Jefferson rejected Paine’s radical ideas and instead pushed America into an expanding, slaveholding empire, he entered “into an ideological and political retreat and minimalism with profound implications for the future” (395).

And this was the route for the entire nation: America, once birthed through a radical hope of regeneration, eventually settled into a much more mundane nation no longer the leading light for other nations. Only Paine survives this conservative turn unscathed, which leaves the reader to wonder how deep (let alone cohesive) the radicalism was in the first place. Further, this retrenchment narrative can only work when privileging certain individuals and events over others: for example, Israel devotes ten pages to discussing Paine’s Common Sense, but only two to the Constitutional Convention. Only one of these documents provides a radical beginning to the nation.[2]

Writing fifty years after Palmer, Israel is willing to take into account the very types of historical topics his predecessor avoided. For instance, The Expanding Blaze is attuned to the Haitian Revolution, the presence of slavery, and problem of Indian removal, all of which were avoided or downplayed in Palmer’s account. In Israel’s narrative, each of these topics received their own (condensed) chapter, though one might argue that by segregating these thorny topics was a way to leave his radical democracy thesis untouched. In the case of African and Native Americans, Israel’s chapters mostly remain in the ideological realm without ever touching on the reality. “Inevitably,” he argued, “the American Revolution’s core values, given their content and scope, were to some extent bound to encourage, reinforce, and broaden the movement to weaken and abolish slavery in the Americas and the rest of the European colonial world” (141). Perhaps, but it sure didn’t work out that way. The perpetuation of slavery, according to Israel, was a betrayal of the Revolution; this argument, however, ignores the fact that, for many, the latter was meant to assure the former. Further, in tracing the radicalism of the era, Israel never engages non-white voices like Olaudah Equiano.[3]

Perhaps in response to the critics of his volume on the French Revolution, Israel is also much more eager to discuss the common soldiers and their role in the Revolution. His attempt at exhaustiveness is to be commended. But he is also anxious to cordon non-elites off into a particular category for analysis. Common Americans did the brunt of the work, he admits, but they “were not equipped to convert a wider strategy or draw up a political and constitutional plan. Their energy was crucial but also undirected, unruly, and potentially counterproductive” (38). It was left to the leaders, therefore, to guide the revolutionary spirit, by “capturing, taking charge of, and interpreting the disc content generated by social and economic pressures” (14). Cultural historians will probably not be persuaded by this hedge, but Israel is at least attempting to find a middle ground.[4]

I’ll close this overly-long review by doing the selfish thing of highlighting portions that relate to my own forthcoming book. (If I’m up-front with the megalomaniac critique, is it still bad?) Most especially, I was surprised at his dismissal of two elements I find quite essential to the “radical” revolutionary debates: nationality and religion. Israel argues that “nationalism” was not a significant term until the post-1815 era, a claim that overlooks the fact that most early conceptions of democracy were rooted in how people conceived of a national body. The term certainly evolved at the beginning of the nineteenth-century, of course, as its connection to the nation-state was constantly in flux, but early American political discussions were rife with appeals to nationality. Second, Israel often frames religion as a moderating force meant to curtail democracy’s excesses. The conservative turn, he claims, was attached to Americans’ “new religiosity” that curbed the radicalness of previous decades (400). While that is, to some degree, true, and such an argument reflects Israel’s grander theory of secularization at the heart of the radical enlightenment, it downplays the democratizing force religion was to many of America’s earliest radical voices.

I admit that I was skeptical going into The Expanding Blaze, expecting it to possess some of the same problems as Israel’s Revolutionary Ideas. And to some extent, I found what I was looking for. But I was also surprised how much I enjoyed the volume—enjoyed arguing with it, sure, but I also genuinely enjoyed the deep analysis of particular texts and individuals, also a hallmark of Israel’s previous work. There were certain chapters that I felt broke new ground, like his examination of American pursuits for universal education, as well as his overview of the American Revolution’s influence on Ireland’s conflicts in the 1780s and 1790s. And even if his attempts at satisfying the critiques of cultural historians may come up short, they were attempts nonetheless. Overall, it is a very helpful compendium of debates over democracy during America’s founding half-century.

Israel’s The Expanding Blaze is, in the end, truly the successor to Palmer’s The Age of the Democratic Revolutions, in terms of both its strengths as well as its weaknesses. But even further, it is also reflective of the historiographical developments that took place in the fifty years in-between.


[1] Israel helpfully summarized most of the books’ arguments in a condensed volume, A Revolution of Mind: Radical Enlightenment and the Intellectual Origins of Modern Democracy (Princeton UP, 2009).

[2] Israel is not alone with this retrenchment narrative, of course. Seth Cotlar’s excellent Tom Paine’s America: The Rise and Fall of Transatlantic Radicalism in the Early Republic (UVA Press, 2011), makes a similar argument, though ironically with the type of cultural analysis Israel avoids.

[3] For a narrative that includes more diverse voices, see Polasky’s Revolutions Without Borders.

[4] Some might also be non-plussed with his claim that historians have been “distracted by the ‘cultural turn,'” whose “historiographical one-sidedness, prioritizing popular and mass attitudes over intellectual debates, encouraged oversimplification by largely ignoring the role of conflicting philosophies and ideologies intellectually grounding and shaping, though not socially driving, the American revolution and call the revolutions of the age” (13).


  1. Gary Bergera · November 29, 2017

    Really interesting review, Ben. Thanks.

  2. Michael D. Hattem · November 30, 2017

    Really useful review, Ben!!

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