U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Shape of the Sea

As I have mentioned before, one of my exam fields for the PhD was “Transatlantic History in the Long 19th Century.”  During my exams, I had the opportunity (and it really was an opportunity) to discuss how and why this topic constitutes a field.  I thought our readers here might also be interested in discussing that question.

To get the conversation going, I have excerpted below a few chunks of prose from my qualifying exam answer.  I would probably say a few things differently here if I had to do it over again.  But that would require doing it over again.  And as Gawd is my witness, I would never do PhD exams over again.  So here is an unimproved but certainly improvable portion of my response to this question:  what distinguishes transatlantic history in the long nineteenth century as a field of historical inquiry?

. . .

One of the most distinctive aspects of transatlantic history in any period is the way that the field “foregrounds the background.”  The field is defined not by the juxtaposition or jousting of particular and presumably well-defined nation-states, but by a fluidity of movement — of people, of merchandise, of ideas — circulating among and across all the various populations bordering the Atlantic ocean, which is not exactly a center so much as a conduit for connecting multiple geographic and demographic peripheries. The mutual linkage of these peripheries with one another via this fluid connection constitutes both the field of transatlantic history and its main object of inquiry.  Rather than offering a traditional approach to historical narrative that foregrounds the political history of particular nation-states against a vaguely defined set of “other” state actors, transatlantic history seeks to dissolve these conceptual boundaries in order to reveal or recover hitherto unmapped currents and contours of the past.

The periodization of “the long nineteenth century” is important for the way it marks time against or alongside that better-known model, the modern nation-state.  The long nineteenth century — roughly from 1789 to 1918, give or take a decade — brackets that brief era that David Armitage has called “the heyday of the state.”  Armitage writes, “[i]n light of the long history of empire, the eternal world of states posited by modern conceptions of international relations seems fleeting, even marginal.  Indeed, if by some estimates a world of true nation-states, detached from empire, emerged only with the zenith of decolonisation, soon to be swept away by the wave of transnationalism that erupted after the end of the Cold war, then the heyday of the state lasted less than a generation, from about 1975 to 1989.  All history, before and after, was pre- or post-national.”[1] However, following Benedict Anderson, I would emphasize that the idea of “nation” predates the political entities known as nations, and that colonial aspirations to nationhood, whether those aspirations date from the 18th, 19th, or 20th century, demonstrate that the collective imaginary has conceived of a world of nation-states for some time.[2]  Nevertheless, the date of 1918 offers an important limit case for this imaginary world, or this world imaginary:   the treaty of Versailles and its provision for the ill-fated League of Nations.  Here began not the zenith but the nadir of nationalism — the “long nadir,” I suppose, if one counts World War I and World War II as two outbursts of the same murderous malaise.

. . .

The Godfather of Atlantic history, Bernard Bailyn, acknowledges the political origins of Atlantic history, but does not seem willing to admit that considerations of politics — especially, it seems, the political commitments of historians — have played any role in shaping the field since it emerged right alongside its temporal twin, NATO.  In “The Idea of Atlantic History,” the first of two historiographic essays on the field in Atlantic History: Concept and Contours, Bailyn  argues that the field is neither a spinoff of Braudel’s Mediterranean history, nor a re-named “history of empire.”[3]  He explains that the concept of “the Atlantic” as an important object of study came from two different directions — one rooted in Realpolitik, the other rooted in what he calls “the inner logic” of scholarly inquiry itself.  Bailyn locates the first “impulse” for the origins of the field in Walter Lippmann’s 1917 editorial about the Allies’ need to fight for “the common interest of the western world, for the integrity of the Atlantic Powers” (Lippman, cited by Bailyn, 7).  This way of conceptualizing a single Atlantic community temporarily faded from view during post WWI isolationism, Bailyn says, but it was revived in 1941 by Forrest Davis and then reiterated by Lippmann himself.  This line of thinking basically posits the emergence of the idea of an Atlantic alliance or “civilization” as a response to the threat of Communism.  Though Bailyn does not draw the connection, it seems clear to me that the Cold War renascence of the idea of “the Atlantic” tracks right along with the Cold War re-emphasis on “Western Civilization” classes.  Every “origin story” of Western Civ or Great Books classes connects them somehow to Columbia’s “War Issues” course and J.H. Robinson’s postwar adaptation/revision of that course.[4]

In any case, what is interesting about Bailyn’s account of this field over which he has long presided as master and commander is how little the subsequent development of the field (in his view) owes to cultural and political developments.  Thus, in Bailyn’s telling, the second impulse leading historians to conceptualize “the Atlantic” as an object of study emerged organically, simultaneously, and almost spontaneously out of the work of historians like Charles Verlinden, Lucien Febvre, and others.  In the 1950s and 1960s, Bailyn says Godechot and Palmer collaborated to put forward a tentative idea of “the Atlantic world as a community, especially in the late eighteenth century” (29).  Bailyn is at pains to protest that even though this concept aligned closely with “the great politico-ideological concerns of the postwar years,” the idea developed “empirically, from their own documentary research” (29).  Bailyn argues that further developments in the conception of the field and the delineation of its boundaries was impelled “simply by the force of scholarship itself” (30).

With this denial of historians’ political agency in shaping their field, Bailyn’s claim seems almost a rebuke to the New Social History with its ideological imperative to recover the “lost” or “hidden” or “suppressed” agency of those who have generally not appeared as actors on the pages of traditional political history.  Though the examples of scholarly imperatives which Bailyn invokes seem to be drawn in large part from the researches of social historians (migration studies, slave trade census studies, etc.), Bailyn insists that these inquiries were pursued for apolitical reasons — simply to acquire more knowledge, a knowledge whose inner logic “naturally, organically”  led to a further refinement and development of the field (33).  However, Bailyn argues that the focus on new political actors was different than earlier interest in institutional structures:  “for reasons that lay deep in historical thinking in the 1960s and 1970s one felt the necessity to go beyond institutions to the people who controlled those structures.” (49)  Are the reasons really that occult?  It seems to me that the New Social History’s attempt to recover the presence and agency of the inarticulate and unrepresented is to blame or praise. Bailyn simply refuses to acknowledge that the historiography of the Atlantic might have been profoundly shaped by the changing political landscape of the 1960s and 1970s.  But to change the shape of the shoreline is necessarily to change the shape of the sea.

The very materiality of my metaphor here points toward what some might view as an alternative politics, and an alternative methodology, for transatlantic history — or at least an alternative to the disembodied, deracinated and mysterious “logic” of scholarship adduced by Bailyn to explain the drift of the field.  Indeed, one thing that distinguishes transatlantic history as a field, both in politics and method, is its attention to the material conditions of human lives as inextricably intertwined with human ideas and aspirations.  David Armitage notes that intellectual history has traditionally demonstrated “resistance to considering the spatial dimensions of context.”[5]  Instead, Armitage argues that “international intellectual history” must draw upon “the irreducible materiality of the history of the book.”[6]  Similarly, if “the Atlantic” or the “transatlantic” is an idea, it is an idea rooted in and sustained by materiality at every turn — by the movement of trade currents, the harvest of raw commodities, the manufacture of goods, by the manacled millions borne to the New World and bearing its burdens upon their backs.  The feet of Atlas stand upon the soil of Africa.

There is no separating the intellectual or political developments in the lands of the Atlantic littoral during “the Age of Revolution” from developments in technology and agriculture and transportation.  Ideas — even ideas of freedom, or class solidarity — do not jump from text to text, or from mind to mind.  Someone must write them or print them and then speak them or carry them from one place to another, one hand to another.  This handoff of texts, ideas, beliefs — this is tradition, and whether we speak of an “intellectual tradition” or a “traditional belief,” it is this physical, embodied act of handing something over from one person to another that lies behind the word.

NEXT WEEK: Some thoughts on Linebaugh and Rediker’s Many-Headed Hydra and Pybus’s Epic Journeys of Freedom.



[1] David Armitage, “The international turn in intellectual history,” in Foundations of Modern International Thought (Cambridge: Oxford UP, 2013), 21.

[2] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso, 2006).

[3] Bernard Bailyn, “The Idea of Atlantic History,” in Atlantic History: Concepts and Contours (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2005), 4-5.

[4] See, for example, W.B. Carnochan, The Battleground of the Curriculum: Liberal Education and American Experience (Stanford: Stanford UP, 2004).

[5] Armitage, “The international turn,” op. cit., 20.

[6] Armitage, “Rethinking the Foundations,” in Foundations, op. cit., 8.

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Lots of interesting ideas to consider here, LD. The idea that nation states are no more than a footnote in the history of empires is a great one. Also that decolonization is a fleeting interlude between colonizations of different sorts. (I don’t find Imagined Communities as compelling as you do, I think). Interesting, too, that the parallel development of Atlantic History and NATO seems to suggest that the motivation had a lot to do with making historical space for a North Atlantic treaty community. Seems logical to question, as you do, whether the development of the field was REALLY all that magical and organic under “simply…the force of scholarship.”

    Interesting too, how you deal with the “disembodied, deracinated and mysterious” logic of scholarship. Seems like a very polite way of saying “Whig.” Or maybe I’m reading my own interpretation into yours.

    This may also relate more to my interests than yours, but the periodization might be extended on the front end, to include at least the period around the English Civil War covered by Christopher Hill, and the transition from Dutch to British dominance in Caribbean Sugar. I added a lecture on Barbados to the beginning of my Survey last year, and it seemed to help the students understand later events within the Atlantic period you identified.

  2. Good discussion. I tried to use Bailyn in a graduate seminar on World History as a distinct discipline, and found it quite unsatisfying. I’m looking for something much more… comprehensive next time.

  3. Jonathan, I can’t say enough good things about Linebaugh and Rediker’s Many-Headed Hydra — I will write about that more next week. But I’d recommend it to anybody — one of my favorite books from grad school in any field.

    Dan, I don’t think I was invoking the specter of “Whig” — nor even the specter of “Geist” (!). Still, the importance of materiality in intellectual history was something that I returned to in all three of my exam essays — that, and the life of St. Augustine, of all things. They are connected — but how they’re connected to US intellectual history (other than the fact that they’re both rattling around inside this historian’s head) is a case I still need to make. (Don’t hold your breath.)

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