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Book Review


Bailyn, Bernard. Atlantic History: Concept and Contours (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005). 111 pp, $18.95.

      One of the many challenges of teaching a World History survey has been to place United States history into a World History framework. While some historians and politicians object to this tendency to 'un-exceptionalize' our national history, others welcome the opportunity to contextualize U.S. history. World historians have not been alone in their attempts at contextualization: in the last decade, there has been considerable, high-level attention to the same task among historians of the U.S. 1
     In 1995, Professor Bernard Bailyn of Harvard University began the International Seminar on the History of the Atlantic World, 1500-1825. The purpose of these seminars has been "to advance the scholarship of young historians of many nations interested in aspects of Atlantic history in the formative years; to help create an international community of scholars familiar with approaches, archives, and intellectual traditions different from their own and ultimately to further international understanding" ( At approximately the same time, under the leadership of Professor Thomas Bender of New York University and under the auspices of the Organization of American Historians and the Journal of American History, three meetings were held at NYU's Italian La Pietra villa in 1998, 1999, and 2000. The resultant "La Pietra Report" advocates, among other things, refocusing American national history by considering it in relation to other national histories and with a more international perspective; and in addition, "reframing conventional [American] historical movements or periods from a more international perspective" ( p. 21). 2
     Atlantic History: Concept and Contours comes from Professor Bailyn's experiences with the Atlantic World Seminar, but also fits snugly into the hopes of the "La Pietra Report" to teach American history based on historical themes that:

are not exclusively American. Some examples: British America can be located within the context of other world-wide colonial empires and native Americans. [] The early history of the Americas can be analyzed as part of an Atlantic-wide contest over the control of labor, a complex bundle of histories involving migration, enslavement, and the historical fusing of notions of free labor, freedom, and capitalism. ( p.12,13)

     This internationalizing impulse may be revolutionary within U.S. History, but World Historians will certainly be cheering for this movement's success, for it will enable us to make good use of colonial American and U.S. history in World History courses. 

     Bailyn's book is small: at 111 pages of text, in a small 8-inch by 5-inch hardcover edition, one can read it in a sitting or two. Divided into two parts, the first, entitled "The Idea of Atlantic History" is a historiographical essay in which Bailyn locates the original impulse for an Atlantic history in the politics, propaganda, and journalism of the World Wars and the Cold War. Historians Jacques Godechot and Robert Palmer presented one of the first historical papers on revolutionary movements in the Atlantic world in 1955, but it received a cool reception. Nonetheless, what Bailyn calls "the internal dynamics of scholarship" propelled historians of U.S. social, political, economic, and demographic histories inexorably into the concepts of pan-Atlantic or trans-Atlantic histories. Bailyn uses the following quotation as a transition from Part I into Part II, his own theory/conceptualization of Atlantic history: "Instead of a European discovery of a new world, we might better consider it as a sudden and harsh encounter between two old worlds that transformed both and integrated them into a single New World." (D. W. Meinig, The Shaping of America: A geographical Perspective on 500 Years of History, quoted in Bailyn, Atlantic History, p. 55-6.) This, writes, Bailyn, is the origin of Atlantic History. 4
     Part II of Bailyn's book, entitled "On the Contours of Atlantic History," is his own conceptualization and periodization of Atlantic history, with particular emphasis on North America. He proposes three phases:

(1) Early Atlantic World. A period of extended, violently brutal, barbarous, genocidal conflict on contested marchlands or frontiers: "a scene of conflict with alien people" each believing that the other(s) were "intent on destroying the civilization European, native American, African that has once existed" (62-63). For a century -- two or three generations after 1492 -- "everything in the areas of contact and settlement in the Western Hemisphere was fluid, indeterminate, without stable structures or identities. Possession had no fixed meaning. Territorial claims were unreliable, often ignored when known, and commonly contested" (68-69). This was a period of "pervasive social disorder and disorientation;" people in the Americas clung to their traditional ties and patterns while Europeans idealized or utopianized this newfound world (70-80, passim).

(2) Later Atlantic World. Bailyn's second phase is characterized by stability, and dates roughly from 1600 to 1750. Stable political institutions developed; national boundaries were recognized; a trans-Atlantic, polycentric economy emerged, driven by the engine of the Spanish commercial economy and bound together by massive amounts of illegal trade that bypassed all these newly-formed formal, nationalistic constraints (81-88). The peoples of the Americas were integrated into networks of social, cultural, and demographic similarities as well as trans-Atlantic economic networks. These networks "enhanced the fortunes of creole leaders (American-born, of European ancestry) who became powerful figures in the Western hemisphere, linked to, culturally associated with, the metropolitan centers of commerce, politics, religion, and high culture" (100-101). What Bailyn calls "Creole triumphalism," sets the stage for his third phase of Atlantic history.

(3) Colonial Revolutions. Bailyn's third phase is the creole-led independence movements dating roughly from 1750 to the early 19th century. Bailyn, like Godechot and Palmer in the 1950s, argues for an interactive Atlantic network of revolutionary ideas, and he emphasizes the close connections of the Atlantic elite during the struggle for political independence occurring at the same time (109). 

     Bailyn's typology provides a framework for analyzing the Western Hemisphere during the period ca. 1492-1830 within a World History course. It gives cohesiveness to the western hemispheric experience without privileging the British Empire and the thirteen seaboard North American colonies. In his modest introduction, Bailyn calls his book a sketch. Modesty aside, the weakness of the sweeping sketch is in its significant neglect any discussion of the African experiences as part of the Atlantic world, other than as a source for slave labor. Once the discussion of the first phase of contested marchlands has finished, Africans and Africa receive little attention. 
     This is a book for instructors. It provides clear but not restrictive categories for comparative analysis. It would make excellent reading in an undergraduate seminar; and it will certainly become required reading in graduate seminars in any form of early modern history, from the general world history seminar to the place- or topic-specific seminar. Finally, it is probably the beginning of a 'sea-change' in the writing, research, and teaching of U.S. and U.S.-in-World history over the next generation of historians. 
Ane Lintvedt
McDonough School

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