The Chinese University of Hong Kong Department of History Department of History
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Atlantic Revolutionaries: Universalism, Exclusion, and Militarism in the Late Eighteenth Century

Principal Investigator


Total Fund Awarded


Funding Source

RGC General Research Fund

Abstract of Project

What does it mean to fight for a cause? And what does it mean to do so when that cause is not a nation or a people, but an abstract ideal? Atlantic Revolutionaries: Universalism, Exclusion, and Militarism in the Late Eighteenth Century asks this question by tracing the lives of nine people who participated in the American, French, and Haitian Revolutions, focusing as much as possible on people who participated in more than one of those events, and whose contributions took place away from their homelands. In doing so, it investigates the extent to which the ideals of the Enlightenment could be part of a universal movement. Like other recent scholarship on the Enlightenment and the Atlantic World, it investigates how ideals phrased as universal claims about human rights and equality coexisted, and could even mask, profound inequalities between women and men, and between whites and non-whites. It also asks what “fighting” entails, when the biggest victories were only won violently, given the criticisms of violence in some corners of the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment was based on the idea that people, using their reason, could make the world a better place. It was also based on the idea that there were certain rights to which all humans were entitled. These ideas claimed for themselves universal relevance and, therefore, meant that any fight on their behalf was open to all people, even if the goals of any particular phase of the struggle were limited to one nation. These beliefs helped inspire these nine people to fight in battles that took them to different parts of the Atlantic World, but also showed the problems that people encountered when trying to put those ideas in place, and the limits to which governments inspired by Enlightenment ideas could improve people’s lives. All of them – whether intentionally or not – provided examples of ways in which the Atlantic Revolutions were part of one broader movement, and the ways in which those revolutionaries’ actions and beliefs retained their national, or even local, character. In investigating these questions, Atlantic Revolutionaries also asks what it means to advocate the ideas of the Enlightenment in today’s post-colonial world. This project will result in one book; two journal articles; at least one international conference paper; and several podcasts and pieces in the popular press.

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