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July 8, 2022

Dangerous Ideas: Transatlantic Political Groups in the Age of Revolution with Dr. Micah Alpaugh

Dangerous Ideas: Transatlantic Political Groups in the Age of Revolution with Dr. Micah Alpaugh

Dr. Micah Alpaugh talks about the revolutionary ideas that criss-crossed the Atlantic & overturned the old Atlantic World order.


Gary: Today’s special episode is an interview with Dr. Micah Alpaugh. Micah received his Ph.D. from the University of California Irvine. He completed a Postdoc at the University of Pennsylvania before becoming a professor at the University of Central Missouri. Today we are discussing his book, Friends of Freedom: The Rise of Social Movements in the Age of Atlantic Revolutions. The book details how organizations across the Atlantic spread ideas of political reform and revolution. From the Sons of Liberty in America, to the Corresponding Societies of Britain to the Jacobins in France, Alpaugh details how these groups spurred the age of revolutions.

Thank you very much for being on the show, Dr. Mike Alpaugh. Your book, Friends of Freedom The Rise of Social Movements in the Age of Atlantic Revolutions, is a tour de force. It is a truly fantastic transnational effort going into this. Your book is about how Cross Atlantic organizations exchanged and developed ideas that radically altered 18th century North America and Western Europe. Can you explain how the Atlantic Ocean was a crossing grounds for ideas rather than an impediment?

Dr. Alpaugh: Well, first off, Gary, thank you very much for having me. It’s great to be on the French history podcast here with you. So the Atlantic Ocean really became a central thoroughfare during this era. It became central to the development of the European economy. A consumer revolution was taking off for things like tobacco, sugar and other colonial produced products. And this prosperity helped lead to people in Europe taking a greater interest in news from far afield. Newspapers were growing popular. Indeed, the first daily newspapers started during the 18th century, and by the end of it there were literally dozens of titles being published at any given moment in any of the major capitals and indeed many papers publishing in the ports as well. And this became a central device in the Enlightenment philosophical movement, which of course achieves such a great impact across 17th and 18th centuries. The Enlightenment was really fascinated by distant examples and how people in other places did things in very different and sometimes interesting ways. And of course, the Enlightenment also did so much to fuel the coming age of revolution as well. Many philosophers were becoming newly interested in natural rights. The idea that some things ought to be applied to all humans across all society, that rights shouldn’t just be privileges given to a few in the way that they oftentimes in practice had been in the British and sometimes even the early United States’s political traditions. All of these interactions helped fuel the desire to create a new science of government and political clubs. I argue in this book really became a central motor towards trying to achieve that goal.
Gary: So let’s dive in to some of the actual players. What were some of the original groups that spread reformist or revolutionary ideas during this period?

Dr. Alpaugh: In many respects, these trends date back to the time of the Reformation. Different Protestant sects mobilized, oftentimes underground and across wide areas. The Huguenots in France, for instance, had their own synod network, as it was known through which different congregations could communicate back and forth. And by the time we get to the 18th century, there’s all sorts of different groups that are starting to apply this model, at least for their own particular concerns. Merchant associations were already used to lobbying about issues that concerned almost the entire Atlantic basin, or at least as far as their given empires extended to. And indeed, they would play a key role in things like the Stamp Act crisis in 1765. Freemasonry spread across each of the major empires. This was a ceremonial organization that some people think really played an important role in the age of revolutions by helping people kind of, first off, play act. What equality between people who were very a very different social status in real life could achieve by working together religious groups during the 18th century use this to good effect as well. There were numerous efforts to try and open up British politics, not just to members of the Church of England or Church of Scotland and Ireland and their various possessions. But people of all different, at least Protestant faiths and across the British Empire clubs became perhaps the most emblematic organization of the British Enlightenment. They were founded from everything from political organization and agitation on the one hand, to debating societies, hobby clubs, tradition that modern football clubs come out of, for instance, to even tawdry gentlemen’s hellfire clubs. But before 1765, which is where my book really picks up, these different clubs remain proudly independent. They didn’t coordinate with one another in the same way that more particular associations like the merchants or like the Protestant dissenters did.
Gary: Now, much to the chagrin of my listeners, we are going to have to start in the English speaking world. Your book begins in the Anglosphere, starting with colonial America. How did political clubs take shape and what was their impact on the colonies?

Dr. Alpaugh: So the indisputably central event in spurring this formation was the passage of the Stamp Act by the British Parliament in 1765. As soon as word of this reached British America. People were up in arms in many cases, literally taking to the streets, engaging in hostile demonstrations, and then creating groups like the Loyal Nine in Boston that started to figure out how they might have still more effect in boycotting the Stamp Act and trying to get it overturned by Parliament. So across the summer and fall, different local organizations started corresponding back and forth. Many accounts of their proceedings or the public protests showed up in different colonial newspapers. And then on Christmas Day 1765, on frozen fields outside New London, Connecticut, of all places. Connecticut, Sons of Liberty, as they were coming to be called, formed a alliance with those of New York City to defend each other, by all means, if necessary, against British attempts to enforce the Stamp Act by force. And within weeks of that happening, a trans colonial alliance developed Sons of Liberty from Portsmouth, New Hampshire in the north to Charleston, South Carolina and Savannah, Georgia, in the south, came together and formed a new corresponding society network as they came to call it. So now, instead of being isolated local organizations, they now at least claimed that they would come together as one to do whatever might be necessary to oppose the British and their designs.

Dr. Alpaugh: Moving on from North America. You then turn to Britain where you detail how those clubs there developed some of the liveliest public groups in Europe, if not the world. What were these groups? What were they like? What were their aims? And finally, what impact did they have on society?

Dr. Alpaugh: So already the British had hundreds, if not thousands, of independent clubs and societies up and functioning. So London, which had a far greater population than Paris or anywhere else, at least around the Atlantic basin, already had a really vibrant civil sphere and really political sphere as well. But there was nothing like the Sons of Liberty until after the Sons of Liberty had shown them how to do it. So there had been agitation since 1763 surrounding John Wilkes and what became known as the Wilkes and Liberty Movements. So Wilkes had implied that the King had lied when he said that he had gotten the best terms for Great Britain in the Treaty of Paris negotiations in 1763. The Crown tried to prosecute him for seditious libel. But this led to a several year long movement of people trying to stick up for Wilkes in keeping with British traditions of free speech. So in 1768, an American style society of the supporters of the Bill of Rights with the Virginian Arthur Lee Robert E Lee’s uncle serving as its secretary, organized and tried to create a corresponding society network across the British Isles. The group relatively quickly floundered, however, in large part because Wilkes took most of the money raised to pay down his personal debts instead of using it to further his legal defense or much of anything else to support the cause of political liberty. But the model would soon be used by others. Some of Wilkes partisans broke away and tried to lobby Parliament against going to war with the future United States in late 1774, early 1775. There was a trough in agitation then because of fear of treason charges during the early part of the American War of Independence. But by the late 1770s, a new association movement sprung up that was even more radical than its Wilson predecessors. They sought the reform of Parliament’s worst abuses, trying to redistrict seats which had become badly, badly mis appropriated over the course of centuries because there never had been redistricting. They tried to reduce corruption in Parliament and increase the franchise, trying to turn British politics from something which only about 1% of the adult males could show up to vote into something that the lower classes could participate in as well. So there remains ever after Wilkes, a significant movement dedicated to the cause of parliamentary reform. But by the end of the American war, people became interested in the plight of those who were less well off than themselves, too. And certainly no one was worse off around the Atlantic Basin than New World slaves. So from 1787 onwards, British abolitionist organizations would go on to mobilize the largest movement of the era that would come to incorporate hundreds of thousands of residents so that they could petition. Indeed, petitions were signed by tens of thousands and then rolled down the central aisle of Parliament, trying to coerce and shame British legislators into Indian, at least the slave trade. And soon they also moved in the boycotting colonial produced products.

Gary: Now we get to the part that my audience is interested in France. How did the salons of the Ancienne regime differ from political clubs in Britain?

Dr. Alpaugh: So the British political clubs further their own self image of being the freest people in the world. You were allowed to show up and argue for what you believed in, regardless of how ridiculous or perhaps even subversive that idea might be. Though it should be noted that oftentimes they use this right to argue for almost ridiculously conservative positions as often or more often as they use it to argue for radical ones. French salons, by contrast, oftentimes fit in a little too well with the repressive and hierarchical society that they were a part of. Politeness was typically required and criticism was oftentimes subsumed, to wit, so people were usually admitted based on social preference rather than because of their intellectual ability. And indeed, recent studies like those of Antoine Lil t have shown that many of the writers who were presenting there were doing so because it was a paid gig rather than doing it for the intellectual exchange and enrichment. So while on the one hand, salons certainly were important for getting big ideas out there, particularly to people who were close to power, in many respects, their conservative functions were at least as prominent.

Gary: Following the early French revolutionary events in 1789, France experienced an explosion of political engagement. How did the Jacobins and other groups emerge, and how did these differ from Britain and the US?

Dr. Alpaugh: So the French Revolution is a little bit different from the other cases that I look at because it aroused so quickly that it was difficult to organize things quickly enough to keep up with it. Granted, in the run up to the Estates General in early 1789, the Societa Azami de Noir, the Society of the Friends of the Blacks did mobilize, trying to join what was at that time a British led effort towards abolishing the slave trade. And also some elite political groups did form surrounding the estates general itself at Versailles in early 1789, the most famous of these being the Breton Club who helped push for the National Assembly’s founding and indeed for the abolition of feudalism on the night of August 4th. When we look at the popular revolution across 1789, though, most of the uprisings still were spontaneous, particularly in July 1789, there were a massive series of revolts that followed the fall of the Bastille or in a few cases, even preceded it. And most of those uprisings led to the founding of new governing organizations not really bothering with clubs, but jumping right in to governing for themselves. So new municipalities were founded, and so were bourgeois militias as they were initially known. The National Guards, which kept order or at least tried to across France during that challenging revolutionary year as the revolution started to consolidate. However, by later, 1789 Room started to open for extra governmental advocacy groups. So the Jacobins were founded on the inspiration of the London Revolution Society, who in November wrote to the National Assembly saying that they had seen the aurora of a beautiful day in which the two nations could set aside their differences and seek the blessings of civil and religious liberty together. This got a grand reception when the letter was read in the National Assembly and several days later the first Societe de la Revolucion. Indeed, initially using the London club’s name, opened in Paris in the still functioning Jacobin monastery, and only months thereafter was it renamed La Societa Adesanmi de la Constitucion, the Society of the Friends of the Constitution. So over the following months and years, the New Jacobin Club started to gather provincial affiliates. The only rule was that there could only be one Jacobin club per town, regardless of how large or small it was. But ultimately, by late 1793, in early 1794, this created a network that featured over 3000 locals and involved many hundreds of thousands, if not millions of members. So the Jacobins differed somewhat from preceding Anglo-American organizations in their intolerance of dissent. Debate could occur on an issue, but everyone was expected to follow the final consensus following the Jacobins vote. So bitterness arising from some disputes led to growing factions within the club, and many of the original members indeed wound up being expelled sometimes after having tried to take over the organization. So you have the giant faction in 1791, the Zero Dawn in 1793, the Abbots and the D’Antoni’s in 1794. So one of the ongoing conceptual problems for French revolutionaries was their lack of comfortable ness with the idea of loyal opposition. But that said, the Jacobins also pushed Revolutionary Universalism further than their Anglo-American counterparts did. Club ceased to be something particular to English speaking white males and became something that could perhaps be adapted by any or all peoples as they sought their supposedly natural rights.

Gary: During the revolution, the Jacobins and other clubs were challenged by political occurrences, such as whether or not black Haitians should be freed, the prospect of war with other European powers. What to do with the monarchy after the flight to varennes the coming of the terror and other crises? How do these and other events transform the club’s?

Dr. Alpaugh: So to start with, the first one mentioned the prospect of abolishing slavery or even the slave trade divided the Jacobins. Radical proposals started being made from early in the French Revolution itself. Indeed, Versailles and other prominent cities featured calls to abolish slavery in their grievance statements or guidelines that they drafted before the Estates General began the night of August 4th. Meanwhile, in the session that abolished feudalism and serfdom, there actually was a call made to end slavery as well, though that seemed going too far for property members of the National Assembly who oftentimes held colonial investments themselves or could see how that might badly destabilize the French economy during what was already a time of acute economic crisis in mid 1790, the committee Mirabeau presented a detailed proposal at the Paris Jacobins to abolish colonial slavery. But once again, this failed to win consensus support. So the French Revolution never did solve this issue on on its own. It rather took the uprisings of slaves and colonial saint-domingue in what would become Haiti to lead France to become the first empire in the world to abolish slavery in 1794. But nevertheless, these debates helped destabilize the colonial system and helped motivate the slaves to think that change indeed could be possible in the future. Haiti. Jean de Couleur Free Men of color did freely adapt Jacobin and abolitionist social movement models to call for equal rights with colonial whites. The sometimes violent contestations that followed then emboldened the slaves to rise up for the first time in 1791. The switch to discussing the flight to Varennes and its aftermath, a major political controversy opened when the king was reinstalled in his powers despite widespread Parisian opposition. So this led to the first major schism within the Jacobins as the Constitution, backing for science, taking the Jacobins formal name seriously. Remember, they were supposed to be the Society of the Friends of the Constitution. They seceded from the Jacobins and then wrote to each provincial affiliate trying to get them to become members of their breakaway royal club instead of remaining members of the Jacobins. Some provincial clubs did go with them, but most wound up returning to the Jacobin fold over the following months of late summer and fall 1791 to turn to the subject of the war, which began on April the 20th, 1792. This conflict, which pitted France basically alone against the crowned heads of Europe, was probably the single largest factor in Jacobin radicalization and the coming of the terror. Though some select figures, including Jean-Paul, Marat and Maximilien Robespierre, who famously argued that no one loves armed missionaries or against the war before it began. Most club figures supported it, and indeed the Paris Jacobins as a body voted overwhelmingly to endorse the start of the conflict. So there were some divides before the war began. But once it did, the Jacobin supporters supported it to the hilt, believing that it was an existential struggle for the revolution and its values. And particularly once the counterrevolutionary powers started to threaten not just the Jacobins, but France in general with annihilation. If anything happened to the royal family, the Jacobins believed that this was the last battle against the forces of old and evil, and no price could be too high to ensure victory. So it was in the midst of this conflict that radical Jacobins came to essentially national power in mid 1793, and the Jacobin club itself continued to serve as a site for debating radical policies, usually the night before they were brought into the convention for public debate. So even though only a minority of the legislature actually consisted of members of the Jacobins, even during their most popular phase, the club wielded an outside influence or outsized, I should say, influence, which would lead to a swift reaction against the club and lead to its closure in the months following Thermidor year two in later 1794.

Gary: After detailing events in France, you talk about how the Jacobins impacted Britain and Ireland. What impact did French radicalism have on the British Isles?

Dr. Alpaugh: The French Revolution allowed British activists to think outside of their own libertine traditions and apply the newly universalist models being developed in France to their own country’s political system. The London corresponding society arose in 1792, being founded by Olaudah Equiano housemate, the radical shoemaker Thomas Hardy, with the goal of seeking universal suffrage and proportional representation in Parliament, really threatening to upend the oligarchy that continued to control British politics much more thoroughly than the Wilkes Era movement or any of its successors ever had before. The LCS led to a conservative reaction, however, by the Society for the Preservation of Liberty and Property from Republicans and Levellers, which far out mobilised its radical predecessor and brought hundreds of thousands of British people together for a loyalist defence of the British Constitution in all of its particularity. Even though it violated its free speech traditions by shutting down radical presses and denying them pubs and other public venues in which to meet. The French Revolution, for example, had still more radical effects. Meanwhile, in Ireland, French Universalism led Catholics and Protestants to mobilise together as the united Irishmen, beginning in 1791, seeking to overcome the traditional divisions to together seek parliamentary reform and autonomy, if indeed not outright independence from Great Britain. The movement was driven underground once Britain went to war against France in early 1793, but underground it still remained potent and in collaboration with French authorities, the French actually did try to mount an invasion in 1796 and were only prevented from landing by bad weather. And then in 1798, the united Irishmen rose independently and only received belated and insufficient French support once much of their or much of their forces were defeated by British troops. So that uprising ended badly, but nevertheless did help pave the way forward towards modern Irish independence movements.

Gary: You end where you began in the United States, where you argue that Jacobin ism led to a revival of political engagement. How did the Jacobins help create the Democrat Party and lead to a party dominated political system?

Dr. Alpaugh: The United States was founded without political parties. Indeed, there was no provision for them written into the US Constitution at all. But major ideological divisions soon developed among Americans. Soon after, Thomas Jefferson had returned from France, where he had co authored the first draft of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen with the Marquis de Lafayette. He fell into a series of endemic battles with Alexander Hamilton in President Washington’s Cabinet. Hamilton serving as Secretary of the Treasury and Jefferson being secretary of state. Hamilton, during this era, was engaged in a series of basically schemes to redistribute wealth upwards and to capitalize the merchant classes, largely at the expense of other Americans. So the opposition to Hamilton’s plans largely took on the denominator of Republicans. But that said, it still took several more years before a dedicated opposition party would arise, and that largely took the influence of the French Jacobins. In American newspapers, there were sometimes glowing reports of what the Jacobins were accomplishing in drawing common French people into the political process. And once France went to war against the crowned heads of Europe, including in early 1793, the British Empire, many Americans who, of course, had just finished their own war of independence from Britain a decade earlier, became very passionate about supporting the French side. So in spring of 1793, the French send over a new ambassador, Edmond Charles, Janey, better known as Citizen Jane. He arrives, blown off course to Charleston, is celebrated across numerous galas and banquets. And then instead of catching another ship north, he instead goes overland and is greeted as a sort of hero in just about every small town that he passes through between Charleston and Philadelphia. Once he gets there and is celebrated at City Tavern and elsewhere, a small group known as the German Republican Society invites him to their meeting, saying that they’re planning to stoke a new nationwide network that might be at least something like the French Jacobins. At the meeting, they initially suggested reviving the Sons of Liberty name that had done American patriots so well several decades earlier, but instead suggested that they pick one that reflected their principles. Democratic. Republican. So over the next year, at least 23 Democratic Republican societies affiliated together clear across the new American nation in opposition to the ruling federalists. These groups did encounter some major political controversies, particularly surrounding the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794, in which a couple of the westernmost Democratic Republican societies had gotten involved in. And indeed, the Whiskey Rebels did at one point create a committee of public safety using the same name as the radical organization that was leading the terror in France during the same period of time. And this all ended with President Washington leading an army into western Pennsylvania, scattering the opposition. And many people thought that that would be the end of feminism in America, as many of its opponents termed it. But. The opposition to Hamilton and his policies did not go away. And in late 1795, people started to mobilize surrounding first state level elections and then the presidential elections of 1796. Jefferson agreed to become the opposition’s candidate and he came very close to beating John Adams. Indeed, it was only unfaithful electors in three states that swung the election to John Adams and the Federalists. But. Democratic Republicans persevered. And after several more political controversies and crises, of course, in between, there is the quasi war between America and France that led to things like the Alien and Sedition Act. That was passed very much with the goal of tampering down the pro French party in 1800. Finally, the Democratic Republicans came to power in what was indeed sometimes referred to as the revolution of 1800.
Gary: The book is Friends of Freedom The Rise of Social Movements in the Age of Atlantic Revolutions. It is a truly remarkable work. Thank you very much for being on the show, Dr. Alpaugh.

Dr. Alpaugh: Thank you very much, Gary. It’s been great to talk with you.

Gary: As always, donations keep the podcast going. So if you would like to make a one time donation or become a patron, please consider doing so. Thank you very much for your continued support.