Transatlantic Revolutionaries: Nineteenth-Century Radicals Envision a New World Order

AHA Session 290
Sunday, January 9, 2011: 11:00 AM-1:00 PM
Room 209 (Hynes Convention Center)
Janet L. Polasky, University of New Hampshire
Janet L. Polasky, University of New Hampshire

Session Abstract

These papers explore how different groups of 19th-century radicals envisioned social transformation on a global scale and sought to realize their respective ideals by mobilizing people across lines of national belonging.  In their different ways, religious radicals touting a pantheist cosmology, Fourierist reformers who melded communitarianism with religion, and working-class immigrants whose cosmopolitanism shaped their experiences in New York City, challenged the status quo and with it the prevailing nationalism that demanded a narrow allegiance to a particular nation-state.  Fischer and Bowman focus especially on the way that religion shaped visions of radical social change, while Honeck finds in the ideology of plebian cosmopolitans a vision of transnational reform.  All of the papers engage with 19th-century visionaries who hoped the shared commitment to a global human community would eventually replace the nationalist allegiances they viewed as misguided and parochial.  The papers demonstrate that Enlightenment-era cosmopolitanism continued, if in altered form, into the 19th century. 
Kirsten Fischer shows how the pantheism of Elihu Palmer, an American radical and collaborator with Thomas Paine, led Palmer to critique nation-states and the allegiances they required.  The idea that everything was made of the same substance, and that all life forms resulted from the endless permutation of that singular matter, led Palmer to view national boundaries as false and patriotism as misguided.  Palmer may have been influenced by the ideas of the radical universalist, Anacharsis Cloots, who befriended Thomas Paine during their time together in a Parisian prison before Cloots was executed at the guillotine.  In Palmer’s work we see cosmopolitanism and radical anti-nationalism travelling across the Atlantic in the decade after the French Revolution.
Megan Perle Bowman explores mid-nineteenth century romantic socialists in the United Kingdom and the United States who infused religion into their program of social reform.  Anglophone followers Fourierism combined that philosophy’s communitarianism with the religious beliefs of the Swedenborgians, a radical religious group of the mid-nineteenth century.  Bowman demonstrates that Fourierists saw themselves as part of a global phenomenon, and that they shaped transnational debates about religion, marriage, sexuality, and the proper organization of labor.
Mischa Honeck uses the 1858 demonstration of some twenty thousand immigrants to explore the vibrant cosmopolitanism of New York’s polyglot working class.  Honeck argues that working-class cosmopolitanism adapted creatively to the values of republicanism, nationalism, and socialism.  He finds that cosmopolitan rhetoric mobilized left-wing intellectuals and radical workers who spearheaded efforts to create more inclusive alternatives to ethnic nationalism and empire.
This diverse panel includes an associate professor (Fischer), a graduate student (Bowman), and a German scholar.  (Mischa Honeck received his Ph.D., summa cum laude, from the University of Heidelberg in 2008.  He is employed at the Heidelberg Center for American Studies.)  The chair and commentator, Professor Janet Polasky, is an expert on democratic socialism and what she calls “revolutionary reformism.”  Her fifth book is on 19th-century social reformers in London and Brussels (Cornell, 2010).

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