David Armitage

David Armitage teaches histroy at Columbia.

Out of this World

David Armitage, 16 November 1995

It can hardly be a coincidence that the historical study of utopias has accelerated as faith in the promises of utopianism has declined. The very idea that utopias, those rose-tinted cities stranded outside time, might have a history is itself a recent discovery, and has largely sprung from assessments of More’s Utopia, the work that revived the ancient genre of the ideal commonwealth for the modern world. More’s work has been heralded as both a harbinger of Communism and as the intellectual first-fruits of the modern bureaucratic state. The corruption and collapse of the one, and the distrust and fear of the other, have made More’s solutions for human depravity seem distant and even actively repugnant in ways that earlier generations of readers could hardly have foreseen. History has reclaimed Utopia and made its vision of a well-regulated present a thing of the past.

The Last War of Religion

David Armitage, 9 June 1994

All rebellions resemble one another, but every revolution is revolutionary in its own way. The French wrote the classic modern script for revolution – utopian, transformative and bloody – but even they recognised that the prologue to their drama had been playing in America since 1776. When viewed from 1789 or 1793, however, the American Revolution looked distinctly unrevolutionary. No Louis lost his head after Lexington; no American Bastille was stormed; no Robespierre emerged among the staid Ciceros and Cincinnati of the founding generation. What, then, was so revolutionary about the American Revolution: the colonists’ successful rebellion against the British Crown, or the building of a nation under a novel Constitution which inspired the French to flattering imitation? Gordon Wood has argued powerfully, in The Radicalism of the American Revolution (1991), that the real revolution lay in the transformation of ‘a monarchical society into a democratic one unlike any that had ever existed’, though even this may underestimate its constitutional legacy. The United States resolved ancient political conundrums that still bedevil European and British politics, problems such as federal government, divided sovereignty, democratic rule over an extended territory and the separation of powers. Since the lessons of the ongoing American experiment are unknown to parts of Europe, notably Britain, the American Revolution may still be unfinished.’

‘The history of England,’ Sir John Seeley declared in The Expansion of England (1883), ‘is not in England but in America and Asia.’ Like many aphorisms, this was at once...

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