In the late eighteenth century, radical experiments in popular self-rule took hold and spread throughout Europe and North America, challenging monarchical authority and aristocratic hierarchy and laying the foundation for the modern democratic state. R. R. Palmer’s The Age of the Democratic Revolution, published more than five decades ago, remains the classic account of this upheaval. These two massive new histories are worthy heirs to Palmer’s accomplishment, retelling familiar stories in ways that freshly illuminate the ascent of liberal democracy.
Kloppenberg examines how democracy, which first flickered to life in ancient Athens but later disappeared, came roaring back in the modern era. He traces this democratic revival to the European religious wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries—the Reformation era, when Protestant communities of self-rule emerged in opposition to monarchs and popes alike. The European wars also forced monarchical states to offer rights and protections to landed elites, giving shape to nascent ideas about civil society. Kloppenberg’s most distinctive theme is that democracy is best understood not as a set of institutions and procedures but as an “ethical ideal,” rooted in the notion that all citizens should have the capacity to shape their lives within shared standards and traditions. Kloppenberg seeks to recover the “richness and complexity” of the great historical struggles for democracy, which he argues have been lost as social scientists have developed “flattened” theories of democracy, seeing individuals across history as pursuing their simple self-interest. In exploring the variety of democratic forms that arose in the Atlantic world, Kloppenberg reminds readers that popular self-government was not preordained by modernity nor brought into the world at a single heroic moment.
Israel’s more dramatic narrative of the origins of modern democracy tells the story of the American Revolution and its global ramifications. The book focuses on the radical ideas of the American founders, most prominently Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Thomas Paine, as they inspired democratic movements and constitutional breakthroughs in Europe and Latin America. The American Revolution started out as a political revolt led by established elites in the 13 colonies, but as the war and constitutional debates unfolded, radical Enlightenment ideas about rights, liberty, and popular sovereignty came into play. In the end, as the U.S. constitutional system took shape, more moderate ideas, often backed by Alexander Hamilton, tended to win out. Nonetheless, Israel argues that the American Revolution “commenced the demolition of the early modern hierarchical world of kings, aristocracy, serfdom, slavery, and mercantilist colonial empires.” This book’s wide-angle account of the nineteenth-century spread of revolutionary democratic ideals makes it impossible to see the American founding as simply a national event; it was, in reality, nothing less than a battle of ideas played out on a global stage.