August Books 11) The Revolution of America

11) The Revolution of America, by the Abbé Raynal

The author of this book offers a prize for the best essay on the following subject, to be organized through the Academy of Sciences, Polite Literature and Arts at Lyons:

Has the diſcovery of America been uſeful or hurtful to mankind?
If advantages have reſulted from it, what are the means to preſerve and increaſe them?
If diſadvantages, what are the means to remedy them?

The prize conſiſts of the ſum of fifty Louis d’or, which will be remitted to the ſucceſsful author, or his aſſigns.


…The Academy conſidering the importance of the ſubject, ſets no limits to the length of the compoſition, but only wiſhes the author to write in French or Latin.

No work can be admitted after the firſt of February, 1783.

Unfortunately we’ve all missed the deadline for the competition; I wonder who won, and how they answered the first question?

This curious little book was first published in French in 1780; I’ve been reading the English translation published in Dublin the following year. It’s amazing to think of this actually being written and translated before the war was yet over; it must have fed into the coming revolutionary frenzy – Grattan’s parliament in Ireland a year or so later, and the coming convulsions in the Abbé’s own country.

I’d never heard of the Abbé Raynal before, but I find him as the very first entry in Vol. 19 of our 1938 Encyclopedia Britannica. Born in 1713 (so 67 at the time this book was written) he was a political historian, with early works on Dutch and English politics followed by his 1770 blockbuster on the history of European interaction with the two Indies (ie India and the Caribbean), co-written with Diderot and a bunch of other philosophes, which was banned from France in 1779. In 1780, the year this book on America was published, Raynal went into exile for seven years. He lived to mourn the horrors of the Revolution and died in 1796.

The book is basically a justification of the American revolution, but on his own terms – he doesn’t even refer to the opening phrases of the Declaration of Independence, but then gives verbatim the catalogue of misgovernment which follows, because he is much more in favour of liberty than equality:

There is amongſt men an original inequality which nothing can remedy. It muſt laſt for ever; and all that can be obtained by the beſt legiſlation, is not to deſtroy it, but to prevent the abuſe of it.

He demolishes the British case for the war brutally effectively, by appealing to principles of liberty and humanity, and then gives a twenty-page summary of Common Sense, whose author’s identity he doesn’t seem to know – can that be right?

But he’s also very aware of the contradiction of the alliance between the repressive French government at Versailles and the liberty-loving Americans against the British, whose constitution he rates as much more liberal than the French. His summary of the balance of forces, as of 1780, seems pretty sound; even if the chance factors of weather and fortune of war should, against the odds, deliver the British a military victory, he thinks it would be unsustainable in the short term, never mind the long. But he also thinks it is better for the United States if the British keep Canada, so as to promote unity rather than dissension among the thirteen colonies.

Of course, the most amusing bits are what he gets wrong. In the last chapter he reviews the prospects of the United States, should they gain their independence (note plural – today we refer to the U.S. in the singular). He fails to spot the possibility of what came to be called “manifest destiny” and restricts his comments geographically:

The ſpace occupied by the thirteen republics, between the mountains and the ocean, is but of ſixty-ſeven ſea-leagues; but upon the coaſt their extent is, in a ſtrait line, three hundred and forty five. In this region the lands are, almoſt throughout, bad, or of a middling quality…

We cannot determine, without raſhness, what may one day be the population of the United States. Such a calculation, generally pretty difficult, becomes impracticable for a region where the land degenerates very rapidly, and where the expence of labour and improvement is not proportionably anſwered by the reproduction. If ten millions of men ever find a certain ſubſiſtence in theſe provinces, it will be much.

The combined population of the original thirteen states is now, what, ten times the Abbé Raynal’s predicted maximum? But there are a lot of other things that have happened since that would surprise him too…

One thought on “August Books 11) The Revolution of America

  1. I’ve answered the poll for my laptop: on the phone Planck’s constant doesn’t show up.

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