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Chapter 6 - The American Revolution as Extinction and Rebirth

from Part II - American Apocalypse in (and out of) History

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  03 December 2020

John Hay
Affiliation:
University of Nevada, Las Vegas
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Summary

At the end of the eighteenth century, North Atlantic savants understood that the cosmos—and, accordingly, society—was capable of revolutionary change. Long preoccupied with ideas of extinction, loss, and ruination, these writers increasingly incorporated the language of developing earth and human sciences to explain the novel events around them. The fossil record, for example, already hinted at extinct worlds that had given way to the present, upending former theories of time and transformation. Mid-century Continental excavations, the flourishing of transatlantic antiquarianism, and a widespread interest in tracing “lost races”—as well as mounting political transformations on all sides of the Atlantic—encouraged explanations that drew on ideas from natural science. This essay examines how the imagery of Nature served to “naturalize” the sense of upheaval provoked by the era’s revolutions, and demonstrates that circumatlantic scientific, historical, and literary writings focused on the hope of liberty’s rebirth and fear of its extinction.

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Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2020

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