"Citizens of a common intellectual homeland:" the transatlantic context of the origins of American democracy and nationhood, 1775-1840

Mattes, Armin, Department of History, University of Virginia
Onuf, Peter, As-History, University of Virginia
Griffin, Patrick, University of Virginia

The cardinal aim of this dissertation is to explore the emergence and early development of modem concepts of democracy and the idea of the nation in the United States. My ambition is to show that the modem forms of the two concepts emerged in tandem during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. To accomplish this goal, I trace their origins and development through an analysis of the writings of important intellectuals on both sides of the Atlantic in the years from 1775 to 1840.

The central argument in this context is threefold. First, in their origin the two concepts were indistinguishable because they both arose from a common revolutionary impulse directed against the prevailing hierarchical political and social order. Second, this revolutionary impulse, which resulted in the re-conceptualization of democracy and the nation, received its decisive form by the French Revolution. Third, although the French Revolution was instrumental in generating the changes in the meanings of the two terms, these changes were neither confined to France nor did the new meanings merely radiate from France to other countries.

This dissertation approaches the history of American democracy and nationhood from a conceptual angle and seeks to explore the origins of their modem forms by analyzing the changes in their meaning within the transatlantic, revolutionary context of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. The originality of this project therefore is its attempt to counter an American "domestication" of these concepts. For instance, democracy in America is most often interpreted as a result either of a long development conditioned by local circumstances in American or as an outcome of the American Revolution. In contrast, my dissertation argues that American conceptions of democracy and the nation resulted primarily from the conceptual turmoil created by the French Revolution rather than either the peculiar American environment or the American Revolution.

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PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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