How to Spread Revolution Without the Internet

03/21/2011 02:52 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

People have marveled at the role played by Facebook and Twitter in the popular uprisings that have erupted across North Africa and the Middle East, from Tunisia to Egypt, Yemen and Bahrain. Not a few observers have concluded that the rapid spread of revolution must be a phenomenon made possible by the Internet age.

Those observers ought to think again. Two centuries ago, news of revolution -- and revolution itself -- reverberated back and forth across the Atlantic at astonishing speed. It was routine for important political books to be translated and circulated in other languages within no more than a year and a half of publication. Dramatic illustrations of recent events, and images of the leading political figures (whether in idealized portraits or satirical cartoons) appeared everywhere in popular newspapers and low-cost engravings. The social media of the day? Word-of-mouth information, rumor and opinion shared in dockside taverns up and down both coasts of the ocean. In the late 18th century, the Atlantic world was already interconnected, so that a successful war of independence in Britain's North American colonies could help set off revolution in France, which in turn sparked a great slave rebellion -- the first and only successful one in history -- in France's richest colonial possession, Haiti.

How rapid was change in this pre-Internet era? The concept of human equality -- a far-fetched idea in most quarters in the middle of the eighteenth century -- was enshrined in the laws of nations by the beginning of the nineteenth. Slavery, which had been (by and large) an unchallenged pillar of the Atlantic economies in the mid-eighteenth century, was by 1820 outlawed by Britain and subjected to relentless de-legitimization.

These changes, as profound as they were lightning-quick, have been on our minds at the New-York Historical Society, as we observe the unfolding events in the Middle East while preparing for a new exhibition, opening this November, titled Revolution! The Atlantic World Reborn. It is the story of countless diverse men and women of the Atlantic world -- natives of Africa, Europe, and the Americas -- who began in the 1760s to oppose the power and reach of European imperial authorities, registering their grievances in both legal argument and violent protest. Their earliest activities, comprised in the American Revolution, had the unexpected consequence of firing the enthusiasm of the antislavery crusade back in England, triggering an explosion of radical ideas in France, and finally spawning a bloody insurrection on the island of Saint Domingue, one that led to the establishment in 1804 of an independent Haiti -- the first nation in the world to be fully committed in its laws to freedom and equality for all.

These events unfolded in the context of an Atlantic world joined by trade -- the exchange of ideas as well as goods. As Bernard Bailyn has written of this period, "Mercantalist theories, national rivalries and nationalist historiography obscure the degree to which a stable European-African-American economy developed, stretching from Central Europe to Britain, Iberia, West Africa and the Americas, with the Caribbean as its western pivot." That economic area was the staging ground for intertwined ideas about commercial and political autonomy that fed an ideology of liberty, which in turn underpinned the American, French and Haitian Revolutions. In the island of Saint Domingue arose "a dramatic challenge to the world as it was then," as Laurent Dubois writes in Avengers of the New World.

If I had to choose just one image to sum up this history, it might be the portrait of Jean-Baptiste Belley in the Musée National in Versailles -- a painting from 1797 by Anne-Louis Girodet that shows this former slave and Haitian revolutionary leader resting against a pedestal, on top of which stands a bust of the man who inspired him, the French anti-slavery philosopher Abbé Raynal. In the background is the lush and vivid landscape of Haiti; but the figure speaks to us of Europe, with Belley shown in the aristocratic garb of the time and the marble statue of Abbé Raynal looking typically neoclassical. Think of the picture as a metaphor for the age of Atlantic revolutions, when people in America, England, France, Haiti and elsewhere were linked by the struggle for freedom and equality. In this world, it was already possible for revolutions to echo like rolling thunder across thousands of miles -- much as they are doing today in the Middle East.

How much of our 21st-century reality is rooted in those events of long ago? As Thomas Bender writes: "If the 18th century Atlantic revolutions did not bring forth egalitarian and democratic polities, they made such polities possible, perhaps even inevitable, in the long term."