By Mark Kobzik
Janet Polasky, presidential professor of history, has been named as one of seven finalists to win the George Washington Book Prize. The book’s title is “Revolutions Without Borders.” The prize recognizes the best books based on the United States’ founding era. The winner will be announced on May 25 at George Washington’s Mount Vernon. The book focuses on the Atlantic revolutions that arose in four continents including: the United States in North America, France in Europe, Sierra Leone in Africa and Haiti in Latin America. Perhaps only the American Revolution can be deemed truly successful, but that doesn’t take away from the other revolutions’ impacts, said Polasky.
Polasky has been writing this book for several years, teaching it to her students here and at different universities. By looking at the documents, Polasky has been able to put together letters, pamphlets, books and other sources to see how revolutions sprang up all around the Western world. Whether it was Thomas Paine’s influential “Common Sense,” or French journalists inspired by American independence calling for revolution, the interconnectedness of revolutions was widely apparent towards the end of the 18th century. Seeing how ideas travel and the way in which documents reveal history was crucial to how Polasky researched and wrote the book.
“The interconnections of today’s global society are inescapable. So why should we imagine that the founding fathers dreamed of freedom in isolation? The Atlantic world had never been as tightly interconnected as the end of the 18th century,” said Polasky.
Polasky talked about the Arab Spring and how the United States policy makers look at revolutions around the world. When she began the book, the Arab Spring had just begun, so it was a helpful historical parallel. The problem with how the U.S. looks at revolutions, she contends, is that they are always looking for the founding fathers within the conflicts. They didn’t go straight to a liberal democracy and Polasky says that we should be more understanding that revolutions don’t always end how we might imagine.
Polasky sees the Arab Spring as more complicated than as a success or failure. She said that when the West analyzes revolutions they too often are split into dichotomies. That just because the American Revolution lasted and the United States still exists, does that mean those other revolutions were failures? Are ideas that don’t last until the present, failures? What makes it successful? Polasky said it was these ideas that really captured her attention.
The book was dedicated to Polasky’s two advisors who shared her interests and encouraged her and they learned alongside each other. They began to research and study the histories of different countries and it finally led to Professor Polasky writing a book about what she felt was an area of importance and that hadn’t been covered enough.
“I’m really honored to be a finalist for the Washington Book Prize that recognizes work on our nation’s founding… It’s especially meaningful to win recognition for a book that I dedicated to my undergraduate and graduate advisors and for a book that was inspired by the enthusiasm of my UNH students. I’ve watched my students, engineering, nursing, music majors, become historians themselves,” Polasky said about receiving the award.