Americas as an imperial power in its own right. Ideas, goods, credit, and people
also continued to cross the Atlantic as the nineteenth century progressed. Atlantic
connections, though changed, did not disappear.
What did change, however, was the intensity of globalization as the nineteenth
century ended and the twentieth century began. European colonization of Africa
and Asia deepened. Industrial economies drew on the raw materials of the world.
Nations sought naval bases across the globe to fuel their steamships. The cataclys-
mic wars of the twentieth century—rightly called World Wars—saw fighting in
Europe, Africa, and Asia, and drew in combatants from North America, Australia,
and New Zealand. Any sense of a solely Atlantic zone of interaction no longer made
sense when people were living and acting on a global scale.
In his essay “The Idea of Atlantic History,” historian Bernard Bailyn traces the
origins of the Atlantic world as a scholarly concept to post-World War II intellec-
tuals advocating an alliance between the United States and Europe, an alliance that
eventually became the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). For these intel-
lectuals, thinking outside the nation-state was a bracing experience: something
new and vital to confront the danger posed by communism and the Soviet Union.
By the advent of the Cold War in the 1940s, it was necessary to recover a way of
thinking that a person in Europe or Africa or the Amer i cas would have found famil-
iar in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and possibly earlier. The fates of
the people of North America and Europe had been connected across the Atlantic
In The Wealth of Nations (1776), Adam Smith, the Scottish philosopher and
founder of modern economics, wrote that there were “two greatest and most impor
tant events recorded in the history of mankind,” namely, “the discovery of Amer
ica, and that of a passage to the East Indies by the Cape of Good Hope” (Smith
1904, IV.7.166). Both discoveries were examples of breakthroughs that brought the
peoples of Europe, Africa, and the Amer i cas closer together so that even by Smith’s
time, the results were staggering. Smith noted the exploitive side of Eu ro pean con-
tact with the Atlantic world and he acknowledged that many different paths might
be taken in the future. Nevertheless, he was confident of the benefits of an inter-
dependent world. Smith’s judgment may be too bright to capture the many darker
shades of the discovery, conquest, and expansion of the Atlantic world, but he was
right to emphasize what is all too easy to take for granted: contact between Europe,
Africa, and the Amer i cas changed the world and put the world on the course toward
the present as we know it.
Bailyn, Bernard. 2005. “The Idea of Atlantic History.” In Bernard Bailyn, ed. Atlantic His-
tory: Concept and Contours. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Bender, Thomas. 2006. A Nation among Nations: America’s Place in the World. New York:
Hill and Wang.
Smith, Adam. 1904 . An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations.
Edited by Edwin Cannan. London: Methuen & Co., Ltd. Available online at the Library
of Economics and Liberty. http://www.econlib.org/library/Smith/smWN17.html.