- The Great Upheaval: America and the Birth of the Modern World, 1788-1800
- HarperCollins, 688pp.
An Extraordinary Moment
In twelve short years – from 1788 to 1800 – the world changed, with the late eighteenth century emerging as one of the most momentous, if restless, eras in human history. In Russia, a great dynasty would be toppled; in France, revolution and the guillotine would hold sway; and, in America, the nascent democracy would enter the most critical period of its short existence. As author Jay Winik suggests, “Revolution, liberalism, democracy, republicanism, nationalism – all would irretrievably rise in this period and all would formally take root.”
Winik, who received a doctorate in political science from Yale, well knows the territory. A senior scholar of history and public policy at the University of Maryland, his previous books include On the Brink (1996), a history of the end of the Cold War that was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, and April 1865 (2001), which explored the final days of the American Civil War. But in The Great Upheaval Winik embarks on a significant, progressive approach to history, noting that none of the remarkable events happening in Russia, France, or America occurred in isolation and, in fact, combined in one extraordinary moment to change the course of civilization. For the reader along for the ride, it is a very enjoyable journey.
Winik’s thesis is based on the premise that because the eighteenth century world was separated by vast distances and slow communication, it has been traditionally assumed that cultures – and particularly those of Russia, France, and America – emerged virtually independent from each other. But he then posits that this perspective is fundamentally wrong and emerges as nothing less than a peculiar form of “twenty-first century chauvinism” in an era marked by “e-mail, faxes, BlackBerrys, and cell phones.” Indeed, as sketched by Winik, the late eighteenth century was joined together in any number of ways, many unimaginable to the modern mind: “From the French salons in Paris to the young American capital in Philadelphia, from the luxury of St. Petersburg to candlelight dinners in Monticello and Mount Vernon, from the bustle of London and market stalls of Warsaw to the mysteries of the seraglio in Constantinople and the steppes of the Crimea, great nations and leaders were acutely conscious of one another. And year after year, they watched one another, learned from one another, and reacted to one another.”
Winik asks us to consider the fluidity of an age that would be almost unheard of today. One in which, with unfettered idealism, “political figures and ardent rebels, forward-looking humanists and towering intellectuals, all freely crossed and recrossed borders, switched allegiances, spoke in foreign tongues, and fought for foreign causes with great relish, often making revolution not once, but twice.” To support his position, Winik offers a number of spot-on character sketches of the period’s more influential players including Thomas Paine, whose great pamphlet Common Sense roused a fledgling America in 1776; the Marquis de Lafayette who, at just nineteen years of age, left the glamorous world of the French court to fight with the American revolutionaries; and John Paul Jones who, after besting the British on the high seas, was subsequently recruited in Paris by Empress Catherine of Russia for her jihad against the Islamic Ottoman Empire.
To illustrate the “symbolic passing of the torch” from the Old to the New World – while also providing colorful suggestions of the ebb and flow of international political influences – Winik contemplates Voltaire, France’s preeminent Enlightenment philosopher, and his embrace, in Paris, of the rustic republican Benjamin Franklin, while simultaneously admiring Empress Catherine: “She has the soul of Brutus,” Winik quotes Voltaire as saying, “with the charms of Cleopatra.” Too, Winik reminds us that Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington were ardently studied by Russian reformers Nikolai Ivanovich Novikov and Alexander Radishchev. Moreover, that Jefferson went a significant step further by actually advising budding French revolutionaries due, in a large part, to his belief that “the survival of America’s republicanism hinged on the success of France’s revolutionary crusade.”
To be sure, there was certainly no shortage of political intrigue and ironies during this period. For example, another signer of the Declaration of Independence, Gouverneur Morris, counseled the doomed Louis XVI, while Talleyrand, the notorious French foreign minister, would spend the blood days of the Terror in exile in America, only, upon his return, to brazenly threaten the safety of the young United States by his involvement in the XYZ Affair, the diplomatic incident that spawned numerous unofficial naval skirmishes and almost led to open warfare between the United States and France. And then there is story of Thomas Jefferson’s Polish friend Thaddeus Kosciuszko who fought with the Americans and helped conceive of West Point, only to later return to Poland to lead a national rebellion against Russia, while Empress Catherine herself – who, in one of history’s forgotten stories, had earlier supported the cause of American independence – turned her attention to destroying the very idea of republicanism.
By 1800, Winik notes that, for the moment, Washington and Paris were peaceful. So too were St. Petersburg and London and Constantinople and Vienna…the “belligerents who had lunged for one another’s throats were now signing armistices and ratifying conventions. The guns of Europe’s titanic armadas lay quiet. National flags once again snapped triumphantly in the wind, and pleasure boats cruised festively in the ocean’s waters. And in the terrible evening’s quiet, far from the wastelands of denuded earth that were so recently battlefields, or town squares where executioners once did their bloody work, young wives laid a loving hand on their dirt-smudged children. The sovereigns of Europe, content that all was again well in empire, talked in that most precious of phrases, peace. It would not last.”
In the final analysis, this is a superior, meticulous work of history, as valuable to the academic as it is accessible to the general reader. And while the dozens of individual character sketches do indeed provide rich and interesting vignettes of the people and their times, it is their collective impact on the culture – be it American, French, Russian, or, perhaps, Ottoman, Pole, or British – that Winik skillfully brings together in one grand, interwoven tapestry. Relationships and interrelationships that, arguably, more than any one country alone, laid the foundations for the world we know today.