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What America Started

Living as we do in this postmodern age, we have become increasingly interested in the origins of our predecessor, the modern world. Consequently, we have recently had a spate of historians writing on the beginnings of “modernity,” that catch-all word for modern society, political institutions, technology, and much else. Although some, like Paul Johnson in The Birth of the Modern,1 think the birth occurred several decades into the nineteenth century, most scholars, like Gertrude Himmelfarb in The Roads to Modernity,2 want to date the origins of modern Western society in the late eighteenth century, in the period of the late Enlightenment and the American and French revolutions. This is certainly true of the two historians under review.

Although both Joseph J. Ellis and Jay Winik believe that the late eighteenth century experienced the birth of a modern society, they have different ways of dating and describing that birth. Ellis believes that “the first enduring vision of political modernity made its initial appearance in the United States” during the twenty-eight-year period from the start of the American War for Independence in 1775 to the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. For his part Winik narrows the period of origin to the decade of the 1790s and expands both the conception of modernity and the number of contributors to its birth. At the outset of his book Winik implies that the founding moment of the modern world is not simply the story of America and the birth of popular government. The 1790s, Winik says, witnessed not only the beginnings of republicanism and democracy that took place in America but also the birth of revolutionary fanaticism, rabid nationalism, and modern authoritarianism that occurred outside the United States.

Thus for Winik the origins of modern society are a global story, involving not merely the United States but also France and Russia. At the outset Winik suggests that these two European nations belong in his book because they contributed to modern revolutionary fanaticism and authoritarianism. Only at the end of the book do we discover that Winik actually intends France and Russia to be essentially counterexamples to America’s creation of modern society. So for both Ellis and Winik the United States is the crucial nation in the birth of modernity.

Winik wastes no time analyzing his conception of political modernity. He is not a political scientist but a story-teller, and a superb one. He divides his book, and the decade of the 1790s, into four parts, entitled “The Promise of a New Age,” “Turmoil,” “Terror,” and “A World Transformed.” In each of the first two parts he has three chapters devoted to each of the three nations, America, Russia, and France. In the third part, “Terror,” he has four chapters alternating between France and Russia, and in the final part, “A World Transformed,” he has only two chapters, both devoted to America.

Within each chapter Winik employs a particular narrative technique to keep his readers fully engaged. He breaks each chapter into short three- or four-page sections. Then in order to maintain the reader’s attention, he generally ends each of these sections with a one- or two-sentence paragraph that emphasizes some momentous conclusion or some dramatic development to come. So after describing the prolonged efforts of Catherine’s first minister and commander in chief of her armies, Grigory Alexandrovich Potemkin, to gather his forces for an attack in 1790 on Ismail, the most formidable Turkish fortress in Europe, Winik concludes the section with the following sentence set off as a separate paragraph:

Thus would begin one of the most ghastly battles of the century.

What reader would not want to go on to find out about this most ghastly battle? By using these sorts of techniques Winik makes his stories unusually engaging.

Since Winik wants to stress the global character of the period, he is at pains to emphasize the ways in which the three countries he deals with—America, France, and Russia—interacted and related to one another. Thus he stresses the fluid nature of this late-eighteenth-century enlightened world, a fluidity of a sort, he says, “that would be almost unheard of today.” Despite lacking our modern means of communication, enlightened humanists corresponded with one another across thousands of miles of land and ocean. In fact such correspondence was common among such sixteenth-century humanists as Erasmus. But in the late eighteenth century men didn’t just write to one another; they freely crossed and recrossed borders, switched allegiances, fought for foreign causes, provoked revolutions, or fled from revolutions.

So Thomas Jefferson contributed to the drafting of the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen; so President George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison were made honorary citizens of the new French Republic; so Thomas Paine, after having helped to incite the American Revolution, joined the revolutionaries in France and almost lost his head; so Gouverneur Morris, minister to France, counseled the doomed Louis XVI and informed President Washington of the bloody excesses of the French Revolution; so Talleyrand, the wily French foreign minister, fled to the United States during the years of the Terror, but returned to France to goad the American republic into a quasi war; so Catherine the Great of Russia corresponded with Thomas Jefferson and hired the American naval hero John Paul Jones to help fight the Islamic Ottoman Empire; and so Poland’s Thaddeus Kosciuszko fought with the American revolutionaries and later returned to Poland to lead a national rebellion against Russia.

These people and countries, says Winik, were “all part of one grand, interwoven tapestry.” It is “these relationships and interrelationships, as much as any one country alone, that laid the foundations for the world we know today.” We cannot understand the events of the late eighteenth century, Winik contends, unless we see them in concert and through the eyes of the participants. The history of the United States during the first decade of its new Constitution’s birth can be grasped only in the context of world events. To appreciate the enormity and ultimately the tragedy of the French Revolution, says Winik, we have to see the upheaval in relation to events in America as well as in Russia. And we can understand how Catherine, the powerful tsarina of Russia, shed her liberal and reforming ambitions and became a repressive despot only by seeing the fast-moving world as she saw it.

All this is true enough, and Winik does a commendable job of emphasizing as many of these cosmopolitan interconnections as possible. Despite these anecdotal references to transnational relations, however, Winik’s book ultimately remains three separate stories of three nations at the end of the eighteenth century: America, Russia, and France. Indeed, each of these stories, which deal solely with high politics and headline events, is independent enough to stand alone as a short book.

The four chapters on the French Revolution, for example, comprise as succinct and as thrilling a narrative account of that momentous event as one can find anywhere. The four chapters on Catherine’s Russia could likewise be made into a brief book. Catherine, “one of the most domineering and versatile monarchs of her age—perhaps of any age,” came to the throne in the strangest manner. As an insignificant fourteen-year-old German princess, she became the wife of Peter the Great’s grandson Peter III. This Peter turned out to be anything but great; he was a dissolute drunkard who alienated many of the influential elements of Russian society.

In 1762 Catherine engineered a coup, which was quickly followed by the death of her husband. At age thirty-three Catherine became the tsarina of the largest nation in the world. She began her reign as an enlightened monarch, attracting scholars, philosophers, and poets to her court. She built the Hermitage, patronized the arts, and helped isolate Britain diplomatically during the American Revolution. Yet she wanted to expand her empire farther, and after a decade of bloody war against the Turks, she took the Crimea. But she dreamed of more, nothing less than conquering Constantinople and dismembering the Muslim Ottoman Empire.

The French Revolution changed everything. The violence of the revolution terrified her and all other monarchs. She now called republicanism “a sickness of the mind,” and she disavowed her earlier enthusiasm for reform and enlightenment. She put down the rebellion in Poland led by Kosciuszko and became determined to obliterate that country. In the end she became the most absolute ruler in all of Europe.

The four chapters dealing with the struggles between the Federalists and the Jeffersonian Republicans in the United States during the 1790s do not lend themselves to treatment as an independent episode as those dealing with France and Russia do. Perhaps this is because that decade—the Federalist era—is the most awkward in American history, much of it repudiated by the Jeffersonian Republican takeover that followed in 1800. The decade was certainly turbulent, but not as turbulent as Winik, in his eagerness to compare events across borders, makes it out to be. He implies that many events in America during the decade were “hauntingly reminiscent of France” during its revolution. “The Federalists and Republicans were squaring off like angry Jacobins and Girondists in the French Assembly.” By 1798, “America had now come to resemble revolutionary France in its halcyon days before the Terror.”

The Federalists in charge of the national government, writes Winik, reacted with passions no different from those that had been expressed in revolutionary France and enacted several repressive measures called the Alien and Sedition Acts. The Federalist Fisher Ames rationalized these actions “with words that easily could have passed from Robespierre’s lips.” Although the Federalist government never deported a single alien under the Alien Act, it did arrest twenty-five persons and bring seventeen indictments of seditious libel against Republican journalists and editors, ten of which resulted in conviction and punishment. “Taken as a whole,” Winik concludes, “these were actions worthy of the most brutal despots and repressive regimes on the world stage.”

This seems grossly exaggerated, to say the least. Americans never came close to the kind of fanaticism and violence experienced by the French revolutionaries. Unlike the French, they had over a century of experience with self-government and political compromise; they did not have to invent their rights, they inherited them as part of their English common law. The federal government’s repression was mild compared to what William Pitt’s government was doing in Britain, and the Republican editors were not in the least cowed; indeed, the number of new Republican newspapers increased dramatically between 1798 and 1800 from fifty-one to eighty-five.

Winik concedes that Jefferson’s election in 1800 took place without violence; he admits that the young republic during the 1790s, unlike France and Russia, demonstrated a “centrist pull, a tendency to rein in anything perceived as extreme.” Indeed, by the time Winik gets to his epilogue in his nearly-seven-hundred-page book, the United States can do no wrong. In the end Winik celebrates the new American republic as the sole contributor to democracy and modern political thought. The survival of the United States, he says, meant that

  1. 1

    The Birth of the Modern: World Society, 1815–1830 (HarperCollins, 1991).

  2. 2

    The Roads to Modernity: The British, French, and American Enlightenments (Knopf, 2004), reviewed in these pages by Alan Ryan, December 2, 2004.

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