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-…

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