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
within essentially a single generation, arguably greater progress had been made politically than in all the millennia since the beginning of time. Not the rise and fall of Rome, not the Reformation, not the Renaissance could fully compete with it. Unknown then—no one could tell how the story would turn out—American republicanism, and soon, American democracy as well, were in fact the reigning triumph of the age.
In this impassioned peroration Winik gets carried away. “The people of Europe,” he says,
were discovering a virgin political civilization that lived on the other side of the world in a young republic, thus giving the masses of France and then all of the continent hope of salvation.
Of course, there is no evidence whatever that the masses of France, then or now, have ever seen the United States as the hope of salvation. But no matter, America “created the first flickers of modern democratic politics. In numerous ways, just as the world knows it today.”
But lest we forget why we spent so much time reading about France and Russia in the late eighteenth century, Winik brings them back into his epilogue simply as foils to America’s creative achievement. How best to understand why republicanism succeeded in America, he asks, than to see it in contrast to what happened in France and Russia?
How best to appreciate the greatest generation of American talent in history, the Founding Brothers, Jefferson, Hamilton, Franklin, Adams, and Madison, than to see them in relation to the once idealistic, revolutionary souls of France, Mirabeau, Marat, Danton, and Robespierre—or for that matter, to the Machiavellian Russian brain trust, like the mesmerizing Potemkin?
Finally, how best to understand the wisdom and vision of the age’s master spirit, George Washington, than by seeing him in the same frame as a confused or dispirited Louis XVI—or a once reformist but hardened Catherine “la Grande“?
Although Joseph J. Ellis has nothing to say about France and Russia in his book, he agrees enthusiastically with Winik’s conclusion that the new American republic was the source of the modern conception of political society. During the last quarter of the eighteenth century, the United States, he writes,
somehow managed to establish a set of ideas and institutions that, over the stretch of time, became the blueprint for political and economic success for the nation-state in the modern world.
He goes on in his prologue to outline five fundamental American achievements:
First, the revolutionary generation won the first successful war for colonial independence in the modern era…. Second, they established the first nation-sized republic…. Third, they created the first wholly secular state…. Fourth, they rejected the conventional wisdom, agreed upon since Aristotle, that political sovereignty must reside in one agreed-upon location, that sovereignty was by definition singular and indivisible…. Fifth, they created political parties as institutionalized channels for ongoing debate, which eventually permitted dissent to be regarded not as a treasonable act, but as a legitimate voice in an endless argument.
Ellis makes no effort to build his book around a systematic analysis of these generalizations. Instead, like Winik, he is a storyteller, and a superb one too. He employs the same narrative technique he developed most successfully in his earlier book Founding Brothers.3 He isolates particular events that took place between 1775 and 1803 and uses them to tell stories that illuminate larger themes and issues. Throughout there is the same captivating colloquial style for which he is famous, and the same clarity of exposition. Indeed, no historian is better at making a complicated jumble of events clear and comprehensible.
Ellis begins with a chapter called “The Year,” running from May 1775 to July 1776, which included the siege of Boston, the creation of the Continental Army, the writing of the early state constitutions, and the drafting of the Declaration of Independence. The next chapter, called “The Winter,” deals with the 1777–1778 ordeal of the Continental Army at Valley Forge as soldiers starved amid the richest breadbasket of America. The third chapter, entitled “The Argument,” concentrates on the debate over the ratification of the Constitution in 1787–1788, especially as it took place between James Madison and Patrick Henry in Virginia, the largest state in the Union. The next chapter, called “The Treaty,” focuses on the first treaty drafted and ratified by the new federal government, that with the Indians of the Creek nation in 1790.
This chapter, perhaps the most original in the book, is a story of failure. The star of the story is the shrewd and charismatic mixed-blood chief of the Creeks, Alexander McGillivray, who used all his wiles to protect his people. President Washington and Secretary of War Henry Knox had the best of intentions and sought to deal fairly with the Indians. “They made a heroic effort,” writes Ellis, “and they failed, though it is difficult to imagine what they might have done differently to change the outcome.” Their enlightened plans were simply overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of ordinary white settlers swarming westward.
The fifth chapter, “The Conspiracy,” is the strangest in the book. Ellis’s conspiracy is not, as we might expect, that of Aaron Burr, but rather the one that existed in what Ellis believes are the feverish imaginations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, the leaders of the Republican Party in the 1790s: the idea that the Federalists in charge of the government, such as Alexander Hamilton, were plotting to undermine republicanism and to create a monarchy that would benefit northern speculators and moneyed men. Not only did these Virginian leaders concoct this threat of a conspiracy, but they used it to create their Republican Party. It was, says Ellis, all a sham. “The picture that Jefferson and Madison saw in their heads,” he writes, “was a preposterous distortion.” No doubt, he admits, Jefferson and Madison were sincere and wholly sane. How then, he asks,
did they develop such a quasi-paranoid image of the Federalist agenda, an image that would cause one of the primary authors of The Federalist [Madison] to repudiate all his previous arguments on behalf of a sovereign federal government and make Jefferson, a member of Washington’s cabinet, believe that his highest duty was to subvert the very government he was allegedly serving?
According to Ellis, Jefferson seems to have imagined “that monarchists, like the communists of a later time, were everywhere.”
Part of the answer, Ellis says, may seem to lie in the conspiratorial mentality that was common to the age. After all, the revolutionary leaders had based their break from the British Empire on their belief that the British ministers were conspiring to deprive America of its liberty. But Ellis is convinced that no “domestic deployment” of this earlier conspiratorial thinking is plausible. Instead, these Virginians, he argues, thought as they did and created the Republican Party because they feared for the future of a slave-ridden Virginia faced with the potentially awesome power of a federal government that might be able to tamper with slavery. The idea that Hamilton’s fiscal policy was, in Jefferson’s words, “designed to prepare a change from the present republican form of government, to that of a monarchy” was not only mainstream Republican rhetoric but “a maxim within the planter class of Virginia.” If Congress could establish banks, might it not be able to free the slaves?
Ultimately, Ellis says,
the slavery issue created an environment conducive to a conspiratorial mentality…. In that sense, the Republican view of the Federalists enjoyed such credibility in Virginia because it was a projection onto their enemies of a deceptive agenda with which they had a deep and intimate experience.
Beneath “the Republican agenda,” Ellis concludes,
there lurked sectional interests of the Virginia-writ-large sort, meaning a palpable fear that the commercial north was replacing the agrarian south as the dominant power broker, and the overlapping fear that any recognition of federal jurisdiction over domestic policy placed slavery at risk.
This bit of psychologizing might be plausible in the case of Jefferson and Madison and the other Virginia planters. But it can scarcely explain why thousands of northerners who owned no slaves expressed the same fears of a Federalist-engineered monarchy and flocked to join the Republican Party in opposition. Indeed, Ellis seems to suggest that the Republican Party was composed of the two leaders and their fellow planters from Virginia and virtually nobody else. He ignores completely all those middling sorts of Republicans in the North—men such as William Findley, Matthew Lyon, and William Manning—who railed against the Federalist “aristocracy” on behalf of their idea of “democracy.” Since Ellis makes no effort to investigate the social sources of the contending parties, it is not surprising that he concludes that if his essays are correct, then “one venerable interpretation of the founding era, namely that it was a clash between ‘democracy’ and ‘aristocracy,’ is fatally flawed.” Tell that to John Adams, who rightly saw the politics of the 1790s as a basic contest between the few and the many.
Much evidence suggests that there was a social struggle going on in the 1790s, at least in the northern states, and there was much talk about America’s eventually becoming a monarchy flying about. Washington himself had no desire to become a king, but many, including Jefferson, thought that he would serve for life and set a precedent by turning the presidency into an elective monarchy resembling that of Poland. “You are now a king, under a different name,” James McHenry told Washington in March 1789, and he hoped that you “may reign long and happy over us.” It was not surprising, therefore, that some people referred to Washington’s inauguration as a “coronation.”
Many assumed that as American society matured and became more complicated that its republican government would naturally give way to monarchy. That had been the fate of the ancient Roman republic, and, according to the dominant theories of social development in the late eighteenth century, it was inevitable that as societies progressed from the agricultural stage to the commercial stage they would become more hierarchical and more receptive to monarchy. John Adams was severely criticized by so many people precisely because he publicly planned for this monarchical future by insisting on titles and other European-style adornments.
Washington was sensitive enough to all this talk of monarchy that in his initial draft of his inaugural address in 1789 he wanted to assure his fellow citizens that he had no plans of establishing a hereditary monarchy. He emphasized that he had no heirs to pass on the presidency to. He was talked out of this draft, but that he would even think he had to make such comments speaks volumes about the climate of the age.
This particular chapter does not do justice to Ellis’s usually fertile historical imagination. He doesn’t acknowledge that there was any basis for these fears of monarchy. He doesn’t accept the fact that Hamilton’s plans for a fiscal-military state with a standing army and a national bank and a funded national debt emulating the entire British system violated for many Americans everything the Revolution had been about. Ellis thinks that the Republican opponents of Hamilton’s financial program should have known better. The Federalists’ program brought stability and prosperity to the American economy. “How, in heaven’s name,” he asks, “could fiscal responsibility be seen as an unmitigated evil?”
Ellis’s conception of the turbulent politics of the 1790s comes to rest simply on the sly ideological manipulations of the two Virginian leaders, Jefferson and Madison, especially Jefferson. With Jefferson, says Ellis,
it is difficult to know where deception ended and self-deception began…. Everything Jefferson saw with his eyes was filtered through the conspiratorial categories he stored in his head, which then bent the perceptions to fit his preordained conclusions.
Ellis doesn’t take seriously the belief of Jefferson and other Republicans that the French Revolution was an extension of the American Revolution whose outcome would determine the fate of republicanism everywhere. Instead, he suggests that Jefferson just had a “romantic attachment” to the French Revolution and that he was simply “eager to exploit…for partisan purposes” the “pro-French sentiment in the nation at large.”
Since Madison had been a fervent nationalist in the 1780s, Ellis has a much harder time explaining his conversion to the state-centered Jeffersonian Republican Party. The best he can do is suggest that since Madison was someone who wanted to maintain a balance between state and federal sovereignty, he threw his weight on the state side in the 1790s only to switch later during the Nullification Crisis in 1832 and support the federal government. According to Ellis, Madison’s belief that the majority of the people supported the Republicans can’t be taken seriously, since the people had recently elected Washington almost by acclamation. Hence this belief was just “extremely shrewd…propaganda.” In the end, the reader is left with the impression that the Republican leaders were somehow able to dupe the country into supporting their party.
Ellis concludes his book with a chapter entitled “The Purchase,” dealing with the 1803 acquisition of Louisiana from France. Given his visceral dislike of Jefferson, Ellis can scarcely restrain his eagerness to emphasize the ways in which the Purchase violated the President’s republican principles of minimal executive and federal authority. However, what seems most impressive about the Purchase is not Jefferson’s violations of his principles but his desperate attempts to live up to them. Even though this doubling of the country’s size fulfilled his wildest dreams for his “empire of liberty,” the President hesitated and delayed, fiddling for weeks with the idea of a constitutional amendment, until he was told that Napoleon might change his mind and renege on the deal.
What about the claims by both authors that eighteenth-century America was most responsible for modern political society? Such chauvinistic praise of America’s past political achievements might seem commendable, since we don’t get much of it from the academy these days. But is it accurate? Certainly not entirely. It is remarkable that both Ellis and Winik pay no attention whatever to the achievements of Great Britain in the period they studied. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, America was not the great model of liberalism and popular government to the world. Great Britain was.
Not only did Britain take the lead in abolishing slavery and the slave trade, but it took upon itself the responsibility for policing violations of the ban on the international slave trade. When European liberals were overwhelmed by reactionary monarchism in the decades following 1815, they looked for solace not to America but to Great Britain. This Britain was the conqueror of Napoleon, not the wild and undisciplined and slaveholding United States, and it stood for individual rights and liberty and constitutionalism in an illiberal world. It, not America, had first developed a party system, and it, not America, had led the way in demonstrating to the world the peaceful change of governments from one party to another, albeit within a monarchical frame. Most democratic nations today follow the British parliamentary system of ministerial responsibility, not the American system of separation of powers. That fact alone ought to make American historians a bit more cautious in making claims for America’s primacy in creating modern political institutions.
November 8, 2007
The Birth of the Modern: World Society, 1815–1830 (HarperCollins, 1991). ↩