The Great Upheaval: America and the Birth of the Modern World, 1788-1800

The thesis of Jay Winik’s new treatment of the Revolutionary era is simple and direct, but its scale and ambition are enormous. “Contrary to the way textbook history likes to tell it,” the author says by way of introduction, the world of the late 18th century “was stitched together in a myriad of ways almost unimaginable to the modern mind.”

He means the world of politics in the 1790s, the world that comes swirling out of the smoke and rhetoric of the American Revolution, and in a characteristically vivid passage he tries to makes his metaphor concrete: “The great nations of the day, and their leaders, were all intimately tied together, watching one another, marveling at one another, and reacting to one another — whether from the bustle of 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 splendor of Vienna to the mysteries of the seraglio in Constantinople.”

It was this restless and self-regarding “global” interaction, he insists, that created, in one decade-long rush of events and personalities, the “Great Upheaval” of his title and gave birth to our 21st-century battleground of democratic aspirations and authoritarian reaction. A reader glancing up from his BlackBerry or television may suspect that Winik underestimates what the modern mind can imagine in the way of communication. And students of a certain age may recall that something very close to Winik’s thesis was set out some 50 years ago in a massive and learned history textbook by R. R. Palmer called The Age of the Democratic Revolution.

But if Winik (also characteristically) overstates his point, the originality of his presentation cannot be denied. Unlike Palmer, whose two volumes treat revolutionary movements everywhere from America to the Cisalpine Republic of Venice, Winik organizes his material in a series of alternating narratives sharply focused on just three countries, three rulers, three dramas: America, France, Russia.

The first, and most important to his argument, is America, not only because our Revolution and Constitution set everything else in motion but also because George Washington, he believes, is without question “the age’s master spirit.” The graveyards, as Charles de Gaulle once sardonically observed, are filled with “indispensable men.” But in Winik’s view, Washington really was indispensable — without his generalship no Revolution, without his presidency no Union, no example of voluntary retirement from power, no tradition for the world to emulate of stable, non-monarchical, constitutional government.

Early in the book — after the 20-page “Introduction” and a longer “Prelude” — and again toward its close, Winik pauses for a long description of his hero. This is a technique he will frequently use, a kind of freeze-frame that stops the action while he wrestles with questions of biography and character. For the most part these are graceful, reliable syntheses of recent scholarship, welcome resting points in an otherwise breathless saga.

Unfortunately, although the argument for Washington’s overarching importance is persuasive, Winik gets no closer than anyone else to the core of his nature. He can be brisk and penetrating on the president’s supporting cast — “Madison provided the architecture for the republic, Hamilton its masonry” — and, alas, he clearly enjoys clawing ever so delicately at Jefferson’s weaknesses. But when Washington steps forward and turns his grave, cold glance toward the reader, Winik retreats into baffled clich? (“He was…fated for destiny” ) or allows his prose to collapse entirely: “There was always something different, something special, something grand about this man.”

His treatment of France is far more successful, a splendidly dramatic retelling of the French Revolution and the Terror that followed. These sections of the book work so well in part because here — like a novelist — Winik has not only a hero he understands (the flawed but genuinely sympathetic Louis XVI); he has a heroine, the brave and beautiful Marie Antoinette, and enough villains, betrayals, and reversals to fill a Shakespearean Folio. His gift for the apt quotation is never better used: One Parisian observes that heads were falling “like slates from a roof.” At times his prose is even thrilling: “Now, listening to the scratch of her own breath, her mouth tightened and eyes alert, the queen could hear the stamp of feet and the rattle of axes.” And Winik manages to link character and significance in a way that historians rarely do: “To grasp who Robespierre was is not simply to grasp the revolution itself…but it is to see how a nascent democratic republic, filled with such flowering promise, inexorably slid into a prototype of a modern-day killing fields.”

As for Russia — Winik’s imagination is obviously stirred by its vast geographic vistas and the clash, not merely of armies but also of civilizations, unleashed by Catherine the Great in her endless wars against the Ottoman world. The empress herself is a fascinating study in contradictions — the enlightened despot, the philosopher-queen who shrewdly plays France, England, and America against each other, who toys with ideas of reform but falls back on a centuries-long heritage of absolutism and in the age of democratic revolution returns some 800,000 peasants to serfdom. Winik, who has worked as an adviser to U.S. congressmen and a secretary of defense, is particularly good (and cynical) on Catherine’s manipulation of public intellectuals like Voltaire and Diderot. And he sometimes captures a facet of her protean nature in a single deft phrase: she “had a hard, almost medieval capacity for witnessing senseless brutality with a clear, untroubled gaze.”

But most readers will find it hard to see the connection between Catherine’s reign and the tumultuous events taking place in Paris and Philadelphia. The great Pugachev rebellion that so frightens Catherine occurs in 1773, well before the others, and it is less an ideological revolution than a brutal, half-mystical uprising led by a bizarre figure who claimed to be the true tsar. The tenuousness of the connection leads, in fact, to a good deal of strained and ineffective logic: If Catherine “had been an American, she would have been part Jefferson, part Washington, part Hamilton.” Overstatement becomes the norm: “Her conversations were invariably an artful blend of earthy wisdom and learned philosophy.” And occasionally, the fingernail simply screeches across the blackboard — it is very hard to picture the empress and Potemkin “fondling their dreams.”

In the end, Winik returns to America and, turning the tables, the impact of the French Revolution on the new and visibly unsteady Republic. As he recounts our “quasi-war” with France that follows the rise of the Directory and then Napoleon, he insists again and again on the theme that underlies his earlier and very brilliant book, April, 1865 (2001). There he had speculated on the contingency of history, the real fragility of the American experiment, the somber possibility that in one short, crucial month the Civil War might have ended otherwise and turned the country in another, darker direction. The Great Upheaval, an epic rather than a sonnet, makes essentially the same case for a crucial period and for the fragility of modern democracy. It is a story largely of battles and palaces, not of how people lived — war makes “rattling good history,” as Thomas Hardy wrote — and it is marred at many points by its overwrought prose. But its energy is palpable and its conclusion profound and troubling: If America had stumbled and faltered in its first years as a constitutional government, what would have become of the world so completely stitched and interwoven with it?