Two weeks after 9/11, President Bush was spotted carrying a copy of April 1865, Jay Winik’s account of the most fateful month in American history, aboard Marine One. This week, Winik is back with The Great Upheaval: America and the Birth of the Modern World, 1788-1800. The pre-publication reviews have been exceptionally good — Winik may have written the blockbuster history book of the fall. He recently took questions from NRO’s John J. Miller on the Founding Fathers, what John Adams thought of the Russians, and learning French.
JOHN J. MILLER: You’ve written a history of the American Founding period that’s global in its scope. Why?
JAY WINIK: The more I researched this book, the more I came to realize that it was vital to bring alive the world that the Founders themselves actually saw. Conventional scholarship has long isolated the story of America’s founding decade from the rest of the globe. But this misses a crucial part of the picture: The world of the 1790s was stitched together in ways that we can scarcely grasp, from Philadelphia to Paris to St. Petersburg and Constantinople. Our Founding Fathers were all consumed, and rightly so, by events in Europe and on the global stage — from the increasing anarchy and bloodshed of the French Revolution that swept the continent, to Russia’s dismemberment of the ancient Kingdom of Poland. What emerges is ultimately an unprecedented, new picture of America’s founding years.
MILLER: Can you give a couple of examples?
WINIK: For example, you can’t appreciate America’s fears of foreign invasion in its formative years in the 1790s or of being swallowed by a predatory European power without seeing them in relation to Napoleon’s armies that were devouring Europe “leaf by leaf” — not to mention reaching deep into the heart of the Middle East — or against the backdrop of Marshall Suvorov’s “tidal wave” of Russian armies laying siege to Islam, and literally wiping Poland off the face of the map. These grim examples powerfully underscored to the young republic the perils of weakness in the face of imperialistic European empires. Similarly, the crisis of the Whiskey Rebellion that George Washington faced — at a time when the Terror was deepening in France — takes on an entirely different coloration when one realizes that the American rebels in Western Pennsylvania were singing French insurrectionary songs and carrying mock guillotines.
MILLER: What’s the “great upheaval” of your title?
WINIK: Arguably, the period of the 1790s is the most significant era in all of human history, but it’s also arguably the most tumultuous. These years saw a young America literally struggling for its life, at home and abroad. It saw a savage revolution that upended the French dynasty, then the most significant in the world, and with it, a cataclysmic global war. It witnessed the first modern holy war between Christianity and Islam, the consequences of which the world is still grappling with. And for good or for ill, it saw an unremitting struggle between leaders of their nations all fighting desperately for the ideals they believed in, whether divinely inspired autocracy or man-made democracy, whether constitutional republicanism or Allah’s law.
MILLER: What was the greatest accomplishment of the era?
WINIK: Unquestionably it would have to be the survival of America with its ideas and ideals intact. Revolutionary France started out with the noblest intentions, but then descended into unspeakable bloodshed and barbarism. For its part, the Russian Empire and the rest of the world’s monarchies became reactionary. While it was touch and go, only America, a small, minor country on the periphery of the world, managed to weather the cruel upheavals of the age. The result was what would become the first fully functioning democracy. It was an extraordinary achievement that changed the course of civilization, one accomplished against all the odds.
MILLER: What’s the single most surprising fact or thesis that readers will encounter in your book?
WINIK: I think it would have to be how precarious America’s existence was in the first decade. Throughout history, all republics had stumbled and failed, or fallen prey to predatory powers. We almost did, too. In a related vein, it’s an eye-opener just how different America’s Founders look when viewed on the world stage. We get a completely new take on George Washington, for example, by seeing him not merely in comparison to his fellow Americans, Adams, Hamilton and Jefferson, but also to his reigning European peers like a dispirited Louis XVI, or such giants as a charismatic but aggressive Catherine the Great, or an increasingly dictatorial Napoleon, let alone an often bloodthirsty monster like Robespierre. Seen in this light, the entire founding period looks different.
MILLER: How would America and the modern world be different today if the French had just listened to Edmund Burke and ended their revolution before it really got going?
WINIK: Such scenarios are speculative, but where does one begin? Ironically, a number of the more moderate French revolutionaries hoped to import an American-style form of Republicanism to France, but soon found themselves unable to control the very forces that they had helped to unleash — and many were ruthlessly guillotined. Yet, if somehow the French had managed to put a brake on their excesses, the world might have been spared 21 ghastly years of war that consumed all of Europe and left millions of dead. France’s political system could have been more like America’s, and there would have been no Napoleon. And the modern face of despotism might have looked very different: The worst aspects of the revolution paved the way for the ghastly excesses of totalitarianism in the 20th century, whether Stalin’s Russia, Hitler’s Nazi Germany, or Pol Pot’s Cambodia. At the height of the Terror, to speed up France’s death machine, priests were systematically drowned. Elderly people were forced to dig their own graves before they were mowed down with machine guns — not unlike what the SS did in World War II. Foreshadowing Auschwitz, one distinguished French chemist even proposed the use of poison gas.
MILLER: Is it true that you learned French in order to research this book?
WINIK: I did. I spent 18 intensive months developing a working knowledge of French, which gave me a greater feel for reading French documents and sources. I’ve long believed it’s important for an historian to immerse himself as much as possible into the world he’s writing about. So even though most of my sources were freely available in translation, I developed a far richer appreciation of the world of France, in all its splendor and excess, than if I had not taken French. It also immeasurably helped me in understanding Imperial Russia and Catherine the Great’s Court, where French was the spoken tongue.
MILLER: John Adams thought that Americans and Russians were natural allies. What happened?
WINIK: Adams was not alone in thinking this. One of the hidden but fascinating chapters of America’s beginnings is the role Empress Catherine played in helping midwife the young American republic to independence. King George III actually approached Catherine to see if she would lend him her hardened Cossacks, as well as her navy, to put down George Washington and the upstart rebels. Catherine not only turned him down, but then formed the League of Armed Neutrality, which helped isolate Britain diplomatically, for the first time in a century. It was almost natural then that Adams and others thought the two nations were destined to live in harmony. Catherine had actually corresponded with Jefferson and George Washington (who called her “the great potentate of the North”). But as it happened, Catherine soon turned on these young republicans. Though she carefully followed events in the U.S., she never received the fledgling American envoy, and once the French Revolution intensified, she hotly denounced both Washington and an American Revolution that once she professed to admire. The Russian component is a critical part of the story of this epic period.
MILLER: Who was your favorite character to write about?
WINIK: Since I was dealing with probably the greatest galaxy of actors in world history, there was no shortage to choose from. Catherine the Great was probably the most charismatic — you want to be seated next to her at a dinner party. For some 30 years she dominated the global arena, befriended the mortal French philosophes like Voltaire, waged war on Islam, and after decades of enlightenment, unleashed modern authoritarianism. She was also incredibly charming, brilliant, and complex. She’s one of my favorites. Napoleon, of course, is one of a kind, and quite important historically. I found the story of King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette and their downfall to be quite powerful and poignant. Getting into the head of Robespierre, who prefigured Stalin and Hitler, was quite challenging. But in the end, however, it was George Washington who proved to be the master spirit of the age, even if his peers didn’t quite see that way. Though he was at times stilted, and often unapproachable, he had the vision and wisdom to securely guide the young America through a tumultuous era, and the world has never been the same since.