How America's revolution transformed the world Jay Winik doesn't prowl through the raw materials of history to prove a point or to bask vicariously in a time more congenial or exciting than his own. Instead, he looks for great, socially relevant stories lived out by towering figures. He found these elements in profusion in the accounts that became April 1865: The Month That Saved America, his 2001 bestseller. In his new book, The Great Upheaval: America and the Birth of the Modern World, 1788-1800, Winik's cast and canvas are immeasurably larger and even more earth-shaking.
Noting that the successful but initially fragile American Revolution set off reverberations felt around the world, Winik concentrates his jeweler's eye on the political machinations of the Founding Fathers, the barbarities and expansionism of the French Revolution and the attempts of Russia's tireless and formidable Catherine the Great to extend and consolidate her vast empire. Each of these theaters of action directly affected the others and, to varying degrees, the rest of the world. Common to the leaders of all three nations, Winik argues, was an attraction to the reforming zeal trumpeted by Montesquieu, Voltaire and Rousseau. The crux of this belief eschewed an order based on the direct will of God and the fixed nature of the universe, writes the author. Instead, it focused a bright light on man-made laws and man-made authority. Speaking to BookPage from his home in Maryland, Winik first explains how he came up with the idea for the book. What I was hoping to do was search around and find something that was monumental, something that had narrative power, something where I could really make a fresh contribution and something that would play to my strengths as a writer. It took a while probably about two months of researching, reading and thinking about it. It was a little bit daring for me to take on something so extensive and so new, for which there was no model or template. . . . It just seemed to me that this was something that cried out for a book, he says. Once he had settled on the subject, it took him another six years to research and write it.
A senior scholar at the University of Maryland's School of Public Policy, as well as a regular contributor to the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, Winik is a master at character depiction and dramatic narration. The book has the cliff-hanging pacing of a fictional adventure. Under the rubrics The Promise of a New Age, Turmoil, Terror and A World Transformed, he alternates chapters that are titled simply America, Russia and France. Within these divisions, characters emerge, engage our sympathies or contempt and are then taken to a crisis point before a new chapter intervenes to carry on narratives that were previously seeded. It is particularly heartbreaking to watch the stories of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette play out and we are more than halfway into the book when those calamities happen.
While Winik does not play favorites he is meticulous in documenting flaws as well as virtues it is obvious that he has particular respect for Catherine the Great and George Washington as national leaders. If you were at a dinner party, Winik muses, and you got the chance of being next to Washington or Jefferson or Hamilton or Robespierre or Louis XVI or Catherine, she might be your most fascinating dinner partner. Even though she presided over a political system very different from ours, you can see that she felt as deeply and intently about [social and political] issues as the American founders did. What's so fascinating and what I really tried to bring out as it came to light for me is that whereas our founders, who had a highly different set of circumstances, drew one set of conclusions, say, from Montesquieu, [Catherine drew another]. They took from Montesquieu that we should have a separation of organs of government and a balance of power between the different organs. But Catherine, reading Montesquieu, took an entirely different set of ideas, which was that republics could not last over a large land mass and that a large land mass needs an autocratic-style government. Of all the titans Winik profiles, he concedes that Washington was the least charismatic of the group. He was not the most brilliant, not the greatest orator, not the deepest thinker and he certainly wasn't the most exciting. What he had was a vision and a sense of when to move the country fast and when to move it slow. I think it's fair to say that without Washington, we probably would not have survived that perilous first decade which really set the tone for America. Winik is at a loss, however, to explain the bloody excesses of the French Revolution. It was one of the great puzzles, he muses. On the one hand, the French Revolution, having been inspired in great part by the revolution that took place in America, gave us some of the loftiest words and ideas that mankind has ever received. By the same token, it gave us one of the most savage, totalitarian regimes history has ever witnessed, to the point where they were not only beheading in the most savage way the political opposition but often their own colleagues. . . . I guess if you were to reach for a larger viewpoint as to why, [it would be that] absent the rule of law and having a sense of such absolute true belief, they descended into barbarism. He likens the French bloodbath to Pol Pot's massacres of his fellow Cambodians.
Whatever their methods, Winik ultimately concludes, these national leaders were all fighting desperately for the world they believed in. And, in the end, he argues, humanity benefited. Within essentially a single generation, he writes, arguably greater progress had been made politically than in all the millennia since the beginning of time. Currently immersed in the relatively tranquil chores of promoting the new book, Winik confesses that he hasn't a clue as to what his next project will be other than monumental. Edward Morris writes from Nashville.