How Russia, France, and the US rocked the 18th century

Historian Jay Winik takes a new look at the revolutionary fervor that changed the world.

In the revolutionary years of the late 18th century, one nation stood above almost all others as a beacon of progressive thought. New freedoms abounded there and its leading intellectual lights put desiccated old monarchies to shame.

When the country's popular leader went on a lavish tour, luminaries from across the West showed up to pay their respects. Wine flowed, ladies danced, and philosophers compared notes under the gaze of the most enlightened monarch of the time.

Her name? Catherine the Great. Her country? Russia.

Today, the empress is nearly forgotten in the West except as a woman with a fondness for the boudoir (and, according to some, the stable). But she played a crucial role in creating a new world order, argues historian Jay Winik in his epic and vivid new book The Great Upheaval: America and the Birth of the Modern World, 1788-1800.

Few leaders "would come to embody the tensions and ferment of the age as Catherine, who would become inextricably intertwined within the tapestry of the two great revolutions germinating in America and France, all with seismic consequences for years to come," writes Winik.

The stories of the French and American Revolutions are familiar ones to modern readers thanks to a plethora of popular histories published in recent years. And bookshelves are littered with tomes by authors who insist they've stumbled upon a Very Important and Revealing Moment in History.

Fortunately for Winik, he actually has a real turning point to write about, a moment in time when the old was upended with lasting consequences. His ambitious triple play – weaving together the stories of Russia, America, and France – offers a fresh take on the era, and his enthusiasm gives readers a treat.

While we think of the US as being largely isolated from the rest of the world at that time, the new American nation was hardly immune to foreign influences. Months-old news was devoured as eagerly as breaking bulletins are today, and the events abroad were hugely influential here.

Catherine could have tried to snuff out the American Revolution but, as Winik writes, she inadvertently served as unwitting midwife.

Meanwhile, Poland – inspired by the US and France – tried to have a revolution of its own, but Catherine succeeded in burying it.

In Poland and beyond, Europe followed the twin revolutions and their aftermaths with great interest. Benjamin Franklin was so popular in France that his face appeared on snuffboxes; French revolutionaries found fame – and inspired fear – almost everywhere.

And then there was empire builder extraordinaire Catherine, a darling of the smart set from Philadelphia to St. Petersburg who dragged her country out of "semi-barbarism" but found some freedoms too much to bear.

Winik is a bit too fond of questions and overheated language but does a fine job of painting a picture of the grim 18th-century world (when a full half of all infants died) and describing the leaders of the time.

In Winik's last work, "April 1865: The Month That Saved America," he uncovered signs of the tremendous physical and emotional stresses facing the Civil War commanders. He made them seem less than superhuman but still extraordinary. Here, Winik strips away the patina of mythology to reveal the contradictions and internal battles that make historical figures so intriguing. Full of life but tremendously cruel (Catherine the Great), brilliant yet unable to play well with others (Thomas Jefferson), or both royally clueless and regally over the top (France's Louis XVI), the major players both influenced one another and changed the world.

Lively portraits of extraordinary people are scarcer in Edward J. Larson's Magnificent Catastrophe: The Tumultuous Election of 1800, America's First Presidential Campaign, which picks up in the US where Winik leaves off.

The title of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Larson's book and its first line ("They could write like angels and scheme like demons") promise a lush look at the pitched battle between presidential candidates John Adams and Mr. Jefferson, but "Magnificent Catastrophe" ends up being a bit on the dry side.

Still, Mr. Larson reminds us that nasty presidential campaigns aren't a creation of the modern age. Even in 1800, "partisanship prevailed to the bitter end and showed no signs of abating," Larson writes," the result of "conflicting hopes for liberty and fears of disorder."

"George Washington's vision of elite, consensus leadership had died," Larson writes, "and a popular, two-party republic … was born."

Even at her most open-minded, Catherine the Great over in Russia would have been appalled by the prospect of giving so much power to the people. Thanks to the revolutionaries of the 18th century, such a view was on its way out even by the time of the 1800 campaign.

As Winik puts it in "The Great Upheaval, "the great contest over liberty had begun in the age of 1790s." And it's pretty clear who won.

Randy Dotinga is a freelance writer in San Diego.

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