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

It’s a general misconception even among Americans that we kicked the British out of our country and then things were generally calm until the Civil War. The end of the war was just the start of an ongoing internal conflict that wasn’t free of bloodshed and reflected the kind of angry partisanship which, today, we push into social media.

Jay Winik focuses on three major areas of the world to illustrate the political and ideological impulses that were changing the world. He begins with the post revolution in the United States, and with the failed Confederation of States that was born toothless and stayed that way through its brief existence. In addition to being a weak federal government the Articles of Confederation set up tax systems that it could not enforce. This was seen in Shay’s Rebellion which grew from a protest meant to stop tax collectors from doing their job into an attempt to seize the government of Massachusetts.

A call to revise the Articles turned into a series of secret meetings, even to the Congress of Confederation, that hammered out the Constitution in a room where the windows were shut and blackened to avoid reporters and others from overhearing any part of the debates. The US government narrowly missed a hundred different changes that might have completely altered history.

The Constitution wasn’t immediately adored, and further tax revolts appeared and were quashed by a stronger federal government that was able to outgun the Whiskey Rebellion and other attempts to fight the newer threat of a stronger unified government. Unlike the atmosphere later in France, leaders of the American counter-revolutions were given death sentences but most were commuted.

The second area is France, turning from a relatively calm and hopeful rebellion, and a successful push to have Louis XVI concede freedoms (an end to serfdom and freedom of political opinion) into one of the most horrifying bloodbaths in history. From that blossomed the rise of Napoleon and the wars to spread the revolution into Italy, Germany, and Austria.

The third sphere is Russia under Catherine the Great. A foreign queen whose husband had been murdered she took the Russian throne in a hopeful atmosphere. An enlightened queen she adored Voltaire. She also bought the library of the aging Diderot (creator of the French encyclopedia) and then provided him with a stipend so that he could maintain it until his death. After seeing the destruction in Paris, however, she decided that a strong monarchy was the only way to manage a country as large and diverse as Russia. She annexed Poland and began a campaign to gain free access to the Black Sea and attacked Turkish Istanbul to allow further access to the Mediterranean.

Warnik profiles a surprisingly broad number of heroes and villains in this work. The penultimate hero is George Washington, not the greatest thinker or finest warrior, but a man fully aware that he was cutting the pattern for the cloth of every future presidency. His distress over the raging factionalism of the country led him to write a resignation after his first term. He was talked out of this but had that letter dusted off after his second term, a tradition that lasted until FDR’s four-term presidency. Also profiled are John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, as well as Alexander Hamilton and his political battles with … everyone in his drive to create a capitalist economy in preference to the agricultural utopia sought by Jefferson.

In France we learn about the lives of Robespierre, Danton, Marat, and the fated king and queen. In Russia the lives of Catherine and her brilliant alter ego Grigory Potemkin.

The book is a thorough and insightful look into a time generally taught in broad strokes in American schools. With the vast number of real conspiracies and faux conspiracies, executions and arrests the book reads like more of a political thriller than a history tome.

It’s eye-opening to see the paranoia that is still alive and well in American politics being played out in powdered wigs. Republicans were sure that Washington and Adams were secretly conspiring to set up a new monarchy allied with Britain. The Federalists were certain that Jefferson and his allies were set on importing a French bloodbath to American shores. What today is a fear that a president might act to seize guns was a fear that Washington would seize cattle and land. Outrage over diplomacy with France and England is no less visible in outrage over Iran and North Korea.

Meanwhile the French Directorate was slicing off the heads of brilliant scientists and philosophers while using the guillotine to settle political scores. Partisans in southern France used less humane methods, tying women, children, and priests to boats that were sunk in rivers to drown all on board.

It was a perilous time on both sides of the Atlantic, held together on this side by the calm and wisdom of Washington who limited intervention to shows of force followed by mercy.

An excellent book that deserves the attention of anyone interested in history and American political life.