Napoleon's November 9, 1799, coup d'etat.
Napoleon's November 9, 1799, coup d'etat.
The Bridgeman Art Library

World On Fire

Napoleon's November 9, 1799, coup d'etat
Napoleon's November 9, 1799, coup d'etat (The Bridgeman Art Library/getty Images)
Reviewed by Andrew Cayton
Sunday, October 21, 2007


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

By Jay Winik

Harper. 659 pp. $29.95

On November 9, 1799, Napoleon Bonaparte invaded the legislative chambers in the Palais Royal in Paris and ended years of republican government in France by instituting what amounted to a military dictatorship. When someone shouted in protest, "And the constitution?" the general retorted, "You yourselves have destroyed it."

In Jay Winik's account of high politics in France, Russia and the United States between 1788 and 1800, Bonaparte's rejoinder serves as the epitaph for an enlightened 18th-century vision of representative government. A year and a half after the French coup d'┬┐tat, the grandson of the Russian Empress Catherine the Great, a woman who had once dreamed of social reform and corresponded with Voltaire, countenanced a palace coup culminating in the murder of his father and his own ascension to the throne. Everywhere, according to Winik, republican ideas were on the run.

Everywhere that is, except in the United States. Americans divided over the French Revolution and growing entanglements in global economic and political relationships, but they survived a multitude of domestic tempests. In the election of 1800, they peacefully transferred power from one group of men led by John Adams to another group led by Thomas Jefferson. The United States "was on its way to becoming a diverse and democratic country, inspiring quests for freedom around the world." Winik sees this development as "the birth of the modern world." Americans, he argues, "never succumbed to organized violence, across-the-board repression, and institutionalized murder, no matter how tempting, which of course happened in civilized France and glittering Russia." This paean to American exceptionalism may leave readers wondering about the value of the American example, however, because apparently no one else can handle democracy.

Winik knows how to tell a gripping story. But The Great Upheaval is a shaggy work of portentous prose whose parts do not add up to as much as the author claims. By focusing on besieged leaders such as Louis XVI of France, Catherine the Great and George Washington, he tends to slight the energy and promise of the age of the democratic revolution in favor of lamentations about the excesses of vulgar, fanatical and usually non-American hordes. The book also neglects the critical role of particular demographic and geographic features in the development of France, Russia and the United States.

Most problematic is Winik's exaggeration of the contemporary significance of the United States. Bonaparte may have complained as he died that "they wanted me to be another Washington." But his actions after 1800 did far more to create a modern world, for good or ill, than those of the justly admired American president. Even more curious in this regard is Winik's decision not to accord the constitutional monarchy of Great Britain the same attention he pays to revolutionary France, imperial Russia and the republican United States (whose government revised and elaborated on British precedents). It was, after all, imperial Britain -- with a quite effective two-party system, a large middle class and extensive commercial networks -- that dominated the world for more than 100 years after the French Revolution. And it was the British, not the Americans, who managed to make it through the 19th century without a bloody civil war, despite widespread unrest and demands for reform.

William Pitt the Younger, the workaholic who was prime minister for much of the quarter-century after 1783, embodied the British variation on representative government. Adept at administering a complex bureaucracy, building coalitions in an unruly Parliament, dealing with an erratic king and tacking as necessary with the shifting popular winds, Pitt made a profession out of pragmatism. "Europe is not to be saved by any single man," he said in 1805, two months before he died from sheer exhaustion. "England has saved herself by her exertions, and will, as I trust, save Europe by her example." Here was a modern politician who knew his place in his nation and the place of his nation in the world.

Jay Winik is right to ask American historians to think globally. But The Great Upheaval demonstrates how difficult it is to escape the confines of our national narrative and engage other parts of the world on their own terms. *

Andrew Cayton, Distinguished Professor of History at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, is the co-author, with Fred Anderson, of "The Dominion of War: Empire and Liberty in North America, 1500-2000."

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