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The Great Upheaval: America and the birth of the Modern World 1788 through 1800

At the end of the 18th century a remarkable group of leaders and philosophers presided over a ferment that would change the world forever. Over 12 turbulent and violent years reform swept through France, Russia and a fragile newborn America. To explore the magnitude of this era we are joined by Jay Winik, author of the best selling book ďThe Great Upheaval: America and the birth of the Modern World 1788 through 1800Ē The topic before the house: The Great Upheaval This week on Think Tank




BEN WATTENBERG:
Jay Winik-- welcome back to Think Tank. The last-- Jay Winik, welcome back to Think Tank. The last time you were here was upon the publication of your quite remarkable best-selling book-- April 1865. about the closing of the American Civil War. What is your new book about?
JAY WINIK:
The new book, which is called The Great Upheaval is about what is arguably the most remarkable age in all of human history. During the 1790s what I look at is America in its forming and founding decade. France as it goes from a stable monarchy, then the most significant civilization in all of-- all of Europe.

And it devolves into revolution which sweeps the continent. And Catherine the Greatís Russia, which starts out as a kind of liberalizing State. But then watching the events both in America and France then takes a harsh turn to the right. But in contrary to the conventional histories, none of these remarkable events occurred in isolation. Indeed, in one really extraordinary moment, their fates combine to give us not only the nation, but the world weíve inherited.
BEN WATTENBERG:
itís the Revolutionary War-- to the establishment of the constitution. Is that your-- your timeframe?
JAY WINIK:
Well, the timeframe goes from basically the-- the constitution to 1800 in this kind of global span. And let me give you a quick little setup piece of-- of some of the things that take place over this--
BEN WATTENBERG:
So the-- the dominating American char-- character is-- George Washington?
JAY WINIK:
George Washington, Thomas Jefferson-- James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, Ben Franklin, John Adams. Really, all the master spirits of America.
BEN WATTENBERG:
Okay.
JAY WINIK:
But-- but-- one thing I should say is I write about not just the-- the legendary founders. But you see them-- en gallerie in the context of some of the other remarkable figures who walked the world stage at the same time.

So to be sure it was the age of Washington, and Hamilton and Jefferson and Madison. But it was also the age of Louis the XVI and Marie Antoinette. Of Robespierre, the-- the dastardly revolutionary.

Of Napoleon, of course, who needs no introduction. And it was also the age of Catherine the Great and Voltaire. And all of these people, though too often history forgets it, walked the world at the same time and were peers of each other. Catherine the Great and George Washington were separated by one year. They wrote to each other, the corresponded to each other. And what we see in this time per-- span is that all the greats of the day, the heads of State, they watched each other, they reacted to each other and responded to each other. And that was how the modern world was formed.
BEN WATTENBERG:
So-- you make-- the point that there was-- I mean, we live in this-- age of instantaneous-- communication. Cell phones, computers or blackberries. But the point you make is that there was a remarkable amount of relatively speedy communication even then.
JAY WINIK:
Yeah. I mean, the-- the point that I really get at is-- is that the world was as fluid then and as interconnected as it is today. Itís a hubris that only in todayís world is the world so tightly knit together. But in fact, in an arc of revolution that stretched from Philadelphia to St. Petersburg, from Paris to Constantinople and Cairo, the world was struggling to sort of make itself. And whether people were-- were trying to enact Allahís war or a constitutional republicanism. Whether democracy or enlightened despotism, they were all seeking to remake the world as they saw fit.

Let me give you a sense of how people crossed and re-crossed borders, and often made revolution not once but twice. Think of one of our great naval heroes in the Revolutionary War, John Paul Jones. Well, he actually went to Catherine the Greatís Russia and fought for her against the-- the Islamic Empire in-- in-- in-- in-- Constantinople at the time.

Or think of another one of our great heroes from the Rev-- Revolutionary War. That is Kosciusko well, he went and led a rebellion in Poland against Catherine the Great. Or consider Thomas Paine. Of course, we know Thomas Paine as-- as the master polemist whose words moved the young colonists. So--
BEN WATTENBERG:
And-- and is today regarded as sort of a left-wing radical.
JAY WINIK:
Right, right. But he was quite instrumental to sort of--
BEN WATTENBERG:
No, I know that.
JAY WINIK:
To galvanize them.
BEN WATTENBERG:
No, but he was a great, great pamphleteer. I mean, no quest--
JAY WINIK:
Great pamphleteer.
BEN WATTENBERG:
Yeah.
JAY WINIK:
But he actually went and he joined the French Revolutionary assembly. And-- and as the Revolution became increasingly bloody and filled with violence and anarchy, he was even slated for the guillotine and was 24 hours from being guillotined. And shivering with jail sweats.

Not knowing if he would live for 24 more hours. Dentate, one of the ruling triumvirate of France who was also slated to be guillotined. In fact, he was beheaded on that day. He went to Paine, grabbed his hand in this dungy, grimy prison.

And he said, 'I tried to do in vain for my country what you did successfully for yours.' Quite a poignant moment
BEN WATTENBERG:
I--Iím sure there have been theories about this. Why does-- and we had I guess another such a-- an outburst in the 1960s. These things seem to happen in spasms. That they-- the-- these revolutionary moments-- so many things happen at once. Do you have a theory as to why that was so?
JAY WINIK:
I wouldnít say I have a theory so much as-- as-- as I tell the story of the portrait of the age. But to the extent that I lurched for some sort of larger explanation, it would be as follows. That in America-- these young colonists have struggled to throw off as-- as the rest of the world saw it, the unjust yokes of a repressive king. And they created remarkably a representative government. And when they did that and--
BEN WATTENBERG:
And that was the first mass democracy or almost mass democracy. Didnít have universal suffrage. Since what? Athens?
JAY WINIK:
Yeah. It-- it was the first great experiment in modern times of Republicanism with a representative government. And it was really quite daring. I mean, what they created was a constitution with a separation of powers in one hand, and divided government between the State and the Federal government on the other.

But when the Americans did that they lit a spark in which the rest of the world were reformers whether they were located in Paris or in corners of the Germanic states. Or even as far off as St. Petersburg saw that they could-- they too could enjoy the same sort of blessings. And what really was so pronounced is that a number of the Frenchmen who had fought with great distinction with George Washington and the colonists struggling for their independence. They went back to France with the same kind of intoxicating message. We can throw off the oppressive yoke of-- of a repressive king and create our kind of representative government.
BEN WATTENBERG:
Of course, their revolution then ended in tragedy, didnít it. I mean, in this barbarous civil war.
JAY WINIK:
Americaís revolution took one turn, but Franceís took another. Of course, and it was a surprise to the Americans. As Thomas Jefferson enthused at one point, he said, 'the principles of Franceís revolution are our principles.'

And most Americans thought and hoped and believed that Franceís revolution would become a perfect mirror of Americaís. But it would not become a perfect mirror.
BEN WATTENBERG:
I mean, the-- the argument is made that they went down the route of direct democracy rather than representative democracy. I mean, ours is a democratic republic and theirs was a-- plebiscitary-- democracy. That the people ruled without the tempering factor of-- of-- of-- of people elected. Is-- is that about right?
JAY WINIK:
Well, I think itís safe to say that-- that while they did have this kind of mass democracy-- the-- the ruling institutions, whether itís the triumvirate or the-- the committee of public safety or the national assembly. In effect, during the French Revolution, they themselves became prisoners of the mob. Let me give you one example of this. In 1792, as the terror was beginning and the guillotine was working overtime, would take place the September massacres. And these massacres were just remark-- were just remarkably gory. At one point a revolutionary mob stormed the prisons with one thing in mind, to murder priests.

And, of course, the priests and the rest of the prisoners were there for usually nothing more than their political opinions. And then when the priests were then murdered, then the rest of the prisoners were then taken out into the streets where they had to run a gauntlet of justice.

Where they were clubbed with axes. With-- with-- with saws. Beaten with hammers. And at one point a woman actually had her legs spread open and a fire was lit underneath her. At another point the Princess Enbow who was the closest consort to the Queen, Marie Antoinette. She would have her heart cut out of her chest and would be eaten. And even young children, many of whom were retarded, weíre butchered in cold blood. And when one young man went to a member of the national assembly and said, somehow this violence must stop-- Dentate looked and said, 'A river of violence must run between us and our enemies.Ē But soon that river would be endless. And that was the difference between the French Revolution and the American Revolution.

BEN WATTENBERG:
When is that-- most-- poignant and throbbing-- national anthem, the Marseilles, first heard?
JAY WINIK:
It is first heard in 1791-- as the French Revolution really is taking wings. And this regiment from Marseille actually comes marching into Paris.
BEN WATTENBERG:
Oh, I see.
JAY WINIK:
And theyíre all converging upon Paris. And as their marching their singing. Theyíre-- theyíre humming these stirring bars. And these were-- this would, of course, become the national anthem for the revolution.
BEN WATTENBERG:

it really is-- Iím, you know, Iím not shy about-- great American things. But it-- it-- the Star Spangled Banner is not one of the great-- National Anthems. But this is a fantastic piece of rallying music. And itís-- itís-- itís played in a lot of contexts-- other than France now.
JAY WINIK
Right. Right. But-- but-- it-- the-- the words are not only stirring, but they would come to evoke some of the worst aspects of the French Revolution.
BEN WATTENBERG:
how long did you work on the book?
JAY WINIK:
I worked on the book for six years.
BEN WATTENBERG:
the moral-- the political moral of the story I assume is the ideas that lasted from this incredibly fertile moment. But not the French ideas and not the Russian ideas and not the British ideas, but thatís when America-- through the power of example, came onto the world stage.
JAY WINIK:
Right. Of course-- thatís-- thatís very well put. In Americaís case-- remember, America was this minor, immature country on the periphery of the world. And the two great behemoths and superpowers of the day were-- were France.

First the monarchy and then Revolutionary France which had inaugurated a world war. And then Catherine the Greatís Russia, which strode like a colossus, determining much of what was happening in Europe. And of course, in their case, they even helped midwife America to independence.

But at the end of the day what would happen is that France, having started out with the noblest of ideas and best of intentions would turn bloody and-- and-- and-- and totalitarian. and-- and would usher in a savage world war that would last for 21 years and lead to millions of deaths.

In Russia, where Catherine the Great had started out with this enlightenment impulse. And, of course, she was friends of all the great philosophs from Voltaire to Mont-- Montesquieu to Didero and Grimm. She became reactionary and repressive.

And ushered in modern authoritarianism. And only in this young minor country, America, where it was touch and go, and we had our scares, did we-- weíre-- did we adhere to the ideas of the-- and ideals of the constitution. And whereas the rest of the world, their hands were bloodstained, in America they were virtually spotless.
BEN WATTENBERG:
Does-- does this-- the American experience have something to do with the fact that we are-- an offshoot of Britain with the magna carta? That the roots of this liberty-- occur in-- in the mother country?
JAY WINIK:
Well, I certainly think the British traditions-- helped us. Plus we had this long tradition of self-governance and self-rule. But one thing that I-- I feel very strongly about.

And that-- and I bring this out in The Great Upheaval is that you cannot understand the difficulties and the trials. And how touch and go it was for the young infant republic in the 1790s without seeing it in the global context of these great events of the age. You know, for example, in 1794-1795 at the height of the terror in France would take place the Whiskey Rebellion in America. And in this rebellion some 8,000 men, these Whiskey rebels. And thatís as many men as we had-- regulars at Yorktown when we defeated the British.

They would be-- they would be hoisting-- they would be hoisting miniature guillotines. They would be toasting the ruling powers in France. Including the bloodthirsty dictator Robespierre. And they were threatening, of all things, to march in Philadelphia. And when you consider that the King had just been beheaded in France, and that France was not extending its moral and political and even military support to similar movements around the-- around the globe. Seeking to overthrow their governments, you can understand and appreciate how perilous George Washington thought the situation was.

And he was determined that he would not become like Louis XVI, dragged from his palace in Versailles. Taken to Paris where he had become an in-house prisoner and eventually be-- be beheaded. And thatís why he would assemble a force of some 12,000 men. thatís a powerful Army, to subdue this rebellion. To sort of quelch it in its tracks.
BEN WATTENBERG:
Was Washington-- offered a-- a-- a-- a kingship? Was-- was-- was that offer ever extended to him? That he would become the King?
JAY WINIK:
Well, I-- I donít think the offer for Washington was act-- for him actually to become King.
BEN WATTENBERG:
I mean, thatís the story you hear.
JAY WINIK:
Yes. But-- but-- thereís no doubt that if Washington wanted to continue in office-- he could have continued. But what Washington did that was stunning and so unique in the history of the world is that he willingly stepped down after two-- two terms of office to transfer power to somebody else.

And at the time-- and that-- that-- at that time in our history there was nothing in our political vocabulary to say that the transfer of power we go from one living monarch. Or one living head of state to another.

Usually power was transferred at the-- at the end of bayonet. At the guillotine. At the chopping block or because the monarch died.
BEN WATTENBERG:
Or from-- from father to son.
JAY WINIK:
From father to son. But-- but-- letís look at an example of this transfer of power. Because itís a fascinating example. And it sort of shows you how the world was being born in different directions.
BEN WATTENBERG:
It-- itís really the-- the root of modern democracy. That you can have a-- a-- a-- a peaceful transfer of power from-- from one President to another.
JAY WINIK:
Right. Yes. But-- but-- it was very shaky in the beginning. You know, in 1800 imagine what happens when the transfer of power. In France, the country exhausted and worn and weary from the ongoing bloodshed of the terror in the revolution. It was whispered in the streets, we need a strong man. A man on horseback.

And that man on horseback would be Napoleon. Who would come to power in a bloody coup in which he would surround the National Assembly. And then in Russia itself while Catherine the Great, the Empress of Russia was now dead, but her grandson, her favorite grandson I should say, would come to power, Alexander, by murdering his own father.
And, of course, and a fascinating turn of the wheel historically, one day Napoleon and Alexander would square off to determine the fate of all Europe. And, of course, in America this transfer of power question was also being raised in 1800.

John Adams had lost the election. Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr were deadlocked for four days over 35 ballots. And at this point the country is very tense. And there were rumors as Thomas Jefferson put it. He said, 'If you declare an interim President to break this deadlock, the middle states will arm and there will be war.' And in fact, in Virginia, divisions were actually arming. But on the fifth day, on the 36th ballot, one senator would come ahead and hand-- hand the election over to Thomas Jefferson. And in doing so we would avert a Civil War narrowly. We would not go the path of Russia. We would not go the path of France. And Thomas Jefferson would become--
BEN WATTENBERG:
Now wait a minute. Washingtonís the first President for two terms.
JAY WINIK:
Right.
BEN WATTENBERG:
He is succeed by John Adams.
JAY WINIK:
John Adams of his own party. Of the Federalist party.
BEN WATTENBERG:
Right. Now-- now-- Pat Moynihan made a wonderful point that one of the great moments in history, John Adams was the first President who was defeated.
JAY WINIK:
Yes.
BEN WATTENBERG:
And-- and he-- could have resisted in one way or another. And thatís when the real first peaceful transfer of power occurred.
JAY WINIK:
Exactly. Thatís when it did occur. and-- and, you know, as a telling coda of the age, when Thomas Jefferson was elected President-- he, of course, he was of the Republican party as opposed to Washington and Adamsí party which were-- they were the Federalists.

But Jefferson got up and he gave this-- this almost sublime speech in which he said, we are all Republicans, we are all Federalists. So whereas in France the country had broken down into rival factions that were murdering each other and assassinating each other. In Russia where the country had descended into harsh authoritarianism. In America, we discovered something quite profound in the history of the world. And that was coalitions and politics. And the world was never the same since.
BEN WATTENBERG:
Jay, Is there something we should be doing about American education to teach-- to better teach our citizens and particularly our children-- about the importance, the glory, the despair-- the lessons of this particularly fertile moment?
JAY WINIK:
Right. Well, it-- itís-- itís really important that-- that history be taught in all its multiplicity of-- of aspects. It needs to be taught-- we need to teach the good and the bad, the ugly, the downsides, the upsides.

And at the end of the day let history itself sort it out. But we shouldnít go in there with an agenda. Let the history itself tell the story.

BEN WATTENBERG:
whatís happened in American education is first there was this somewhat insane glorification of the founding fathers. They were absolutely perfect people. And thatís what every schoolboy in America learned. And then 20, 30 years ago they said, Unh-uh (NEGATIVE). These were genocidal rats and murderous people.
JAY WINIK:
Right.
BEN WATTENBERG:
And going back to Columbus, of course. And I get the sense now that maybe some balance is coming into this. And-- and it is, at least as I see it, on balance, a remarkable earth-shattering-- beneficent moment. But not without its warts.
BEN WATTENBERG:
Not without its warts. And, you know, even if you look at George Washington, the eminent founding father of our country. The fact of the matter is is that he wasnít the smartest man around.

He wasnít the most articulate or eloquent. He wasnít the greatest general. He was none of those things. And he was, for that matter, a touch vain. And-- and during his two-term presidency his cabinet literally felt that they saw him a him just aging before their very eyes. He became sunken and cadaverous. And he was swearing up a blue streak. But what George Washington is-- was so important about him at the end of the day, is that whereas the rest of the world was descending into violence or bloodshed, he never lost sight of the principles and goals of the American constitution. And he stuck to that, though it was touch and go. And thatís what made him a--
BEN WATTENBERG:
He-- he-- he--
JAY WINIK:
In the final analysis such a great President.
BEN WATTENBERG:
He also-- he also, the reading that Iíve done on him-- understood the role of bearing-- in a leader. You know, he was a very tall man. There was--
JAY WINIK:
Right.
BEN WATTENBERG:
Thereís something-- that in-- 90 percent of our presidential elections, the taller more-- the 95 percent the taller candidate-- wins. And he purposely cultivated this sense of mystique and mystery. That he did not hob knob and-- slap backs and say, how are you buddy. That he wanted to be--
JAY WINIK:
Right.
BEN WATTENBERG:
A little removed. And that is not a bad-- thing about leadership. To have people-- they-- they know thereís a little hokum there. But they say, hey, this guy may be something special. And maybe we better listen.
JAY WINIK:
No, Washington really understood the dynamics of leadership well. And, you know, Ben Franklin probably summed it up best. As he put it, he said, 'Let all men know thee. But let no man know thee too well.'

And, you know, when Washington was out at-- at Mt. Vernon, I mean, he would have a veritable parade of guests. But he was always unapproachable. He was always a step removed. He was always a little bit detached. At one point his good friend, Governor Morris, for a bet, went up to-- President Washington and slapped him on the back.

And did he get a smile? Instead Washington turned around and gave him a cold stare. Washington knew leadership required being one step above and beyond and removed from the fray.

BEN WATTENBERG:
If you had to pick the say three Americans who had-- who left the greatest footprint on today, who would they be and why?
JAY WINIK:
Unquestionably the three Americans I would want to get to know the most are Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton. Both of whom hated and despised each other. In Jeffersonís case, of course, he was the author of the Declaration of Independence.

He would become George Washingtonís Secretary of State. He would lead and head the first political party, the Republican party. And he was sublime even as he was a often hypocritical. He was a deeply flawed man, but he was an extraordinary man. I would certainly want to get to know him. Alexander Hamilton, again. Deeply flawed by also sublime in his own way. He gave us modern capitalism. He gave us modern journalism. He was the first proponent of a strong federal government.

And, of course, this was in contradiction to Jefferson who was a strong believer in Stateís rights. And whereas Jefferson was a slaveholder. And-- and-- though he once said we have the wolf by the ears and we can neither hold him nor let him go-- he became a slaveholder for his whole life.

Whereas Hamilton was a great abolitionist and, in that sense, was ahead of his time. And then finally, while these would be the two prodigal sons the would-- they would be satellites ultimately rotating around that leading figure of all, George Washington. Washington was the master spirit who would sort of stay true to the ideas and ideals of America. And really through his vision on one hand and his strength of character in the other. And this despite his many flaws and warts. And they were a num-- they were numerous. I mean, he would ultimately rise as the most important American I would want to get to know.

BEN WATTENBERG:
Lets just wrap this up, what can we learn from that illustrious moment? What are the parallels that seem relevant to todayís experience?
JAY WINIK:
Right. Iím gonna-- I-- I think itís important that we learn two things. Firstly, how touch and go it was for the young American republic in the 1790s. And we easily could have gone down the paths of this utopian totalitarianism of France on one hand. Or this harsh, repressive authoritarianism, Russiaís, on the other hand. Thatís one lesson. How touch and go and precarious our existence was in the early years. And then the other lesson I think is quite-- quite profound and quite important for us to learn is that at the end of the day American survived and ultimately prospered.

And our strength came from our tolerance of dissent, our multiplicity of voices. And even though the different political parties and the different actors, whether they were Washington, Hamilton or Jefferson often despised each other.

How in the end where in other countries they were guillotining each other or putting each other in jail Only in America were-- was there a toleration of dissent. And this idea of coalitions, of politics. Of a multiplicity of voices. That would be the enduring strength of America.

And would not only was what carried us, I believe, at the end of the day through this tumultuous and remarkable moment of the 1790s in which the modern world was made. But I believe it is-- it is what has been the central ingredient that has carried us and allowed us to flourish all these many years hence.
BEN WATTENBERG:
Okay-- Jay Winik-- old friend. Thank you so much for joining us again for a second time. You hope you will-- come back again when you write another best-selling book. And thank you. Please-- remember to send us your comments via e-mail. We think it makes our program better. For Think Tank, Iím Ben Wattenberg.


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