Jay Winik could have followed up his best-selling April, 1865 with another book on that era, picking perhaps another month in the Civil War full of interesting, overlapping stories with which to weave a compelling tale.
Instead, Winik went back a couple of generations and added a few countries to his story. The Great Upheaval focuses on the final decade of the 18th century, not just in America, where a nascent republic was struggling to its unsteady feet, but across the Atlantic to Europe, where France was in the throes of a bloody revolution, and Russia, where an empress was learning how to suppress such things.
"Maybe it is not a decade, per se, but these 10, 12 or 15 years are, I think it is safe to say, the most significant era in all of human history," says Winik, who is senior scholar of history and public policy at the University of Maryland, College Park.
Subtitled America and the Birth of the Modern World 1788-1800, The Great Upheaval tells in its almost 600 pages of text a sweeping tale of despots and democrats, philosophers and philanderers, idealists and iconoclasts.
"I could have written another book on the Civil War. I had a ready-made audience for it, and I certainly could have written it much faster," says Winik, who lives in Chevy Chase.
"But to my mind, the most significant historians all move on from one big subject to another big subject," he says. "It was important to challenge myself in that way, as well as showing the importance of this time to the hundreds of thousands of readers who have been waiting for my next book."
Winik, 50, got his undergraduate degree at Yale, then went to the London School of Economics to study international relations. He returned to Yale for a doctorate in political science and had a diplomatic career before turning to history. Now one of the nation's leading public historians, Winik says he has never looked back.
"If you think about it, a lot of the country's most eminent historians - David McCullough, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Ron Chernow - did not receive formal training in history," he says. What was it about this time period, the end of the 18th century, that attracted you?
Think of it. You have the new American republic struggling to survive, facing repeated challenges at home and abroad. You had the most magnificent royal dynasty in the world, the French, suffering a monumental revolution that, in turn, triggered both the bloody terror and a savage world war. You also saw the first modern holy war waged by Russia against Islam, something we are still paying for today.
Finally, at the same time that you saw the first seeds of democracy really taking root, you saw the beginnings of totalitarian behavior that would prefigure Hitler and Stalin.
And you had this great galaxy of actors, perhaps the greatest ever seen. Not only George Washington and Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, but also Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, Robespierre, the bloodthirsty dictator who ruled revolutionary France, Napoleon, who needs no introduction, and, of course, Catherine the Great, the longest-reigning and most influential monarch on the world stage.
They were all peers and they were all struggling to make the world in their own image, with their own ideas. And they were all doing this at the same time. It is an extraordinary story, one that totally redefines the founders and founding era. Those ideas were changing fast, weren't they?
This was a period when the world was being written anew. The old world of monarchies was starting to disappear. In thinking about the science of government, the relationship of people to their government, the old ways were being cast aside and new ways were coming in. Whether people were fighting for a constitutional republic or a democracy, for enlightened despotism or for Allah, this was an unremitting struggle across an arc of revolution, stretching from St. Petersburg to Philadelphia. It was a period when ideas and ideals and nations were colliding in a way that eventually led to the modern world as we know it today. The world had never seen anything like it before or since. One point you make is that these events in places like America and Russia and France did not take place in isolation, that these leaders and their populace where acutely aware of, and affected by, what was going on in other countries. How was that possible in an age before electronic communication?
We have a certain modern-day hubris about that, thinking that only now is the world interconnected because of instant communication with cell phones and BlackBerries. Even though communication moved more slowly, the world at the end of the 18th century was far more interconnected than we realize, and arguably more interconnected than we are today.
There was an enormous fluidity of ideas, with news of the American Revolution racing across France to St. Petersburg in Russia, and back and forth. The French Revolution did the same.
And there was a movement of the actors as well. Some made revolutions not once, but twice. Consider the American naval hero John Paul Jones. After the American revolution, Catherine the Great hired him to help in the war against what she considered the heathen Muslims of the Ottoman Empire.
In one powerful scene, Jones actually meets Catherine in the splendor of her palace in St. Petersburg and presents the czarina of Russia with, of all things, a copy of the American Constitution. She said, no doubt with a little sneer, that the American Revolution was likely to inspire a few more just like it.
Meanwhile, Thaddeus Kosciuszko, a close friend of Washington's and Jefferson's, who fought with great distinction in the American Revolution, goes to Poland, where he leads a revolution, inspired by the ideals of the American rebellion, against, of all people, Catherine the Great of Russia.
Then there was Thomas Paine, the man so important to the colonists in the American Revolution, who wrote the stirring words "These are the times that try men's souls." He went to France and actually joined the French revolutionary National Assembly. But as the revolution became increasingly bloody, he came within 24 hours of being beheaded at the guillotine, escaping by blind luck. Many historians in recent decades have focused more on broad social forces. You seem to revert to an older style of highlighting the leaders. Why is that?
I do, though I am not doctrinaire about this. There is no doubt that social forces, coming from the bottom up, affect the top. That is terribly important and explains a good deal. But there is no way you can understand the cataclysmic events of this period without looking at the leaders. Whether they were strong or weak, good or ill, their actions went a long way toward shaping this world.
Look at France, where forward-looking, decent, but weak leaders not only lost control of the revolution but, in many cases, lost their own heads as well. By contrast, Catherine the Great followed these events very closely. When Louis XVI was guillotined, she boasted, "Give me 20,000 Cossacks and I would stamp out that revolution in six weeks." And, in fact, she had done something very similar in her own country.
Or consider Washington and the Whiskey Rebellion. During the height of the Terror in the French Revolution, these Pennsylvania farmers were carrying mock guillotines, toasting Robespierre, and threatening to march on Philadelphia. Yet, unlike Louis, who was too weak, or Catherine, who was too harsh, Washington acted with great nuance and imagination. He assembled a force of 12,000 men, as many men as he had at Yorktown when he defeated the British, and, by the same token, he also negotiated with the rebels and met some of their demands. He showed both a strong hand and diplomacy. In France, the leaders gave us bloodshed. In Russia, they gave us oppression. But Washington gave us coalitions and politics, and the world has never been the same.
It is easy to be a leader in average times. It is only in times of profound change and great crisis that you find out whether leaders are effective or weak.