U.S. Revolution Inspired Imitators, Fleetingly In the late 18th century, revolutionary fervor gripped the world. Americans had just finalized their constitution, a history-making event that inspired other countries. In his new book, author Jay Winik explores the connections between world events in this pivotal era.
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U.S. Revolution Inspired Imitators, Fleetingly

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U.S. Revolution Inspired Imitators, Fleetingly

U.S. Revolution Inspired Imitators, Fleetingly

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One of the great animating beliefs of modern life is that because of modern technology our world is never before been so interrelated. We wore clothes of cotton that was grown in Honduras, spun in India and sewn in China. When monks in Myanmar marched, cell phone pictures of their protest were instantaneously sent to New York and London and beamed around the world.

But Jay Winik says that some of this sensation of an interrelated world is actually pretty old stuff. America's founding fathers were fascinated by France and feared that a Napoleonic army could set sail for them. The French, in fact, tried to raise an army to pluck old Florida. And the leader of the Whiskey Rebellion toasted Robespierre. Catherine the Great compared her revels to American colonists.

Jay Winik, a senior scholar at the University of Maryland and author of the bestselling "April 1865," has a new book out that's a masterful display of how notions incubated in one part of the world are born into others - in this case, France, America and old Russia. His book is called "The Great Upheaval: America and the Birth of the Modern World, 1788-1800." Jay Winik joins us in our studios.

Thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. JAY WINIK (Senior Scholar, University of Maryland; author, "The Great Upheaval: America and the Birth of the Modern World, 1788-1800"): Scott, it's great to be here.

SIMON: One of the things you make plain is that in the times we're talking about, revolutionaries - the kind of people who often are kept inside their countries these days - used to cross borders all the time. People would participate in two or three revolutions before they were done.

Mr. WINIK: Right. It was really a remarkably fluid world in the 1790s. And what you see is that the great leaders of the day, they watched each other. They responded to each other. They reacted to each other. And it was stretching from an arc of revolution that went as far as Philadelphia to Paris to St. Petersburg to Cairo, all the way to Constantinople.

Let's look at a couple of the fascinating galaxy of figures beyond George Washington or John Adams or Alexander Hamilton or Thomas Jefferson. There was also Catherine the Great. There was Robespierre, the bloodthirsty dictator of France, or the dispirited king Louis XVI and Napoleon. These were all peers walking the world at the same stage.

SIMON: People didn't go for weekends then. They would go to give a part of their lives to a place on the other side of the world.

Mr. WINIK: Right. When you went to another part of the world, it was really a commitment. And obviously, today, there's this instantaneous communication fueled by the Internet, by BlackBerries. And we have this hubris that only we are so interconnected.

Back then, obviously, it took time for travels. Sometimes, the Americans would wait two, three months to get information on what was taking place in Paris. But all the news was consumed. And what we see in this period was one magical moment where whether you were American, one of the founders, whether you were Russian, whether you were French, you felt that this was a great struggle. Create the world in your image - whether that image was (foreign language spoken) or constitutional republicanism, whether it was democracy or whether it was enlightened despotism.

SIMON: Book ends, in some ways, on your story, in France and Russia. And let me bring a brusher first. Because I guess we Americans can forget. They were having their own expansion. There was a Russian frontier, which in many ways dwarves America's frontier experience.

Mr. WINIK: Yeah. No. You're absolutely right, Scott. I mean, what they were doing in the south of Russia, from the Crimea, they were creating a whole slew of mini St. Peterburgs where Catherine the Great was expanding her empire. And in city after city, they brought in immigrants from Europe, from Germany. And both America, this young, infant republican struggling to find its way, and this towering imperial power Russia were seen as these two virgin civilizations being made to bloom. And you saw it in Catherine's part of the world. And of course, you saw it with the young colonists in America as well.

SIMON: You do what you can to, in a sense, resuscitate Catherine the Great's image.

Mr. WINIK: Catherine the Great is one of the great surprises that I found in my research here. Catherine was one of these remarkable, vital, charming women who was the longest reigning monarch in the European stage, played a significant role in America's founding, was the idol of the Enlightenment philosophes. Voltaire - the great Voltaire - and the great Montesquieu just revered her and idolized her.

SIMON: They wrote (unintelligible) notes. She sent out these - what amounts to the creeds in behalf of a free press and free trial and Voltaire would send her fan notes.

Mr. WINIK: Right. And - really, Voltaire is the most important philosophe in the world stage. He said at one point - when he received her laws - he said, Madame, they will be translated into every language and through the world, into everything I can imagine. I prostrate myself. And then he also said - what a world we live in. In France, the intellectuals are persecuted. And in Russia, Catherine the Great protects them.

So she was really an extraordinary woman with many multifaceted sides, a hardnosed woman, an imperialist who wage to war in the Muslim empire in one hand. And who sought to start crush the French Revolution, but by the same token, she was enlightened, she was educated, she even corresponded with George Washington and Thomas Jefferson on a universal dictionary that she was writing.

And Washington, interestingly enough, he believed that her universal dictionary could actually help in promoting peace around the world. Very interesting. And you know, when America was first founded, then our Frances Dana, our envoy, went to St. Petersburg, he was exchanging notes both with Washington as well as John Adams, and John Adam says, Catherine the Great's recognition of us is a crucial pivot on our independence and our ability to take our rightful place in the world stage. That's what it depends upon.

SIMON: How could it be that you had such an extraordinary collection of human talent in France during the period we're talking about and the course of the French Revolution should wind up really being such a manifest depiction of the power of cruelty and injustice?

Mr. WINIK: Right. It's really one of those mysteries that history has trouble sorting out. Of course, in the French Revolution, they originally started out galvanized by the American example. And it was believed, as Thomas Jefferson once said, their principles are our principles. And he actually believed that the liberty of the whole earth depended upon the successful conclusion of the French Revolution.

But after the beheading of the king in 1793, France, despite all their talent, despite being the greatest civilization in the world, would descend into the worst sort of barbarism, not withstanding the guillotine that was working overtime. And, of course, young and old were beheaded. Aristocrats and peasants…

SIMON: What was that? Was it called the great national razor or something?

Mr. WINIK: The great national razor, exactly. At one point, priests were actually marched out and put on barges. They had their hands bound together and they were drowned in the river, and the French called those republican baptisms. In the end, because of what it did, France pointed the way towards the worst of totalitarianism and the worst sides of utopianism that we saw for example with Nazi Germany, Stalin's Russia or, for example, Pol Pot's Cambodia.

SIMON: What was the fascination that so many people have in Europe with the American Revolution, do you think?

Mr. WINIK: What the Americans did is they took these enlightenment ideas and they put them together in a way that no one else had ever seen before - a separation of powers, power divided by a federal government in one hand and state governments in the other. But more than that, they have thrown off the unjust yolk of a king and they have a created a representative government, and the Americans were conscious of this. They felt they were creating the world anew. I mean, so did the French for that matter, and so did Catherine the Great and Russia. But in the Americans…

SIMON: Did they have more scores to settle, though?

Mr. WINIK: Yes, they did.

SIMON: And I wonder if that isn't the difference.

Mr. WINIK: The passions were really so great in France and in Russia. Catherine never even gave her insurgents an opportunity because she harshly turned the authoritarian, of course, leading the world down one path. But the magical thing about the Americans was when all this to and fro was happening, when crisis after crisis came, what the founders did is they always remain true to the ideas and ideals of their Constitution. Whereas in France, they took the declaration of the rights of man and the citizens, some of the most ennobling words ever written in all of the human history and they scrapped it for the terror. Only the Americans, even when they underwent a war hysteria in a quasi-war with France, and even when they had this tense election in 1800, did they stay true to their ideals.

SIMON: Jay, it's always good to talk to you. Thank you so much.

Mr. WINIK: Scott, thank you for having me.

SIMON: Jay Winik, joining us in our studios. His new book is "The Great Upheaval: America and the Birth of the Modern World, 1788-1800."

And you can read an excerpt about the extravagant life in times of Louis XIV in an excerpt on our Web site, npr.org/books.

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