Wide-angle presentation of the philosophical, political and martial storms buffeting the infant American republic at the close of the 18th century.
In the years following the Constitution’s adoption, the United States weathered three domestic rebellions, a quasi-war with France and continued humiliations at the hands of Britain. It withstood the unexpected emergence of political parties and the most contentious election in its history (sharply chronicled in Edward J. Larson’s A Magnificent Catastrophe, 2007). It managed an unprecedented, peaceful transfer of power between antagonists and witnessed the death of Washington, the figure most indispensable to the precarious American experiment. To explain fully the nature and extent of the young nation’s peril and the reasons for its birth and unlikely survival, Winik (History and Public Policy/Univ. of Maryland; April 1865: The Month That Saved America, 2001, etc.) examines the international zeitgeist, especially forces at work in France and Russia. He explains the era’s unusual fluidity, the surprising intertwining of people and events illustrated by spot-on portraits of the Enlightenment’s greatest men and women, especially those—e.g., Franklin, Jefferson, Talleyrand, Lafayette, Gouverneur Morris, John Paul Jones, Citizen Genet, Thaddeus Kosciuszko—who played important roles on more than one continent. His painterly prose catches Napoleon, Potemkin and Russian General Suvorov at war and the likes of Mirabeau, Hamilton and Adams thinking their way into the next century. Marvelously varied scenes in this sweeping narrative range from Catherine the Great’s tour of the Crimea to the backwoods Whiskey Rebellion, from the dinner table at Mt. Vernon to the Ottoman Sultan’s seraglio, from the glittering court of Louis XVI to Marat’s bathtub and Robespierre’s appointment with the guillotine. Winik effortlessly condenses impossibly large events—particularly the French Revolution, whose lofty ideology and bloody effusions shaped so much—all in service of his grand thesis: that this crucial decade of despotism, rebellion, war and democracy accounts for the nation—indeed, the world—we’ve inherited.
Thrilling in scope and elegant in style and argument—a certain bet to win numerous awards.