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

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

by Jay Winik


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It is an era that redefined history. As the 1790s began, a fragile America teetered on the brink of oblivion, Russia towered as a vast imperial power, and France plunged into monumental revolution. But none of these remarkable events occurred in isolation. In The Great Upheaval, acclaimed historian Jay Winik masterfully illuminates how their fates combined in one extraordinary moment to change the course of civilization.

Winik brings his vast, meticulous research and narrative genius to the cold, dark battlefields and deadly clashes of ideologies that defined this age. Here is a savage world war, the toppling of a great dynasty, and an America struggling to survive at home and abroad. Here, too, is the first modern Holy War between Islam and a resurgent Christian empire. And here is the richest cast of characters ever to walk upon the world stage: Washington and Jefferson, Louis XVI and Robespierre, Catherine the Great, Adams, Napoleon, and Selim III. Exquisitely written and utterly compelling, The Great Upheaval vividly depicts an arc of revolutionary fervor stretching from Philadelphia and Paris to St. Petersburg and Cairo—with fateful results. A landmark in historical literature, Winik's gripping, epic portrait of this tumultuous decade will forever transform the way we see America's beginnings and our world.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780060083144
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 09/02/2008
Series: P.S. Series
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 720
Sales rank: 520,023
Product dimensions: 5.30(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Jay Winik is the author of the New York Times bestseller April 1865. He is a senior scholar of history and public policy at the University of Maryland and a regular contributor to The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. He lives in Chevy Chase, Maryland.

Read an Excerpt

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

Chapter One


Soldiers marched that day in Manhattan. For almost as long as anyone could remember, the sight of soldiers had invariably meant the same thing, whether they were French or Russian, Austrian or English, whether they belonged to kings or were battle-hardened mercenaries, whether they moved in great formations or galloped along on horseback. Too often their presence was ominous, signaling that the campaign was beginning and the war was deepening, that the dead would increase and the bloodshed would continue, and the suffering would go on. But today their footsteps were unique, booming out the rites of nationhood. They called out a celebration of victory and the raising of the flag—the American flag. It was November 25, 1783. Evacuation Day in New York City.

As morning broke, the crowds converged and the collective pulse quickened, murmuring with exhilaration. A hundred years later, the city would still remember and celebrate this day. By Manhattan's shores, the last British troops, heads bowed, dour and defeated, were ferried out to transport ships waiting for them in the harbor, then, sails aloft, their gleaming masts disappearing into the distance. For the British there was indescribable sorrow at the loss of their "thirteen beautiful provinces." And there was then, as one man remembered, "a deep stillness." And then pandemonium.

This final corner of occupied territory was now free.

It was precisely one o'clock. The bells of New York, all but silent since the Stamp Act's repeal and languishing for years in storage, nowrang, while at the southern tip of the island, the flag, torn down in September 1776, was soon hoisted anew to flutter in the wind. All across the city, young and old alike collected in anticipation, by the corner of Broad and Pearl streets, where a roar of applause would ebb and mount, and over to Bowling Green, where in 1776 the Declaration of Independence was read and patriots had toppled the king's equestrian statue and hacked the gilded crown off his head. Handkerchiefs flapped and gawkers hung out their windows, down past Trinity Church, where desperate Americans had once quietly prayed for deliverance. And now, before a thicket of patriots, scores of battle-tested American troops entered to reclaim the city. Led by General Henry Knox and flanked on one side by a hatless George Washington, mounted upon a brilliant white steed, and by Governor George Clinton on the other, here they came. These were the survivors of Bunker Hill, the heroes who crossed the Delaware, the men who had shivered at Valley Forge, and the victors at Yorktown. They were "ill-clad and weather-beaten," but the people loved them just the same. Marching southward in formation under a velvety sky, the triumphant procession wound past Blue Bells Tavern, where Washington reviewed the pageantry, past half-ruined mansions where errant British flags still flew, and past the moldering earthworks and trenches that dotted the roads, down to the island's edge and the streets to the Battery. Crowds gasped and erupted into shouts of "Hurrah." A thirteen-gun salute exploded into the air, while artists and scribblers converged, ready to record the event for posterity.

At Fort Washington, the password of the day was "peace." The eight-year war was over.

The dawn of a new era had begun.

From a distance, one British officer marveled, "The Americans are a curious . . . people; they know how to govern themselves, but nobody else can govern them." Yet the Revolution had been hard on the country. At least 25,000 Americans had died in the conflict—a staggering one percent of the population, a number surpassed only by the ruthless carnage of the Civil War—indeed, one estimate held that as many as 70,000 had perished. And there were the memories. Legions of American soldiers had been held captive aboard British prison ships anchored in the East River, ships that were damp, cold, and reeking from inadequate sanitation. The filth and the lice, the disease and malnutrition, not to mention the gross mistreatment, had carried off an astounding eleven thousand continentals—nearly half of all the deaths in the war itself. And with grim regularity, the bleached skulls and skeletons of the dead would lap up on the shore, bearing silent witness to British atrocities.

In New York, after seven years of British rule and martial law, the city was a shambles, a legacy of the transforming burdens of war. The day's delirium aside, as the sun rose that morning, the vistas were chilling. The city was a patchwork of shanty huts and brick skeletons, remnants of the devastating fire of 1776. The enormity of the reconstruction challenge was overwhelming: In every direction spread weed-choked ruins, rotted-out homes, and vacant lots; and everywhere stood the debris of war. The streets overflowed with trash, squalor, and excrement, and block upon block lay bare and decrepit; New York had even been stripped of its fences and trees—the British troops used them for firewood—while its wharves had been left to rot and sink into the river. No less than Trinity Church was reduced to a blackened hull. Bony cows and pigs scavenged freely, and the people themselves were crammed into a haphazard mass of pitched tents and cramped hovels. Pale-faced and unwashed—disease-ridden too—they existed, in the words of one visitor, "like herrings in a barrel." No wonder New York's future mayor, John Duane, ruefully noted that the city looked as if it "had been inhabited by savages or wild beasts."

And what now? In these early days—or the final ones, it depended upon your perspective of the British crown—the signs were hardly encouraging. For the Tory supporters of the king, the hallowed era of British rule had come to an inglorious end: Powerful businessmen and overseas merchants were without homes; prosperous shipbuilders had been reduced to nothing short of beggars; great politicians appointed by the crown saw their houses rummaged through and their family dynasties abruptly undone. And hordes of English-American children were cast aside by the only world they had ever known. Already, some 60,000 to 80,000 Tories had fled to England or to the safer outposts of Bermuda, the West Indies, and Canada. They knew that for thousands of American "patriots," Tories were little more than hated traitors; they also knew that vengeance, greed, and jingoism made for a lethal cocktail. Sunk in grief, many thus became permanent refugees in foreign lands, clinging vainly to the faint dream of return. Tragically, when the exiles made their way to Britain, more often than not they were viewed as public burdens or social embarrassments, or, in the end, as simply mere bores. "We Americans," one loyalist said gloomily, "are plenty here, and cheap."

For those who remained, the dreaded Armageddon had finally arrived. Gone were the customary sights that had for so long been an integral part of their British lives—the elegant redcoats with their scarlet uniforms and burnished arms who were their defenders, the glory of the king and the glamour of their empire, the clatter of official carriages and the pitched whistles of British naval vessels that were the great empire's protector, and, of course, the long skyline adorned by the Union Jacks fluttering aloft; all had changed, absolutely and inexorably forever.

At the moment of the British exodus, one anxious loyalist said tearfully, "The town now swarms with Americans." And the last loyalists themselves? The wreckage of their lives was soon to be revealed in vivid detail: homes seized and sold at auction; family furniture and precious heirlooms abandoned or outright ransacked; thieves callously picking over their personal effects; and shattered dishes littering the floors of once elegant abodes, everywhere the dishes. Most humiliating were the public notices, formally banning the exiles from ever returning to America—or the laws curtailing their civil and financial rights. And soon would come frightening incidents of revenge: One loyalist, seized by a mob in New London, was strung up by the neck aboard a dockside ship, whipped with a cat-o'-nine-tails, tarred and feathered, and thrown on a boat to New York. In South Carolina, another was hanged by embittered ex-neighbors.

So on that morning the remaining loyalists numbly waited, listening to the haunting sound of American military men marching their way, the thud of enemy feet in the streets, the sharp commands ringing in the air—and the terrible echo of celebratory cannons off in the distance. One New Yorker even observed that the loyalists were now in "a perfect state of madness, drowning, shooting and hanging themselves."

But euphoric Americans took little heed. As the loyalists escaped New York, packing the roads and crowding the wharves, a surge of new residents arrived, doubling the city's population in just two years and quickly turning this restless little seaport into the most vivacious and cosmopolitan society on America's shores.

New Yorkers, indeed all Americans, were already looking ahead.

Two days after Evacuation Day, George Washington, hugging his artillery commander, gave a tearful farewell to his officers at Fraunces Tavern. "With a heart full of love and gratitude," he told his officers, fighting back his emotions, "I now take leave of you." One of his men who witnessed the scene would recall that he had never seen such a moment "of sorrow and weeping." But more than that, they saw something else quite startling. Washington was sending out a powerful signal: To a man, they were all mere servants of the nation, even as he resisted calls to become a king.

After crossing the Hudson, Washington then rode south through the gathering chill to Annapolis, Maryland, where the Congress was now meeting. Around noon on December 23, 1783, Washington was escorted into the State House, where he met the assembled delegates. He rose and bowed, and with a faint quiver in his hands, proceeded to read his carefully chosen words. "Having now finished the work assigned me . . ." His voice dwindled. He continued: ". . . I retire from the great theatre of action, and bidding an affectionate farewell to this august body . . . I here offer my commission and take my leave." Now his eyes filled. Neither the heartbreaking loss of New York, or the brazen victory at Trenton, nor the winter nightmares of Valley Forge and Morristown, or the decisive liberation at Yorktown, could have prepared him for this moment inside these hushed chambers. The spectators, fighting back their own tears, also grasped the importance of the day, itself replete with symbolism: For once more, Washington was relinquishing his military power, underscoring civilian control in the new republic.

In London, King George III was soberly informed that Washington would resign and turn to private life. His reply is legendary. "If he does that, sir," the king exclaimed, no doubt with a slight tremble to his voice, "he will be the greatest man in the world." From a king who could barely hear the words "United States" uttered in his presence and who would turn his back on Thomas Jefferson, this was a subtle admission packed with historic meaning. American liberty was now not simply a rhetorical chant mouthed to stay the hands of a prevaricating despot or a corrupted parliament, but a reality. And this incipient revolution was, it seemed, not destined solely for Americans, but for peoples the world over, and, at long last, it was coming into full reveal.

In the epicenter of Europe in 1783, France, now the globe's mightiest empire, felt it too.

It was a paradox, to be sure. Even if France's support for the young rebels had far less to do with idealism than with a cynical settling of scores with England, and even if the young country to which the monarchy had helped give birth remained a footnote in its attentions, France's fashionable society felt quite differently. Heroic poems with thirteen stanzas became the rage. So were picnics on the thirteenth of the month, in which thirteen toasts to the Americans were drunk. And so were the hundreds of French nobles who had rushed abroad and risked death so that a young republic might live: the Marquis de Lafayette, who would achieve immortality as George Washington's protégé and nearly lose his life at the battle of Brandy-wine; Admiral d'Estaing, who would take Newport and almost die in the struggles to take Savannah; and Admiral Rochambeau, who would eschew the lavish comfort of the French court for one last glorious crusade to fight side by side with the Americans.

The Great Upheaval
America and the Birth of the Modern World, 1788-1800
. Copyright © by Jay Winik. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

What People are Saying About This

Robert Dallek

“A cinematic reconstruction of the birth of the modern world. No one interested in history will want to miss it.”

Jon Meacham

"With grace and insight and sweep, Jay Winik has given us a marvelous account of an epoch that fundamentally shaped the way we live now. The Great Upheaval is great history, vividly told."

Walter Isaacson

"If you want to understand the beginning of the 21st century, you have to come to grips with the end of the 18th century. In one amazing decade filled with revolutions and a Middle East holy war, ideas like democracy and idealism as well as authoritarianism took root. In this masterful book, Jay Winik sheds new light on a tumultuous decade rife with lessons for today."

Doris Kearns Goodwin

"Only a masterful writer could shape such a stirring narrative from such a wide-ranging field of original research. Jay Winik's The Great Upheaval is a terrific work that will endure for years to come."

Ron Chernow

"Not content to give us just a portrait or diorama of the late 18th century, Jay Winik has sketched a veritable fresco of three countries-France, Russia, and the United States-in the throes of revolutionary change. The Great Upheaval is a historical work of rare drama and audacity, told with the tireless verve of a gifted storyteller."

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Great Upheaval: America and the Birth of the Modern World, 1788-1800 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 13 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Winik's new book has dared to be written on the premise that the world in the 18th century was indeed connected much more than we imagine. American was not a completely isolated new world wholly apart from the happenings of Europe. Winik argues that events in France during the revolution had a noticeable impact on the politics of the American Republic. Viewing such events as the Whiskey Rebellion juxtaposed with events like the storming of the Bastille or the violence that erupted in the French countryside know as the Great Fear give a new perspective in which to view familiar American historical events. The events in Russia are maybe a little less directly applicable to the US experience but nonetheless it gives the book a sense of completeness. A major player in international politics of the time that is missing its own chapters is Great Britain. But I suppose due to space and time constraints, Winik choose to include the lesser known Russian region. Overall a very entertaining and interesting read that gives justification for looking at history from a global perspective regardless of the time period.
Roweking More than 1 year ago
Great book - put the American experience into the worldwide story of the day.
bfertig on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Reads really quickly, more like a novel than history, and intricately links political and philosophical thinking across America, France, and Russia to make the point that society was global even back then, though communications were slower. Drives home the connections between American and European unrest during this period and the shaping of these nations.
jlbrownn23 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Winik ties together the events in early US history, the French Revolution and the initially liberal but eventually reactionary government of Catherine the Great. He does a good job of showing how interrelated all of these events were and that the world at that time was more "global" than you might think. A little bit of US cheer leading(certainly a bigger fan of Hamilton than I am), but when you consider the outcomes of the 3 systems it is hard to argue that it isn't mostly deserved.
njvroom on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
In "The Great Upheaval," Winik's thesis is that the political events in Russia, France, and America during the time period of 1788-1800 were not isolated incidents. Rather, the political world at this time was more global than once thought, resulting in individuals playing key roles in events on both continents. For example, Winik describes Jefferson's role in both the shaping of America, as well as his support of the initial stages of the French Revolution. Other impotant historical figures discussed include Catherine, Adams, Washington, Kosciuszko, Louis XVI, Lafayette, and many others. Although Winik painstakingly recounts the events and actions of these three countries during these 12 years, at times they seem removed from one another. He writes one chapter at a time about each country, with each chapter being approximately 5 years. Thus each chapter furthers the country's storyline independent from the other countries. This method forces the reader to interconnect the storylines of the three countries on your own. It is not until the last chapter (and Epilogue) that the events in each country are directly connected within the chapter. I did appreciate how Winik showed that the same negative revolutionary ideas that commanded the French Revolution were also at times evident in America and Russia as well. The only reason that America and Russia did not share the same fateful fate as the French was a result of leadership. Overall, I thought it was a fascinating read, especially if you are interested in the background behind the great events of the late 18th century. I would recommend this book to anyone who would like a new perspective on this time period as well.
nbmars on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Winik gives adjectives a real workout in this entertaining but hyperbolic account of the events roiling the end of the 18th Century, focused mostly on the French Revolution but also on the American Revolution and the empire building of the Russians. In long strings of clauses laden with excess verbiage, Winik recounts the ¿unmitigated horror¿ the ¿momentous decisions¿ the ¿quickening pulse¿ the ¿dreaded specter¿ the ¿clarion call¿ -¿ you get the idea. His clauses sometimes sound like personals ads: ¿incorrigibly flawed yet ironically suited,¿ ¿inspired yet quixotic,¿ ¿uncommonly brave yet psychologically frail.¿ Triteness is not a barrier to Winik ¿ he has no qualms about describing ¿golden shores," "quickening pulses," or "words dripping with emotion¿; nor about exclaiming that ¿behind this legend was a man¿ ("of fabled status"), or ¿it was a fateful day¿ (or "it was not to be"). Alliteration also has great appeal in his tour of the adjectives: ¿audaciously assumed¿, ¿terrible toll,¿ ¿defiantly demanded,¿ ¿frenzied fighting.¿ But where he waxes most florid in his verbal outpourings is in the tales of war: ¿ghastly massacre,¿ ¿blood flowed like rivers,¿ ¿bestial fighting,¿ ¿crushing defeat,¿ ¿murderous enemy,¿ ¿brutally decapitated¿ (is there a non-brutal decapitation?). When I wasn¿t rolling my eyes, for the most part I was enjoying the stories. A blow-by-blow account of the lead-up to the guillotining of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette may not be among the most important aspects of the French Revolution, but it sure makes for good drama. Likewise his account of Catherine the Great¿s suppression of a peasant revolt. So I would, in fact, recommend it, although that seems incredulous, incorrigible, and inexplicable. Implacable though it may be, yet, it is inexorable.
glauver More than 1 year ago
Historian Jay Winik has pulled together the 1788-1800 histories of the United States, France, and Russia and asked the question, “Why did each nation follow the path it took?” Some of the narrative is familiar, some not. Winik really shines in his portraits of the characters. Catherine the Great, the Founding Fathers, Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI, John Paul Jones, the architects of the French Revolution and the Terror; the list goes on and on. Winik is too shrewd to present a simple analysis of the decade. He believes that the main reason for the survival if democracy in America was the leadership of George Washington. Catherine turned away from liberalism and became a reactionary; France wearied of the carnage and uncertainty of the Revolution and embraced Napoleon. As a result, the 1800s did not fulfill the dreams of the preceding century. Those interested in history's turning points should not miss this book.
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