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Western ties

Books | Jay Winik captures the splendor and sordidness of the "old order"

Issue: "Northern light," Sept. 20, 2008

In The Great Upheaval: America and the Birth of the Modern World, 1788-1800 (HarperCollins), Jay Winik uses a wide-angle lens to show that the United States was not politically and intellectually isolated, as many people once believed. Rather, the West's great nations and their leaders "watched one another, learned from one another, and reacted to one another."

In our less reflective moments, we may suppose that American history represents the easy triumph of timeless political principles, like those found in the Declaration of Independence. Such principles now define our nation, but once upon a time, people in the West scarcely questioned the rule of kings, queens, and aristocrats.

Winik captures both the splendor and the sordidness of that world. He gives special attention to France and Russia, the two countries that perhaps best embodied the attractions and excesses of the "old order." He also provides a preview of a conflict now vexing the West through his account of Russia's holy war with the Ottoman Empire.

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Winik's gripping account includes finely drawn portraits of pivotal figures including George Washington, Ben Franklin, Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, Catherine the Great, and Robespierre. He tells a "progressive" story but does not shy away from the ugly and the unpleasant, including the horrors of the French Revolution's Reign of Terror and our own failure to honor the principles of the Declaration when the Constitution accepted slavery (but without using the word "slave"). Nonetheless, Winik shows how our republic came to stand out as a humane alternative in the world of politics.

-David Tubbs is assistant professor of politics at The King's College

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