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What might have been

Wendy Smith is a New York-based critic and the author of "Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931-1940."

JAY WINIK wants to change the way we look at history. Too often, he avers, we see the past as a stately parade of preordained events: Great Britain could never have held onto its rebellious American Colonies; the French Revolution had to end in a blood bath; Russia has always been oppressed by cruel rulers. As he did in “On the Brink” and “April 1865" (about our emergence, respectively, from the Cold and Civil wars), Winik in his new book immerses readers in the pell-mell of events at a crucial time in history, when the conclusion was far from certain. He focuses on people in leadership positions -- inherited, acquired by election or seized -- whose decisions were taken on the fly and reflected their character and convictions. At almost every watershed he describes, his main thrust is that things could have gone the other way.

“The Great Upheaval” vividly recaptures the ferment of the 1790s, but its overall argument would be more persuasive if Winik weren’t always patting himself on the back for dissenting from the received wisdom promulgated by stodgier scholars. Investigating the United States’ uneasy first decade as an independent nation in the context of the international turmoil created by the French Revolution, he writes as though no one before him had ever seen the big picture.

“The world then was far more interconnected than we realize,” he intones in his introduction, invoking a horde of e-mailing, cellphone-using, BlackBerry-wielding ignoramuses who apparently have no clue that America’s Founding Fathers were inspired by the French philosophes, or that Russia’s Catherine the Great championed Voltaire and Diderot and entertained notions of reform before clamping down the lid when her subjects expressed a similar interest in ideas of personal liberty and political change. Many, many historians have documented the intellectual, economic and political bonds that knit countries together across Europe and across the seas in the 18th century. Granted, plenty of people manage to scrape through high-school history without retaining much knowledge of those bonds, but it’s mildly insulting for Winik to assume his readers are among them and ridiculous for the author of a book based largely on secondary sources to imply that he’s telling us something totally new.

Nonetheless, he has capably synthesized a great deal of material into a lively narrative depicting the remarkable 12 years that did, indeed, give birth to the modern world. Absolute monarchy would take a century to expire, but it never recovered from the wounds it received during the French Revolution, which exported the notion of the Rights of Man throughout the Continent in the victorious wake of the world’s first citizen army (commanded, luckily for the French, by a brilliant upstart named Napoleon). In Russia, Catherine’s retreat from tentative enlightenment to brutal repression left her country mired in an ossified system that would resist meaningful reform until toppled in the 20th century by another revolution that aimed to sweep the globe. Meanwhile, America’s leaders agonized over the best means to preserve their young nation and show that the rule of law could prevail without the iron hand of an autocrat -- and that democracy need not degenerate into mob rule.

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“Though the chapters of this book are organized by accounts of America, France, and Russia, which serve as frames through which to see the larger age,” Winik writes, “the story is actually one continuous, interlocking narrative.” True enough, though some episodes fit the framework better than others. The lengthy chronicle of Catherine’s war against the Ottoman Empire, in particular, seems to have been included mostly because Western conflict with Islam is currently a hot topic. A classic land grab of the sort favored by 17th- and 18th-century rulers of all religions, that war has little to do with Winik’s central subject: the struggle to deal with the passions unloosed by democracy. Once a peace treaty is signed in 1791, the Ottoman Empire and Islam vanish from these pages. Sections on Poland’s tragic attempt to break free from Russia’s domination assort better with Winik’s theme; the revolt’s leader, Thaddeus Kosciuszko, was a hero of the American Revolution, and Poles were stirred by the breezes of liberty wafting east from France. But the Russian chapters are the book’s most scattershot, featuring peculiar lurches in chronology -- on the eve of Poland’s defeat in 1794, for example, we get a 20-page résumé of Catherine’s life from her birth in 1729 on -- that reveal an author not entirely in control of his material.

The French sections are better focused, though (again) there’s nothing terribly new in Winik’s retelling of the story of republican dreams drowned in a river of blood. The difficulty here is his desire to show that the revolution’s outcome might have been different -- might have resulted in a constitutional monarchy, founded on modernized judicial, tax and political systems -- if only Louis XVI hadn’t been such a poor politician. Well, maybe. Louis’ fatal indecisiveness, his tendency to accede to desperately needed reforms only after his initial intransigence had alienated the reformers, certainly contributed to the revolution’s rapid radicalization. But given that the French court for 100 years had existed in total isolation from real life, deliberately ignorant of the populace’s misery, it’s hard to imagine that any other king would have done better. Winik’s Big Man approach to history -- the lower classes appear exclusively as members of enraged crowds brandishing severed heads on pikes or ripping hapless victims limb from limb -- scants the underlying social forces that made it highly improbable that France could nonviolently achieve in a few years the kind of moderately representative government it took England centuries to reach.

In his chapters on the United States, the book’s best, Winik makes a credible, though hardly airtight, case for his contention that America could have gone the way of France in the 1790s. The political balance struck in the Constitution was fragile; the nation’s institutions were brand-new, unsupported by tradition or precedent. A series of regional populist rebellions might have spread to become bloody class warfare. George Washington might have taken advantage of his immense personal popularity to become president for life, fostering the establishment of a hereditary elite. When the 1800 election was thrown into a deadlocked House of Representatives, civil war might have ensued. Instead, Federalist James Bayard finally cast a blank ballot, enabling his party’s hated enemy, Thomas Jefferson, to become president and deliver a moving speech of reconciliation affirming that the United States was capable of a peaceful transition of power, that republican government was “the strongest government on earth.” It’s a proud moment for democracy, and it does not require Winik’s characteristic over-hyping in high-colored prose: “While the hands of European and Russian monarchs and reformers alike were drenched in blood, despite all the dissension and rancor, in America they were virtually spotless.”

Grandiose writing and sloppy thinking are rife in “The Great Upheaval,” an ambitious, maddening book whose pretensions undermine enjoyment of its considerable merits as a vigorous work of popular history. Winik might well have achieved more if he’d tried to do less.

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