Is political history back? Should it be? In American Creation, Joseph Ellis laments that "most professional historians of the revolutionary era have opted to avoid mainstream politics altogether in favor of less articulate and more marginalized groups—a rather bizarre choice as I see it, somewhat akin to showing up at Fenway Park with a lacrosse stick." Jay Winik agrees. In The Great Upheaval, he points out that "America never succumbed to organized violence, wanton repression, or institutionalized murder, which of course happened in cosmopolitan France and sparkling Russia. Instead, it chose a radical new path, of politics, thereby sowing the initial seeds of modern democracy."
Although they have written very different books, both Ellis and Winik find that politics made America. While touring the country promoting his previous books, including Founding Brothers (2000) and His Excellency: George Washington (2004), Ellis discovered a peculiar fact: most ordinary Americans, unlike most professional historians, believe that that the Founding Fathers actually did something. Ellis initially resisted the idea, but he has finally warmed to it, asking: if we exclude divine Providence, "What besides dumb luck can account for the achievement that was the American founding?" To answer that question, he has written a book about the statesmanship of the founding.
As in his other books, Ellis takes an island-hopping approach to the era, focusing his commentary (and presumably his research) on particular events, places, or phenomena. The trouble with that approach is that Ellis sometimes focuses so narrowly on his chosen stories that he fails to provide their full context. As a rule, he spends too much time telling us why a particular story is important and too little time actually telling the story. That said, American Creation is often pithy and witty. Calling the spring of '76 "an election that lasted for several months" is sound, and labeling the Continental Army "an ever-shifting aggregate, part turnstile and part accordion" is both spot on and clever.
A political scientist by training, Winik, who has written fine books about Ronald Reagan's presidency and the end of the Civil War, tells the story of America, France, and Russia in the last part of the 18th century in order to describe, as his subtitle promises, "America and the Birth of the Modern World." The moral of the story? Globalization is not new: what happened in Paris never stayed in Paris. Weighing in at nearly 600 heavily-inked pages (before notes), The Great Upheaval is considerably longer than American Creation. The extra space gives Winik the luxury of painting on a canvas of heroic proportions the grand scenes of the French Revolution and Catherine the Great's wars. As a rule, the European chapters are more engaging than the American ones. Although seldom as witty as Ellis, Winik can turn a good phrase, e.g., "the Russian throne had been neither elective nor hereditary—it was occupative." But he also writes a few clunkers, as in the Yogi Berra-esque: "the dawn of a new era had begun."
Describing Europe's part in the "great upheaval," Winik recounts episodes of war, terror, butchery, palace coups, and depravity of all sorts—men, women, and children being hacked, starved, burned, and beaten to death, not to mention mass executions, often in the name of liberty, equality, and fraternity. His account of French Revolutionary violence reminds me of John Adams's comment: "Helvetius preached to the French nation liberty, till they made them the most mechanical slaves; equality till they destroyed equity; humanity till they became weasels, and African panthers; and fraternity till they cut one another's throats like Roman gladiators." Winik's America has no less political skulduggery, but considerably less blood and butchery. Despite his claim that the Alien and Sedition Acts "were actions worthy of the most brutal despots and repressive regimes on the world stage," his book demonstrates otherwise. America took a different path than Europe did into the modern world.
Winik calls this path "politics," but what does he mean by the term? Neither he nor Ellis, for that matter, is ever entirely clear on the subject. Neither quite manages to escape from the cultural, social, and ideological frameworks that have come to dominate the study of American history. Each author makes a sharp distinction that would strike the founders as naïve, between politics as practicing the low arts of negotiation, compromise, and coalition-building on the one hand, and principled statesmanship on the other.
Both books make a formulaic distinction between America's "two founding moments"—a phrase both use. Ellis suggests that the Declaration "is a radical document that locates sovereignty in the individual and depicts government as an alien force," and that the Constitution "is a conservative document that locates sovereignty in that collective called ‘the people,' [and] makes government an essential protector of liberty." Ellis is not being careful with his words. Presumably he does not mean to equate the "radicalism" that was "in the proverbial saddle" at the Constitutional Convention—the willingness to jettison the Articles of Confederation in favor of a wholly new constitution—with the radicalism of the Declaration. Beyond that, there is an anachronism here, for the terms "radicalism" and "conservatism," in their political meanings, were invented in Europe after the American Revolution, and don't quite describe the ideas of 1776 or 1787.
The limitations of Ellis's approach to the history of ideas come through in his discussion of the Declaration. A mere 11 pages after calling it a "radical document," he quotes its cautious reassurance that "prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established...." Although the chapter skimps on details, it nonetheless shows the prudence of the statesmen of 1776 who managed "the quite remarkable feat of making an explosion happen in slow motion." Ellis's story, however brief, is richer than his analysis. To the founders, principles and prudence were not entirely separable. They recognized the tension between the right of an individual to govern himself, and the right of men to live by laws of their own choosing. Prudence retained some of its classic political meaning in the American Founding. In that sense, the founding was neither "radical" nor "conservative." Ellis suggests that "the major political decisions that shaped the founding were usually improvisational occasions." But those improvisations were framed by the ideas of 1776. Ellis credits James Madison with inventing the idea "that government was not about providing answers, but rather about providing a framework in which the salient questions could continue to be debated." In fact, that very idea emanated from the Declaration.
Paying closer attention to this idea of prudence would have helped both books. As a rule, Winik is a better student of intellectual history than is Ellis. Whereas the latter lumps Voltaire with Thomas Paine in the belief that "a society of genuine equality and justice would materialize naturally once the last king was strangled with the entrails of the last priest," the former recognizes that Voltaire was "neither a liberal nor a democrat." But when he turns from intellectual history to political history, Winik's instincts betray him. He rails against Alexander Hamilton's argument that the French Revolution rendered the Franco-American Treaty of 1778 null and void, calling it "sophistry." By contrast, Winik holds, Thomas Jefferson's counter-arguments "set the modern practice that nations recognize nations, not just particular governments." But isn't there a significant difference between a change of government—as the U.S. had in 1797 and 1801, or even a palace coup, as Russia had when Catherine died in 1796—and a revolution that not only changed the French regime, but also transformed its international orientation? To be appreciated, political ideas need to be examined with more nuance.
Ellis's discussion of America's extended sphere—the argument, made famous by James Madison in Federalist 10, that the multiplicity of interests in an extended republic renders it both more decent and more durable than a small republic—is a similar case. He is sufficiently acute to suggest that Madison needed to find an argument to use against Anti-Federalist claims that republics had to be small. Yet Ellis also claims that Madison's "was an idea so far ahead of its time that no one could fully appreciate its originality." But the idea that ideas belong to times is itself an idea of our time, not Madison's. Moreover, is it not worth asking if Madison was correct? How governments in fact work and how people think they work can be very different things. That distinction is essential to political history. Ellis further suggests that perhaps "the sheer proliferation of different sects and denominations led eventually to the principle of religious toleration because no single church or creed could achieve dominance," adding hesitantly that "this too might have struck Madison's mind." A bolder historian might have noted that Madison was fond of Voltaire's comment: "If there were only one religion in England, there would be danger of tyranny; if there were two, they would cut each other's throats; but there are thirty, and they live happily together in peace." Voltaire supported religious freedom before he discovered the English practice of religious pluralism. The principle shaped the interpretation, not vice versa. Similarly, Madison employed the idea of the extended sphere, as he wrote in No. 10, "to preserve the spirit and the form of popular government." Statesmanship often entails engaging in low politics in the service of high principles.
That conclusion returns us to The Great Upheaval. Winik's forte is his understanding of the role of contingency in politics. Wars are won and lost on the field. Dumb luck can change history. Describing Louis XVI's attempted escape from Paris in 1791, he shows both how the king's incompetence contributed to the plan's failure, and how close it came to succeeding, nonetheless. Turning to America, Winik describes how the Whiskey Rebellion's participants "tarred and feathered and whipped federal officials" and "began to erect mock guillotines and set up their own extra-legal courts." If they had had any success, would the French republic have supported them? President Washington could not be sure. In the event, a large muster of troops, led by Washington himself, cowed the rebels. Ellis skips past the Whiskey Rebellion in a couple of pages, but Winik gives it more attention. Washington mattered: "The convenient version of history takes the simple resolution of this whole matter for granted, that of course all neatly tumbled into place like a well-rehearsed melody; but in countless ways, nowhere had danger and expectation been held in a more delicate balance than during the Whiskey Rebellion." Washington was no Louis XVI. He "acted decisively but with nuance, and the country got coalitions and politics" rather than the Terror and the guillotine.
Perhaps because he is uncomfortable with the idea that great men can make history, Ellis is at his best when describing the tragic limits of statesmanship. The best chapter in either of these books, and the only one that meets the test of political history head on, is Ellis's on U.S.-Indian relations. It is also the only chapter in which Ellis steps back and lets the story do the talking. Early in the first Washington Administration, Henry Knox, the Secretary of War, wrote the president that "to dispossess them...would be a gross violation of the fundamental Laws of Nature and of that distributive Justice which is the glory of a nation." Washington agreed. Such injustice to the Indians would "stain the nation." Knox held that U.S.-Indian relations should be grounded "on principles consistent with the national justice and dignity of the United States." For their part, the Indians appealed to the principles of 1776: "we are neither Birds nor fish.... We are made by the same hand and in the same shape with yourselves."
On one side of this negotiation sat Washington and on the other, Alexander McGillivray, the half-Scottish, quarter-French, quarter-Creek, half-mad Creek chief. Ellis has fun with McGillivray, calling him "an early American version of those modern-day Third World dictators during the Cold War who skillfully played off the major powers against one another." The chief's strategy was to pit the U.S. and the Spanish against each other—and at the same time, push the federal government into conflict with land-hungry states (and their citizens) on the one hand, and a coalition of both Northern and Southern Indian tribes on the other. His goal was to break the American Union. American diplomacy helped to keep that from happening, but the federal government was unable to keep its end of the bargain—to keep American citizens from encroaching on Indian lands. "Knox sent a detachment of federal troops to police the borders, but it was like stopping a flood with a bucket of sponges." Here we see how a story well-told shows us politics in action in a way an abstract analysis seldom can. Doing justice to the Indians, as also to the slaves, might have killed the republic at its birth. When done well, political history reminds us of the limits of human action.
Both of these books suggest that America, unlike its European counterparts, understood the principles of 1776 as practical goals, not categorical imperatives. The French saw compromise as a betrayal of the Revolution, and Catherine saw no middle course between anarchy and repression; but the Americans grew adept at the art of principled negotiation and compromise. Drawing upon long years of political experience in the colonial era, statesmen and citizens (and in principle all American citizens are, to a small degree, statesmen), understood that self-government is a political thing. If, as both these books suggest, the key to American history is American politics, is it not time that our historians recognized that reality? Perhaps the political turn that Ellis and Winik make, however incomplete, is a sign of hope for the republic.