Just a few years after the ink had dried on the U.S. Constitution, the world again pulsed with revolutionary fervor.
In America, settlers bristled against taxes on whiskey, eventually leading to the 1794 Whiskey Rebellion. In France, revolution loomed as the restless bourgeoisie threatened the ruling monarchy. And in the Russian empire, Catherine the Great quashed revolution in Poland, wiping the nation off the map.
But these seemingly unrelated events were intimately connected, a fact often overlooked in history, says author Jay Winik. In his new book, The Great Upheaval: America and the Birth of the Modern World, 1788-1800 , Winik explains how the tumultuous events in the U.S. and Europe sprouted from the same ideological soil. Though they lacked modern communications technology, leaders like George Washington, Catherine the Great and Maximilien Robespierre watched carefully what was happening abroad, and they used that knowledge to shape the world for the next 200 years.
Inspired by the representative government under way in America, the French — whose assistance to American revolutionaries had created a fiscal crisis at home — rebelled against their regime. While America's founders stayed true to their constitution, however, the French weren't able to do the same.
And in Russia, Catherine the Great saw the upheaval nearby and chose to crack down on dissent within her borders. Though she considered herself enlightened, she was an absolute monarch first and foremost. When Poland tried to create a new government with an American-inspired constitution, she brutally suppressed the effort. Her moves in Poland and beyond had enduring consequences for the modern-day world.
For Winik, the historical character whose light shines most brightly is George Washington. While other nations rebelled and faltered in the late 18th century, Washington was an indispensable leader who helped keep his nascent country under control.
Winik spoke with Scott Simon about the pivotal events in world history that followed American independence.