Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Book Review: 1789

By all rights, I should not have enjoyed this book. I've never been in love with European history - probably because it's too damned long. U.S. history is great: concise, 200+ years, simple. Boom, that's it. With Europe though, you're talking about at least 1,000 years - and that's if you write off whatever happened before 1066 as utter misery.

Andress' book, however, blends American with European history through the spectrum of 1789 in America, France and England. The events of that year - and the years immediately preceding and succeeding it - led to what Andress calls "the threshold of the modern age."

We know that in the United States 1789 saw the installation of the form of government approved in the newly-ratified Constitution. The irony is that in England at the same time, a centenary celebration of the "glorious" revolution of 1689 led many to question whether England's unwritten constitution - or an actual written document like the United States now had - was the preferable form. As President Washington settled into his new digs in New York City, Congress began debate on a 'bill of rights' - which had been demanded by many states in return for their agreement to ratify the Constitution at all. Andress covers most of the basics in the Federalist/Anti-Federalist debate, although his portraits of Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison are a bit thin. He does accurately bring to life, however, Benjamin Franklin and the role his ideas played in the new government.

In England, a battle between political forces led by Charles James Fox against those led by William Pitt coincided with the centenary celebration. At the same time, Thomas Paine was preparing his epic, The Rights of Man, which would turn much of the world on its proverbial ear with such truly revolutionary concepts as the fallacy of monarchy and the inherent rights of the common man [hence, the title, folks] that exist - written or unwritten - now and for all time.

Meanwhile, in France, we know that a whole lot of guillotine makers are about to get rich. Which is ironic, since it is the rich who will end up at the losing end of the guillotine over the next five years. Andress' description of Louis XVI - and Marie Antoinette - make the book worth reading in and of themselves. The duplicity of Louis - according to Andress - is what truly was his ruin in the end. His half-measures in dealing with the Estates General were simultaneous with his plans to crush the 'parlement'.

Andress' work is well-researched and a relatively easy-read. It gets a bit mundane in the inner-workings of each country's system of government - but such a background is necessary in order to make his larger point that the events in and around 1789 laid the foundation for the modern age.

In addition to revolutionary ideas [and, in the U.S. and France, revolutionary actions], all three powers shared another common bond: slavery. Andress goes into great detail about how slavery and slave trade came to be in each of the three nations, and what effects slavery had on the shaping of the revolutionary ideas that were taking shape in the world of 1789.

While not necessarily a work for those looking for a quick-read of light fare, Andress' 1789 is a good starting point for anyone seeking to get a primer on the age, with the idea of then delving deeper into any of the many issues he touches on in his work.

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