1789: The threshold of the modern age, By David Andress

A year is a long time in the global movement towards liberal internationalism
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The Independent Culture

The key to the Bastille prison can still be seen today at Mount Vernon, a few miles south of Washington DC, where America's first president displayed it in his hallway over two centuries ago. While visitors to the home of George Washington may be surprised to find this symbol of the French Revolution outside France, its history suggests the truly global span of the events of 1789. After the storming of the Bastille, the key fell into the hands of Lafayette, Commanding General of the Parisian National Guard, who sent it as a gift to Washington, a personal friend from the American War of Independence, care of Thomas Paine, the son of a Norfolk stay-maker and another of the globetrotting figures who shaped the spirit of the age.

David Andress's 1789 serves in part as a prequel to The Terror, his much-acclaimed study of France's post-revolutionary civil war. He provides a sober re-telling of the formation of the National Assembly, the fall of the Bastille, the invasion of the palace of Versailles by the market women of Paris, and the beginning of Louis XVI's counter-revolutionary plotting. However, by limiting his focus to a single year, he also creates the space to tell a truly global story.

Outside France, 1789 saw William Wilberforce's famous Commons speech against the transatlantic slave trade, the US Congress's authorisation of a war against the American Indian nations and, far away in the South Pacific, mutiny on the Bounty. Andress's chapters move between continents as he pursues a broadly chronological path through the year, suggesting that it is in the ties between such distant places that we can discover the true hallmark of modernity.

In the midst of this tangle of events, both the American House of Representatives and the French National Assembly met in the same weeks of August 1789 to debate their rights, and that epochal summer produced both the American Bill of Rights and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man. Andress gives a lucid explanation of the circumstances that produced these two sets of rights and contends that they are "more contrasting, and in their underlying conceptions more contradictory, than is conventionally allowed".

Both countries were attracted to aspects of the British constitutional settlement – particularly Britain's seeming ability "to float effortlessly on a sea of debt" – even while the uncertainty caused by George III's madness and the notorious corruption of its parliament sounded clear warning signals. The writer and MP Horace Walpole described William Pitt's supporters "carrying peerages about the streets in barrows" as the Prime Minister attempted to cement his "Mince Pie" ministry (expected to be devoured by Christmas 1783) while Charles James Fox's opposition retaliated by using Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, in a kisses-for-votes Westminster election campaign. After losing its American colonies, Andress argues that Britain faced "a crisis of purpose", deepened by the revolution across the Channel.

It is in his treatment of this British crisis that Andress's study falls short. A curious imbalance creeps into his account of the feats of the Bounty mutineers in Tahiti, wondering whether "men of another culture" could have acted "in a similar way" – a bizarrely discordant and unexpected note in a cosmopolitan study. More significant, and even less convincing, is his claim that "the French Revolution was to have its effect most decisively in Britain and its empire". Andress rightly identifies an aristocratic hardening of imperial attitudes around this time, but is wrong to blame this shift on the French.

He is on much surer ground in outlining the differences between the rights declared by America and France. While the American Congress was concerned above all to protect the individual from the power of the state, the French National Assembly was willing to sacrifice some individual rights to the "general will". These decisions were to have an enduring impact, as was the failure of 1789 to see these rights as truly universal – with men such as Thomas Jefferson blind to the contradictions between their high ideals and continued use of slave labour.

Andress includes an abundance of telling detail and commands a wealth of recent scholarship. Today's debates about globalisation, individual rights and the power of the state still take place in the shadow of that revolutionary summer and David Andress has given us a compelling, humane account of this legacy.

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