The Birth of the Modern (Magill Book Reviews)
Beginning with an analysis of the “special relationship” that emerged between the United States and Britain after the War of 1812, Paul Johnson examines important events such as the Congress of Vienna, which provided a framework for modern nation-states; the emergence of Britain as the world’s policeman; revolutions in transportation, communications, and science; changing relationships between the sexes; the growth of independence movements around the globe; the development of new political and social philosophies; the emergence of the artist as a political activist; the impact of irrational monetary policies; and the ascendance of democracy as an ideal form of government. Though the establishment of the period he investigates may seem a bit arbitrary, Johnson has expanded his study beyond horizons normally fixed by historians, choosing to look not at a single country or region of the globe, but at the entire world as it changed during what the author considers crucial years of development. Hence, his study is a sweeping look at the way an idea in political thought or a change in technology can take hold of an age and transform peoples throughout the world.
Johnson’s basic conservatism underlies his portraits of both leaders and movements. He is harsh on radicals but generally sympathetic toward gradual reformers. THE BIRTH OF THE MODERN is both physically and intellectually large, and readers may have to spend considerable time and concentration following Johnson’s complex examination of the world in transition, but the effort should prove rewarding.
Sources for Further Study
The Christian Science Monitor. July 23, 1991, p. 13.
Los Angeles Times Book Review. June 2, 1991, p. 9.
National Review. XLIII, June 24, 1991, p. 42.
The New Republic. CCV, August 12, 1991, p. 36.
New Statesman and Society. IV, September 20, 1991, p. 44.
The New York Times Book Review. XCVI, June 23, 1991, p. 3.
The New Yorker. LXVII, June 10, 1991, p. 112.
Publishers Weekly. CCXXXVIII, May 3, 1991, p. 56.
The Times Literary Supplement. September 6, 1991, p. 12.
The Wall Street Journal. June 11, 1991, p. A12.
The Washington Post Book World. XXI, June 9, 1991, p. 1.
The Birth of the Modern (Magill's Literary Annual 1991-2005)
Reading The Birth of the Modern: World Society 1815- 1830 is like going for a visit to the British Museum; the reader, like the museum-goer, is almost immediately overwhelmed with the equivalent of curios and artifacts that give visitors an idea of life in an exciting past. In the twelve lengthy chapters of his study of world society from 1815 to 1830, historian Paul Johnson surveys the development of the special relationship between the United States and Great Britain; the completion of the Congress of Vienna, which provided a framework for modern nation-states to establish world hegemony through their colonial activities; the emergence of Great Britain as the world’s policeman; the decline of the wilderness in America and elsewhere as advances in transportation, communications, and science allowed men to shrink the globe, the changing relationships between the sexes; the growth of independence movements in places such as South and Central America; the development of new political and social philosophies; the emergence of the artist as a champion of political causes; the impact of irrational monetary policies in America and Western Europe; and the final triumph of democracy as an idea for government that captured near-universal attention and widespread acceptance.
The sweep of this study is broad, but it is counterbalanced by the author’s decision to limit his investigation to the fifteen years that immediately followed two events that he sees as having been decisive in ushering in the modern era: the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo and the American victory over the British invasion force at New Orleans. Naturally, there are inherent difficulties in trying to limit one’s investigations by any set of beginning and ending dates, no matter how convenient the bracketing seems on the surface. What one soon discovers is that events of a year or a decade earlier play too significant a role to ignore, and the impact of events within the “window’ are so important that they cannot be left without mention. Within these artificial time limits, the author has expanded his study beyond horizons normally fixed by historians, choosing to look not at a single country or region of the globe but at the entire world as it changed during what Johnson sees as crucial years of development. Hence, though Johnson’s study is more narrowly focused, it recalls Daniel Boorstin’s The Discoverers (1983) in its sweeping look at the way an idea can take hold of an age and transform peoples throughout the world. In Boorstin’s book, such ideas are manifold and are rooted in technology. In The Birth of the Modern, a single political idea is seen emerging from myriad technological and sociological changes occurring simultaneously around the globe during these fifteen years: the idea of democracy.
What readers may find surprising are the many innovations and “firsts” that emerge from these fifteen years. Naturally, Johnson is quick to catalog them for his readers: the first modern police state, created by Napoleon (actually established before 1815, of course); the first use by a Western power of superior technology to subdue a nonwhite population; the first instance of gunboat diplomacy, employed by the British to help abolish slavery; the first time in history that people saw science as providing a way out of “the suffering and degradation” that had seemed “inherent in the human condition.” The period also saw the birth of modern electioneering, the first truly popular election (the 1828 United States presidential contest), the growth of public opinion and the press in determining affairs of state, and the rise of ministerial government, in which ministers supplanted sovereigns as the real powers in the management of political affairs.
Johnson is particularly good at sketching characters—great and small—in a few brief paragraphs. In the first pages of the book, he treats readers to a portrait of the American general Andrew Jackson, hero of the Battle of New Orleans, which ushered in the era about which Johnson writes (Jackson returns much later as the central figure in the first truly democratic presidential election in his country). There are, among hundreds, sketches of British traveler and novelist Frances Trollope; the painter Francisco de Goya; Henry, the third Earl Bathurst, an important but not always remembered political figure who helped shape the British Empire from his post in the colonial office; British Prime...
(The entire section is 1831 words.)