Few historians have made their subject more compelling than Paul Johnson. In his Modern Times (recently updated), Johnson eloquently relayed the story of the 20th century—from the 1920s up to the 1990s—with new insights and a keen historical eye untarnished by the leftist ideology that afflicts many of today’s historians. Now, in The Birth of the Modern, Johnson has brought his considerable talents to bear on the formative years of 1815-1830.
Johnson describes how, as the Napoleonic Wars came to an end, many of the ideas conceived in the 1770s and 1780s finally were given birth during 1815-1830, laying the foundations of modernity. The numerous and often quite diverse themes that emerged during the rise of the modern era—encompassing economics, politics, science, philosophy, and culture—are exhaustively explored.
One recurrent theme is the great expansion of economic opportunity. The parts of the globe that adopted the free enterprise system—liberating trade, securing property rights, limiting government intrusions in the marketplace, and reducing taxes—witnessed prosperity and stability. According to Johnson, when English entrepreneur Thomas Hulme visited Pittsburgh in 1817 he found the city to be “already a major coal-iron and manufacturing center, crowded with ‘skillful and industrious artisans and mechanics from all over the world,’ who were paid wages at twice the British level with much lower taxes.”
However, Great Britain also provided an amenable growth environment. Johnson points out that one of the reasons behind emigration from Europe was that it was “a painfully overtaxed continent.” He continues by noting that the “British were spared internal customs, but they groaned under the income tax . . . . The radicals saw it not merely as a monstrous burden, but as an ‘inquisitorial’ intrusion into the privacy of a man’s financial affairs . . . . [S]uccess in getting the Commons to abolish the tax on 18 March 1816 by a majority of 238 to 201 dumbfounded the government and was one of the most popular political victories of the decade.” Johnson neatly summarizes the British economy: “[C]lever and enterprising men came to the British Isles because of the opportunities provided by its great wealth and, still more, by its free economic climate. The English universities might be comatose and the government indifferent to industry, but the law left the entrepreneur and the self- advancing artisan free to pursue their genius. Moreover, it was the only country with an effective patent system.”
Free enterprise and economic growth also were buttressed by the new private-sector movement in international banking led by the Rothschilds, the restoration of the gold standard in Great Britain, and by U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Marshall’s role in securing American property rights. Such developments contrast starkly with, for example, the “few markets and a general absence of economic incentive to improve and invest” in Russia, and with the corrupt and flawed systems that were thrust upon Latin America. Though, Johnson also notes some instances of Luddite and union appeasements in Great Britain, which “were portents of her long-term relative decline.”
The author weighs the positives and negatives of the Industrial Revolution, and draws a favorable conclusion: “The Industrial Revolution, which first developed its irresistible momentum in the 1780s . . . is often presented as a time of horror for working men. In fact it was the age, above all, in history of matchless opportunities for penniless men with powerful brains and imaginations, and it is astonishing how quickly they came to the fore.” In fact, in the early 19th century there was not yet a schism (real or imagined) between the industrial and the aesthetic. At the dawn of the modern, men “saw art and science, industry and nature as a continuum of creation and the quest for knowledge as a common activity, shared by chemists and poets, painters and engineers, inventors and philosophers alike . . . . Men spoke of the ‘art of machine making’ and those who designed the great engines and structures were often artists, also, in the sense we understand the word today.”
The power and, in Schumpeterian terms, creative destruction of the Industrial Revolution mirrored an overarching aspect of the birth of modernity—its gigantism. Johnson declares, “The modern age was beckoning [man] into the wilderness, to conquer it.” And while the Industrial Revolution unleashed creative energy, much darker forces also came to the fore. Johnson identifies the seeds of totalitarianism, instability, and terrorism, including the Napoleonic genesis of secret state police, as well as Hegel’s “force of history” and his world-spirit nation with its commensurate “absolute autonomy.” As Johnson points out, “So the forces of progress spread rapidly in these years, sometimes like a manumission, sometimes like a plague.”
Johnson examines many other aspects of the birth of the modern, including Andrew Jackson’s presidential campaign and its effect on the American political system (e.g., the introduction of the “kitchen cabinet,” the use of the political machine, the increased role of the press, and a transfer of power from the elite to the nation’s populace), the Treaty of Ghent as “one of the great acts of statesmanship in history,” commercialization of music, the role of the artist in society, the beginning of interior decorating and developments in fashion, increased incidents of body snatching (a strange link between great surgeons and gangs of criminals), suicide at tempts among the prominent (including “poor Augur, the perpetual secretary of the Acad6mie francaise, who killed himself in a fit of depression at the triumph of romantic over classical-style literature”), as well as political developments from all major points on the globe.
This is a stunning book in terms of its breadth and depth of knowledge. But it is important for its sober and balanced view of history; for its illustrations that freedom is superior to totalitarianism on both material and moral grounds; and for its recognition that the word “progress” has numerous definitions often quite different from each other. Few will be disappointed with this historical tour de force.
Mr. Keating is New York Director of Citizens for a Sound Economy.