The year 1789 is so packed with significant events that one of the main problems I had in writing my book (1789: The Threshold of the Modern Age) was deciding how much I could squeeze in.
Clearly the French Revolution is the iconic episode automatically associated with the date, but before I started work on this project I hadn’t realized how intimately it was connected to the effectively parallel process of drafting and enacting the US Constitution. And parallels and coincidences run in other directions too – who would have known that George III of England was celebrating his recovery from madness with a service at St Paul’s Cathedral in London at almost literally the same moment that George Washington was being rowed across the Hudson to his new capital, New York, and acclaimed with new words to the tune of ‘God Save the King’?
But though the story of 1789 is one of celebrations and struggles for rights and freedoms, it also has a much darker side. We remember the famous mutiny on the Bounty – brewing even as Washington stepped ashore in Manhattan – for the mutineers’ resistance to the tyranny of Captain Bligh. But how many realize that the mutineers’ idea of a South Seas paradise included kidnapping and enslaving Tahitian men and women to serve them, in the fields and in their beds?
These and other fascinating stories fill the year, from the rampages of settlers on the Ohio frontier to the rise of abolitionism in England, alongside empire-building in India, and the first hesitant attempts to communicate with Aboriginal Australians – by kidnapping one and forcing him to learn English.
Overall, writing this book has been a reminder of how complex the lessons of history can be. When we tell stories of our heroes and our villains, we risk losing sight of how much of both kinds of quality – of sacrifice and greed, justice and exploitation, generosity and contempt – is always bound up in the deeds of real people struggling to build the future.