For modern Americans, this tragic story makes a useful point: proclaiming rights is essentially meaningless unless the government proclaiming them is stable, broadly supported and powerful enough to protect the few from the many, as well as the many from the few. Late in the book, Dunn herself displays a certain, dare one say Gallic? weakness for never-thwart-the-will-of-the-people theorizing. Projecting past upon present, Dunn says that Madison's "horse and buggy" constitution will no longer do for the United States. She feels that its pesky checks and balances keep the majority from making enlightened reforms. There are cases in point, but to date most of the enlightened reforms in recent years, racial integration most notably, have been made by the Supreme Court — precisely because the will of the majority had rejected them.
Everybody should read this book. It offers a lively education in a small package. Then, if there's time, reread Federalist 10 and 51, as well as Simon Schama's book Citizens. What the French took from the Americans, Lord Acton once wrote, "was their theory of revolution not their theory of government — their cutting but not their sewing."
Timothy Foote, based in Washington, D.C., is a contributing editor of Smithsonian.