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NY Times Sunday Book Review, Dec. 18 2016
The Conquerers: A New 19th-Century History Focuses on American Imperialism

The United States and Its World in an Age of Civil Wars, 1830-1910
By Steven Hahn
Illustrated. 596 pp. Viking. $35.

“I take space to be the central fact to man born in America, from Folsom cave to now,” the great poet Charles Olson wrote in his study of Herman Melville. “I spell it large because it comes large here. Large, and without mercy.” In one way or another, historians of 19th-century America have long grappled with the way space — whether defined as property, geography or Emersonian nature — has seized the imagination, and lined the pocketbooks, of slaveholders, colonialists and capitalists.

In his comprehensive “A Nation Without Borders: The United States and Its World in an Age of Civil Wars, 1830-1910,” Steven Hahn is no exception, although he provides the most sweeping indictment to date of the American appetite for conquest. A professor of history at New York University and winner of a Pulitzer Prize for “A Nation Under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South From Slavery to the Great Migration,” Hahn argues that America developed into a nation precisely because of its obsession with owning space; that is, it sought to become a continental empire, which meant acquiring land and resources, almost at any cost, and dominating sovereign peoples both at home and abroad.

Hahn tellingly opens his chronicle of greed on the Texas border. After Gen. Antonio López de Santa Anna failed to crush insurgent Texians (Americans in Tejas), the slaveholding Republic of Texas was shakily established, and though many Texians hoped their republic would be annexed by the United States, neither Mexico nor the United States officially recognized it. What’s more, the Texas border was itself in dispute and as a result, Hahn observes, Texas remained more of “an imagined space than a sovereign state, with boundaries that were endlessly porous, ever shifting and almost impossible to discern.”

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These porous borders supply Hahn with his central metaphor. Nations possess recognized boundaries, principles and laws over which a central government directly rules. To become a nation, America colonized those peoples who lived within its borders and exacted a high price whenever they tried to retain their cultural or religious traditions. (Consider the federal treatment of Native American tribes.) Yet to Hahn the United States is also an imperialist nation without borders, seeking to expand, to assimilate, to annex or to conquer other nations, sovereignties or peoples, not just in the Western Hemisphere but also in the Pacific. (Consider the American wars against Filipinos as well as Mexicans and Cubans.)

In the years after the War of the Rebellion (Hahn avoids the term “Civil War”), the United States became a nation-state as the Army, the states, the courts and Congress built up a vast network of railroads that helped keep labor, as Hahn puts it, “under their thumbs.” Hahn thus considers the postwar period commonly known as Reconstruction not just as the rocky, often violent conversion of slave into free labor but as the beginning of “nation-state formation,” buttressed by a judiciary that provided capitalism, as he says, with “real traction” in the post-bellum West and South. Most important, philosophical concepts such as individualism or, later, Herbert Spencer’s notion of “survival of the fittest” undercut the revolutionary implications of Radical Republicanism. Everyone fending for himself eroded federally mandated civil and political rights, not to mention that scary idea about redistributing Confederate lands to former slaves.

Hahn describes how the American nation colonized native peoples within its own borders by deploying military and paramilitary groups — hired guns and organized lynch parties — to defeat the “oppositional movements” he admires. Of course, in the first half of the 19th century there had been a host of rebellions against federal authority: whether the defiance of native peoples during the Second Seminole War or the attempt of the Mormons to organize their own state in the Utah Territory.

But in the years after the War of the Rebellion, and during the Progressive Era, which Hahn labels a period of “reconstructions,” a number of “worker mobilizations” challenged capitalist gluttony, federal domination of the Western territories and corporate consolidation. Committed to restoring human dignity to lives and jobs, this array of dissident groups — and certain individuals within them — resisted the monopolistic practices of railroads, of industrial capitalism and of corporate behemoths like Standard Oil. They included the “pan-tribal Indianness” that expressed itself in the Ghost Dance movement and the Greenback Labor Party, which hoped to limit the power of financiers. The biracial Knights of Labor called for an eight-hour workday, currency reform and the nationalization of the railroads and utilities. Influencing many of these movements was the point of view of the new European immigrants, many of whom were socialists — and the inspiration of the short-lived Paris Commune.

Hahn goes on to address such topics as Populism; Frederick Winslow Taylor’s theory of scientific management; settlement houses; woman suffrage; and the Supreme Court decisions known as the Insular Cases, which left the people of such annexed territories as Guam and Puerto Rico without full United States citizenship. His assessments are cogent but quick. That is the downside of an ambitious single volume that spans 80 years of nettlesome history and runs to over 500 pages, including an indispensable 50-page bibliography, primarily of secondary sources. (The book is part of the Penguin History of the United States, edited by Eric Foner.) Since he covers so much ground, Hahn helpfully subdivides his chapters into sections with titles like “Imperial Eyes,” “Labor’s Coercions,” “The Blood of Continental Destiny,” “Militant Arms of Slaveholding Empire,” “The Jacobin Arm and Peasant Dream,” “Wheels of Capital,” “Threads of Discourse” and “Imperial Reconstruction” — titles that indicate his point of view.

Although he generally addresses an academic audience comfortable with terms like “discursive process,” “gender exclusions,” “the vectors of politics,” “circuits of finance capital,” “imperial arms” and the “cultural arms of the colonizers,” Hahn seems to be targeting a nonspecialist readership as well. He frequently uses phrases like “sent packing,” “swallowed the bitter pill,” “poster boy,” “threw in the towel” and “lower the boom.” There’s quite a bit of unraveling too: “Slavery unraveled,” the “crop economy had unraveled” and then, with the Haymarket bombing in 1886, the American labor movement for a time “unraveled.”

In these later chapters, Hahn’s beguiling border metaphor all but disappears until he reminds us that by the first decade of the 20th century, “the borders of American nationhood were well secured while the borders of American power remained limitless.” Despite this elegant formulation, so well documented in the preceding pages, there is a slippery, self-annulling quality to it. Borders imply restrictions, and restrictions are very difficult for certain groups, like women, to overcome; but slaves and free people of color can, according to Hahn, sometimes cross “the apparent borders of enslavement” to win public support. One would have thought the borders of enslavement pretty stiff, especially since the arguments for and against their extension had been so violent and unending. At the same time, Hahn notes, “no borders to slavery could be erected,” particularly after the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision, which declared Scott a slave even though he had resided in a free state and territory. So borders can be boundaries, boundaries can be transgressed, or not; borders confine people, but the absence of borders is not freedom.

Borders or no, America in the 19th and early 20th centuries comes across as relentlessly imperialist, which to Hahn means a nation formed in acquisition and conquest, large and without mercy — and whose mission, fortunately for all of us, often fails.

Brenda Wineapple is the author, most recently, of “Ecstatic Nation: Confidence, Crisis, and Compromise.” She is writing a book about the impeachment of Andrew Johnson.
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