Three mid-19th-century leaders shape their countries' destinies.
Prolific Canadian author Laxer (Political Science/York Univ.; Tecumseh and Brock: The War of 1812, 2012, etc.) contends that the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 launched three “nation state projects” in North America, attempts by a people who viewed themselves as cultural or ethnic nations to achieve formal statehood. He asserts that the United States then constituted two such nations, and the Civil War was an attempt by the Southern nation to gain statehood by splitting off from the federal Union, while the Northern nation ultimately aimed to reconstitute the Union as a single nation-state purged of slavery. At the same time, several of Britain's North American provinces were inspired to unite into the self-governing Dominion of Canada under the protective aegis of the British Empire. Most of the book is taken up with lightweight histories of Canada and the United States in the middle of the 19th century, narratives that draw heavily and uncritically on a handful of secondary sources. The chapters on Canadian confederation and the Red River Rebellion may prove interesting to American readers unfamiliar with the story, and Canadian readers may learn more about the run-up to the American Civil War, but the purpose of the book remains elusive. The concept that the antebellum Southern states constituted a cultural nation within a nation is hardly new, and the puzzle of what binds Canadians together as a nation is with us still. Attempting to unite his stories, Laxer contends that Canadian confederation was driven by a need for unified resistance to American domination or conquest, but he fails to marshal convincing evidence in support; it appears more likely to have been motivated by economic considerations, railroad interests, and dysfunctional government in the Province of Canada.
History and biography lacking in intellectual curiosity or a coherent overarching concept.