A history of one year in the United States.
In 1831 the republic was going through a rather difficult adolescence. A remnant of the old guard of founders and framers watched as a new generation of leaders took charge of the nation (and took aim at each other). Even as the country expanded and thrived under technological advances in transport and agriculture, cracks in the democratic ideal kept surfacing, widening into fissures that threatened to dissolve the Union. Nat Turner’s quixotic rebellion and the publication of the first issue of William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator raised the problem of slavery to a new level of public consciousness; the expulsion of the Cherokee from Georgia and the defeat of Black Hawk and the Sauk in Illinois belied the democratic system’s claim to fairness and benevolence; the Jackson administration was riven by the issue of states’ rights; and new evangelical sects emphasizing the moral will of the individual over divine directives (and new labor movements stressing the tensions between the powerful elite and the worker) undermined habits and ideas on which the national identity had appeared to depend. Visiting observers from the Old World (de Tocqueville, Frances Trollope) were fascinated, appalled, and bemused by what they saw. Eschewing a fully expounded argument, Masur (History/CUNY) arranges his slices of historical narrative thematically, the better to illustrate the moral, political, economic, and cultural forces at work in the moment. For the most part the strategy works, but some topics need more background explanation (the connection between the policy issues that divided the Jackson administration and the private scandal that prompted so many resignations from his cabinet is not clear), while others are sometimes forced into juxtapositions that don’t really make sense (from Audubon’s vision to the cholera epidemic). Despite the aptness of his idea and the economy of his style, the author has bitten off just a little more than his 200 pages can chew.
An intelligent and imaginative historical essay with a few pieces missing.