A Pulitzer Prize–winning historian reveals America’s evolution into nationhood.
In a revisionist view of 19th-century America, Hahn (History/New York Univ.; The Political Worlds of Slavery and Freedom, 2009, etc.) examines eight decades of politics and culture punctuated by the 1860s conflict he calls the War of Rebellion. That war, he writes, was one among many other rebellions involving Indians, abolitionists, slaves, and disgruntled political groups that questioned federal authority. Hahn’s expansive, authoritative history synthesizes published works that comprise his 50-page bibliography and draws as well upon archival material. He mounts a persuasive argument that nationhood was not a concept shared by the many disparate states and territories, nor by its politicians. Although the Colonies broke from British imperialism, empire, not nationhood, served as a compelling economic and political model, as the country stretched west to California and south to Mexico, with tentacles into the Pacific and Indian oceans. In the Caribbean basin, Cuba was coveted for annexation. Hahn identifies roiling political tensions between the two major parties. Whigs, who evolved into Republicans and maintained strongest support in the Northeast, Midwest, and urban South, focused on developing the domestic economy and favored the exercise of federal power. Democrats, supported by Southern slaveholders, “stood for supremacy of state and local authority” and favored “aggressive geographical expansionism.” Indeed, Hahn says that the political identity of the South “developed alongside theories of empowerment that focused on states and households.” The author details the “costliest, most divisive, and most politically vexing” war with Mexico that resulted in the acquisition of Texas and the dubious purchase of the Louisiana Territory, which Thomas Jefferson had no constitutional authority to buy. Abraham Lincoln dared to articulate the “language of nation” at a time when states had affinity, at most, to a region. Hahn’s prose is sometimes burdened by overly long, clause-laden sentences, but his first-rate scholarship will appeal to knowledgeable readers.
A compelling examination of the long, divisive road to America’s emergence, in 1919, as “the most formidable power in the world.”