A compelling examination of the long, divisive road to America’s emergence, in 1919, as “the most formidable power in the...



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.”

Pub Date: Nov. 1, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-670-02468-1

Page Count: 608

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: Aug. 25, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2016

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The value of this book is the context it provides, in a style aimed at a concerned citizenry rather than fellow academics,...


A provocative analysis of the parallels between Donald Trump’s ascent and the fall of other democracies.

Following the last presidential election, Levitsky (Transforming Labor-Based Parties in Latin America, 2003, etc.) and Ziblatt (Conservative Parties and the Birth of Democracy, 2017, etc.), both professors of government at Harvard, wrote an op-ed column titled, “Is Donald Trump a Threat to Democracy?” The answer here is a resounding yes, though, as in that column, the authors underscore their belief that the crisis extends well beyond the power won by an outsider whom they consider a demagogue and a liar. “Donald Trump may have accelerated the process, but he didn’t cause it,” they write of the politics-as-warfare mentality. “The weakening of our democratic norms is rooted in extreme partisan polarization—one that extends beyond policy differences into an existential conflict over race and culture.” The authors fault the Republican establishment for failing to stand up to Trump, even if that meant electing his opponent, and they seem almost wistfully nostalgic for the days when power brokers in smoke-filled rooms kept candidacies restricted to a club whose members knew how to play by the rules. Those supporting the candidacy of Bernie Sanders might take as much issue with their prescriptions as Trump followers will. However, the comparisons they draw to how democratic populism paved the way toward tyranny in Peru, Venezuela, Chile, and elsewhere are chilling. Among the warning signs they highlight are the Republican Senate’s refusal to consider Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee as well as Trump’s demonization of political opponents, minorities, and the media. As disturbing as they find the dismantling of Democratic safeguards, Levitsky and Ziblatt suggest that “a broad opposition coalition would have important benefits,” though such a coalition would strike some as a move to the center, a return to politics as usual, and even a pragmatic betrayal of principles.

The value of this book is the context it provides, in a style aimed at a concerned citizenry rather than fellow academics, rather than in the consensus it is not likely to build.

Pub Date: Jan. 16, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-5247-6293-3

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Crown

Review Posted Online: Nov. 13, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2017

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This moving, potent testament might have been titled “Black Lives Matter.” Or: “An American Tragedy.”

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The powerful story of a father’s past and a son’s future.

Atlantic senior writer Coates (The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood, 2008) offers this eloquent memoir as a letter to his teenage son, bearing witness to his own experiences and conveying passionate hopes for his son’s life. “I am wounded,” he writes. “I am marked by old codes, which shielded me in one world and then chained me in the next.” Coates grew up in the tough neighborhood of West Baltimore, beaten into obedience by his father. “I was a capable boy, intelligent and well-liked,” he remembers, “but powerfully afraid.” His life changed dramatically at Howard University, where his father taught and from which several siblings graduated. Howard, he writes, “had always been one of the most critical gathering posts for black people.” He calls it The Mecca, and its faculty and his fellow students expanded his horizons, helping him to understand “that the black world was its own thing, more than a photo-negative of the people who believe they are white.” Coates refers repeatedly to whites’ insistence on their exclusive racial identity; he realizes now “that nothing so essentialist as race” divides people, but rather “the actual injury done by people intent on naming us, intent on believing that what they have named matters more than anything we could ever actually do.” After he married, the author’s world widened again in New York, and later in Paris, where he finally felt extricated from white America’s exploitative, consumerist dreams. He came to understand that “race” does not fully explain “the breach between the world and me,” yet race exerts a crucial force, and young blacks like his son are vulnerable and endangered by “majoritarian bandits.” Coates desperately wants his son to be able to live “apart from fear—even apart from me.”

This moving, potent testament might have been titled “Black Lives Matter.” Or: “An American Tragedy.”

Pub Date: July 8, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-8129-9354-7

Page Count: 176

Publisher: Spiegel & Grau

Review Posted Online: May 6, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2015

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