America grows from embryo to newborn, nurtured by an international cast of characters.
With European explorers, Native Americans and African slaves converging on North America over a short period of time, the history of the not-yet–United States reads like a multicultural history of the world, which is just how Polk (Understanding Iraq, 2005, etc.) presents it in this concise narrative. Wars and internal strife in England, France and Spain forced outcasts, misfits and lawbreakers to set sail for the New World. There they met Native Americans, who were less nomadic and more civilized than traditional representations would lead us to believe, and utilized African slaves, who introduced farming and mining techniques far more advanced than those practiced by European settlers. Rather than furthering the conventional notion of a “melting pot,” Polk’s evenhanded, evocative account shows disparate groups fighting to carve out their niches in harsh new surroundings. Perhaps most interesting is his explication of events leading up to the Revolutionary War. Honing in on economic causes for the split, the author sees logical reasons for British irritation with the ungrateful colonists; he also understands why the Americans, emboldened by years of near-independence due to England’s internal struggles, felt slighted. The fight for independence was not waged by a patriotic and unified nation, Polk declares. Rather, it was conducted by a loose coalition of states whose white inhabitants were nearly as different from each other as they were from slaves and Native Americans. Ultimately, however, this motley alliance was able to call on the shared experiences of criminals, religious pariahs and intrepid adventurers to unite them as they took up arms against the mother country to obtain the one thing that many of them had sought all along: freedom, or at least their version of it.
Packed with impeccable scholarship and insightful analysis.