Steven Hahn. A Nation Without Borders: The United States and Its World in an Age of Civil Wars, 1830-1910. New York: Viking Publishing, 2016. 608 pp. $35.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-670-02468-1.
Reviewed by Vernon Burton (Clemson University) and Bennett Parten (Clemson University)
Published on H-Slavery (December, 2018)
Commissioned by David M. Prior (University of New Mexico)
Steven Hahn’s A Nation Without Borders: The United States in the Age of Civil Wars, 1830-1910 is the third volume in the Penguin History of the United States. According to series editor Eric Foner, this five-part series reflects the multigenerational transformations in how history is written. As he points out, new themes, voices, and subfields have provided fresh insights into familiar stories of American development. Penguin’s History of the United States attempts to integrate these new approaches into cohesive narratives that capture the American experience in its entirety, a daunting challenge that Hahn masters beautifully.
A winner of the Pulitzer, Bancroft, and Nevins Prizes, Hahn redraws the common trajectory of American development during the eighty years from Presidents Andrew Jackson to William Howard Taft. He argues that rather than starting as a nation and growing into an empire, the United States inherited “significant imperial ambitions” from the British, became a nation-state through the experience of the Civil War, and then “reconfigured the character of its empire” by the turn of the twentieth century (p. 2). Using “borders” as his metaphor and central theme, Hahn examines the relationship between nation, which he understands as having real borders with clear zones of sovereignty, and empire, which possesses a more amorphous character. Empires, he suggests, expand and contract and are based on claims and alliances rather than legal recognition.
Hahn’s analysis also orients itself not from the North or the South, but from the country’s historic western peripheries—New Orleans, the Trans-Mississippi West, the Neuces and Rio Grande Rivers, and the Pacific Coast—and explores two recurring problems in the pursuit of both empire and nation: one, how to assert actual authority over people and places where such authority is more imagined than real, and, two, how to deal with the rebellions that will inevitably occur. Hahn thus explains American development during this long nineteenth century as a history of how state power ebbed and flowed over time.
Hahn begins and ends his massive analysis outside the United States, opening and closing in Mexico, starting with Santa Anna and concluding with Zapata and the beginning of the Mexican Revolution. His assessment of Texas—or Tejas—reveals how he interprets the forces of empire. During the early decades of the nineteenth century, Texas was a vast border region “marked by murky and competing territorial claims” (p. 20). Hahn explains that although Mexico claimed the area, the region operated less as an official polity and more as an “integrated economic zone” with Comanche Indians and a spattering of native Tejano and Anglo-Texan settlers erecting their own regional outposts (p. 19). By the 1830s, trade that had traditionally run north to south began shifting eastward, toward the Mississippi Valley, as an influx of American settlers migrated into the region. In 1836, those settlers, along with Anglo-Texans already in the region, fought for independence from Mexico, and, nine years later, in 1845, Texas applied for statehood, sparking a conflict that would result in the Mexican-American War.
Migration of Americans into Texas was part-and-parcel of a larger quest for empire that Hahn believes had deep roots in the founding of the United States. To be sure, men like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison remained committed republicans, but Hahn contends they envisioned their republican experiment expanding across the continent. The American Revolution, after all, was a not so much a rebellion against empire per se as much as it was a rebellion against the British crown for violating its imperial obligations. Exporting their republican ideals only affirmed their belief that their revolution marked the creation of a new political order, an “empire of liberty” according to Jefferson. Empire also satisfied the “aggressive aspirations” of American settlers, whose homesteads would join others in a larger American commercial orbit (p. 23). In Texas, as well as in the Old Southwest—Mississippi and Alabama—and much of the Louisiana Territory, slavery and the plantation system expedited this process. Thus, Hahn’s view of empire-building has two fronts—romantic ideas and on-the-ground reality. As he suggests, Americanized notions of empire (i.e., Manifest Destiny) buttressed an imperial vision rooted in white settler colonialism and plantation slavery. Hahn insists, however, that the imperial designs were far grander than Texas. The Pacific remained the ultimate prize.
Various forms of resistance countered the United States’ imperial ambitions. Foremost among them was resistance to slavery. Because Hahn sees slavery as central to the work of empire, he sees resistance to slavery as the root cause behind two strands of resistance to American empire. Representing one strand were the enslaved, whose opposition to slavery—embodied most visibly by fugitive slaves’ escapes and border battles over captured runaways—weakened the “edifices of enslavement” and exacerbated the political crisis that led to the Civil War (p. 49). Abolitionism formed another strand. Abolitionists kept constant pressure on slavery, as a political economy, and, over time, political abolitionists spearheaded an antislavery political party whose principal objective was to restrict slavery’s borders and keep the institution out of the western territories.
The greatest and most transformational border war was the Civil War, which Hahn calls the “War of the Rebellion.” He cogently argues that the American Civil War was “only the largest of many rebellions” that challenged “the sovereign authority of the federal government” (p. 4). Secession, therefore, corresponds to other resistance movements, even the most disparate and dissimilar, like Native American opposition to land dispossession or the Mormon’s quest for autonomy in what became Utah. Hahn believes that Southern independence also parallels the wars of independence that shook Latin America during much of the nineteenth century. Linking Southern secessionism to these struggles might rankle some readers, but Hahn’s argument is well taken: imperial control is always under threat. Whether sourced to border regions or dissidents from within, an empire is only as strong as its ability to manage competing claims to sovereignty. The War of the Rebellion stands alone, then, not simply because of its size, but because it brought the United States to a point of near collapse.
Amidst the reconsolidation of state power that followed the War of the Rebellion, Hahn sees a shift from empire to nation. Civil war necessitated the transformation of the American political economy in ways that reflected the federal state’s power and reach. The federal government created a large standing army (which would be deployed against western Indian tribes as well as Confederate armies), established a new system of banking and finance, invested in railroads, modernized the industrial sector, authorized projects that hastened westward expansion, and, of course, freed four million people. These transformations produced a new nation-state replete with parameters for citizenship and the political wherewithal for a more activist federal government. Most importantly, the federal state represented a lone sovereign. Challenges would never cease, but the wartime reconsolidation of power placed the government in a position to mute any such threat and quickly reassert control. Nothing except its own constitutional limitations could check the government’s dominion.
By the later decades of the nineteenth century, Hahn argues, the United States shifted back toward empire with a changed imperial model. A new form of corporate and investment capitalism that blurred distinctions between public and private interest replaced slavery as the state’s dominant political economy. The American South and West, he suggests, became colonial client states to a new class of financiers, executives, and entrepreneurs eager to create new markets and capitalize on the nation’s natural productive power. This system would soon be expanded beyond the US to places like Hawaii, where visions of transpacific shipping lanes and fruit fortunes precipitated its annexation in 1898. The federal government thus found itself as something of a client to the forces of big business. Although Hahn offers a number of “Alternate Paths,” the title of a chapter documenting ardent voices of dissent and reform, this partnership would prove resilient. The new imperial model, with its colonial possessions and expanding system of financial capitalism, would come to define the twentieth-century American state.
Reviewers should find something to critique, even in such a magisterial synthesis. The most glaring point of criticism is that Hahn, one of the most preeminent and gifted historians of the nineteenth-century South, pays scant attention to the misnamed “redeemers,” those paramilitary terrorists who overthrew in coup d’etats the legitimately elected Republican governments in the American South and successfully fought for a return to conservative white home rule during Reconstruction. Their ongoing campaigns of brutality, political violence, and intimidation throws a wrench in Hahn’s claim that the federal state exited the war as the lone sovereign. Rather than deal with this thorny issue in depth, he chalks up Reconstruction’s demise to the Republican Party’s embrace of investment capitalism and racial solidarity following the Panic of 1873 and moves on. A more thorough explanation of how white Southern reactionaries ended the experiment in interracial democracy in the American South is needed.
No quibble should detract from Hahn’s achievements. Drawing together new approaches and methodologies into a single narrative of the nineteenth century is an amazing accomplishment, and Hahn offers a brilliant, uncompromising, and provocative interpretation, making A Nation without Borders indispensable reading.
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Vernon Burton and Bennett Parten. Review of Hahn, Steven, A Nation Without Borders: The United States and Its World in an Age of Civil Wars, 1830-1910.
H-Slavery, H-Net Reviews.
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