I’ve read a lot of great books in my life. But every once in a while I stumble across one which offers an epic experience. Opening up perspectives I didn’t realize I lacked, or offering a powerful theory explaining things that previously were a disorganized jumble of data. Heretofore my go-to example was Guns, Germs & Steel by Jared Diamond. Everyone I know who read it was impacted by it.
American Republics: A Continental History of the United States, 1783-1850 by Alan Taylor is such a book. In fact, it will probably end up ahead of Guns on my list of books-you-simply-must-read-before-you-die list.
Taylor is a professor of American history at the University of Virginia. He holds the Thomas Jefferson Foundation chair. He’s also won two Pulitzers for his work, something only five people have ever managed to do. So while it is always possible to argue over history and its interpretation his voice is not one you can or should dismiss.
Almost every one of the 382 pages (not counting footnotes) taught me something new, usually many things. And I count myself as reasonably well-schooled in US history. But Republics is in no sense a dry or weighty tome. Despite being intensely data-driven it reads like a potboiler, and always puts actions and facts within their broader political and social context.
That’s due in large part to the unique (in my experience) approach Taylor takes. Rather than write about US history he writes about the conjoined history of the major polities — White American, Black, Mexican, Native American, British, French, Spanish — which lived and fought and interacted and grew and died on the North American continent. Far from making the story too complex to follow it significantly enhances the narrative and its explanatory power.
You may know the American South — the Slavers, as I like to call them — generally wanted a weak Federal government because a strong one might interfere with their “peculiar institution” of treating some humans as animals in order to become rich. Yet while definitely not wanting a strong standing Federal Army they also were early clamorers for a moderately strong US Navy.
Why? Because they feared Britain, which outlawed slavery before most of the other major European powers, fomenting slave rebellions in their midst, and they thought a decently strong US Navy could prevent that. But not too strong a one. They didn’t want to encourage the largest customer for their cotton — the US was the OPEC of cotton in the early 19th century — to seek other sources of supply.
That kind of attention to detail told in a way to make it engaging and thought-provoking is unusual. But American Republics is chock full of it.
It’s also full of implications for our current domestic political situation. Those early 19th century conflicts, while focused on different topics, defined a political environment surprisingly similar to what we’re going through today. In both cases they appear to have been the result of massive cultural, technological and social change playing out within communities where naked self-interest outstripped the reasonable and legitimate needs of the community, putting its continued existence at risk.
American Republics caused me to increase the odds I offer of our nation dissolving sometime in the next couple of decades (I’m currently putting it at about 60/40 in “favor” of disintegration). But it also clearly demonstrates we’ve fought these battles before and come through them.
Not without major casualties. One of the more powerful aspects of Republics is the vivid portrait it paints of how many people and communities our “noble ancestors” exploited, raped, murdered or exiled to die in the course of founding a nation dedicated to, at least on paper, freedom and liberty. Yet despite that they gave their descendants the chance to do much good (along with, sadly, more harm). And put us in a position where we could help move things forward to a better world. If we choose to do so.
Bottom-line, read this book.