Book Reviews - Summer 2006

Half-Brother to the World

The United States has been more like other nations than we like to think

By Eugen Weber | June 1, 2006

A Nation Among Nations: America’s Place in World History, by Thomas Bender, Hill & Wang, $26

America, thou, half-brother of the world;
With something good and bad of every land.
—Philip James Bailey,
Festus (Boston, 1854)

For Thomas Bender, as it once was for John Donne, America continues to be a newfound land. In Bender’s case, though, it is not the exception it often claims to be—not a nation apart, spared the fretful neighborhood and blustery intercourse of less-privileged societies—but an integral part of world history, as his subtitle contends. Bender’s America is a creature of the moment in time when ambitions that were focused on land-bound seas like the Mediterranean shifted to more spacious oceanic and global dimensions. Specifically, it is the creature of that 15th century when a mighty, expansive Islamic world threatened the interests of European princes and traders, inspiring them to look away from the Near East to a still farther East whose riches and spices they coveted—those Indies that some thought could be reached by sailing westward across the Atlantic.

In the 15th century, as it had been before and as it continued to be for some time, land travel was awkward. As long as wayfaring remained hazardous, rivers, seas, and oceans facilitated transportation that mud, ruts, and potholes hampered—especially the transport of freight too bulky for mules, camels, or the wobbly wheels of carts. The future henceforth would be shaped by societies whose sailors and merchants mastered the waves and the trade they bore.

The chief trades of the new dispensation concerned spices and also what Bender (university professor of humanities at New York University) describes as mildly addictive drug crops, chief among them sugar. To cultivate sugar cane you needed land already occupied by native peoples and where malaria, fatal to Europeans, was rampant. In the Western hemisphere, smallpox, ferried by Europeans, killed natives who were then easily replaced by African slaves. Investment in sugar production and the use of African slave labor laid the groundwork for what Bender calls a “plantation complex” that turned sugar cane and, in its wake, tobacco and coffee, from luxuries into commodities for general consumption, transforming the global economy and, he claims, anticipating modern industrial practices.

Slavery was scarcely a novelty. Indeed, the term itself derives from Slavs whom Germans and Byzantines reduced to servitude by capture or by conquest. But trade in human bodies on the scale demanded by the plantation system in Brazil, the Caribbean, and the American South was new.  It was begun in Africa by Africans, who exported other Africans to Muslim societies, but it exploded with the soaring demand generated by the newfound West. In 1500, Africans represented a minority of the world’s slaves; by 1700 they were a majority. And Europeans had given them a new name: Negro. In the West Indian sugar islands where Negro slaves provided between 75 and 95 percent of the population, mortality rates were depressingly high. The United States-to-be, which received 5 percent of all slaves brought to the Americas, is now home to about 30 percent of  the persons of African descent in our hemisphere. Even so, Bender claims that slavery is central to American history. He may be right. Rest assured—­your sins will find you out!

But only after a while. Tom Paine declared no place so happy as Britain’s American colonies: “remote from all the wrangling world, and . . . nothing to do but trade with them.” Politically (and religiously) incorrect, Dr. Samuel Johnson suggested that “there are few ways in which a man can be more innocently employed than in getting money.” Soon, however, the wrangling world was going to in­trude and tempor­arily divert Yan­­­­kees from get­ting money. Expanding trade meant ex­pand­ing military, naval, and admin­istrative expenditure; and expanding the need for revenue meant high­­er taxes and social tensions when costs were passed on to the colonies that benefited from them.

When British colonists objected to taxes, they appealed to enlightened ideas then circulating in St. Petersburg, Vienna, Berlin, and other European centers, as well as in Buenos Aires and Philadelphia. Enlightenment, of course, was for those who could afford it, beginning with the schools that produced the literacy-spurring enlightened ideas, be they about more efficient absolutism, or popular sovereignty, or republicanism. Some of these notions inspired colonists to escalate their anti-tax rhetoric from the rights of Englishmen to the rights of man. But Bender reminds us that colonists who complained about taxes were the least taxed in the Atlantic world. And the same men who claimed to stand for equality and freedom could not imagine women as their equals, or freedom for slaves, or taking native land to be robbery. He also points out astutely that the American Revolution was actually part of a long-running conflict between European powers, notably between England and France, that he calls “The Great War” (1689–1815) during which, as Bradford Perkins once put it, the colonists had to steer “between the Scylla of England and the Charybdis of France.”

Americans could not have waged war for long without European aid. Great power rivalries helped them to win their independence. The high cost of wars, their legacy of debts and fiscal crises, precipitated the French Revolution and slave revolts in South America and the sugar isles. Coincidental explosions in the Ottoman Empire and Dutch South Africa further illustrate Bender’s argument that the history of the United States cannot be understood apart from that of other societies or from the contrast he likes to emphasize between the benign theories of the Founding Fathers and their callous actions. White males were sovereign, perhaps, but not women, Indians, slaves, or free persons of color.

After 1815 more Americans felt at liberty to do their own steering. Coverage of foreign news in the American press declined steeply. European preoccupations with nationalism and  industrialization delivered Americans from the European entanglements that George Washington had warned against in his farewell address, and left them free to proclaim a Monroe Doctrine they could not have enforced without the backing of the British Navy. Short of the Canadian border, they had expanded to their continental limits. Now they began to look south. In 1848 the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo robbed Mexico of half its national territory. Atlases printed in the United States during the 1850s featured a novel concept of plural Americas: two continents, not one. Then, in the 1860s, French attempts to legitimize imperial ambitions in Mexico insinuated the notion of a “Latin America.”

As civil war raged in the mid-1860s, part payment for some of our sins, Bender profitably places it in the international context of the ideas of nationality and freedom then surging in east and central Europe and in South America; the United States progressed from a plural to a singular noun. The unitary nation- state forged in the fires of battle was about consolidating a once-fragmented society into “a uniform public realm.” Morse’s telegraph, as its inventor hoped, helped turn the country into “one neighborhood.” So did the post office, whose circulation of books, newspapers, and domestic mail advanced a distinct sense of community and culture. Bender labels the convergence of free soil, free speech, a national bank, national currency, national education (at least in theory), and land-grant colleges that occurred after Appomattox a Second American Revolution. But it wasn’t true for former slaves. By 1900, he points out, two-fifths of Russia’s agricultural land was owned by former serfs; in what had been the Confederacy, white planters still owned almost all the land. He might have considered the “creative misunderstandings” (as Russians describe them) that bent the laws in both lands and made them easier to compare in practice than in theory.

The Civil War hastened the transformation of a once-agricultural society (though with a strong commercial bent) into an industrial nation. By 1873, industrial production had increased 75 percent over 1865 levels, and U.S. manufacturing stood second only to Great Britain’s. By 1900, U.S. industrial power was unsurpassed. Bender points out that other fin-de-siècle nations—­Germany, Hungary, and Argen­tina, among them—experienced rapid growth. By the end of the century, Argentina had become the world’s sixth largest economy; and the rights of native peoples were no more respected there than in the United States.

Industrial development, meanwhile, spurred social consciences  on both sides of the Atlantic. Bender presents fin-de-siècle reformism as reflecting a rising awareness of social inter­dependence, collective responsibility, “a new moral sense.” As Jane Addams, founder in 1889 of the Hull House settlement in Chicago, was to put it, life was passing from an age of individualism to an age of association. Perhaps. But the first social laws in Europe (worker insurance against unemployment, accidents, sickness, and old age) had been introduced by Bismarck. And the rhetoric of  ideological reformists could be profitably compared to the applied urbanism, cheap workers’ housing, schools, and other welfare facilities introduced in factory towns like Le Creusot, where self-regarding capitalist concerns stimulated social initiatives.

Which suggests that universal suffrage placed practical reform on the order of the day in Europe, though not in the United States where consumer protection trumped safeguarding workers from industrial risk. Perhaps the Mexican finance minister, Luis Cabera, was on to something when he explained the success of American business interests in obstructing “social liberalism.” In the United States, capital is native, he said, labor largely foreign; in Mexico, labor is native, capital largely foreign. The United States didn’t accept the beginnings of a social insurance state until 1935, with Social Security, labor relations legislation, and other New Deal measures.

As the 19th century turned into the 20th, though, Manifest Destiny had become as much a racial concept as a political one. In one instance of this, the Journal of Race Development became the Journal of International Relations, only to change title once more to Foreign Affairs, as it is still known today. Our foreign affairs themselves were increasingly complicated by well-intentioned Americans’ determination to save the world or, at least, to make it look more like America: allegedly civilized, law-abiding, and free to pursue felicity in our way.

That America, as Woodrow Wilson put it, was “the only idealistic nation in the world” just made things worse. Our ideals explicitly included trade as a natural right: a moral obligation of nations and one of the duties of men. The positive aspect of such views was that, once our continental limits were reached, finance largely replaced territorial acquisition. But even commercial interests had to be advanced or protected by force. So had the liberating uplift that, at the turn of the century, we inflicted on Cuba and the Philippines, whose independence movements we hijacked uninvited. Even if Bender’s account of American military interventions there and elsewhere is only half right, it clarifies the resentments we seem to have left behind.

Bender is fascinated by America’s talent for the display of moral rectitude in the pursuit of profit. He forces us to face Americans’ unexamined confidence in the superiority of their good intentions and in the universal validity of their peculiar assumptions. He depicts us as strangers to self-reflection, greedy, arrogant, condescending, and heavily invested in not understanding others. A medley of biases and brashness, Bender’s ethnocentric American whites have left a long trail of tears and bitter feelings. One more reason to view our sins from the perspective of others, as he recommends; but also in the perspective of the sins of others.

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