David Nasaw: A search for American identity after the Civil War led to a surge of machismo and bloodlust





[Review of: Rebirth of a Nation: The Making of Modern America, 1877-1920 by Jackson Lears, Harper, 448 pages, $27.99.]

... The cornerstone of Lears' history is what he identifies in his introduction as "regenerative militarism," the pursuit of regeneration -- for the nation and the individual -- through violence. There were other instruments of revitalization but none as important. One might have thought that the bloodletting of the Civil War would have cured the nation of any attraction to militarism. But the opposite appears to be the case. In the decades surrounding the turn of the 20th century, manly men, in search of a way to demonstrate, mostly to themselves, the manliness they could not exhibit in the workplace or the parlor, were attracted to the possibility of real and vicarious participation in violent wars. Excessive violence marked not only the wars against the Indians and the Filipino nationalists but "lynching and other forms of racial terrorism in the South, the killing of striking workers in the North and West."

The apogee of organized, excessive, unregulated violence came during the war in the Philippines. Lears does not deny that imperial war might have "created a foreign alternative to class war at home" or that it served some economic interests. But there was much more to the enthusiasm with which Americans entered and the violence with which they pursued what Secretary of State John Hay referred to as this "splendid little war." Andrew Carnegie -- the industrialist and, yes, anti-war activist -- tried, on numerous occasions, to explain to his countrymen that war in the Philippines against a people fighting for their independence violated the most sacrosanct principles on which the "triumphant democracy" had been founded. Knowing better than to appeal only to moral principles, Carnegie emphasized, in several well-researched and tautly argued articles, that there was no economic rationale for the United States to subdue the Filipino nationalists and annex the nation. There were more efficient and effective ways to extend American economic hegemony that cost fewer dollars and far fewer lives. What Carnegie and the other anti-imperialists (and most of the historians who have charted their efforts) never quite understood was that the war in the Philippines was more than a war for empire. "Behind all the economic calculations and all the lofty rhetoric about civilization and progress," Lear writes, "was a primal emotion -- a yearning to reassert control, a masculine will to power amid the drifting slack waters of the fin-de-siecle."

Excessive violence, abroad and at home, especially violence directed at people of color, was an essential ingredient in the forging of a new American people and nation. Race, after slavery, Lears argues, became more, not less, significant as a marker of difference. Americans, instructed by a generation of scientific racists, Darwinian biologists, and eugenicists, became more conscious than ever of race and of races, which were multiplying in number as the global labor market contributed millions of new, not quite "white" workers to the American mix. "The rhetoric of race," employed by the scientific racists and the nation's most accomplished novelists, including Henry James, Frank Norris, and Jack London, "merged with a broader agenda of masculine revitalization." One of the byproducts was an epidemic of lynching in the South. Lynching, as Lears explains with precision and brilliance, was both a sign of the reach of white power and "a violent reaffirmation of white community." In its brutal violence and its attempt to exorcise sexual anxieties, it doubled as "a reassertion of the link between whiteness and manliness, and a ritual regeneration of both."

The violence that was intrinsic to the new racism, the new empire building, and the new manliness was rooted in a fear for the future that historians have largely ignored. ...

This is a remarkable book, even more remarkable for the fact that it is encased in a quasi-textbook format that restrains and restricts Lears. To satisfy the format, he relies a bit too much on set pieces and elegantly rewritten, canned biographies dropped at various points into his capacious narrative. Still he manages, much more often than not, to explode the limitations of the form and produce a startling new synthesis.


comments powered by Disqus

Subscribe to our mailing list