The Imperial History We Try to Overlook (Try Finding It on the Mall in DC--You Can't)

Roundup: Talking About History

Fred Anderson and Andrew Cayton, in the Chronicle of Higher Ed (12-3-04):

[Anderson and Cayton are the authors of a new master narrative of American history. This essay is adapted from the book, The Dominion of War: Empire and Liberty in North America, 1500-2000, to be published next month by Viking.]

... The rhetoric that justified the founding of the United States made inescapable connections between empire and tyranny. Perhaps for that reason, American historians have generally approached the imperial dimension of the nation's history obliquely, treating occurrences of jingoism like the war fevers of 1812, 1846, and 1898 as unfortunate exceptions to the antimilitarist rule of republicanism. No American Napoleon conquered this continent, no jackbooted legions subdued it; the United States grew by settlement. Apart from the regrettable Indian wars, the great movement west consisted of the essentially benign inclusion of ever-larger territorial realms into democracy's dominion, freedom's sphere. Or so Americans, for the most part, believe.

With great justification, Americans also think of the United States as a refuge from tyranny, where those willing to bear the burdens of work and the obligations of citizenship can share equally in the blessings of liberty. Since Americans believe themselves to be a peace-loving people, it is an article of faith that their wars have been forced upon them by those who would destroy their freedom. Thus since the autumn of 2001 Americans have remembered New York on September 11 as they have remembered Pearl Harbor since December 7, 1941 -- and as earlier generations remembered the explosion of the Maine, the bombardment of Fort Sumter, and the first shot fired at Lexington -- as a moment in which an enemy of liberty showed his barbarous hand and thereby justified the response of a free people, terrible in its wrath. So Americans tend to believe that by winning wars, they make the world a better, safer, freer place.

That is the argument that the monuments on the Mall sustain in marble and granite and bronze. That is why they make three great wars for freedom -- the Revolution, the Civil War, and World War II -- the central, defining moments of American history. And that is why there are no more important words on the Mall than those inscribed inside the Lincoln Memorial. The Gettysburg Address, composed in November 1863 to give meaning to the torrents of blood spilled in and around a small Pennsylvania town in early July, also gave meaning to the ordeal of the Union. There, in fewer than 300 words, Abraham Lincoln made the Civil War something much nobler than a struggle by one part of a riven nation to bend another part to its will. It was a test of the capacity of human beings for self-government, the supreme trial of a revolutionary United States "conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal." And at the heart of America's agonies, Lincoln explained 16 months later in his Second Inaugural Address, was the need to expiate the great sin of slavery, to cleanse the Republic of the stain it had borne since birth.

It is impossible to imagine a more powerful conception of the nation's history than that. Because Americans so clearly identify liberty and equality as the core values of the Republic, they necessarily make the inception of those values in the Revolution, the extension of liberty's promise to all Americans, and the defense of liberty beyond America's borders central elements in their collective story. It is not, therefore, the size of the sacrifice but the transcendence of the ideals that motivated it to which the Washington, Lincoln, and World War II memorials speak.

If Korea and Vietnam make it only to the margins of the Mall, it is hardly surprising that the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, the Spanish-American War, and the many wars against North American Indians are altogether missing from it. Less central to the grand scheme, they caused fewer deaths, created fewer heroes, and engaged smaller proportions of the population as soldiers and sailors. Controversial in their day, they seem in retrospect wars less to defend American liberty than to extend American power. They are, indeed, hard to see as anything but wars for empire. Yet these wars, too, are part of America's story.

The creation and preservation of the United States are events central to the history of North America, but the Revolution and Civil War cannot be fully understood unless they are seen together with those other, less-well-remembered wars. Indeed, the American Revolution and the Civil War can best be understood as unanticipated consequences of decisive victories in the great imperial wars -- the Seven Years' War and the Mexican-American War -- that preceded each by a little more than a decade. In both cases, the acquisition of vast territories created severe, protracted, and ultimately violent debates over sovereignty and citizenship. Those bitter postwar disputes over the empire's future led to civil wars and ultimately to revolutions that altered the fundamental meanings of rights and citizenship, and redefined the bases of imperial governance.

Our view of history begins with the proposition that war itself has been an engine of change in North America for the past five centuries. America's wars, however, have not been uniform in either their character or their consequences, and it is important to recognize that wars can have very different implications and consequences depending (among other factors) on whether they are localized conflicts between nonstate groups, large-scale contests between empires, revolutionary wars, wars by which a triumphant empire consolidates control over its conquests, or wars of foreign intervention.

At least from the middle of the 18th century to the present, American wars have either expressed a certain kind of imperial ambition or have resulted directly from successes in previous imperial conflicts. "Imperialism" is, of course, a loaded term, full of negative connotations. We suggest, however, that it can most productively be understood in the sense of the progressive extension of a polity's, or a people's, dominion over the lands or lives of others, as a means of imposing what the builders of empires understand as order and peace on dangerous or unstable peripheral regions.

To found a narrative of American development on the concept of dominion is to forgo the exceptionalist traditions of American culture -- those durable notions that the United States is essentially not like other nations but rather an example for them to emulate, a "shining city on a hill" -- in favor of a perspective more like the one from which historians routinely survey long periods of European, African, or Asian history. Indeed, our story makes the long-term pattern of America's development look broadly similar to those of other large, successful nations.

More than anything else, it is a story of power -- or, more precisely, a story of how power has been acquired, defined, used, contested, and lost in North America. It describes a past, and implies a present, in which human beings exercise far less control over events than they think they do: a past in which the unintended consequences of a persistent quest for power are often the most important of all....


comments powered by Disqus