No Borders: Beyond the Nation-State


Thomas Bender is a professor of history and university professor of the humanities at New York University. This essay is adapted from A Nation Among Nations: America's Place in World History, to be published this month by Hill and Wang, a division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright © 2006 by Thomas Bender. The article first appeared on the website of the Chronicle of Higher Education and is reprinted with permission.

I want to propose the end of American history as we have known it."End" can mean both"purpose" and"termination," and I have in mind both those meanings. I want to draw attention to the end to which national histories, including American history, have been put. They are taught in schools and brought into public discourse to forge and sustain national identities, presenting the self-contained nation as the natural carrier of history. That way of writing and teaching history has exhausted itself. In its place, I want to elaborate a new framing for U.S. history, one that rejects the territorial space of the nation as a sufficient context and argues for the transnational nature of national histories.

The nation is not free-standing and self-contained; it is connected with and partially shaped by what is beyond it. Nineteenth-century nationalist ideology, which became embedded in the development of history as a discipline, has obscured the actual experience of national societies and has produced a narrow parochialism. I want to encourage a more cosmopolitan sense of being an American, to have us recognize the historical interconnections that have made America's history global history even as it is national, provincial even as it shares in the general history of human beings on this planet.

National histories, like nation-states, are modern developments. The first national history of the United States, David Ramsay's History of the American Revolution, was published in 1789. In fact, Ramsay held off publishing it until the Constitution was ratified. History — and especially history in the schools — contributed mightily to the acceptance of the nation during the next two centuries. It became the core of civic education in schools and other institutions devoted to making peasants, immigrants, and provincial peoples into national citizens. That category of citizen was supposed to trump all other sources of identity. Regional, linguistic, ethnic, class, religious, and other forms of solidarity or connection that were either smaller or larger were to be radically subordinated to national identity. To sustain the idea of a national citizen, the national space was to be firmly bounded, and population and culture were presumed to be homogeneous. In return, the modern nation-state promised to protect its citizens at home and abroad. One artifact that marks both the importance of borders and the promise of protection is the passport — a 19th-century innovation.

If this concept of the nation is specific to the past two centuries, still we are so comfortable with it as to refer routinely to events that occurred a thousand years ago within the present borders of France, for example, as"medieval French history." In this age of talk about globalization, multiculturalism, and diasporas, clearly our experience does not match up to such nationalist assumptions. Life is simply more complex.

In the past few years, some of the most innovative and exciting scholarship in American history has been framed in ways that do not necessarily tie it to the nation-state — work on gender, migrations, diasporas, class, race, ethnicity, and other areas of social history. If that scholarship has not succumbed to the nationalist framing, neither has it altered nor displaced it. It has grown up beside the older default narrative that we all carry around in our heads. It has brought forward new knowledge about previously unstudied or insufficiently recognized groups and themes in American history, but it has not changed the dominant narrative structure. The unitary logic of national history seems to have kept at bay new scholarship that could be transformative. Too often, new scholarship is bracketed (literally so in textbooks) rather than integrated. Much is added, but the basic narrative stays the same. That is why textbooks get longer and longer, more and more ungainly, and less and less readable.

About a decade ago, I began to think more seriously and quite differently about the way American history has been written, to say nothing about the way I was teaching it. What concerned me was not the then much-contested question of the politics of history, at least not in the narrow sense of supporting or opposing this or that side in the so-called culture wars. Nor was it about favoring liberal or conservative interpretations, for on the issue that concerned me there was no difference. The problem was more fundamental and methodological: It seemed to me that the default narrative limited my capacity to understand the central themes of American history. What were the true boundaries of America's national experience? What history did the United States share with other nations? How would the use of a wider context change the core American narrative?

Recent changes in the school history curriculum highlight the problem of teaching American history as a self-contained story. In the interest of better preparing our youth for citizenship in a multicultural nation in a globalized world, most states now require schools to offer world-history courses. That appears to be an effective curricular change, but in practice the new curriculum subverts the good intentions that prompted it. Most world-history courses do not include American history. Somehow the world is everything but us. America's interconnections and interdependencies beyond its borders are rarely captured, and the revised curriculum reinforces the split between America and the world that contemporary citizenship must overcome.

Strangely enough, many scholars who study foreign nations and regions — area-studies specialists — have shared and reinforced the approach that puts the United States and the rest of the world in two different boxes. American-studies and area-studies programs developed at the same time in American universities, but until very recently they did not acknowledge that each was an interacting part of the same global history.

I want to make two nested arguments. The first is that a common global history commenced when American history began, in the decades before and after 1500. The second follows directly from the first: American history cannot be adequately understood unless it is incorporated into that global context. It then becomes a different kind of history, with more explanatory power. It reconnects history with geography. It incorporates causal influences that work across space as well as those that unfold over time. It enriches our understanding of the historical making and remaking of the United States. It is, moreover, the only way to map and appraise the changing position and interdependencies that connect the United States today to the other provinces of the world.

The American nation-building project has been unusually successful. But the history of that success cannot and ought not be used to sustain a claim of historical exceptionalism or of categorical difference. Whatever the distinctive position of the United States today, it remains nonetheless only one global province interconnected with and interdependent with every other one. The history of the United States is but one history among histories.

At the same time — despite the clamor of debate about multiculturalism and globalization that has encouraged talk of the decline of the nation-state and the possibility of a postnational history — I do not believe the nation is likely to soon disappear. True, nation-states have done terrible damage to the human community, but they are also the only enforcer available to protect human and citizen rights. The nation must remain a central object of historical inquiry so long as we understand history to include both the analysis of power in society and the clarification of ethical responsibility within the human community. My purpose is not to dismiss national history but to propose a different mode for it, one that better respects the empirical record and better serves us as citizens of the nation and the world.

The story I want to tell begins around 1500, when oceanic seafaring for the first time connected all the continents and created a common history of all peoples. The beginning of American history was part of the event that made global history. This perspective redefines the"New World." It was not"America," which did not exist. Nor was it the European discovery of the Western Hemisphere. Rather the ocean was discovered to be a connector of the continents and a common carrier of peoples, money, things, and knowledge. The result was a"new world" for the peoples of every continent, and the American"founding" was embedded in the resulting global economy. There were two sequential dimensions to that base economy, and both depended upon global networks. The gold and silver that enriched the Spanish empire and invited further exploration and settlement was dependent upon an Asian market, hence the founding of Manila in 1571. North America depended upon the"plantation complex," which in turn exploited enslaved Africans. Its cash crops — mildly addictive drugs and sugar — required oceanic trade, since they lacked nutritional value and thus could not contribute to a local subsistence economy. Emergent capitalism and slavery (and the connection between them), not a band of Pilgrims, mark the American beginnings. This perspective also partially displaces the founding as a European event. In fact, before 1800 more Africans than Europeans made the Atlantic transit.

While the movement of Europeans to the Western Hemisphere vastly extended European civilization, the new global interactions produced a demographic catastrophe among the indigenous people of the Americas and in Africa, with devastating and long-term consequences in both places. Thus, while the American founding was not without the oft-rehearsed aspirations for religious freedom and to extend Christianity, utopian ideals, and the ambition for economic opportunity, it was also a story of death, slavery, exploitation, and the construction of racial identities.

Taking a cue from a comment made by James Madison at the Constitutional Convention, my framework extends the chronology and geography of the American Revolution, placing it in the context of the competition among the great 18th-century empires and, especially, the"Great War," the global conflict between England and France that lasted from 1689 to 1815. The American Revolution was an episode in that war, and French resentment over Britain's overwhelming victory in the Seven Years' War that preceded it brought an absolute monarchy into alliance with the republicans across the Atlantic. Like the Seven Years' War, the War for American Independence was a global war; the French, who had no specific North American objectives save for weakening Great Britain, hoped to regain trading posts in Africa and India that they had lost in the previous war.

Developments outside the territorial United States were not only decisive in the American victory against Great Britain, but in the development of the new nation. The emergence of political parties, something not envisioned in the Constitutional Convention, was largely the product of American division over the post-1789 conflict between France and Britain. The fall of the Bastille, which occurred four months after Washington's inauguration, and the Haitian Revolution of 1791 had profound consequences in shaping political conflict during the first four American presidencies. When the world war ended, internal conflict in the United States ended, economic development accelerated, settlers moved west in rapidly increasing numbers, and a new nationalism emerged, marking the completion, finally, of the long quest for actual independence. The war that made independence possible needed to end before independence became real.

Although the Civil War is the moral core of American history, it was nonetheless part of the larger history of the invention of the modern nation-state. The immediate context was the European revolutions of 1848. Lincoln watched and admired the European liberals who were forging a link between nation and freedom. He also absorbed their redefinition of the meaning of national territory, demanding homogeneity within the territorial borders. That new understanding of nation transformed the political meaning of slavery and established the logic of Lincoln's famous"House Divided" speech. The house had always been divided, and maintaining political stability had been a matter of negotiating compromises. By the 1850s, however, a nation had to be all one or the other. I do not think we can quite recognize the passions of Lincoln, as well as of ordinary soldiers, without taking account of the ideals of 1848 and the novel understanding of the nation then in circulation around the globe. That framing also provides an essential context for understanding the road to reunion that achieved national solidarity at the cost of removing American Indians and denying African-Americans rights. The link between nationalism and freedom was broken, as Americans embraced a conservative nationalism — partly sustained by academic and judicial theorists who were influenced by German concepts of the state — that weakened rights claims.

For European liberals, including John Stuart Mill, Giuseppe Mazzini, and Giuseppe Garibaldi, the American Civil War was a central episode in the history of liberal reform. New understandings of nation, freedom, and national territory were played out on every continent. The crisis of union in the United States was part of a larger"federative crisis" in which nations, from Argentina to Japan, from Germany to Siam, from the Russian and Ottoman Empires to the Hapsburg, were participants. All were recalibrating the relations between national and local authority. In most cases, wars were part of the story. So was emancipation. While the United States emancipated four million slaves, another 40 million serfs were freed in this era. Nation-making was a global phenomenon with distinctive local results.

Most Americans hesitate to acknowledge the centrality of empire in their history, let alone to see that the American empire was one among many. The imperial adventure of 1898 was not, as is often argued, an accidental and unthinking act; empire had been on the national agenda for decades. There is a striking continuity in purpose and style from America's westward expansion to its overseas colonization in 1898. If we prefer the euphemism of"westward expansion" to obscure the link with 1898, the participants had no such need. In 1900, Theodore Roosevelt, in a new preface to his The Winning of the West, explicitly declared the Philippine venture to be a continuation of his story. When the rapid military victory in the Philippine war dissolved into a decade of insurgency, many Americans, including Roosevelt, looked toward commercial and cultural extensions of American power rather than territorial ones. But that, too, was continuous with American policy from the time of Thomas Jefferson. He had fought our first foreign war in the eastern Mediterranean in order to protect American trade, and by the middle of the 19th century American farmers were clamoring for policies that would make the world their market. Later industrialists and financiers would demand the same. Empires that seek investment opportunities, natural resources, and cheap labor abroad risk deeper entanglements than the simple trading empire Jefferson had envisioned. The internal affairs of other nations become vital; property rights, security of loans, and much else became the business of the United States, and that has resulted in innumerable"interventions." It has also meant competition with other empires: Germany and Japan early in the 20th century and the Soviet Union in the second half.

Looking at American progressive reform, social liberalism, and the claims of social citizenship in the decades following 1890, one cannot but recognize that such reform was part of a global response to the extraordinary expansion of industrial capitalism and of large cities. A global menu of reform ideas was available to all. They were selectively and differently adopted and adapted, nation by nation; the United States moved beyond laissez-faire liberalism toward a social liberalism by way of the teachings of German social scientists, particularly historical economists. Japan followed the same mentors, while Latin Americans came to understand social interdependence and the need for social insurance through the influence of French positivism. The politics of social policy varied. In Russia and Latin America, for example, the landed classes opposed industrial legislation to protect workers, while in the United States and Japan, it was business that opposed such legislation.

Nations kept their eyes on each other; none wanted to lag too far behind. As Roosevelt said in his 1908 annual address to Congress:"It is humiliating that at European international congresses on accidents the United States should be singled out as the most belated among the nations in respect to employer liability legislation."

What we call the welfare state is actually a social-insurance state, one that recognizes that modern society brings with it a variety of new risks — industrial accidents, unemployment, illness, old age. In the age of laissez-faire, industrial accidents were often blamed on the victim. Toward the end of the century, the concept of risk changed the moral meaning of the liabilities inherent in urban and industrial society. Novel theories were developed first in France and Belgium, but they soon spread. Instead of blaming worker or capitalist, the new understanding saw statistical probabilities of injury, unemployment, and the like. Those were conditions of modern society, and governments turned to various forms of social-security insurance. In the United States, however, the notion was slow to be accepted, and the moral approach lasted well into the 20th century.

Jane Addams, like Roosevelt, was distressed that the United States was"unaccountably slow" in responding to the challenges of modern industrial society. She was right, yet it may be more useful to say that the United States chose differently than other nations. Notions of individualism, given peculiar force by the strength of legal formalism in American law, made Americans less willing to interfere with contracts or legitimate collective bargaining. Yet Americans were quick to protect women and the domestic environment. Moreover, American unions had independence that eluded unions granted greater rights in Mexico and Argentina, but that paid the price of co-optation. In the 20th century, the late-forming American welfare state may have benefited from its Anglo-American commitment to individual rights. Though there were worrisome illiberal and proto-fascist movements in the 1920s — the Ku Klux Klan, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, and, a little later, Father Coughlin — the United States was one of very few industrial nations to survive the interwar years without succumbing to fascist government.

One of my purposes is to argue against American exceptionalism, and in doing that I emphasize a world of difference. The problem with the idea of American exceptionalism is that it erases difference. There is only the United States and a homogenized"other" that is the rest of the world. The argument here is that, while there is a common history that includes us all, it plays out in many local variations. Hence I am not saying that the global history I invoke is a universal history, or that the American Revolution is just like other revolutions of its time. Nor do I say that the Civil War was no different from the emancipation of serfs in the Russian and Hapsburg Empires or the unification of Germany and Argentina. Nor do I argue that the American empire was indistinguishable from those of England, France, or Germany; or that progressivism in the United States was like progressivism in Japan or Chile. But I am saying that there are family resemblances we have missed, and we have also missed the self-aware communication about common challenges that historical actors on every continent had with one another.

More important, the extension of context enables us to see more clearly and deeply exactly what is unique about the national history of the United States. Its major events and themes look different; their causes and consequences get redefined. The United States has always shared a history with others. To acknowledge that literally makes us more worldly, and it makes our history more accessible to foreign scholars and publics. It makes us more open to interpretations of our history coming from historians and others beyond our borders. It will, I hope, better educate us and our children to the kind of cosmopolitanism that will make us better citizens of both the nation and the world.

This kind of history is not entirely novel. It is a recovery of history as it was envisioned by some of my predecessors a century ago. In the 1890s, when, as in the 1990s, Americans and others were intensely aware that new forms of communication and transportation made the world smaller, historians, too, thought beyond the nation in framing their histories. Henry Adams's great History of the United States of America was so framed, as was W.E.B. Du Bois's Harvard dissertation on the suppression of the Atlantic slave trade. While Frederick Jackson Turner is most remembered for his famous address on"The Significance of the Frontier in American History," we should also recall his rich essay on"The Significance of History," presented to Wisconsin teachers two years earlier, in 1891. There he insisted that the history of every nation is connected to the history of all other nations. A history of any local place, he said, cannot be isolated from the rest of the world.

Those historians were among the many intellectuals and men and women of good will who, over the next three decades, sustained a hopeful internationalism and cosmopolitan values, which resulted in the foundation of various international organizations devoted to peace and uplift. There was a great awareness of global connections, and global thinking was quite pervasive. For historians, those understandings sustained a presumption that national histories were part of a larger universal history. Yet their history was, in fact, often parochial and race-based. They included in the domain of history only those parts of the world that were organized into nation-states, thus leaving out Africa, most of Asia, and what we now call the Middle East.

Still that first generation of professional historians trained in the United States was more worldly than the post-World War II group, who emphasized American"exceptionalism." That earlier generation was typically trained in European as well as American history. With their passing, American history became more self-enclosed, a development accelerated by the cold war. Much was lost when a more worldly perspective atrophied in the interwar and war years and was dismissed after World War II.

It is important to recover it for the civic and historiographical reasons, and to renew it with the historical questions of our time. If we can begin to think about American history as a local instance of a general history, as one history among others, not only will historical knowledge be improved, but the cultural foundations of a needed cosmopolitanism will be enhanced. We do not want to reinforce a narrow and exclusive notion of citizenship, but encourage and sustain a cosmopolitan citizenry, at once proud nationals and humble citizens of the world.

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Jonathan Dresner - 4/22/2007

Someone asks a good historical question, and people come right back with good historical answers.

Jason KEuter - 4/22/2006

It also scared Southern slaveholders into an even more solidly anti-British stance because they believed the British stirred up the Haitian Revolt against the French and thus believed they would do the same in the US - which in turn, made many who had misgivings about the Constitutionality of Jeffferson's purchase of Louisiana go ahead and support it in order to make that land, not only American, but free of England anxious to get back America and willing to use slaves as weapons.

Douglas M. Charles - 4/21/2006

You've never heard of Toussaint L'Ouverture? You've never heard of the slave revolt in Haiti that Napoleon's France could not crush leading Napoleon to give up on re-establishing a French empire in North America? This led to the Louisiana Purchase and profoundly affected United States history afterwards much beyond the first four administrations.

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 4/18/2006

Could you expatiate on how the "Haitian Revolution of 1791 had profound consequences" in the first four U.S. administrations? This seems like fatuous nonsense to me, but of course I have never heard of the Haitian Revolution of 1791, so perhaps you know something I don't? You were fairly lucid until that came up, but then I couldn't read any more.

Jason KEuter - 4/18/2006

I have always wondered about the global context of history during the early years of the Republic. Spanish control of the Mississippi, British forts in the West, British in Canada, France in Revolutionary turmoil...moving on from there, perpetual waves of immigrants, Cotton diplomacy, filibusters...the US may have been founded largely to get away from or transform the rest of the world, but it has never been apart from it. I hope this book and the concerns the author expresses receive a wide reading.