Sunday, December 31, 2006
A Nation Among Nations: America's Place in World History by Thomas Bender
A Nation Among Nations by Thomas Bender has been on my I-want-to-read list since last spring when I found a short, enthusiastic review in Booklist. Many other books intervened, and I had forgotten about it until I found it misshelved in my library earlier this month. "Now or never," I thought.
I did not count on this book taking so long to read. "A slow read," my daughter might say. Though I questioned my sanity, I kept on reading because some of Bender's ideas are so different from those taught in textbooks.
Bender's premise is that American history is often taught as if the United States is mostly isolated from the rest of the world. From colonization until the twentieth century world wars, isolation allowed American commerce, industry, political thought, and culture to develop on its own, without outside influence, according to many American historians. There were a few encounters with the British and the French in the early days of the republic, a brief war with Mexico, and an even shorter war with Spain, but none of these incidents really meant much to the country of the Monroe Doctrine and Manifest Destiny. President Washington had warned against alliances.
A Nation Among Nations is 301 pages of evidence to the contrary. What makes it worth reading are the subplots.
According to Bender, Columbus discovered the Atlantic Ocean, not America. Before Columbus and the other explorers the oceans were thought of as barriers. What the Spanish and Portuguese explorers discovered was the oceans were viable highways to distant markets. The Silk Road was bypassed, and the global economy was strengthened. Interdependence soon followed. For instance, when 17th century China could not get a steady supply of South American silver, its economy collapsed. The English colonies in North America were soon trading with Africa and Asia, too. After the American Revolution, the United States was the major player in the whaling industry and oriental goods were flowing into Massachusetts.
Ideas moved across the globe as quickly as goods. The American Civil War was not an isolated story but a chapter in the world movement to end slavery - a late but important chapter. Reformers in many countries had trouble holding up the American democratic example while slavery continued in the South.
Most historians celebrate the fulfilling of Manifest Destiny as a result of the U. S. War with Mexico in the mid-19th century. Bender points out that an unnatural national border dividing an economic region and a large Hispanic population is a continuing legacy of the little questioned war.
Bender's last chapter focuses on international reform of labor laws. He claims that reforms, such as social insurance, safe working conditions, and laws against child labor, were common in other countries long before they were in the United States.
Bender's work suggests that our international problems today result from our historical attitudes. This type of provocation is not often well-received in the American mainstream. A Nation Among Nations is just the kind of book that should be in academic and public libraries.
Bender, Thomas. A Nation Among Nations: America's Place in World History. New York: Hill and Wang, 2006. ISBN 0809095270