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American History, Looking Back, Looking Forward

Jan. 3, 2017
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History keeps changing. Not unlike the theory of relativity, it can depend on who is looking from which angle and at what time. The past haunted the 2016 presidential election as Americans wrestled over their country’s identity. Perhaps a few answers can be found in recently published accounts of American history.

A good place to start is with Steven Hahn’s A Nation Without Borders: The United States and its World in an Age of Civil Wars, 1830-1910 (Viking Penguin). The Pulitzer Prize-winning author begins with America’s westward expansion and ramp-up to the Civil War (he prefers to call it the War of Rebellion) and concludes with America on the brink of becoming the leading world power. Promising to tell “a familiar story in an unfamiliar way,” he emphasizes America’s place in the wider world. Although you might not know it from the way history is taught in schools, much of what happened here wasn’t entirely unique and can be understood from a more global perspective. He argues persuasively that the U.S. was, from the onset, bent on conquest, first by subduing North America and then by seizing an overseas empire. 

Hahn retrieves many lost pages of history, including battles in Texas between small stock raisers and cattle barons, and stresses the post-Civil War struggles by farmers, industrial workers and Christian activists against the encroachment of corporate capitalism. Not unlike today’s populists, the movements that arose in the 19th century in protest over economic injustice were often anti-immigrant and excluded blacks, yet while opportunities were missed, they left a legacy in “broader notions of social responsibility.” Despite the power of money in politics, widespread public revulsion against corporate abuses resulted in reform by the start of the 20th century.

Alexander Hamilton: From Obscurity to Greatness (Wisconsin Historical Society Press), edited by John P. Kaminski

Alexander Hamilton was once the least recognized face on any dollar bill, but as the unlikely subject of a hit musical, he’s now known to people who have never opened a history book. In From Obscurity to Greatness, UW-Madison’s John P. Kaminski tries to add flesh to our understanding of America’s first Treasury Secretary by culling through diaries, letters and 18th century newspapers, curating a selection of quotes by Hamilton and about him. Turns out he was not well loved by his contemporaries. Abigail Adams to her husband John: “He has so damned himself to everlasting infamy, that he ought not to be Head of any thing.” Although credited with saving the young United States from bankruptcy, Hamilton was criticized for being born out of wedlock. Kaminski believes that a fragile sense of honor led him to accept Aaron Burr’s fateful challenge to a duel.

New York Times Disunion: A History of the Civil War (Oxford University Press), edited by Ted Widmer with Clay Risen and George Kaloberakis

The Civil War was America’s formative trauma and judging by the political rhetoric of nowadays, shots are still being fired. Disunion is culled from a series of articles originally published on the New York Times website. No mere hotchpotch of blogs, Disunion is a coherent collection of short essays packed with meaning. Many entries are by history professors interested in talking to the public instead of themselves, but some are contributed by high school teachers and gifted amateurs. New facts surface: wartime casualties were probably higher than earlier historians estimated. And interesting but overlooked facts abound, including the veto over American politics exercised by the Southern states before the Civil War and the support for the Union by the Russian czar, who freed his country’s serfs before slavery ended in the U.S.

The Prometheus Bomb: The Manhattan Project and Government in the Dark (Potomac Books), by Neil J. Sullivan

Neil J. Sullivan wonders what would have happened if someone’s hand had slipped during the experiment that triggered the first controlled nuclear chain reaction at the University of Chicago. Would the Second City have turned into ash? The scientists worked in secret at the campus, alerting no one, confident in their calculations, but yet, Sullivan points out, some researchers died from human error during experiments for the Manhattan Project. The Prometheus Bomb recounts the super-secret project that resulted in the atom bomb while pondering the danger of public policy concealed from the public eye. There seemed little choice in the race to develop the atom bomb, but what of drone strikes, CIA “renditions” and other endeavors of recent years? Sullivan finds it ironic that because of Soviet spies, Stalin knew about the atom bomb before Vice President Harry Truman. 

The Swamp Fox: How Francis Marion Saved the American Revolution (Da Capo), by John Oller

Older baby boomers might remember an Eisenhower-era TV show based on the Revolutionary War adventures of Francis Marion, the “Swamp Fox,” but his name is otherwise little remembered. Biographer John Oller hopes to raise the profile of this military commander whose mastery of highly mobile guerilla warfare helped turn back British advances in South Carolina, a critical theater of operations as the American Revolution entered its final phase. South Carolina was a place of uncertain and shifting loyalties where Americans fought Americans in a bloody carnage. According to Oller, Marion was notable for his malice-toward-none generosity as an officer who shed only as much blood as was necessary.


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