A Nation Without Borders: The United States and Its World in an Age of Civil Wars, 1830-1910 by Steven Hahn (2016)

My thinking about the concept of borderlands has been influenced by a growing body of literature interested in exploring the liminal spaces in which social relations, cultures and claims to sovereign authority make contact, struggle, and reshape one another. (p.525)

Executive summary

This is a long, turgid and demanding book. Plenty of times I nearly gave up reading it in disgust. If you want to find out what happened in America between about 1820 and 1865, read James McPherson’s outstanding volume, Battle Cry of Freedom. For the period from 1965 to 1910 I currently can’t recommend an alternative, but they must be out there in their hundreds.

Two types of history

There are probably countless ‘types’ of history book but, for the purposes of this review, they can be narrowed down to two types. One type provides a more or less detailed chronology of events laid out in sequence, with portraits of key players and plenty of backup information such as quotes from relevant documents – government paperwork, constitutions, manifestos, speeches, newspaper articles, diaries, letters – alongside photos, maps, graphics and diagrams explaining social or economic trends, and so on. You are bombarded with information, from which you can pick the main threads and choose the details which most inspire you.

The other type is what you could call meta-history, a type of history book which assumes that the reader is already familiar with the period under discussion – the people, dates and events – and proceeds to ask questions, propose new theories and put forward new interpretations of it.

Since this kind of book assumes that you are already familiar with the key events, people and places of the era, it won’t bother with biographical sketches, maps or photos – you know all that already – but will focus solely on laying out new ideas and interpretations.

A Nation Without Borders: The United States and Its World in an Age of Civil Wars, 1830-1910 by Steven Hahn is very much the second type of history. If you want to find out what happened in America between 1830 and 1910, with maps, pictures, diagrams etc – this is not the book for you. There are no maps at all. There are no pictures. There are no diagrams. Sure there’s still a lot of information, but what there mostly is, is lots of ‘reinterpretations’.

Reinterpretations

In the first paragraph of the introduction Hahn declares his intention to tell ‘a familiar story in an unfamiliar way’, and the front and back of his book are plastered with quotes from high-end journalists and fellow academics confirming that this is indeed what he has achieved – praising his achievement in ‘reconceptualising’ and ‘rethinking’ this crucial period in American history.

  • ‘a forthright challenge to old stereotypes’
  • ‘subtle and original conceptualisation’
  • ‘not a typical chronological survey of American history’
  • ‘conceptually challenging’
  • ‘breathtakingly original’
  • ‘a bold reinterpretation of the American nineteenth century’
  • ‘an ambitious rethinking of our history’

What this means in practice is spelled out in the introduction, where Hahn announces that:

  • Traditional history teaches that the United States started as a nation and turned into an empire. Hahn seeks to prove the reverse: to show that the United States inherited an imperial mindset from imperial Britain, with a weak centre only loosely ruling a far-flung collection of autonomous states, and was only slowly struggling to become ‘a nation’, until the War of the Rebellion. The war gave the ruling Republican Party unprecedented power to pass a welter of centralising legislation which for the first time made America a ‘nation’. In this respect it was comparable to Italy and Germany which only became unified nations at much the same time (the 1860s) and also as a result of wars.
  • Traditional history teaches that America was divided into a slave-free North and a slave-based South. Hahn insists that slavery was ubiquitous across the nation, with some of the fiercest anti-black violence taking place in New York, and that the principle struggle wasn’t between North and South but between the North-East and the Mississippi Valley for control of the new country and, possibly, of the entire hemisphere. A recurring thread of the first half is the way that southern slavers seriously envisaged conquering all of Mexico and Central America and the available Caribbean islands to create a vast slave-owning empire in which the ‘slave-free’ north-east would be reduced to a geographic stump.
  • Traditional history teaches that America is an exception to the rest of world history, a shining light on a hill. Recent decades have overthrown that view to show just how deeply involved America was with trade, exploration and slavery back and forth across the Atlantic (this is also the thrust of Alan Taylor’s brilliant account of early America, American Colonies). However, Hahn wants to overthrow not only American exceptionalism but even this newer, Atlantic, theory – he wants to shift the focus towards the Pacific, claiming that many key decisions of the period don’t make sense unless you realise that politicians of both free and slave states were looking for decisive control of the vast Californian coast in order to push on into Pacific trade with Asia.
  • Traditional history teaches that there was a civil war in American from 1861 to 1865. Hahn prefers to call this epic conflict ‘the War of the Rebellion’ – partly because the war was indeed prompted by the rebellion of the slave states, but also in order to place it among a whole host of other ‘rebellions’ of the period e.g. the Seminole War of the 1840s, the refusal of the Mormons to accept federal power in their state of Utah, the wish of some Texans to remain an independent state, the attempts by southern filibusters (the Yankee name for buccaneering adventurers) to invade Cuba and Nicaragua in defiance of federal law, numerous native American uprisings, and countless small rebellions by black slaves against their masters. Instead of being the era of One Big War, Hahn is trying to rethink the mid-nineteenth century as the era of almost constant ‘rebellions’, large and small, by southerners, by native Americans, by newly organising workers everywhere, by the Mormons, by women – against the federal government.
  • Traditional history teaches that capitalism spread across America from its East coast, which was deeply interconnected with the global capitalist economy pioneered by Britain. Hahn seeks to show that there were all kinds of regional resistances to this transformation – the South was committed to a slave economy which limited the growth of markets and industrialisation; the whole mid-West of the country was occupied by native Americans who had completely different values and means of production and exchange from the Europeans; much of newly-settled West preferred small local market economies, virtually barter economies, to the cash-based capitalism of the East.
  • Probably the biggest single idea in the book is that the Republican triumph in the War of the Rebellion went hand in hand with the triumph of a centralised capitalist nation-state. But the latter part of the book goes on to insist that, even after its apparent triumph, capitalism continued to face a welter of opposition from numerous sources, from the disobedience of the defeated South, from western cowboy economies, through to resistance from highly urbanised Socialist and trade union movements – ‘the United States had the most violent labour history of any society in the industrialising world’ in the 1880s and 1890s.

Put this succinctly, these are certainly interesting and stimulating ideas. If only they had been developed in an interesting and stimulating way in interesting and stimulating prose which included interesting and stimulating facts.

But too often the ‘ideas’ dominate at the expense of the evidence and the basic information. Too often Hahn argues the points in prose which is so muddy, and with snippets of information or quotes handled so unpersuasively, or in such an obviously selective, cherry-picking way, that the reader has the permanent sense of missing out on the actual history, while ploughing through the interpretation. Take the new terms he coins:

New Terms

Most people in the world refer to the conflict between the Union and the Confederacy between 1861 and 1865 as the American Civil War. Hahn’s attempt to ‘reconceptualise’ it and refer to it throughout as ‘the War of the Rebellion’ has a sort of appeal, especially if you can keep in mind the cohort of other rebellions he sees as surrounding it and feeding into it. But put the book down and start talking or writing to anyone else in the world and…they will be deeply puzzled. It will require quite a lot of explanation to convey why you’re using a different name from the rest of the world… and all the while you have the strong sense that it will never catch on…

To give another example: America saw rapid economic change in the 1830s and 1840s, as scattered farmsteads and distant agricultural regions began to be connected, first by canals and, in the 1840s, by railways. Raw materials and goods could be traded further than just the local market. Eastern investors became interested in money-making possibilities. Traditionally, this period has been referred to as ‘the market revolution‘. Characteristically, Hahn prefers to give it a different name, referring throughout to ‘market intensification‘.

He does this partly because – at this late date – there is, apparently, still widespread disagreement among historians about when the American industrial revolution began: was it the 1830s or 40s or 50s? Something was definitely changing about the scale of agricultural and semi-industrial production from the 1830s onwards – Hahn is suggesting a new term designed to more accurately convey the way existing structures of production and distribution didn’t fundamentally change, but became larger in scale and more linked up. More intensified.

It’s an interesting idea but it’s quite subtle and I felt a) it requires more evidence and information to really back it up than he provides, and b) I don’t, in the end, really care that much what it’s called: I’d just like to have understood it better.

Show or Tell

You could also think of think of the two types of history book I referred to earlier as ones which show, and ones which tell. James M. McPherson’s brilliant account of the civil war shows. He gives you all the facts, and the people, and quotes extensively from a wide range of sources. There are numerous maps, especially of all the key civil war battles, there are photographs which give you a strong feel for the era, there are diagrams and above all there are really extensive quotations from letters, speeches, articles and so on, so that you can read about the issues in the words of the people who were debating and arguing them.

As a result, McPherson’s account is rich and varied and highly memorable. You remember the people and what they did and said and achieved. As you follow his intricate account of the war, complete with maps and detailed descriptions of each battle, you get a real sense of what was at stake and how contingent human affairs are.

Hahn tells

By contrast, Hahn tells you what happened, with no reference to maps, no graphs or photographs, with minimum quotations. For example, he doesn’t give a single account of a civil war battle, and certainly no maps of them. All the evidence is subsumed to the need to make his case and put forward his theories.

But the risk of writing history in such a theory-heavy way is that your account might end up being more about yourself and your theories, than about the ‘history’; that you spend ages asking academic type questions…

What was the character of American governance? On what axes did American politics turn? How far did slavery’s reach extend, and what was its relation to American economic and political growth? How did the intensifying conflict over slavery turn into civil warfare, and in what ways did civil warfare transform the country? How integral was political violence and conquest to American development? How were relations of class, race and gender constructed, and what did they contribute to the dynamics of change? When did American industrialisation commence, and how rapidly did it unfold? How should we view popular radicalism of the late nineteenth century and its relationship to Progressivism? At what point could the United States be regarded as an empire, and how was empire constituted? (p.2)

… in order to devote the rest of the book to answering them in a similarly abstract, academic kind of way.

To give an example of the triumph of theory over detail, Hahn is heavily into modern identity politics and goes out of his way to discuss the history of women and of people of colour using the latest up-to-date sociological jargon.

Thus Hahn tells us that the nineteenth century family was a ‘patriarchal institution’ ruled by the ‘patriarchal father’ or the ‘patriarchal husband’. He explains that 19th century American society was profoundly ‘gendered’ (a favourite word of his), a society in which people have defined themselves by ‘gender stereotypes’, where people carried out ‘gendered divisions of labour’, according to ‘gendered norms’ and ‘gender conventions’ and ‘gender exclusions’. The more aggressive leaders of the era, such as presidents Andrew Jackson and Theodor Roosevelt, are both accused of ‘masculinism’.

Similarly, Hahn loses no opportunity to tell us the big news that Southern slaveowners and their newspapers and politicians often expressed ‘racist ideas’ and ‘racist conventions’ and ‘racist stereotypes’ in ‘racist’ language.

The thing is – this is not really news. It is not that useful to be told that 19th century American society was sexist and racist. The use of the latest terminology can’t hide the fact that this is pretty obvious stuff. Not only that, but it is deeply uninformative stuff.

Instead of giving specific, useful and memorable examples of the kind of behaviour he is deploring, there tend to be pages of the same, generalising, identity politics jargon.

Part of his attempt to overturn ‘received opinion’ is to attack the notion that slaves were the passive recipients of aid and help from well-meaning white abolitionists. Wherever he can, Hahn goes out of his way to show that it was the blacks themselves who organised resistance to slave-hunters, set up communications networks, who were aware of the political implications of the outbreak of the War of the Rebellion, who organised themselves into groups to flee their southern masters and make for the Union front line then, later, after the war, continued the struggle for equality, organised themselves into networks and groups at local and regional level, and won significant political and administrative posts across the South, before, eventually, an anti-black backlash set in during the 1870s.

In a similar spirit (that marginalised people weren’t passive victims but strong independent people with their own agency who have all-too-often been written out of the story but whose voices he is now going to  bravely present) Hahn refers a number of times to women organising as much political activity as they were then allowed to do, taking on domestic and cultural responsibilities, organising a Women’s Convention in 1848, campaigning for women’s suffrage throughout the later part of the century, fighting for admission to teaching and the professions, and so on.

Well and good, and interesting, in outline – but the way Hahn tells these stories is highly generalised, draped in politically correct phraseology, rather than illuminated by specific stories or incidents which really bring them to life.

McPherson shows

By contrast, McPherson shows us these forces in action. He devotes pages to giving the names and stories of specific women who helped transform the perception of women’s abilities. These include the passages he devotes to the role of nurses during the war, and as workers in key industries depleted of men because of the draft.

I was fascinated by his description of the way that, in the pre-war period, the movement of women from being cottage industry producers to the heads of nuclear households in which the male now went out to earn a wage, represented a big step up in power and autonomy for women. Interesting, because so counter-intuitive.

McPherson shows the important role of women in the 1840s in creating a new market for consumer goods, which made America a pioneer in all sorts of household conveniences for the next century or more.

McPherson devotes a passage to Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of the bestselling novel of the 19th century, Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

I was struck by McPherson’s account of how women, in the 1830s and 40s began their dominance of the teaching profession, which has never gone away (in 2017 77% of teachers in the USA were female). The conference to launch the women’s rights movement which Hahn gives one brief mention, McPherson devotes three pages to, with accounts of the women who organised it, and the debates it held (pp. 33-36).

Later on, McPherson has a section about medicine and nursing during the war where, in a nutshell, certain strong-willed women followed the example of Florence Nightingale and set up nursing homes and went into the field as nurses. These women nurses and organisers impressed the male medical establishment, the army and the politicians so much that it made many men revise their opinion of women’s toughness. Notable pioneers included Clara Barton and Mary-Anne Bickerdyke (p.483) and Elizabeth Blackwell who, in 1849, became the first American woman to earn an MD.

The same went for factories and agriculture, especially in the North, where women were called in to replace men drafted into the army, and permanently expanded cultural norms about what women were capable of. (pp.477-489)

All this is in the McPherson. You can see how it is all immediately more interesting, more enlightening, and more useful knowledge than any number of references to ‘gender stereotypes’, ‘gendered divisions of labour’, ‘gendered norms’, ‘gender conventions’ and ‘gender exclusions’.

And if you are a feminist or interested in what women did during this period, it is far more useful and empowering to be given specific names and events and stories, which you can then go and research further yourself, than bland generalisations. Being given the name and career of Mary-Anne Bickerdyke is more useful than being given another paragraph about ‘gender conventions’.

Other problems with the book

1. Poor style

Hahn’s prose style is awful. Pages go by full of anthropological and sociological jargon and utterly bereft of a single fact or name. Take this excerpt:

Although patrons expected favours and services from their office-holding clients, they had their own needs as well. Their power and prestige were enhanced by – often required – collections of followers who could offer loyalty, votes, skills, and readiness to intimidate foes, but all this came at the price of the rewards patrons had to make available: protection, work, credit, loans, assistance in times of trouble. (p.63)

Of what organised society is this not true? It could be describing power relations in ancient Rome, or Shogun Japan, or among the Aztecs.

Orotund Hahn’s core style is orotund American academese which combines:

  • preferring pompous to simple words
  • clichés
  • identity politics jargon

Pompous locutions Favourite words include ‘deem’ instead of ‘think’, and ‘avail’ instead of ‘take advantage of’ or just ‘use’. Hahn is particularly fond of ‘contested spaces’: America in the 19th century was thronged with ‘contested spaces’ and ‘contested narratives’ and ‘contested meanings’. All sorts of social forces ‘roil’ or are ‘roiled’. When he quotes speeches the speakers are always said to ‘intone’ the words. People never do something as a result of an event or development; he always say ‘thereby’ some great change took place.

Hahn has a habit of starting a sentence, then having second thoughts and inserting a long parenthesis before going on to finish the sentence – often combining two contradictory thoughts or ideas in one sentence, which forces you to stop and mentally disentangle them.

Cliché Given his bang up-to-date usage of latest PC jargon, it is a surprise that Hahn combines this with a fondness for really crass clichés. For example, early on tells us that General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna initially supported the setting up of a monarchy in Mexico, then:

in a veritable flash, he sided with the liberals and constitutionalists

‘In a veritable flash’. a) That’s not very impressive English and b) it’s rather poor as historical explanation. Instead of serious analysis of Santa Anna’s motives for this (apparently sudden) change of mind, he is treated like a character in a fairy story. Hahn’s sense of human psychology is often disappointingly shallow. On the same page we are told that:

Santa Anna was haughty, temperamental, and guided chiefly by personal ambitions for power and adulation.

A political leader guided by a personal ambition for power. Fancy that. On page 24:

Napoleon, in his audacity, planned to reverse the wheels of history.

On page 29, President Andrew Jackson (who served for two terms, 1829 to 1837, and I think is seen as a bogeyman by liberals because he aggressively opened up the West to expansion by the slave states and capitalists, though it’s difficult to tell from Hahn’s book) is quoted in order to demonstrate the amorality of his expansionist vision:

‘I assure you,’ he boasted to the secretary of war, his imperial hunger not yet satisfied, ‘Cuba will be ours in a day.’

‘His imperial hunger not yet satisfied’. He sounds like a character in a fairy tale. Instead of stopping to convincingly explain to the reader why Jackson was such a Bad Bad Wolf, Hahn writes sentences like this about him:

In 1828, in an election that empowered white settlers west of the Appalachians and especially in the South, Andrew Jackson won the presidency, and the bell of doom began to toll.

Ah, ‘the bell of doom’. That well-known tool of historical analysis. What is he talking about?

The spread of the abolitionist movement in the 1830s prompted pro-slavery counter-attacks on black churches or schools:

as the fires of hatred were fanned to a searing heat. (p.61)

Ah, the fires of hatred. Half a dozen times ‘the writing is on the wall’ for this or that person or movement. Indians, or blacks, or women, or strikers ‘throw themselves into the fight against’ the army or Southern racism or the patriarchy or capitalism. Oppositions ‘dig in their heels’ against governments.

Wrong usage Not only does he use surprisingly banal clichés, but Hahn is continually verging in the edge of ‘malapropism’, defined as: ‘the mistaken use of a word in place of a similar-sounding one, often with an amusing effect’. Here is a paragraph of Hahn which seems to me to combine cliché with phrases where he’s using words with slightly the wrong meaning.

Nearly one quarter of Santa Anna’s troops fell at the Alamo… and the slaughters he authorised there and at Goliad touched a raw nerve of vengeance among those left to keep the Texas rebellion alive. Believing that he verged on total victory, Santa Anna planned a multi-pronged attack on Houston and divided his army to carry it out. But the winds of fortune (in this case a captured courier) enabled Houston to learn of Santa Anna’s moves… (p.41)

‘He verged on total victory’ – can a person verge on anything? I thought only nouns could ‘verge on’ something, like the example given in an online dictionary: ‘a country on the verge of destruction’. Maybe this is correct American usage, but it sounds to me like an example of malapropism, something which sounds almost correct but is somehow, subtly, comically, wrong.

Elsewhere I was brought up short when I read that:

The militant posture on the Oregon question helped the democrats and their candidate, James P. Polk from Tennessee… eke out a tight election. (p.122)

The dictionary definition of ‘eke out’ is ‘to make (a living) or support (existence) laboriously’. Can it be applied to narrowly winning an election?

As for ‘the winds of fortune’ in the Santa Anna paragraph, that is just an awful cliché, isn’t it? Surely any historian – any writer – who uses phrases like ‘the winds of fortune’ or ‘the wheels of history’ or ‘the bell of doom’ or ‘the fires of hatred’ to explain anything, can’t be taken completely seriously.

2. Glossing over key events

Whereas McPherson dedicates a section of his book to a particular event, explains what led up to it, explains who the people were, gives extensive quotes explaining what they thought or planned to do, and then gives thorough descriptions of what happened – Hahn more often than not asks a sociological or anthropological question and then answers his own question at great length, only incorporating the subset of facts, events, people or quotes which suit his argument.

With the result that the book gives a very strong feeling that is it skipping over and omitting whole chunks of history because they don’t suit his agenda.

To give an example, early on in the book there are a couple of fleeting references to ‘the Alamo’. They come in the context of his discussion of the independence of Texas. Texas was initially a vast state or department of Mexico: the Mexicans invited or allowed American settlers to settle bits of it. Eventually these settlers decided they wanted to declare it a white American state. They were strongly encouraged by slave plantation owners in the Deep South who hoped they could export slavery to Texas.

Now this aim was itself only part of the wider ‘imperial’ aims of Southern slave owners who, in the 1830s and 1840s, envisioned creating a vast slave empire which stretched through Texas to the whole of California in the West, which would reach out to conquer Cuba for America, and which also would take control of some, or all, of Central America.

In this context, some notable American cowboys and adventurers took control of the Alamo and, when a Mexican army surrounded it, insisted on holding out till it was finally taken and everyone killed. From a macro perspective it was just one of the numerous clashes between American rebels and Mexican army from the period.

The point of explaining all this is that I know that The Alamo is part of American frontier legend. I know there’s an expression: ‘Remember the Alamo!’ I know a big Hollywood movie was made about it starring John Wayne. I hoped that, by reading this book, I would discover just why it’s so important in American folk mythology, what happened, who Jim Boone and the other ‘heroes’ of the Alamo were, and so on. I’m perfectly prepared to have the whole Hollywood ‘myth’ of the Alamo debunked, and to learn all kinds of squalid or disillusioning things about it, but I wanted to know more.

Not in this book I didn’t. I didn’t even get the debunking option. Instead Hahn more or less ignores ‘the Alamo’ because his focus in that particular chapter is on ‘reconceptualising’ that part of American history in terms of his broad meta-theme – the imperial fantasies of the southern slave-owners.

To find out more about the Alamo, I had to look it up online. Just like I ended up googling ‘the Comancheria’, ‘the Indian Wars’, the ‘robber barons’ and ‘Reconstruction’.

The entire era from the 1870s to about 1900 in America is often referred to as ‘the Gilded Age’ (because really rich Americans began to ape the houses and lifestyles of aristocratic Europe) but Hahn uses this phrase only once, in passing, only at the very end of the book, and doesn’t explain it. So once again I had to go off to the internet to really learn about the period.

Reading the book for information is an intensely frustrating experience.

3. No maps

The history of the United States in the 19th century is the story of its relentless geographical expansion – westwards across the continent, taking whatever territory it could by force, seizing Florida from Spain, seizing Texas and California from Mexico (in the 1846 Mexico War), doing its damnedest to conquer Canada but being held at bay by the British (in the war of 1812) – attempting to conquer islands in the Caribbean such as Cuba (in the 1850s), and stretching the long arm of its empire across the Pacific to seize little Hawaii in the 1870s, even creating a short-lived American regime in Nicaragua (in 1856-7).

To understand any of this at all – to see what was at stake, where places were, the route of invasions, the site of battles and so on – you need maps, lots of maps, but – THIS BOOK HAS NO MAPS.

Whoever took the decision not to commission clear, relevant, modern maps deeply damaged the usefulness of this book. In just the first fifty pages, Hahn describes the extent of Commanche land, the shape of 1830s Mexico, discusses the status of East and West Florida, describes the debates about the precise territory included in the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, follows the march of Mexican General Santa Anna to locations in East Texas. WITH NO MAPS.

So, in order to understand any of these discussions, and any of the hundreds of discussions of geographical issues, places, conflicts packed throughout the book – you need to have an Atlas handy or, better still, read the book with a laptop or tablet next to you, so you can Google the maps of where he’s talking about.

In fact, on page 33 I discovered that the book does contain maps, but that they are poor-quality reproductions of contemporary nineteenth-century maps which are, for all intents and purposes, impossible to read. Take this example, ‘A Map of North America by Palairet’, which doesn’t even give you a date. The print is so tiny you can’t make out a single place name except ATLANTIC OCEAN.

Map of North America by J. Palairet

Map of North America by J. Palairet

I’m not often moved to get on a high horse about anything, but this is disgraceful. This volume is part of Penguin’s multi-volume history of the United States. It was published in 2016. It’s meant at some level to be a definitive history of the period. The decision not to commission a single clear modern map, and not to use any contemporary photographs, or diagrams or graphs, is inexcusable.

Here’s another example, Bacon’s Military Map of America from 1862, showing America’s ports and fortifications. Can you read any of the place names? No. Can you see any of the ports and fortifications? No. Is this map of any use whatsoever? No. It’s a token gesture, and almost an insulting one at that.

Bacon's Military Map of America, 1862

Bacon’s Military Map of America, 1862

Part two 1865-1910

I’ve read several accounts of the civil war but know next to nothing about the period which followed it. That’s why I bought this book and I certainly learned a lot, though all the time having to struggle through a) Hahn’s unfriendly prose style b) with the constant feeling that I wasn’t being told the full story of events but only what Hahn wanted to tell me in order to make his points with and c) without any maps, diagrams of photographs to refer to.

The key points of the period which I took away are:

  • The administrative centralisation begun during the War of the Rebellion continued at accelerating pace for the rest of the century and into the 20th century, though not without all kinds of opposition.
  • ‘Reconstruction’ is the name given to the period immediately following the War of the Rebellion, when the North tried to rebuild the South in its own image. Abraham Lincoln was shot on 15 April 1865. He was succeeded by vice-president Andrew Johnson who, unlike Lincoln and the Republican party which had dominated the Congress and Senate during the war, was a Democrat. For a fatal year Johnson was fantastically lenient to Southern soldiers and leaders, letting them return home with their weapons, and return to their former positions of power. Congress, however, saw that the Southerners were simply reinstituting their racist rule over the blacks and so superseded Johnson, implementing a new, more military phase of Reconstruction, by sending the chief Northern generals to administer the South under what amounted to martial law. Thus there are two periods: Presidential Reconstruction 1865-67, and Congressional Reconstruction 1867 to 77.
  • Some of the colonels and generals who had risen to prominence in the War of the Rebellion were sent West to quell risings by native Indians, for example the Sioux Rebellion of 1862. There then followed about 20 years in which the U.S. government and army broke every agreement with the Indians, harried and pursued them, bribed and bullied them onto ever-shrinking ‘reservations’. Some administrators and military men openly stating that they aimed to ‘exterminate’ the Indians. (General Sheridan called for a ‘campaign of annihilation, obliteration, and complete destruction’, p.379). It is ironic that Americans in the 20th century were so quick to criticise the British Empire and its colonial grip over native peoples, given that America did its damnedest to exterminate its own native peoples.
  • Describing what happened in the South from 1865 to 1910 is long and complex. But basically, there was ten years or so of Reconstruction, when the Republican government freed the slaves, gave them the vote, and tried to encourage their integration into economic life. This period ended around 1876 as the Republican Party lost its radical edge and became increasingly associated with northern capitalism. More to the point, the U.S. Army was withdrawn and the southern, racist Democrat party took over. They quickly began passing a whole raft of laws which brought about institutionalised ‘Segregation’. For example, during Reconstruction the number of black voters was huge, 80% or more of all adult black men, with the result that an astonishing number of local officials, judges and even governors were black. With the revival of the Democrats into the 1880s, all the southern states, starting with Mississippi in 1890, passed voter registration laws requiring voters to demonstrate specified levels of literacy, live in fixed abodes or even pay a small fee ($2) – with the result that voter levels fell to something like 5%! (pp.470-473).

This was one of the biggest things I learned from the book. Realising that it wasn’t slavery, or the Reconstruction period – it was this backlash during the 1870s and 1880s which instituted the Jim Crow legislation, the official segregation, the systemic impoverishment of black people, which was to last until the Civil Rights movements of the 1960s.

This is quite mind-boggling, a massive stain right the way through American history. It made me rethink my attitude towards slavery: I’ve read numerous books about slavery, seen movies and TV series about slavery, stood in front of statues against slavery, visited exhibitions about slavery.

But reading these pages made me realise that slavery isn’t at all the problem; that slavery is now so distant in time as to be almost irrelevant. It was this institutional racial Segregation, instituted across the Deep South of America, and whose ideology – if not its laws – spread to the North and West, infected all of American life – which is the real issue.

It was the deliberate trapping of black people in the lowliest, poorest-paid jobs, and their systematic exclusion from voting and public life, the division of parks and public places, theatres and toilets and buses into black areas and white areas – this is the thing to understand better because, as far as I can see, it continues to this day, albeit more subtly. #BlackLivesMatter.

In a way, then, the emphasis which is still given by schools and exhibitions to slavery is misleading. Slavery was abolished 180 years ago in the British Empire and 155 years ago in America. This book made me realise that understanding the philosophy and practice of Racial Segregation is much more important and much more relevant to our ongoing problems today.

Capitalism and its enemies

What feels like the lion’s share of the last 100 pages of the book is devoted to the consolidation of capitalism, and its enemies. There are detailed passages describing the rise of the ‘corporation’, as a new legal and commercial entity, quite different from the companies and partnerships which had preceded it (pp.454-464). I didn’t understand the legal and commercial details and will need to study them elsewhere.

Hahn is at pains to describe the way successive federal administrations, although equivocal about the massive cartels and monopolies which came to prominence in the 1890s, nonetheless took them as almost natural agencies which the government could use and work through – as potential extensions of state power. By the 1890s everyone on left and right thought that these huge monopolies (of railways, gold, silver, copper, iron, steel) a) were here for good b) that the reach and effectiveness of these huge transcontinental corporations or agencies could be a model for modern government.

Behind all this is the Rise of the Nation-State, the grand theme Hahn has been tracing since the 1830s. But although the various aspects of its rise is the central development, Hahn’s focus is much more about the multitude of forces which resisted the rise of the state, criticised, questioned, critiqued it, from both left and right.

So these last hundred pages devote a lot of time to the confusing multitude of opposition parties which rose up against the, by now, time-honoured duopoly of Republicans and Democrats.

We learn about greenbackism, anti-monopolism, the Populist party, the Progressive Party, the rise of mass trade unions, the Knights of Labour and the first socialist parties – and then descend into the jungle of disagreements and bickering among working class parties – socialist, syndicalist, anarchist, gradualist, evolutionary, revolutionary.

There is a lot about the strikes – kicked off by the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 – which blighted American industry in the 1880s and 1890s, all a revelation to me.

A softer, liberal version of resistance to monopoly capitalism came to be termed the Progressive movement, the idea that progressive politicians should use the levers of the state to combat alcoholism, illiteracy, corruption, infectious disease, prostitution, greed and labour exploitation (p.454). This movement laid the basis of what would later become the American welfare state (such as it is).

Some tried to bring the opposing blocs together. Liberal capitalists formed the National Civic Federation (NCF) in 1900, which brought together chosen representatives of big business and organized labour, as well as consumer advocates, in an attempt to resolve labour disputes and champion moderate reform.

The final pages describe how the whole American imperial mindset was then exported, just at the turn of the century, to Cuba and the Philippines, which America won off Spain as a result of victory in the following Spain’s defeat in the 1898 Spanish–American War, along with Guam and Puerto Rico, and also to Hawaii which, after decades of slowly taking over, America completely annexed in 1898.

Hahn shows how the same military leaders who had crushed the Indians were now sent to impose ‘civilisation’ on the Cubans and Filipinos, and with much the same mindset.

By now we are very familiar with American racist and segregationist thinking and so are not surprised when Hahn quotes racist comments by soldiers and administrators, or the speeches of politicians back in Washington, who thought people from inferior races i.e. the multicultural populations of Cuba, the Philippines and so on – simply weren’t capable of governing themselves, and needed the steady hand and civilising influence of the white man.

By the end of this book, I really hated America.


Old for us, new to the Yanks

I can’t get over the fact that so much of this seems to be new to the book’s reviewers. Back when I was a kid in school in the 1970s, I’m sure we all knew about American slavery. I remember the stir caused by the TV series Roots when it came out in 1977, over 40 years ago. All of us knew about the American Civil War, and maybe even had confederate flags or union caps among the various cowboy and Indian and army costumes we wore when we were ten. When I was a student, a friend of mine bought me Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee, the classic 1970 account of how America betrayed, bullied, and massacred its native peoples.

I’m sure all educated people knew about this history and these issues decades ago. The people around me in the Labour Party of the 1970s, the party of Tony Benn and Michael Foot, were very well aware of America’s history of imperialism, its origins in brutal slavery which it didn’t abolish until the 1860s, how it exterminated its native peoples, reached out to seize islands in the Pacific, in the Caribbean, and to dominate the nations to Central America, before going on to its long history of supporting military dictators, torture and assassination (in my youth these included the Shah of Iran, General Pinochet in Chile, General Franco in Spain, the military Junta in Greece, Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines and so on.)

In the 1980s I hung around the communist bookshop in Brixton which was absolutely plastered with posters about American racism and the legacy of slavery, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, protests against American imperialism and American multinational corporations and the CIA. Entrenched anti-Americanism was an absolutely basic, entry-level element of left-wing political awareness.

Yet somehow, in these books by Hahn and Alan Taylor, a lot of these things – the brutality of southern slavery, the genocide of the Indians – are presented as if they are new and seismic discoveries.

think what is happening here is that American academic history writing has finally caught up with how the rest of the world has seen America for generations – a hypocritical bully bragging about ‘liberty’ while keeping the descendants of the slaves locked up in drug-riddled ghettos, the last native Americans stuck in alcohol-soaked reservations, and propping up dictatorships around the world.

I think part of what’s going on in books like Taylor’s and Hahn’s is that, since the end of the Cold War, American academia has finally become free to portray the brutal realities of American history for what they were – and that, for American readers and students, a lot of this comes as a massive, horrifying shock. But to educated, and especially left-of-centre people throughout the rest of the world – yawn.

So if so much of the content has been so well known for so long, what was it that impressed the reviewers? I think it’s the unrelenting consistency with which he does two things:

One is the thorough-going application of a politically correct, identity-politics attitude which says right from the start that he is going to ignore a number of ‘famous’ events or movements or names (goodbye civil war, hello war of rebellion), in order to give more prominence to the role of native Americans, women and, especially, to blacks, than they have received in ‘previous’ histories.

But as I’ve commented above, very often Hahn’s widespread use of politically correct terminology like ‘patriarchy’ and ‘gender stereotypes’ and ‘racism’ and ‘masculinism’ in the passages where he does this, tends (paradoxically) to obscure a lot of these voices, to bury them beneath a shiny sociological jargon which removes specificity – names, places, events and even words – from many of the groups he’s supposedly championing. In this simple respect, I’ve found much older accounts to be far more enlightening.

In fact, it is possible to argue that Hahn and all the other politically correct historians who nowadays use terms like ‘patriarchy’ and ‘gender’ and ‘people of colour’ do so because these terms in fact fend off real acceptance of the blood and horror of those times. These sterile, clinical and detached terms in a way help to drain accounts of the period of their emotion and outrage. You could argue that the language of identity politics, the jargon of sociology and anthropology which recurs throughout the book, despite his explicit intention to bring uncomfortable facts and ignored voices into the light – in fact, through its sheer repetitiveness and its unspecific generalisation – works to neutralise and blunt the impact of a lot of what he’s describing.

For example, Hahn gives facts and figures and sociological explanations for the rise of slave fugitives following the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. But McPherson, writing thirty one years ago, and without using any jargon, tells the specific story of the slave woman who escaped with her children to the North, but was tracked down. As the slave-hunters, with their dogs and guns, beat on the door of the cabin where she was hiding, this woman cut the throats of her small children so they wouldn’t be taken back into slavery, and then tried to cut her own.

You can see which approach leaves you most stunned, horrified and angry at the unspeakable horror of slavery, and it isn’t Hahn’s.

This is because the second thing going on in the book is what really garnered the praise, and that is Hahn’s high-level, intellectual and often bloodless ‘rethinking’ and ‘reconceptualising’ of the era in the terms I outlined at the start of the review.

He is interested in suggesting to highly educated readers already familiar with most elements of the period some new ways of thinking about it. Throughout, he downplays the voices of the white politicians who (I’m guessing) dominated earlier narratives, he really downplays the War of the Rebellion (maybe because there are already tens of thousands of other accounts of it), and instead plays up the notion that the increasingly centralised American state faced a whole slew of rebellions from multiples sources, devoting his time to describing and theorising this riot of rebellions.

And so he ignores what I’m assuming is the old-fashioned type of history which celebrated the rise of American freedom and capitalism and wealth and included lots of dazzling images from the ‘Gilded Age’, and he focuses instead on the wide range of oppositions which the state (and rich monopolists) faced from women, Indians, blacks, alternative political parties, the trade unions, socialists and so on.

But I find it difficult to believe that all previous histories of this period utterly failed to mention the movement for women’s suffrage, that there aren’t hundreds of books about the Indians, and thousands about Segregation, that nobody noticed the epidemic of strikes in the 1890s, or that numerous commentators at the time (and ever since) haven’t criticised America’s interventions in Cuba and Hawaii and the Philippines as being as blatantly imperialist as the European Empires her politicians liked to piously denounce.

Maybe some of Hahn’s high-level reconceptualising is new and interesting, but to the average educated reader the actual events of this era remain unchanged and the main feature of Hahn’s book is that he doesn’t tell them as fully or as imaginatively as other versions do.

In a word

Don’t read this book unless you are already master enough of the period to appreciate Hahn’s reconceptualising of it. If you want vivid detail, maps, extensive quotes and a deep understanding of the period from 1820 to 1865, read Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era by James M. McPherson: so gripping, so packed with information and ideas, that I had to write five separate blog posts about it.

For the period after the Civil War – I have still to find a satisfactory history. Reading this book suggests I may have to track down separate books devoted to specific areas such as the Indian Wars, the Gilded Age with its labour militancy underside, segregation and its long-term consequences, and the imperial conquests at the end of the century.


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The War of 1812 by Carl Benn (2006)

‘Free trade and sailors’ rights’ (American rallying cry for the 1812 war)

In June 1812 the United States, under president James Madison, declared war on Great Britain. The war lasted three years and fighting took place along the America-Canada border, around the Great Lakes, off the American coast, and in the Deep South, in the region then called West Florida, now called Louisiana.

Why? Why did America attack Britain in 1812?

I borrowed the Osprey ‘Illustrated History’ of the war of 1812 from my local library, to find out.

Osprey Publishing produce a series titled ‘Essential Histories’. They are short (90 pages) lavishly illustrated texts describing the political and (especially) the military aspects of wars and conflicts, ancient and modern, ranging far and wide from the conflicts of Ancient Israel to Russia’s offensives in Chechnya.

The volume on the war of 1812 is a good example of the format.

Reasons

The reasons American politicians gave for declaring war were that:

  1. Royal Navy ships had been stopping and searching American vessels. They did this to retake fugitives and deserters from RN ships, since Britain was at war with Napoleon’s France. But they often went further and press ganged men who claimed to be citizens of the United States, causing outrage.
  2. The French and British had spent a decade or more imposing a complicated sequence of trade bans and embargos on each other and the Americans, to which the Americans responded with their own. The British ones were policed more effectively because of the strength of the Royal Navy – the 1811 bans on the export of American salted fish hit the Yanks particularly hard.

So the Americans went to war because:

  1. The British trade embargos seriously threatened their trade
  2. Because of the embargos, British America (i.e. Canada) threatened to replace America as a supplier of a number of staples to France and Britain
  3. Seizing the Great Lakes-St Lawrence Waterway system would cripple Canadian trade and greatly boost America

There were other reasons too.

Native Americans Many colonists had fought the War of Independence because they wanted to expand westwards into ‘the Old Northwest’ (Ohio, Michigan, Indiana). But the native Algonkian-speaking Americans of the region weren’t happy about American expansion, and there was evidence that the British were arming and supporting them to repel American incomers. A key moment was when American forces clashed with warriors of a western native confederacy at Tippecanoe in November 1811. War felt inevitable to both sides.

Manifest Destiny Many Americans thought that their nation had God-given destiny to control the entire North American continent. This vision and policy were named Manifest Destiny. Hawkish American expansionists hoped that another war would drive Britain from the North American mainland completely, vastly expanding American territory and economy. They thought that only God himself could set natural bounds to America, from the Gulf of Mexico in the south to the Arctic wastes in the north. Everything in between should be theirs. Hero of the independence struggle Thomas Jefferson, who had himself recently been president (1801-1809), declared that, if there was war, the Americans would capture Quebec in the first year, ready to march on Halifax (on the Canadian coast) in year two, and soon afterwards clear the Brits out of the continent altogether. Hooray.

Mississippi East and West Florida nominally belonged to Spain. President Madison had proclaimed the annexation of West Florida in 1810. But the war party thought that they could use any conflict with Britain to consolidate their control in the region. In the event, the Florida theatre of the war was to be most notable for the successful American defence of New Orleans, although the British did manage to take some other strategic points on the Gulf coast. In 1819, well after the war had ended, America bought both Floridas from Spain.

Re-election President Madison had made mistakes in his negotiations with both France and Britain in the preceding years, prompting criticism even from inside his own party. He had served one term as president and was up for re-election in 1812. Declaring war was a traditional way of rallying support and quelling domestic criticism. In the event, Madison received his party’s nomination and was re-elected in November of 1812.

The war

No-one expected the war to last three years.

And nobody expected the Americans to quite so useless. It is pretty amusing to read about the first few American attacks across the border into what was called ‘Upper Canada’, and how easily they were beaten back or defeated by the Brits.

But the Americans didn’t give up and there followed a complex sequence of battles and skirmishes on land, a few naval engagements on the great lakes, many more at sea on the Atlantic, as well as a separate campaign fought down around New Orleans on the Gulf of Mexico.

There is a long, detailed account on Wikipedia.

America’s main military aim was to seize Upper Canada i.e. British territory lining the Great Lakes. They launched eight invasion attempts at different places, yet all but one failed, and that one only secured a small part of south-west Ontario, and this ended up being handed back at the 1815 peace treaty. Hardly driving the British from the continent.

The outcome of 1812 invasion attempts at Detroit, Niagara and Montreal was that:

The United States had lost every engagement of significance and suffered huge losses in prestige, supplies, land and men.

Further American losses followed in two major invasion attempts of 1813. However, the small American navy of Captain Oliver Hazard Perry (9 ships) did win the Battle of Lake Erie on September 10, 1813 against 6 British ships, compelling the British to fall back from Detroit.

American General Harrison launched another invasion of Upper Canada, which culminated in the U.S. victory at the Battle of the Thames on October 5, 1813.

Up to now the British had relied for support on a confederation of native Americans led by the warrior Tecumseh. He was killed in the Battle of the Thames and with his death the confederation collapsed and many native Americans withdrew west into America away from the war zone, or east alongside retreating Canadian citizens. Many Indians had fought hoping that the British would guarantee them a territory of their own in the north-west. This dream was now dead.

The Battle of the Thames, also known as the Battle of Moraviantown, a decisive American victory in the War of 1812 against Great Britain, on October 5, 1813, near present-day Chatham, Ontario, showing the death of native American leader Tecumseh

The Battle of the Thames, also known as the Battle of Moraviantown, a decisive American victory on October 5, 1813, near present-day Chatham, Ontario, showing the death of native American leader, Tecumseh

The war followed the same pattern in 1814. Despite some victories, and fiercely fought battles e.g. at Lundy’s Lane and around the besieged Fort Erie, the Americans failed in their twin objectives of retaking Macinac on the north shore of Lake Huron or breaking out of the mouth of the Niagara River and crossing Lake Ontario into Canada.

The 1814 American Macinac and Niagara campaigns had come to a failed end.

War on sea and land

There were quite a few encounters between Royal Navy and US navy ships, victory generally going to the larger ship or greater number. Both sides encouraged ‘privateers’ i.e. licensed pirates, to board and seize the opponent’s merchant vessels. This causes both sides inconvenience, the seizures sometimes escalating to combat and associated deaths of merchant mariners.

The most important aspect of the war at sea was that the Royal Navy imposed an effective naval blockade, initially on the southern states then, once Napoleon was defeated in 1814, extending it to the entire American seaboard. US import-export trade plummeted from $114 million in 1811 to just $20 million in 1814.

The British also launched amphibious assaults on ports up and down the coast. In August 1814 they landed 4,000 men near Washington. Advancing up the River Potomac, Royal Marines and sailors destroyed a privateer, 17 gunboats, 13 merchant schooners and any dwellings which resisted. At the Battle of Blandenburg 2,600 British regulars whipped 6,000 American militia, sailors and regulars.

On August 24, 1814, after defeating the Americans at the Battle of Bladensburg (‘the greatest disgrace ever dealt to American arms’), a British force led by Major General Robert Ross continued into the young nation’s capital city, Washington D.C., where they burned down the White House, the Capitol, the Treasury and the War Office, plus other military facilities. Another detachment of Brits took the nearby port of Alexandria. Both forces seized vessels, arms and munitions as well as general loot, before falling back to the river, and so back to sea.

The British then tried something similar at Baltimore, the coastal base of America’s much-hated fleet of privateers, but were rebuffed by the strength of American defences.

Criticised for these attacks by the opposition in Parliament, British Prime Minister Lord Liverpool justified the burning as retaliation for:

a) December 1813 when withdrawing American forces turned the people of Niagara out of their houses into the snow then burned the town to the ground, the next day similarly burning Queenston to the ground
b) the American destruction of the Parliament buildings and other public buildings in York, the provincial capital of Upper Canada, early in 1813
c) the Americans started the war

In the south the British launched an amphibious attack on New Orleans but the city was skilfully defended by Major-General Andrew Jackson, winning the reputation which helped him twenty years later become president, 1829-37.

War’s end

Diplomats in Europe had begun trying to end the war as soon as it started. The British had made concessions on the trade embargos before America even declared war.

Both sides had many aims they were reluctant to abandon which delayed things, but negotiations inched to a conclusion on Christmas Eve 1814, in the European city of Ghent.

The most fundamental war aim of America had been to seize ‘upper Canada’, hawks hoping to seize all of Canada. In this respect the war was what my kids call an epic fail. America gained no Canadian land whatsoever. Both sides agreed to set up a commission to finalise the border between America and Canada, a border which has endured to this day.

The retention of British America – whose states came together to form the Dominion of Canada in 1867 – had two large consequences:

  1. It allowed the British Empire access to a wide range of North American goods – wheat, timber, furs – but within Imperial trade arrangements
  2. In 1914, and then in 1939, Canadian soldiers and resources played what this book calls a ‘vital’ role in reinforcing Britain as it entered the two world wars.

Despite having gained nothing that it set out to achieve – the British categorically refused to back down on the contentious issue of press-ganging and the issue only went away because the war with Napoleon had ended – the American president, his party, and their supporters in the press all hailed the war as a Great Victory, with the handful of outright American victories, especially the defence of New Orleans, growing in legend and inaccuracy as the years passed.

The star-spangled banner

35-year-old lawyer and amateur poet Francis Scott Key had witnessed the bombardment of Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbour by Royal Navy ships during the Battle of Baltimore. He was inspired to write a poem about it – ‘The Defence of Fort M’Henry – on September 14, 1814.

The poem was quickly set to the pre-existing tune of a popular British song of the day, and became known as the Star-Spangled Banner. In 1931 it was recognised as the national anthem of America.

Summary

The Essential Histories lack much subtlety or nuance. There isn’t enough space. They’re only 90 or so pages long, and all of them include several 2- or 3- or 4-page featurettes on quirky aspects of the conflict – this one has a section on the native American Black Hawk’s War, and another section profiling the experiences of the Anglican vicar of York (later to become Toronto), John Strachan, during the town’s siege and occupation by American forces (and it is a fascinating account).

Given that there has to be an introduction, half a dozen pages on the background, and a similar amount on the outcome, and given that the Osprey books are generously illustrated with – wherever possible – contemporary pictures and full-page maps, there isn’t much room left for anything except a bald recital of the facts – in the case of the War of 1812 a steady series of skirmishes and battles – on land, on the Great Lakes, on the Atlantic and around New Orleans – spaced over three fighting seasons, none of which led to a decisive knock-out victory.

It’s a handy introduction, but at some stage I’ll probably want to read a more in-depth account, probably the prize-winning one by the great Alan Taylor.


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Thomas Cole: Eden to Empire @ the National Gallery

This is a fabulously enjoyable exhibition on numerous levels. It contains 58 works, the majority on loan from North American collections, focusing on a score of masterpieces by American landscape painter Thomas Cole – making this a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see so many of his works together in one place.

It also brings together some enormous paintings by Claude, Constable, Turner and John Martin to show how Cole studied and learned from them.

And, quite apart from the visually stunning impact of many of these huge works, it is rich in thought-provoking issues and ideas.

Four rooms and seven chapters

Thomas Cole is famous in the U.S. as the greatest American landscape artist of his generation, more or less founding the young republic’s tradition of landscape painting.

In fact he was British, born in Bolton, Lancashire in 1801 to a middle class family in reduced circumstances. So reduced that young Thomas was sent out to work while still school age, among other jobs working as an assistant to an engraver.

The story of his life, achievement and influence is told in the four rooms of the National Gallery’s ground Floor Galleries, which have been divided into seven sections or ‘chapters’. There’s also a handy timeline of his life on one wall, to give a sense of the flow and development of his career before he was struck down tragically young, dying aged 47 in 1848.

Chapter 1. Industrial England

Cole was born in Bolton near Manchester as the industrial revolution reached its first flood of development.

The first section includes a vivid depiction of the impact of this new coal and iron technology in Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg’s painting Coalbrookdale by Night, painted in 1801 the year of Cole’s birth. Note the enormous abandoned cogs and crankshafts at the bottom left and their resemblance to the ruined columns in paintings of Roman and Greek ruins i.e. the way older aesthetic forms lingered on in the new world.

Coalbrookdale by Night (1801) by Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg © The Science Museum

Coalbrookdale by Night (1801) by Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg © The Science Museum

Not only was the physical landscape being devastated, but so were the people too, the old cottage-based artisan economy eroded by mass production in the new manufactories where people were reduced to ‘hands’, working 12 hours a day, seven days a week, to serve the machines.

This prompted a backlash. Nearby hangs a contemporary lampoon of a Luddite, one of the gangs of workers who smashed up the machinery in a bid to halt ‘progress’ and to keep work human.

When his father’s business failed, Cole, a sensitive well-educated teenager, was forced to take work engraving printing blocks in a local cotton mill. He had, quite literally, hands-on experience of the way industrial ‘progress’ was making work mechanical and alienating.

In 1817 the family moved to Liverpool where Cole got a job working in an engraver’s shop where he would have seen prints by the leading artists of the day.

Chapter 2. American Wilderness

When he was 17 Cole’s parents decided to emigrate. His family sailed to America and settled in Philadelphia. Cole was now determined to become a painter, borrowing all the textbooks he could find and taking lessons from an itinerant artist. In 1825 he moved to New York City and that summer took a steamboat trip up the Hudson river into the Catskill Mountains.

He made numerous sketches of this picturesque landscape, rich in hills, valleys, small rivers, abundant wildlife and forests stretching as far as the eye could see. Already it was a tourist destination for New Yorkers but Cole removed all human traces from his sketches and especially from the finished paintings he worked up from them, depicting the landscape as a virgin wilderness.

View of the Round-Top in the Catskill Mountains (Sunny Morning on the Hudson) by Thomas Cole (1827) Photo © 2018 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

View of the Round-Top in the Catskill Mountains (Sunny Morning on the Hudson) by Thomas Cole (1827) Photo © 2018 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Although there are a few tiny sailboats on the river in the far distance of this painting you’d be forgiven for not seeing them. What you are meant to see is the wild and storm-battered trees and the outcrop of rock, highlighted in the foreground and set against the ominous dark shape of the mountain (Round Top) rising behind it.

In these paintings Cole was seeking, in his own words, ‘a higher style of landscape’. He was influenced by the prints he’d seen of the magnificent sprawling light effects achieved by J.M.W. Turner and the grandiose melodramatic effects of ‘end of the world’ John Martin. What makes this exhibition even more visually stunning than it would have been is the inclusion of some wildly dramatic works by Turner and Martin of the sort which inspired young Cole.

A classic example of Cole’s literary or melodramatic embellishment of landscape is this fantastical scene from James Fenimore Cooper’s classic novel of the wilderness north of New York, Last of the Mohicans, published just the year before, in 1826.

The humans are obviously dwarfed by the setting, an improbably fantastical circular ledge of rock on the right of the picture, allowing the left half to reveal a ‘sublime’ receding vista of successive rugged mountains, lakes, and more mountains. The very human passions of Cooper’s novel have been translated into an image of almost cosmic significance.

Scene from The Last of the Mohicans, Cora Kneeling at the Feet of Tamenund (1827) by Thomas Cole © Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut / Allen Phillips

Scene from The Last of the Mohicans, Cora Kneeling at the Feet of Tamenund (1827) by Thomas Cole © Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut / Allen Phillips

These paintings attracted buyers, and word of mouth led Cole to be taken up by some very wealthy patrons. It was one of these patrons, Luman Reed, who paid for Cole to return to Europe and undertake a tour of Italy in order to improve his technique and his life drawing.

Chapter 3. London – Imperial Metropolis

So at the age of 28 Cole returned to Europe, stopping in London, where he visited the newly opened ‘National Gallery’ to study Old Masters. Here he actually met Constable and Turner. He was invited for a personal tour of the latter’s studio, where he admired the remarkable painting, Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps.

Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps by Joseph Mallord William Turner (1812) © Tate 2018

Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps by Joseph Mallord William Turner (1812) © Tate 2018

You can see how this kind of thing played to Cole’s interest in depicting absolutely massive natural landscapes, enormous cosmic or geographical motifs which dwarf their puny human characters.

But like everyone else who met him, Cole was disappointed by the contradiction between the sublimity of Turner’s paintings and the man himself, who was dirty, smelly, abrupt and inarticulate, having the appearance and manners, as Cole put it, of ‘the mate of a coasting vessel’.

At the Royal Academy Cole exhibited some of his own landscapes, such as the striking Distant View of Niagara Falls, which he actually completed in London from sketches taken at the scene, and which he deliberately painted with a view to wowing the London public. He was disappointed when they didn’t make much impact.

Distant View of Niagara Falls (1830) by Thomas Cole © The Art Institute of Chicago

Distant View of Niagara Falls (1830) by Thomas Cole © The Art Institute of Chicago

Chapter 4. The Grand Tour

Cole travelled quickly through Paris, which held no interest for him, and on to Florence, where he spent eight months getting to know the town’s close-knit artistic community, painting the city and going out into the surrounding countryside to paint landscapes and especially all and any remains of the once-great Roman Empire.

In 1832 he moved on to Rome itself, studying and sketching all the famous sites and also venturing out into the surrounding countryside, much loved by the French painted Claude Lorraine whose work he had admired in London.

This part of the exhibition displays figure studies Cole did in Italy, as well as oil paintings of Florence and of picturesque Roman ruins embedded in the tranquil Italian countryside.

Chapter 5. The Course of Empire

Cole returned to the States in 1832 and became a citizen in 1834. It was now, after all this training and preparation, that he began work on the ambitious cycle of five massive paintings designed to portray the rise and fall of an imaginary civilisation which he was to call The Course of Empire.

Visually, the ‘civilisation’ – i.e. the buildings, clothes and trappings of all the inhabitants – are based on ancient Rome, with its vast classical buildings, all pillars, porticoes and domes. But the landscape, the natural setting of the rise and fall, are recognisably the America of Cole’s Catskill paintings.

In this, the first of the sequence, a ‘savage’ dressed in a loincloth in the middle foreground on the left is chasing a deer he has wounded with an arrow, at the bottom and slightly to the right of middle. In the distance on the right is a circle of Indian teepees with a fire burning. Looming up out of the John Martin-style, over-arching clouds, is a sloping mountain topped by a distinctive boulder, which appears in all five paintings.

The Course of Empire: The Savage State by Thomas Cole (1834) © Collection of The New-York Historical Society, New York / Digital image by Oppenheimer Editions

The Course of Empire: The Savage State by Thomas Cole (1834) © Collection of The New-York Historical Society, New York / Digital image by Oppenheimer Editions

The sequence as a whole can be quickly taken in on Wikipedia.

The five paintings are:

  • The Savage State
  • The Arcadian or Pastoral State
  • The Consummation of Empire
  • Destruction
  • Desolation

As you can see, the paintings combine epic scale and deep perspective with a beguiling attention to minute detail. For example, in the second painting, look for the old man tracing geometric shapes in the sand with a stick, the first tremors of the ‘science’ which will give rise to ‘industry’.

The Consummation of Empire is in some ways the most visually pleasing. It’s physically the biggest of the five, but I think a lot of its success is due to the importance of light in bringing an unexpected sense of air and spaciousness to what ought to be a ridiculously crowded and crammed composition.

The Course of Empire: The Consummation of Empire (1835–6) by Thomas Cole © Collection of The New-York Historical Society, New York / Digital image by Oppenheimer Editions

The Course of Empire: The Consummation of Empire (1835–6) by Thomas Cole © Collection of The New-York Historical Society, New York / Digital image by Oppenheimer Editions

It adds to your appreciation to learn that the five paintings are conceived of taking place at different times of day: Savage at dawn, Arcadia in mid-morning, Consummation in the full light of a Mediterranean noon, Destruction in the late afternoon, and Desolation at moonrise.

A whole room is devoted to these five enormous paintings (with a handful of works from Italy on other walls so you can see where ideas of perspective, and especially of classical buildings and plant-covered ruins came from). It is a dazzling array of visionary genius.

Chapter 6. Cole’s Manifesto

Andrew Jackson was the seventh president of the United States, serving from 1829 to 1837, that’s to say at exactly the period when Cole came into his own as a professional artist, travelled to Europe and painted his epic Course of Empire series.

Jackson is controversial nowadays for the politically correct reasons that he was a slave-owner who also took a tough line with native Americans, leading the US Army in the First Seminole War (1814-19), and in 1830 signing an Indian Relocation Act which expelled native Americans from the South to the mid-West of America, causing an immensely destructive uprooting of peoples and cultures in which many died.

But contemporaries like Cole disliked Jackson not for these reasons, but because he was a demagogic populist who appealed over the heads of the Washington establishment to the broader electorate, claiming to speak up for ‘the common man’.

Several art scholars were on hand at the press view I attended and one of them said that Jackson was ‘the Donald Trump of his day’, claiming to stand up for the common man, but in reality paving the way for the spread of industrial capitalism into the West.

He said that if the figure in a red cloak riding in triumph across the viaduct in The Consummation of Empire can be seen as Jackson/Trump, then his empress, seated on a throne at the extreme right and bottom of the picture, must be Melania!

Why did Cole dislike Jackson so much? Because he objected to Jackson forcefully encouraging the opening up of the West for settlement and exploitation.

For Cole is seen by many as not only the first serious painter of landscapes in America, and founder of the Hudson River School of art, but also as one of the first American environmentalists.

Cole was deeply fearful that the Americans were about to repeat the mistakes he had witnessed at first hand in Britain, and were about to destroy their natural landscape in a misguided quest for industrialisation and ‘progress’.

This wasn’t just an opinion he expressed in painting. In 1836, while he was working on the Course of Empire paintings, Cole felt strongly enough about it to write an ‘Essay on American Scenery’ pleading for the preservation of the American wilderness.

Coincidentally and ironically, the same year saw construction begin on the Hudson Valley railway. In the final room, among other works, there’s a pairing of paintings Cole did before and after the railway was built through his beloved Catskill landscape.

View on the Catskill - Early Autumn (1836–7) by Thomas Cole © The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo by Juan Trujillo

View on the Catskill – Early Autumn (1836–7) by Thomas Cole © The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo by Juan Trujillo

The commentary very usefully pointed out the way Cole uses techniques borrowed from Claude Lorraine, namely the elegant trees framing the view, at the right, and the big eggshell blue sky, to convey a tremendous sense of openness and tranquility, against which his characteristically tiny people are framed.

The ‘after’ painting, made six years later in 1843, hardly depicts the end of the world; the changes are more subtle.

A moment’s attention shows that the trees have gone. The framing pair at the right of the earlier work, and the smaller one on the left, have disappeared, replaced by hacked-down stumps. Worse, where the entire lake was previously lined by an elegant sweep of trees, now these have all gone, replaced by low-growing bushes. Removing the trees eliminates the sense of depth and mystery from the view.

River in the Catskills (1843) by Thomas Cole © 2018 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

River in the Catskills (1843) by Thomas Cole © 2018 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The railway itself cuts across the middle distance and this also, once you focus on it, has a subtly undermining effect. Previously the view unfolded with a sense of limitless depths, a sense of mystery succeeding wooded mystery. Now, denuded of trees and bisected by this subtle but decisive line, the entire landscape now appears somehow more constrained and controlled.

The highlight of the last room is arguably Cole’s most famous painting into which he poured everything – his management of sheer scale and size, his sense for landscape, everything he had learned from Turner and Constable about clouds – all expressed in yet another realistic painting which lends itself to allegorical interpretation – View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm, generally known as The Oxbow.

View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm - The Oxbow (1836) by Thomas Cole © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm – The Oxbow (1836) by Thomas Cole © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

This is a huge and hugely enjoyable painting, with much to note and savour. Moving from left to right, up in the sky, we pass from a violent thunderstorm (with forked lightning at the extreme left), to the storm petering out, whiter clouds and then a clear blue sky appearing.

This movement is paralleled on the earth by a movement from violently broken trees in the left foreground and dense virgin brush in the middle-left, suddenly giving way with a great sense of release to a huge vista down over the river valley to the mountains beyond.

And down in the river valley – in striking contrast to the dark, dark green of the wild brush in the left foreground, is the honey yellow of wheatfields in which stand tiny stooks of wheat. Scattered among the orderly yellow and light green fields are occasional settlements of good, honest, horny-handed farmers. Down at the bottom right is a ford with a few horses coming down to it and a raft crossing the river.

This is Cole’s vision of what America should be like, a land of free-living independent yeoman-farmers – the polar opposite of the urbanisation, the galloping desecration of the wilderness, and the encouragement of rapid industrialisation, all of which were taking place under Jackson’s presidency.

It was staring me in the face but I didn’t notice until one of the art historians pointed it out, that the river doesn’t just form a sharp loop – it is in the shape of a question mark. Which future will America choose, a federation of independent farmers, or go down the ruinous path of the Britain which Cole had himself escaped, towards industrialisation, environmental ruination and the transformation of free agricultural workers into a wretched proletariat?

More light-heartedly, Cole has painted himself into his work. At the bottom, just to the right of centre, you can see his head and hat emerging from behind a log. Here I am. I’m painting this beauty. What are you going to make of it?

Detail of the Oxbow by Thomas Cole, showing the artist himself

Detail of The Oxbow by Thomas Cole, showing the artist himself

The Oxbow has never been seen in the UK before. It is just one of about 20 paintings which are normally based in America, are rarely displayed together, and are well worth paying the admission price to see and savour.

Chapter 7. Cole’s Legacy

The final wall in the exhibition shows us the works of some of the painters who inherited Cole’s mantle. He died suddenly aged only 47, but not before he had taught the talented Asher Brown Durand and the exceptional Frederic Edwin Church. They both absorbed Cole’s practice of direct observation of nature, sketching and painting on site in the open air. There are several works by Durand and Church to assess them by.

Ironically, although Cole’s style and approach expanded into an entire ‘school’, almost all of his followers dropped his environmental concerns and adopted the new spirit of the times, the infectious optimism that America’s expansion West, its development and industrialisation, all represented a Manifest Destiny to become God’s Own Country.

Durand’s Progress (The Advance of Civilisation) was painted in 1853, just five years after Cole’s death, yet it celebrates the nascent taming of the wilderness.

At bottom right some cattle are being rounded up while a wagon is being driven up the road. To its left we can see a canal with a lock in it, over which, a bit further down, what looks like a railway bridge crosses over.

On a spur of land sticking out into the lake, in the distance, is some kind of town with a cluster of chimneys emitting the kind of smoke we saw in the first room of the gallery, denoting the British Industrial revolution. Meanwhile, half hidden among the broken trees to the left, is a group of three native Americans looking on – with awe, with regret, who knows? – but in effect characters made to pose and gaze in wonder at the unstoppable Progress of the White Man.

Progress (The Advance of Civilisation) by Asher Brown Durand

Progress (The Advance of Civilisation) by Asher Brown Durand (1853)

Absences and contradictions

There’s no slavery in Cole’s paintings. There are few native Americans. Politically correct curators can point out what – to our enlightened times – are these notable absences.

But then again there are no working poor of any kind. Farms we see, from a great distance, in The Oxbow, but none of the early starts and long days and hard manual labour involved in farming.

In fact people in general are conspicuous by their absence from Cole’s painting. Having never had a formal training, he was self-conscious about his ability to draw bodies and faces and so limited his depictions of people to distant puppets.

In any case, all this was part of his overall strategy, which was to cleanse the landscape of its human inhabitants (white or black or red) in order to present it as a bountiful and idyllic wildscape.

For example, the wall label tells us that there were already tourists at Niagara Falls, roads to bring them there and accommodation for them to stay in. But all of this was omitted from Cole’s primitivising vision of Niagara Falls (above).

The great irony of his career and art is, Who did he produce these visions of a pristine nature for, who did he sell them to?

The answer: to rich patrons in New York and Connecticut who had become rich precisely by laying roads across the wilderness, by selling dry goods to new settlements and, in the case of the New York bankers who patronised Cole, by funding the new railroads and industrial enterprises which were despoiling the very landscapes they paid him to paint.

Cole is praised as a founding environmentalist – but he is just as much a forerunner of that familiar figure, the modern artist who uses art to rail against capitalism, the West, exploitation, poverty and so on but – makes a career by selling their work to rich bankers or to art institutions founded and endowed by rich bankers, the lynchpins of the very system they purport to criticise.

A rapture of beauties

This exhibition would be worth visiting for the Cole alone, but the National Gallery has given us a real embarras de richesses by including masterpieces by the four European painters who most influenced him –

  • the enormous Snowstorm by Turner (Tate)
  • the ludicrously melodramatic Belshazzar’s Feast by John Martin (Yale, USA)
  • as well as five works by John Constable including Hadleigh Castle (Yale, USA) the Opening of Waterloo Bridge (Tate) and three beautiful sketches all usually kept at Yale University in the States, including some wonderful sketches of clouds

Cole developed a friendship with Constable and they exchanged letters and sketches. In fact there are a number of studies by Constable and Turner of skies, cloudscapes and so on, to compare and contrast with Cole’s own sketches. Some of the Constable ones are stunningly skilful uses of paint.

The Opening of Waterloo Bridge (1832) by John Constable © Tate 2018

The Opening of Waterloo Bridge (1832) by John Constable © Tate 2018

In fact one of the most fascinating snippets or sidelights of the exhibition was being shown the relationship between Cole’s anti-industrialising ethos and Constable’s similar sentiments. I hadn’t noticed before that the south bank of the Thames in the Opening of Waterloo Bridge (at the far right of the painting) is thronged with factory chimneys spewing out toxic smoke. Apparently, in his final years, Constable was depressed at the arrival of industrial blight in the landscape of the south of England.

I last saw The Opening in a large exhibition of Constable and powerfully disliked it. The curator pointed out that so does everyone else, but that was part of its point. It is an English version of Cole’s The Consummation of Empire, showing foolhardy pomp and circumstance while in the background industrialism is beginning to corrupt and destroy the culture.

Last but not least in the room showing enormous paintings which influenced Cole is Seaport with the Embarkation of Saint Ursula by Claude Lorraine. You can immediately see how his light-filled combination of water with classical buildings was absorbed and repurposed by Cole for the Course of Empire series, but there are plenty of pleasures to linger and enjoy just in this one painting.

Seaport with the Embarkation of Saint Ursula (1641) by Claude

Seaport with the Embarkation of Saint Ursula (1641) by Claude

The point is, this exhibition isn’t just about Cole. If you add in the couple of paintings each by Durand and Church to the Claude, Turner, Constable and Martin, the feeling is of encountering masterpiece after masterpiece in an exhibition which expands your mind and gladdens the heart.

While the rational mind is processing a raft of issues and ideas, the eyes are surfeited with quite rapturous beauty.

The promotional video


Related links

Reviews of other National Gallery exhibitions

Other posts about American history

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