“Miseries in the name of Liberty”

A Review of Alan Taylor’s American Republics: A Continental History of the United States, 1783-1850 (New York: W.W. Norton, 2021).

Todd Webb

This bleak and brilliant book offers a history of the antebellum United States in the wider context of its North American neighbours. That story, for Alan Taylor, was dominated by three processes: the westward expansion of American settlement at the expense of indigenous and black peoples; the increasingly ironic, if not toxic, impact of the American notion of democracy, particularly as conceived by white nationalists, on the dream of a more perfect nation; and the growing fragility of the federal union itself. This is a story that will also be of interest to historians of pre-Confederation Canada and of Mexico – both of which, of course, were shaped in reaction to the blood-stained and often chaotic growth of the United States.

Reduced to such basic terms, the narrative unfolded in American Republics may sound tediously didactic, but Taylor is far too fine a storyteller to fall into the trap of telling rather than showing. As the historian George Dangerfield pointed out years ago, antebellum America was dominated by characters who possessed “personalities [that] were very strong and very brilliant”.[i] Taylor brings those extraordinary people to life with deft sketches, though with a critical spirit informed by the latest academic literature on the period. Take, for example, Taylor’s approach to one of the dominant politicians of the early-nineteenth-century republic: Andrew Jackson. In the view of Dangerfield and Jackson’s most thorough modern biographer, Robert Remini, that president was best seen as a brash champion of popular democracy.[ii] Many contemporaries felt the same way. The novelist Herman Melville, for one, wrote ecstatically in his 1851 novel Moby-Dick about the “great democratic God” picking up “Andrew Jackson from the pebbles” and thundering “him higher than a throne!”[iii] In American Republics, however, Jackson appears as more of a monster than a hero. With cool precision, Taylor lays out his case, pointing out how the president pursued a policy that led to the dispossession of indigenous groups, how he sought to smash the efforts of abolitionists, and how he destabilized the American economy through his campaign to bring down the Second Bank of the United States. This record of reckless populism sounds like a more recent occupant of the White House. And Taylor himself cannot resist such comparisons at different points in his narrative. For instance, he notes that, in the run up to his war with Mexico, President James K. Polk promised to seize California to shift the cost of American aggression onto the shoulders of a debt-ridden Mexican state. “We have a long tradition of presidents seeking to make Mexico pay for American ambitions,” Taylor wryly concludes (332).

But, as I have already noted, one of the main narrative threads knitting together American Republics involves the bloody expansion of the United States at the expense of any group that seemed to get in the way of the dream of a white nation. Taylor’s continent-spanning approach to that story allows him to rethink some key events in interesting and important ways. Take, for example, his account of the War of 1812. It is probably fair to say that most Canadian historians view that conflict as an overwhelmingly northern affair. Not so, argues Taylor – the battles that took place along the St. Lawrence and the Great Lakes are more accurately seen as episodes in a much larger “War of the 1810s” “that erupted in 1810 and persisted until 1819, primarily on America’s southwestern frontier” (135-6). That conflict, in turn, was part of a decades-long effort on the part of American politicians to secure the borders of the union from British and Spanish interference. This urge to practice what Taylor terms “defensive imperialism” (327) was felt most strongly among southern slave owners, who feared the flight or revolt of their ‘property’ at the urging of foreign foes. This is not to say that Taylor reduces the American invasions of Lower and Upper Canada, and British attacks on the United States by land and sea, into mere sideshows. Those campaigns, like any major military incursions past or present, were devastating for any people who had the misfortune of finding themselves at the sharp end.        

Taylor’s account of the relentless slaughter of indigenous peoples and other groups, that accompanied the various efforts of Americans to expand the boundaries of their union to the north, south, and west, will shock and trouble the conscience of many readers. American Republics is certainly not a book that will be welcomed by anyone with an interest in denying, or downplaying, the corrosive impact of settler colonialism and, in the context of the United States, the concomitant growth of the slave economy during the antebellum period. Both of those processes, Taylor argues, were powered by the democracy that was the pride and joy of many white Americans of the time. To gain votes, to win elections, and to hold onto power at all levels of government, American politicians had to bow to the popular will. That necessarily meant acquiescing in, and even actively supporting, the burning desire of white settlers to remove indigenous groups ever further west and to deny them political and civil rights, along with Métis and free black people. All of this was meant to maintain the theoretically strict, but actually porous, racial division between whites and other communities. The mad and ultimately self-destructive results of this pursuit of white nationhood were foreseen by that fan of Andrew Jackson, Herman Melville, who strangely does not feature in American Republics.[iv] In Moby-Dick we find Captain Ahab leading his multiracial crew in what turns out to be a disastrous pursuit of a white whale. A decade before the American Civil War erupted in 1861, Melville could see where the volatile mix of national expansion, democratic politics, and the drive among white settlers to achieve racial purity might lead – the shipwreck of the already delicate federal union.

What about pre-Confederation Canada’s place in this grim story? Those colonies come out of Taylor’s book looking moderately better than the United States, but that should not warm the hearts of modern Canadian nationalists. Taylor makes plain, for instance, that the Canadian policy towards indigenous groups could have been as appalling as anything seen south of the border, but that such potential viciousness was undercut by the lack of American-style democracy in the colonies. When it came to indigenous affairs, British politicians were not directly answerable to the settler population of Lower and Upper Canada. As a result, officials in London, England, could maintain the façade of imperial paternalism towards First Nations people – and that smug sense of moral superiority to the Americans in which present-day Canadians still like to indulge. But, again, settler-indigenous relations north of the border were only better by comparison to the carnival of horrors that unfolded within and along the American frontier. The marginalization of indigenous groups in Canada was a more gradual, and less out-and-out bloodthirsty, process than in the United States, yet no less destructive, in the end, to native societies and cultures. And, though Taylor does not reach this point in his narrative, when settlers from Canada moved into the west beginning in the 1860s, similar forces of democratic pressure and white nationalism quickened the pace of state-sponsored violence and dispossession aimed at indigenous and Métis peoples.

The historian Ian Baucom writes that “history’s ironies are…the most brutal, the most exacting, and the most precise.”[v] That insight is borne out by Alan Taylor’s American Republics. There is no comfort, much less enjoyment, to be had from the ironies presented here with such consummate skill. Yet, amid the growing gloom of Taylor’s account, a few bright lights do briefly shine. Among that small number, there is the black abolitionist Ellen Craft, whose paler skin colour, the result of her being “the daughter of an enslaved mother and her master” (374), allowed her to escape slavery by a clever cross-dressing rouse. There is also the fur trader John McLoughlin who tried to run the Hudson’s Bay Company’s operations in the Oregon territory based on relationships of mutual respect with “local Chinook and Salish peoples” (380). And there is the South American revolutionary Simon Bolívar, who provides the quote in the title of this review; who, despite his own flaws, realized that true freedom and slavery could not coexist; and who quite rightly “distrusted American republicanism as a cloak for aggression” (307). But are such flashes of agency, humanity, and moral clarity enough to redeem the terrors that accompanied the growth of the American union and of settler society more generally in the early and mid-nineteenth century? It is a question that should be pondered by every serious historian of the period ­– and by every citizen of modern Canada, Mexico, and the United States.              

Todd Webb is an associate professor in the Department of History at Laurentian University. He is currently working a study of what he is tentatively calling the ‘mid-nineteenth century crisis in Anglo-American Protestantism,’ concentrating on the Wesleyan Methodist experience.

[i] George Dangerfield, The Era of Good Feelings (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1989), xii. The book was originally published in 1952.

[ii] Robert Remini, Andrew Jackson, 3 vols. (New York: Harper and Row, 1977-84). The three volumes are subtitled the Course of American Empire, the Course of American Freedom, and the Course of American Democracy, which gives a sense of Remini’s general approach to his subject.

[iii] Herman Melville, Moby-Dick; or, the Whale (New York: Penguin Books, 2003), 127.

[iv] My one quibble with American Republics is its overall lack of engagement with the wider cultural and literary contexts of the processes of national expansion. There are six pages dedicated to the topic in the book: 226-232.

[v] Ian Baucom, Specters of the Atlantic: Finance Capital, Slavery, and the Philosophy of History (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005), 169.

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