A Response to “Miseries in the name of Liberty”

Alan Taylor

The editors invited me to respond to the review by Todd Webb of my book American Republics, which is the third in a series examining the emergence of the United States in a continental context.  Webb’s review is so generous that I have no hairs to split with him.  He aptly notes the book’s attempt to link processes of expansion and enslavement with the development of an American democracy then reserved for white men.  I rather wish he had described my take as cheerful rather than bleak, but it is hard to put a happy face on the almost relentless racism that dominated public discourse in the United States prior to the Civil War.  I could have done more with the remarkably courageous people who fought so hard to redeem their society, among them Ellen Crafts, Frederick Douglass, and Sojourner Truth.  And I concede Webb’s main criticism, that American arts and literature warranted more attention.  Having learned much from reading James Fenimore Cooper and Edgar Allan Poe for two of my previous books, I would have benefitted from exploring Melville as a key witness to his century and society.

Having no dispute with Webb, let me instead offer a few thoughts on American and Canadian historians reading one another and rethinking our fields in less nationally defined ways – and with less comparative moralism.   I seek to know more about Canada not to claim expertise as a “Canadian historian” but to gain the relative neutrality of an outside perspective on the United States.   I read with some profit Seymour Martin Lipset’s book comparing political development in Canada and the United States, but he tended to see the two nations as parallel developments in one continent.  Unlike most of my countryman, I know that Canadians are not colder versions of Americans – and our differences seem more trenchant and revealing in history. On the Canadian side, these differences include a longer, lingering British imperial connection; a smaller presence of enslaved people; a more challenging environment for agriculture; and a powerful division between Anglophone and Francophone cultures and polities.

As Webb notes, both Canada and the United States emerged from processes of expansion that relied on Native dispossession.  In both societies, an insistence on white racial and cultural superiority deprived expansionists of qualms.  But the body count proved grimmer in the United States where the populace had greater power to dictate a more relentless pace of conquest.  And the latitudes of expansion meant that Americans wanted to exploit almost all Native lands, depriving indigenous people of the larger havens possible in parts of a more northern land of boreal forests. 

By noting that Canadians killed fewer Natives, I intend no boost to any nation’s relative morality.  Conservative reviewers in my native land insist that I underestimate the horrors of other nations by making too much of those within the United States.  Although I never, ever state that Americans erred more than other peoples, critics insist that a broad history should devote less attention to Natives and African Americans and more to the European immigrants who found better lives in the United States.  These reviewers often accept that monographs can offer critical assessments, but a synthetic history, they imply, should reassure Americans that they live in a just country superior to others. 

On that score I prefer to remain agnostic.  I do not know enough about other lands to play nation-state moral Olympics, nor do I detect any good purpose in doing so.  Having seen one American political party trivialize injustices past and present, I prefer to unsettle readers with chapter and verse rather than soothe anyone with pablum about the past.  We have no shortage of the latter on the southern side of our shared border.  But I doubt that Canadians, or any other people, can benefit from feeling superior to Americans, as we all could do better in dealing with the weight of the past.

Alan Taylor is Thomas Jefferson Foundation Chair in the Department of History at the University of Virginia.

Continue the conversation ...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s