In August 1835, a young enslaved man named Arthur Bowen was arrested on charges of attempted murder. After meeting with free Blacks, he had gone ax in hand to the bedroom of his owner, a wealthy Washington widow, before fleeing. She said he was drunk and had meant no harm, but a mob wanted to hang him.
"We ought to be free, and we will be free," Bowen sputtered to police. "And if we are not, there is going to be such confusion and bloodshed as to astonish the world."
Bowen "was a prophet," writes Alan Taylor in his latest examination of the early history of the United States, a whirlwind of a narrative that seems presciently suited for our own unsettled hour.
As with two of his previous books, Taylor — a history professor at the University of Virginia and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner — scrutinizes the nation through a continental-wide lens, this time from the end of the Revolution to the pre-Civil War years. It was an era when, he says, many American leaders believed the price of keeping their shaky union together was the perpetuation of slavery and the decimation of Native Americans.
The title "American Republics" is plural by design. Taylor holds that the fledgling United States of America was just one of several "republics" — the myriad Indian nations, Mexico, foreign empires such as Britain and Spain, Upper and Lower Canada, even individual states — that struggled for dominance in North America in the decades following the Revolutionary War.
The survival of the young nation was by no means certain, Taylor argues, and its story emerges in the working out of that tension. Contrary to the notion of manifest destiny, the widely held belief in America's inevitable continental supremacy, the early United States was characterized instead by "manifest divisions, instability, and uncertainty."
Although the states had banded together long enough to defeat the British in 1781, they remained invested in regional concerns and largely saw themselves as separate countries with little need to work together. Americans were split between those who, like George Washington, favored a strong central government, and others who believed, like Thomas Jefferson, that only a loose confederation of sovereign states could sustain a national union.
How to mold a lasting and resilient nation out of this quarrelsome collection of commonwealths? Their answer, according to Taylor, was to extend the young country across the continent to cement a sense of national purpose and accommodate the rising tide of white settlers.
That meant resistance against global powers Great Britain and Spain, which were allied with Indian tribes; pushing back the tribes themselves — in the late 1830s, killing or removing Indians consumed 40% of the federal budget — and pursuing a ginned-up war with Mexico to secure Texas, California and the American Southwest.
But western expansion also threatened the uneasy balance between the sections. Southerners believed the new territories would enable slavery to thrive, but many Northerners — moved by growing abolitionist appeals and the cries of poor whites unable to compete with slave labor — believed a line needed to be drawn. Even President Andrew Jackson, a Tennessee slave owner and unapologetic expansionist, was reluctant to annex Texas owing to northern fears over slavery's growth.
Taylor's reading of the American nation emerging after the Revolution under its new Constitution is far from the traditional story that credits great leaders, usually white men, for the nation's unbroken progress, as he acknowledged during an online forum held in January by the Minnesota Historical Society.
Many assume, he said, that Americans can't be patriotic if they're critical of the nation's past. He admires the founders. But they don't necessarily provide a blueprint for today.
"What I would like us to be able to do is to tell the history of the United States that is critical without being dismissive of the deep past," Taylor said. "There are enormous accomplishments since 1776 in redefining and making freedom and opportunity more inclusive. And you can't tell those stories without being frank about the limitations of the early United States."
Kevin Duchschere is a team leader at the Star Tribune. 612-673-4455
By: Alan Taylor.
Publisher: W.W. Norton, 592 pages, $35.