Conspicuous in their absence from my 1960s elementary education were African Americans and Native Americans. Enslaved blacks made an appearance in my textbooks, of course, but slavery as an institution was sketched out as little more than a vague and largely benign product of the times. Then there was a Civil War fought over white men’s sectional grievances; there were dates, and battles, and generals, winners and losers. There was Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, then constitutional amendments that ended slavery and guaranteed equality. There was some bitterness but soon there was reconciliation, and we went on to finish building the transcontinental railroad. There were the obligatory walk-on cameos by Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, and later George Washington Carver, who had something to do with peanuts. For Native Americans, the record was even worse. Our texts featured vignettes of Squanto, Pocahontas, Sacajawea, and Sitting Bull. The millions of Amerindians that once populated the country from coast to coast had been effectively erased.
Alan Taylor, Pulitzer Prize winning author and arguably the foremost living historian of early America, has devoted a lifetime to redressing those twin wrongs while restoring the nuanced complexity of our past that was utterly excised from the standard celebration of our national heritage that for so long dominated our historiography. In the process, in the eleven books he has published to date, he has also dramatically shifted the perspective and widened the lens from the familiar approach that more rigidly defines the boundaries of the geography and the established chapters in the history of the United States—a stunning collective achievement that reveals key peoples, critical elements, and greater themes often obscured by the traditional methodology.
I first encountered Taylor some years ago when I read his magnificent American Colonies: The Settling of North America, which restores the long overlooked multicultural and multinational participants who peopled the landscape, while at the same time enlarging the geographic scope beyond the English colonies that later comprised the United States to encompass the rest of the continent that was destined to become Canada and Mexico, as well as highlighting vital links to the West Indies. Later, in American Revolutions, Taylor identifies a series of social, economic and political revolutions of outsize significance over more than five decades that often go unnoticed in the shadows of the War of Independence, which receives all the attention.
Still, as Taylor underscores, it was the outcome of the latter struggle—in which white, former English colonists established a new nation—that was to have the most lasting and dire consequences for all those in their orbit who were not white, former English colonists, most especially blacks and Native Americans. The defeated British had previously drawn boundaries that served as a brake on westward expansion and left more of that vast territory as a home to the indigenous. That brake was now off. Some decades later, Britain was to abolish slavery throughout its empire, which no longer included its former colonies. Thus the legacy of the American Revolution was the tragic irony that a Republic established to champion liberty and equality for white men would ultimately be constructed upon the backs of blacks doomed to chattel slavery, as well as the banishment or extermination of Native Americans. This theme dominates much of Taylor’s work.
In his latest book, American Republics: A Continental History of the United States, 1783-1850, which roughly spans the period from the Peace of Paris to California statehood, Taylor further explores this grim theme in a brilliant analysis of how the principles of white supremacy—present at the creation—impacted the subsequent course of United States history. Now this is, of course, uncomfortable stuff for many Americans, who might cringe at that very notion amid cries of revisionism that insist contemporary models and morality are being appropriated and unfairly leveraged against the past. But terminology is less important than outcomes: non-whites were not only foreclosed from participating as citizens in the new Republic, but also from enjoying the life, liberty and pursuit of happiness allegedly granted to their white counterparts. At the same time, southern states where slavery thrived wielded outsize political power that frequently plotted the nation’s destiny. As in his other works, Taylor is a master of identifying unintended consequences, and there are more than a few to go around in the insightful, deeply analytical, and well-written narrative that follows.
These days, it is almost de rigueur for historians to decry the failure of the Founders to resolve the contradictions of permitting human chattel slavery to coexist within what was declared to be a Republic based upon freedom and equality. In almost the same breath, however, many in the field still champion the spirit of compromise that has marked the nation’s history. But if there is an original sin to underscore, it is less that slavery was allowed to endure than that it was codified within the very text of the Constitution of the United States by means of the infamous compromise that was the “three-fifths rule,” which for the purposes of representation permitted each state to count enslaved African Americans as three-fifths of a person, thus inflating the political power of each state based upon their enslaved population. This might have benefited all states equally, but since slavery was to rapidly decline and all but disappear above what would be drawn as the Mason-Dixon, all the advantage flowed to the south, where eventually some states saw its enslaved population outnumber its free white citizenry.
This was to prove dramatic, since the slave south claimed a disproportionate share of national political power when it came to advancing legislation or, for that matter, electing a president! Taylor notes that the disputed election of 1824 that went for decision to the House of Representatives would have been far less disputed without the three-fifths clause, since in that case John Quincy Adams would have led Andrew Jackson in the Electoral College 83 to 77 votes, instead of putting Jackson in the lead 99 to 84. [p253] When Jackson prevailed in the next election, it was the south that cemented his victory.
The scholarly consensus has established the centrality of slavery to the Civil War, but Taylor goes further, arguing that its significance extended long before secession: slavery was ever the central issue in American history, representing wealth, power, and political advantage. The revolutionary generation decried slavery on paper—slave masters Washington, Jefferson and Madison all pronounced it one form of abomination or another—but nevertheless failed to act against it, or even part with their own human property. Jefferson famously declared himself helpless, saying of the peculiar institution that “We have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go,” but as slavery grew less profitable for Virginia in the upper south, Jefferson and his counterparts turned to breeding the enslaved for sale to the lower south, where the demand was great. Taylor points out that “In 1803 a male field hand sold for about $600 in South Carolina compared to $400 in Virginia: a $200 difference enticing to Virginia sellers and Carolina slave traders … Between 1790 and 1860, in one of the largest forced migrations in world history, slave traders and migrants herded over a million slaves from Virginia and Maryland to expand southern society …” [p159] Data and statistics may obscure it, but these were after all living, breathing, sentient human beings who were frequently subjected to great brutalities while enriching those who held them as chattel property.
Jefferson and others of his ilk imagined that slavery would somehow fall out of favor at some distant date, but optimistically kicking the can down the road to future generations proved a fraught strategy: nothing but civil war could ever have ended it. As Taylor notes:
Contrary to the wishful thinking of many Patriots, slavery did not wither away after the American Revolution. Instead, it became more profitable and entrenched as the South expanded westward. From 698,600 in 1790, the number of enslaved people soared to nearly 4 million by 1860, when they comprised a third of the South’s population … In 1860, the monetary value of enslaved people exceeded that of all the nation’s banks, factories, and railroads combined. Masters would never part with so much valuable human property without a fight. [p196]
As bad as it was for enslaved blacks, in the end Native Americans fared far worse. It has been estimated that up to 90% of Amerindians died as a result to exposure to foreign pathogens within a century of the Columbian Experience. The survivors faced a grim future competing for land and resources with rapacious settlers who were better armed and better organized. It may very well be that conflict between colonists and the indigenous was inevitable, but as Taylor emphasizes, the trajectory of the relationship became especially disastrous for the latter after British retreat essentially removed all constraints on territorial expansion.
The stated goal of the American government was peaceful coexistence that emphasized native assimilation to “white civilization.” The Cherokees who once inhabited present-day Georgia actually attempted that, transitioning from hunting and gathering to agriculture, living in wooden houses, learning English, creating a written language. Many practiced Christianity. Some of the wealthiest worked plantations with enslaved human property. It was all for naught. With the discovery of gold in the vicinity, the Cherokees were stripped of their lands in the Indian Removal Act of 1830, championed by President Andrew Jackson, and marched at bayonet point over several months some 1200 miles to the far west. Thousands died in what has been dubbed the “Trail of Tears,” certainly one of the most shameful episodes of United States history. Sadly, rather than an exception, the fate of the Cherokees proved to be indicative of what lay in store for the rest of the indigenous as the new nation grew and the hunger for land exploded.
That hunger, of course, also fueled the Mexican War, launched on a pretext in yet another shameful episode that resulted in an enormous land grab that saw a weaker neighbor forced to cede one-third of its former domains. It was the determination of southern states to transplant plantation-based slavery to these new territories—and the fierce resistance to that by “Free-Soilers” in Lincoln’s Republican Party—that lit the fuse of secession and the bloody Civil War that it spawned.
If there are faults to this fine book, one is that there is simply too much material to capably cover in less than four hundred pages, despite the talented pen and brilliant analytical skills of Alan Taylor. The author devoted an entire volume—The Civil War of 1812—to the events surrounding the War of 1812, a conflict also central to a subsequent effort, The Internal Enemy. This kind of emphasis on a particular event or specific theme is typical of Taylor’s work. In American Republics, he strays from that technique to attempt the kind of grand narrative survey seen by other chroniclers of the Republic, powering through decades of significance at sometimes dizzying speeds, no doubt a delight for some readers but yet disappointing to others long accustomed to the author’s detailed focus on the more narrowly defined.
Characteristic of his remarkable perspicacity, Taylor identifies what other historians overlook, arguing in American Republics that the War of 1812 was only the most well-known struggle in a consequential if neglected era he calls the “Wars of the 1810s” that also saw the British retreat northward, the Spanish forsake Florida, and the dispossession of Native Americans accelerate. [p148] That could be a volume in itself. Likewise, American culture and politics in the twelve years that separate Madison and Jackson is worthy of book-length treatment. There is so much more.
Another issue is balance—or a lack thereof. If the history of my childhood was written solely in the triumphs of white men, such accomplishments are wholly absent in American Republics, which reveals the long-suppressed saga of the once invisible victims of white supremacy. It’s a true story, an important story—but it’s not the only story. Surely there are some achievements of the Republic worthy of recognition here?
As the culture wars heat to volcanic temperatures, such omissions only add tinder to the flames of those dedicated to the whitewash that promotes heritage over history. Already the right has conjured an imaginary bugaboo in Critical Race Theory (CRT), with legislation in place or pending in a string of states that proscribes the teaching of CRT. These laws have nothing to do with Critical Race Theory, of course, but rather give cover to the dog whistles of those who would intimidate educators so they cannot teach the truth about slavery, about Reconstruction, about Civil Rights. These laws put grade-school teachers at a risk of termination for incorporating factual elements of our past into their curriculum, effectively banning from the classroom the content of much of American Republics. This is very serious stuff: Alan Taylor is a distinguished professor at the University of Virginia, a state that saw the governor-elect recently ride to an unlikely victory astride a sort of anti-CRT Trojan Horse. Historians cannot afford any unforced errors in a game that scholars seem to be ceding to dogmatists. If the current trend continues, we may very well witness reprints of my childhood textbooks, with blacks and the indigenous once more consigned to the periphery.
I have read seven of Taylor’s books to date. Like the others, his most recent work represents a critical achievement for historical scholarship, as well as a powerful antidote to the propaganda that formerly tarnished studies of the American Experience. The United States was and remains a nation unique in the family of nations, replete with a fascinating history that is at once complicated, messy, and controversial. American history, at its most basic, is simply a story of how we got from then to now: it can only be properly understood and appreciated in the context of its entirety, warts and all. Anything less is a disservice to the discipline as well as to the audience. To that end, American Republics is required reading.
Note: I have reviewed other works by Alan Taylor here: