[Marxism] The Conquerers: A New 19th-Century History Focuses on American Imperialism

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Dec 18 12:27:24 MST 2016

NY Times Sunday Book Review, Dec. 18 2016
The Conquerers: A New 19th-Century History Focuses on American Imperialism

The United States and Its World in an Age of Civil Wars, 1830-1910
By Steven Hahn
Illustrated. 596 pp. Viking. $35.

“I take space to be the central fact to man born in America, from Folsom 
cave to now,” the great poet Charles Olson wrote in his study of Herman 
Melville. “I spell it large because it comes large here. Large, and 
without mercy.” In one way or another, historians of 19th-century 
America have long grappled with the way space — whether defined as 
property, geography or Emersonian nature — has seized the imagination, 
and lined the pocketbooks, of slaveholders, colonialists and capitalists.

In his comprehensive “A Nation Without Borders: The United States and 
Its World in an Age of Civil Wars, 1830-1910,” Steven Hahn is no 
exception, although he provides the most sweeping indictment to date of 
the American appetite for conquest. A professor of history at New York 
University and winner of a Pulitzer Prize for “A Nation Under Our Feet: 
Black Political Struggles in the Rural South From Slavery to the Great 
Migration,” Hahn argues that America developed into a nation precisely 
because of its obsession with owning space; that is, it sought to become 
a continental empire, which meant acquiring land and resources, almost 
at any cost, and dominating sovereign peoples both at home and abroad.

Hahn tellingly opens his chronicle of greed on the Texas border. After 
Gen. Antonio López de Santa Anna failed to crush insurgent Texians 
(Americans in Tejas), the slaveholding Republic of Texas was shakily 
established, and though many Texians hoped their republic would be 
annexed by the United States, neither Mexico nor the United States 
officially recognized it. What’s more, the Texas border was itself in 
dispute and as a result, Hahn observes, Texas remained more of “an 
imagined space than a sovereign state, with boundaries that were 
endlessly porous, ever shifting and almost impossible to discern.”

Continue reading the main story
These porous borders supply Hahn with his central metaphor. Nations 
possess recognized boundaries, principles and laws over which a central 
government directly rules. To become a nation, America colonized those 
peoples who lived within its borders and exacted a high price whenever 
they tried to retain their cultural or religious traditions. (Consider 
the federal treatment of Native American tribes.) Yet to Hahn the United 
States is also an imperialist nation without borders, seeking to expand, 
to assimilate, to annex or to conquer other nations, sovereignties or 
peoples, not just in the Western Hemisphere but also in the Pacific. 
(Consider the American wars against Filipinos as well as Mexicans and 

In the years after the War of the Rebellion (Hahn avoids the term “Civil 
War”), the United States became a nation-state as the Army, the states, 
the courts and Congress built up a vast network of railroads that helped 
keep labor, as Hahn puts it, “under their thumbs.” Hahn thus considers 
the postwar period commonly known as Reconstruction not just as the 
rocky, often violent conversion of slave into free labor but as the 
beginning of “nation-state formation,” buttressed by a judiciary that 
provided capitalism, as he says, with “real traction” in the post-bellum 
West and South. Most important, philosophical concepts such as 
individualism or, later, Herbert Spencer’s notion of “survival of the 
fittest” undercut the revolutionary implications of Radical 
Republicanism. Everyone fending for himself eroded federally mandated 
civil and political rights, not to mention that scary idea about 
redistributing Confederate lands to former slaves.

Hahn describes how the American nation colonized native peoples within 
its own borders by deploying military and paramilitary groups — hired 
guns and organized lynch parties — to defeat the “oppositional 
movements” he admires. Of course, in the first half of the 19th century 
there had been a host of rebellions against federal authority: whether 
the defiance of native peoples during the Second Seminole War or the 
attempt of the Mormons to organize their own state in the Utah Territory.

But in the years after the War of the Rebellion, and during the 
Progressive Era, which Hahn labels a period of “reconstructions,” a 
number of “worker mobilizations” challenged capitalist gluttony, federal 
domination of the Western territories and corporate consolidation. 
Committed to restoring human dignity to lives and jobs, this array of 
dissident groups — and certain individuals within them — resisted the 
monopolistic practices of railroads, of industrial capitalism and of 
corporate behemoths like Standard Oil. They included the “pan-tribal 
Indianness” that expressed itself in the Ghost Dance movement and the 
Greenback Labor Party, which hoped to limit the power of financiers. The 
biracial Knights of Labor called for an eight-hour workday, currency 
reform and the nationalization of the railroads and utilities. 
Influencing many of these movements was the point of view of the new 
European immigrants, many of whom were socialists — and the inspiration 
of the short-lived Paris Commune.

Hahn goes on to address such topics as Populism; Frederick Winslow 
Taylor’s theory of scientific management; settlement houses; woman 
suffrage; and the Supreme Court decisions known as the Insular Cases, 
which left the people of such annexed territories as Guam and Puerto 
Rico without full United States citizenship. His assessments are cogent 
but quick. That is the downside of an ambitious single volume that spans 
80 years of nettlesome history and runs to over 500 pages, including an 
indispensable 50-page bibliography, primarily of secondary sources. (The 
book is part of the Penguin History of the United States, edited by Eric 
Foner.) Since he covers so much ground, Hahn helpfully subdivides his 
chapters into sections with titles like “Imperial Eyes,” “Labor’s 
Coercions,” “The Blood of Continental Destiny,” “Militant Arms of 
Slaveholding Empire,” “The Jacobin Arm and Peasant Dream,” “Wheels of 
Capital,” “Threads of Discourse” and “Imperial Reconstruction” — titles 
that indicate his point of view.

Although he generally addresses an academic audience comfortable with 
terms like “discursive process,” “gender exclusions,” “the vectors of 
politics,” “circuits of finance capital,” “imperial arms” and the 
“cultural arms of the colonizers,” Hahn seems to be targeting a 
nonspecialist readership as well. He frequently uses phrases like “sent 
packing,” “swallowed the bitter pill,” “poster boy,” “threw in the 
towel” and “lower the boom.” There’s quite a bit of unraveling too: 
“Slavery unraveled,” the “crop economy had unraveled” and then, with the 
Haymarket bombing in 1886, the American labor movement for a time 

In these later chapters, Hahn’s beguiling border metaphor all but 
disappears until he reminds us that by the first decade of the 20th 
century, “the borders of American nationhood were well secured while the 
borders of American power remained limitless.” Despite this elegant 
formulation, so well documented in the preceding pages, there is a 
slippery, self-annulling quality to it. Borders imply restrictions, and 
restrictions are very difficult for certain groups, like women, to 
overcome; but slaves and free people of color can, according to Hahn, 
sometimes cross “the apparent borders of enslavement” to win public 
support. One would have thought the borders of enslavement pretty stiff, 
especially since the arguments for and against their extension had been 
so violent and unending. At the same time, Hahn notes, “no borders to 
slavery could be erected,” particularly after the Supreme Court’s Dred 
Scott decision, which declared Scott a slave even though he had resided 
in a free state and territory. So borders can be boundaries, boundaries 
can be transgressed, or not; borders confine people, but the absence of 
borders is not freedom.

Borders or no, America in the 19th and early 20th centuries comes across 
as relentlessly imperialist, which to Hahn means a nation formed in 
acquisition and conquest, large and without mercy — and whose mission, 
fortunately for all of us, often fails.

Brenda Wineapple is the author, most recently, of “Ecstatic Nation: 
Confidence, Crisis, and Compromise.” She is writing a book about the 
impeachment of Andrew Johnson.

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