Like the three-decker Victorian novel, the multi-volume narrative history of the United States fell out of fashion at the close of the 19th century. There is nothing today that quite compares with George Bancroft’s History of the United States, from the Discovery of the American Continent (which filled ten volumes by 1874), Richard Hildreth’s The History of the United States of America (six volumes by 1852), or the similarly titled three-volume serial histories by William Bartlett (published posthumously in 1856) and by Jesse Ames Spencer (in 1858). Some long-series histories and biographies survived into the 20th century, notably Allan Nevins’s Ordeal of the Union (eight volumes, 1947-71) on the Civil War era, Dumas Malone’s Jefferson and His Time (six volumes, 1948-81), and Robert Remini’s life of Andrew Jackson (three volumes, 1977-84). But none of these was an attempt at a comprehensive national history in the expansive manner of Bancroft.
Part of the reason for the disappearance of long-form American history is surely the sheer cost of printing and marketing it. Attention spans that will tolerate endless seasons of televised melodrama cannot seem to endure written histories by installment, and few publishers see much sense in a series commitment that few readers are inclined to stick with. Then there is the staggering amount of information that now demands to be packed into anything that looks like a comprehensive history of the United States. It would take considerable boldness to present oneself in public as the polymath who had mastered all the relevant subject matter.
Both of these explanations, however, are secondary to the more profound question: what purpose would a multi-volume history of the United States serve? Aristotle said that “if a constitution is to be preserved, all the sections of the state must wish it to exist and to continue on the same lines.” The same might be said about a nation’s history-writing. A Bancroft-sized history of the United States can hardly succeed if there is no deep desire for the subject itself “to exist and to continue.” The uneasy absence of that desire in many intellectual quarters may be another, more fundamental reason why the Bancroft-style narrative no longer exists.
* * *
Alan Taylor, the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation Professor of History at the University of Virginia, made his first substantial mark in 1996 with the publication of William Cooper’s Town: Power and Persuasion on the Frontier of the Early American Republic, the history of an upstate New York town better known today as the home of the Baseball Hall of Fame. Like much of American historical writing since the ’60s, William Cooper’s Town was an example of “social history” (or “history from the bottom up”). Frequently, social history was a search for traces of a pre-capitalist America which could refute German sociologist Werner Sombart’s annoying question: why is there no socialism in America? Unhappily, the social historians did not find very much to comfort themselves. Seventeenth-century New England townspeople, who were at first seized upon as representatives of an early collectivist mentality in America, turned out, on closer inspection, to be as grasping and individualistic as their modern descendants. Quaker Pennsylvanians, for all of William Penn’s yearnings to found a holy commonwealth, were as thoroughly commercial as modern capitalists. By the 1990s, the search for a non-capitalistic idyll had drifted up into the 18th century, where social historians hoped to discover in “civic republicanism” an alternative to democratic individualism. That, too, proved a will-o’-the-wisp, as the lofty rhetoric of “classical” or “civic” republicanism faded into the reality of an aggressive Hamiltonian liberalism.
Still, if social history failed to provide much evidence of an alternative America, it certainly turned up victims aplenty of bourgeois imperialism—Indian tribes, urban proletarians, riotous Regulators. So graduate students could be turned loose to hunt, no longer for some pre-capitalist El Dorado but for evidence of how loathsomely and oppressively capitalistic America had always been. This was the milieu in which Taylor produced William Cooper’s Town. The book’s central figure (who also happened to be the father of the much more famous novelist James Fenimore Cooper) displayed “cunning at speculation and political intrigue” which “exceeded the bounds of genteel respectability” and “dispossessed the native inhabitants of New York” of “almost all of their homeland.” William Cooper’s Town was not an argument about ideas, but about human cupidity, and it sat at a far distance from George Bancroft’s conviction that America was erected on “the truth and reality and unchangeableness of freedom, virtue, and right.”
* * *
Nevertheless, William Cooper’s Town had the sensational advantage of being about Cooperstown, the home of yet another American idyll, and it won the Pulitzer Prize for history in 1996. Taylor could easily have been forgiven if he had gone back to the same pump for another, similar book. Instead, in 2001, Taylor published American Colonies: The Settling of North America, which represented a total volte-face in historical perspective, though not necessarily in historical interpretation. From the tiny square of territory occupied by early 19th-century Cooperstown, Taylor shifted in time and space to take in the entire North American continent, from pre-Columbian Paleo-Indians to the Seven Years’ War. This was a staggeringly huge reach, involving mastery of a multitude of new writings on the earliest Americans, and their synthesis into a brilliant and coherent narrative that neither wallowed in statistical tables nor shielded itself in impenetrable technical jargon.
The most arresting feature of American Colonies was the full meaning of the plural—colonies—since Taylor did not propose to limit himself merely to the English-speaking colonies of the North American seaboard, but to take in the colonial experiences of Spain, France, and even Russia in North America. “Until the 1960s,” Taylor wrote in his introduction, “most American historians assumed that ‘the colonists’ meant English-speaking men confined to the Atlantic seaboard.” The rest were “a hazy backdrop of hostility” while Englishmen were “becoming freer and more prosperous by colonizing an open land.” American Colonies would correct that misperception.
Not since Francis Parkman’s France and England in North America (1865–1892)—another multi-volume 19th-century history—had anyone attempted a synthesis of colonial experiences so ambitious. Yet, at the same time, Taylor clung tightly to the hermeneutic of suspicion which defined William Cooper’s Town. Within the first 25 pages of American Colonies, it became clear that Taylor regarded the discovery and colonization of the Americas by Europeans as a human catastrophe. He stopped short of characterizing Europeans as “innately more cruel and violent” than any other human population. Still, the European colonizers did possess “superior power to inflict misery” through their “greater technological and organizational capacity to conduct prolonged wars” and through their Christian religion, whose “alienation of spirit from nature rendered it supernaturally safe for Europeans to harvest all the resources that they wanted from nature.”
The Americas looked like nothing except a vast field ripe for such a harvesting. Aided by lethal pathogens and lured by American silver and gold, the Spanish destroyed one Atlantic culture after another, from the Azores to the Aztecs. The French were only slightly less malevolent: rather than making war on the Algonquian and Iroquoian tribes, they set the two major eastern tribal alliances to fighting each other and turned them into scorched-earth environmental scavengers who “extended their hunting into the territories of their neighbors, provoking new and more desperate conflicts.”
But the English colonizers were the chief menace, largely because “colonial promoters” conscripted “the idle and larcenous poor” as the new American population. This moved Taylor to remind us that “contrary to popular myth, most 18th-century emigrants did not come to America of their own free will in search of liberty.” Certainly not the 1.5 million slaves the American English colonies imported during the 18th century (although Taylor concedes that “the shippers almost always bought their slaves from African middlemen, generally the leading merchants and chiefs of the coastal kingdoms”). And certainly not the 50,000 convicts—“the cannon fodder of war and the jail fodder of peace”—shipped to North America between 1718 and 1775. Nor even the quarter-million Scots and Germans who “responded primarily to the push of their deteriorating circumstances” at home. We are well acquainted with the horrors of the transatlantic slave trade’s Middle Passage; Taylor does not make the horrors of the convict and immigrant passage any gentler. (If anything, Taylor understates the suffering of the convict trade: estimates of deaths in the Middle Passage hover around 15%, but the volume of the convict trade has been set closer to 70,000 and the death rate in transitu probably reached as high as 14%.)
* * *
American Colonies is a tale of grasping, thrusting imperialists who turned life into death for the various native populations they destroyed, extended hierarchical oppression from its home in Europe to the North American mainland, and then brought down still more misery on their own heads by internecine warfare, culminating in the triumph of a near-bankrupt British Empire. There is nothing in Taylor’s narrative that gleams. There is only the most passing and chilly description of Puritan religion and the ecstasies of the Great Awakening, no account of the emergence of autonomous local government or of the intellectual life of the colonial colleges (Harvard merits two sentences, Yale just one), and above all no attention to what the McNeil Center for Early American Studies’ Stephanie Wolf once called the most unique American invention, “an aristocracy of ability rather than inheritance,” the “sober-minded artisans” who “participated in middle-class improvement activities like the Philadelphia Junto…or joined circulating libraries, subscribed to newspapers and periodicals, and sent their children to Sunday School.”
In Taylor’s reckoning, if there were any moments of American utopia, they belonged to pre-contact America. He continued to embrace the notion that North America was originally populated by Asians over “a land bridge between Siberia and Alaska,” despite the increasing unlikelihood that such a migration could have taken place (the oldest skeletal remains of the Paleo-Indian hunter-gatherers of North America come from Labrador and Ontario, not British Columbia; Kennewick Man, whose ten-thousand-year-old bones were unearthed from the muck of the Columbia River in 1996, turned out to have had “Caucasoid-like” features rather than Asian ones). And Taylor could not resist characterizing the existence of the Plains tribes as “[l]ife in permanent, substantial, and prosperous villages” or the Cahokia mound-builders as “the greatest Indian community north of Mexico,” while ignoring the ugly evidence that Cahokia indulged in large-scale human sacrifice.
* * *
On the other hand, what is striking in Taylor’s descriptions of pre-Columbian America are the numbers. Despite a passing estimate that the pre-contact population numbered between 10 and 50 million, the actual size of the tribal populations he describes is surprisingly small: the vast Iroquois confederation only fields about 2,000 warriors in 1720; the seven Lakota tribes may have only amounted to “some 25,000 people” in 1790; the mid-Atlantic Powhatans may have numbered no more than 24,000, in 30 tribes, when the English built Jamestown. Nor were these tribes composed entirely of peace pipe smokers. In the 17th century, the Iroquois carried on warfare against the Hurons which “escalated to nearly genocidal proportions,” and most of the tribes which we today associate with the Great Plains—Lakota, Assiniboine, Blackfoot, Arapaho—only moved to the Plains at the end of the 18th century in search of horses and bison, dispossessing the Kiowa, Apache, and Comanche. North America was, apparently, a site of colonization and conquest for everyone.
Yet the greatest ambition of American Colonies was the one announced briefly in its introduction: “the first in a series meant to cover the history of the United States down to the present.” If the labor necessary to produce a survey as ambitious as American Colonies was breathtaking, then pushing the boundaries beyond the colonial experience would make Taylor a new Bancroft, just in terms of scope.
* * *
Still, it took another 15 years before Taylor produced his next installment, American Revolutions, which this time added a flourish to its subtitle: A Continental History, 1750–1804. As with Colonies, the originality of Revolutions was in the title’s plural, since Taylor once again proposed to consider the American Revolution as an event connected both to the Spanish domains in Louisiana and California, and to France’s ambitions to reclaim the influence it had lost in the Seven Years’ War. The major point of Colonies, however, remained the same in Revolutions. If the intention of Colonies was to show that the English-speaking colonies were no better (and probably worse) than the Spanish and French colonial regimes, then the message Taylor wanted to promote in Revolutions was that the American Revolution was not the “good, orderly, restrained, and successful event” that the Europeans never quite managed to imitate in France and Russia. America’s revolutionaries overthrew monarchy and established a republic in 13 of the former British colonies. But there was little in that overthrow which made the American Revolution different from other political upheavals. The Revolution was actually a “grim civil war,” in which “Americans killed one another over politics and massacred Indians, who returned the bloody favors.” At the end, in 1783, Americans emerged from this self-inflicted clubbing, uncertain of their identity as a republic and well short of “producing equality and liberty for all,” especially for the new American republic’s black slaves.
The opening chapters of Revolutions were a fairly conventional narrative of the Revolution’s origins, up to the outbreak of violent resistance at Lexington and Concord in 1775. From there, however, Taylor had a different tale of revolt to tell. He claimed (in terms which the New York Times’s 1619 Project would shortly make notorious) that much of the revolutionaries’ motivation sprang from a desire to protect slave-owning from the threat posed to it by English courts in Somerset v. Stewart (1772). Taylor believes that the Continental Army—far from heroic partisans of liberty—was a collection of “[a]pprentices, transients, beggars, drunks, slaves, and indentured immigrants.” Of course, this tended to be true for almost every 18th-century army (Johann Heinrich Voss’s 1784 poem “The Stable Boys” darkly pictures German landlords selling their serfs as mercenaries). But it is worth remembering that the Continental Army’s muster lists also reveal that the largest segment of the army’s recruits were farmers or farm workers, followed by shoemakers, weavers, and blacksmiths; 40% were actually foreign-born, and half of that Irish.
* * *
Taylor’s American revolutionaries practiced a combination of oppression and exploitation. “Patriots seized control of almost all the printing presses,” “refused to tolerate doubters and critics in their midst,” and brought “overwhelming force to bear on pockets of disaffection.” Yet, at the same time, “Patriot leaders hoped to preserve the power derived from genteel manners, family connections, elite education, and superior wealth”—in other words, to create a polity of William Coopers. In order “to finance their war debts,” these rapacious brigands ended their fight for liberty by imposing “higher postwar taxes” than Americans had paid to Britain. The government they created was remarkably unrepresentative of the American people, since “no delegate” to the Constitutional Convention “embodied the perspective of the American majority: the hinterland farmers of modest means.” The new government “bolstered slavery with positive measures” and adopted fiscal and land policies that “favored speculators over settlers” in the new lands across the Appalachians. How this is to be reconciled with the Constitution’s authorization for suppressing the slave trade, and the rise of the most egalitarian anti-slavery movement in the Atlantic world is not a problem Taylor tries to solve.
There is in this America no Enlightenment, no books, no art, so that its independence only moved King George III to “concede good riddance to Americans.” At best, Taylor was struggling to inoculate his readers against a superpower hubris based on an inflated sense of our origins; at worst, Revolutions was simply a political performance, with Taylor playing Shelley to the American Ozymandias. There was nothing of the sense, imparted by Jonathan Israel’s far wider history of the Revolution’s world impact, The Expanding Blaze: How the American Revolution Ignited the World, 1775–1848 (2017), that “[f]rom 1775, America became the first albeit highly imperfect model of a new kind of society, laying the path by which the modern world stumbled more generally toward republicanism, human rights, equality, and democracy” and “contrasting with the ancient regime monarchical-aristocratic political and social system dominating Europe.”
* * *
American Revolutions is history viewed with a critical eye, one which sees through things rather than looking at them. In Taylor’s inverted world, everything turns into the precise opposite of itself, and memory and self-knowledge are only matters of cultural politics.
France and Spain made more minimal appearances in American Revolutions than Taylor’s title promised. American Republics, which followed Revolutions by only five years, lives up to more of the subtitle: A Continental History of the United States, 1783–1850. In this latest installment, Taylor is particularly attentive to what was happening in Canada during his chosen period. What remains the same, however, is Taylor’s insistence that the new republic, unlike Canada, had no real national identity. If anything, Americans spoke of themselves as the citizens of a state or region. They indulged a deep “mutual distrust” of national distinctiveness. “Few people,” Taylor writes, “thought and acted as Americans in 1787. Instead, they were Virginians, New Englanders, Carolinians, New Yorkers, and Pennsylvanians.” That may have been true for political eccentrics like John Randolph of Roanoke, but there were more than a “few people” like Benjamin Rush, who celebrated the ratification of the Constitution by announcing, “We have become a nation,” and Charles Jared Ingersoll, who assured the Marquis de Lafayette that the citizens of the United States “stand forth, in mass, more than ten millions strong, covering two thousand miles square of territory, a martial and a lofty nation.” But Rush makes no appearance in Republics, and Ingersoll shows up only once.
For Taylor, what keeps these mistrustful Americans from cutting one another’s regional throats is their even greater disgust for black and brown people (and the republics they established in Mexico and Haiti), as well as the vast opportunities opened up by the exploitation of the interior of the American trans-Mississippi West. This is an America that is stirred to indignation over slavery only when north African pirates enslave whites; otherwise, white Americans cherished slavery for its capitalist efficiency and dreamt of imposing a “repressive racial order premised” on a “hard barrier between white freedom and Black slavery.” Opponents of slavery in the Northern states are caricatured as hypocrites because they “sought to free northern states of slavery, rather than to ensure freedom for the enslaved,” although this takes no account of the racial egalitarianism that pervaded the abolitionist movement.
No more in the 1820s than in the 1780s did Americans produce worthwhile books and art, in Taylor’s estimation. “Cultural mediocrity” was the order of the day in “a republic of equal rights for white men,” and the proof was in the popularity of cheap melodramas and black-face minstrelsy. Thomas Cole’s epic series of paintings, The Course of Empire, is only a reflection on the “vulgarity, greed, crime, madness, and mob violence” that accompanied American “material progress.” The collegiate schools of moral philosophy (Francis Wayland, Archibald Alexander, Francis Bowen, Mark Hopkins), the “American School” of political economy (Henry Carey, Peshine Smith, Calvin Colton), the Hudson River artists and Frederic Edwin Church, and even George Bancroft are flatly absent from Republics. And the stupendous technological innovations of the era—the electrical telegraph, the railroads, the inland steamboat—merit exactly three pages.
* * *
But the principal oddity of American Republics is its insistence that American westward expansion was a conscious strategy by American elites to escape the nagging questions about race and republicanism that might otherwise divide them and bring them to blows. “The nation’s leaders sought elusive security against the internal divisions of an unstable union” in a relentless pursuit of “American expansion.” Yet all the evidence of the early republic is that expansion is precisely what those leaders feared would trigger disunion. “Every Citizen of the Atlantic States, who emigrates to the westward of the Allegheny is a total loss,” warned Rufus King in 1786. “For this reason I have ever been opposed to encouragements of western emigrants.” By the 1850s, it was the West that actually split North and South. And far from American elites embracing Manifest Destiny, the leading edge of America’s westward expansion belonged almost entirely to the oddballs, the cast-offs, and the square pegs that did not fit polite American society’s round holes. The trans-Mississippi was the storm drain into which every American undesirable was allowed to flood—Mormons in Utah; the Amana colonists in Iowa; misfits and fugitives like Sam Houston, Jim Bowie, and William Barret Travis in Texas; Jim Bridger and William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody, Calamity Jane, and Billy the Kid.
Of course, this same pattern marked the creation of the British colonies in the 17th century. It is no great compliment to our forebears, but true all the same, that the Puritans and Pilgrims were, in the eyes of polite British society, nothing more than religious nuts with guns; two centuries later, the Mormons looked much the same. Where Taylor imagines the West as a great racial conspiracy, the plainer truth is that the arrival of the United States as the government of the American West was considered not only remote, but unforeseeable. Even the diplomats who negotiated the Louisiana Purchase thought that “[p]erhaps the best course will be to keep it for many years vacant, indeed until our vacant lands are occupied on the Eastern side, by which time we may be able to decide whether it will be best to lay the country off into States admissible into our union, or to become independent of us but allied with us.”
* * *
Twenty years have bracketed the first three volumes of Taylor’s grand history project, and that generates at least some question whether the project will ever be completed. American Republics ends at 1850, which leaves Taylor with the Himalayan obstacles of the Civil War, the Gilded Age, two World Wars, and the Cold War yet to surmount. Since, in American Revolutions, Taylor accused Abraham Lincoln of having “crafted the useful fiction that the founders had favored the freedom of all men, black as well as white,” it is not comforting to anticipate what is liable to be made of Lincoln and the Civil War era.
At the same time, Taylor’s focus has grown gradually more blurry. The invocation of transnational (or trans-colonial) contexts never amounted to more than odds and ends rather than practical points of comparison. It was compellingly clear in Colonies that Taylor’s mission was to dispel any traditional story of uplift; in Republics, it is less clear where he is going with his attempt to harness union to expansion. The style, which in Colonies was sharp and incisive, has become labored and formulaic in Republics. And while the preface to American Republics describes the book as a “concise introduction,” it is indeed remarkable for being less than half the length of American Colonies.
It is not that the questions which haunt Taylor about the American experiment are lacking in interest. He is certainly correct, and probably more correct than Bancroft was willing to be, when he speaks in American Republics of the clash between Jefferson and John Marshall “informing constitutional and political disputes to our own time,” and in American Revolutions of the propensity to “romanticize the founders as united and resolute and then present them as a rebuke to our current political divisions.” But it was through these same arguments and disputes that Lincoln glimpsed the United States as “the last, best hope of earth,” and Jefferson saw reason to prophesy in 1821 that he would “not die without a hope that light and liberty are on steady advance,” so that “even should the cloud of barbarism and despotism again obscure the science and liberties of Europe, this country remains to preserve and restore light and liberty to them.”
Our colonial past was not beautiful, but it was also not more destructive than many other pasts. Our revolution was not perfect in either its people or its goals, but as Lincoln said, it offered an aspiration to natural right which, like the Gospel injunction to be perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect, “set that up as a standard; and he who did most toward reaching that standard, attained the highest degree of moral perfection.” Our republic has been as wrong as it has been right, but it has been right, which is more than every monarch, despot, and tyrant has ever wanted to concede to it. We deserve something better than a critical narrative of dreariness and despair. Still, the Bancroft of the future will also have to remind us of what we have had to do to earn it.