This is the third Alan Taylor history of the early US that I have read and it’s just as valuable, eye-opening and depressing/maddening as the other two. Once again, his scope is far greater than the usual American history books, spending time on area of North America that were not yet, and in some cases never would be, part of the United States. One reason Taylor’s perspective is valuable is that it looks at the perspectives of non-Americans in the history of the United States.
Perhaps even more so than in American Revolutions, it feels like the fundamental conflicts and fissures that divide Americans today were already set during this period. Though the topics of the battles are different, it feels like American attitudes towards issues are already pretty well established. Reading about these debates – over slavery, over indigenous peoples, over Mexico – reminds me way too much about contemporary debates about racism, gun control, taxes, etc. I don’t know whether this is a bad thing or a good thing, but it’s illuminating. (If you ever despair for the state of debate in the United States, read one of these books and you’ll hear some really horrible stuff.)
This is an era of US history that I don’t know a lot about, beyond the War of 1812. So I learned a lot. And I actually had my view of the War of 1812 totally reframed. (I look forward to reading Taylor’s history of the War of 1812.) Some people want to date the beginning of the American empire to WWII or even WWI. Some want to date it to the Spanish-American War, which has long struck me as the best option. But reading about what happened around the War of 1812 and then, especially, around the Mexican-American War, I’m kind of tempted to date it earlier, to the early 19th century. Taylor makes a case that this was mostly defensive – or, at least, justified as defensive by Americans – but I think that just makes the argument stronger. I feel like the justification for American empire has almost always been about “defending” Americans or other groups of people.
Like the first two books, this one highlights some really awful stuff that happened as the US became more of a country. I knew about a lot of this stuff in general, but it still is a good reminder, one that I think we all need to experience every once and a while. Though I am not personally complicit in this genocide, that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t be aware of it, and think long and hard about how I live my life knowing that I live in a country founded on genocide.
I really appreciate Taylor involving Canada and Mexico in this story. Taylor’s histories are the first books I can remember reading explicitly about US history that bother with Canada in any great detail. I literally said aloud to my girlfriend “He mentions Francis Bond Head!” when I was reading about Upper Canada. I think this “continental” perspective is valuable.
Anyway, it’s another strong history and I do think reading these three books is quite a good introduction to the pre-Civil War history of the United States. Taylor’s lack of focus on dates and and names is especially forgivable given the existence of the internet and Wikipedia, and his focus on how the people already living in North America were affected by the existence of the US is something we all need to be familiar with.
Read my reviews of the other two books: