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Unconfident Continent
American Salad, Ralph Goings, 1966

Unconfident Continent

In American Republics, Alan Taylor sticks to the dark side of early American history.

John Maxwell Hamilton
American Republics: A Continental History of the United States, 1783-1850
by Alan Taylor (W.W. Norton & Company, 544 pp., $18)

Elbridge Gerry is remembered—to the limited extent that he is thought of at all—for the creation of gerrymandering. It is one of those cases in history where a flip comment comes to define a reality. When Massachusetts Republican legislators carved out weirdly shaped districts to favor themselves in 1812, someone noted that one of them looked like a salamander, and a wag responded with a bon mot employing the name of the then Republican governor, Gerry.

I will return to Elbridge Gerry later. But for the moment suffice it to say that he did not start the practice of wildly partisan redistricting. Such tit-for-tat practices, which were well-established early in the Republic, remind us that our history is replete with acrimonious behavior that was principled in only the limited sense that, when you really want something, you don’t worry much about how you get it. One does not have to look hard for modern comparison with this fractious history, whether it be Mitch McConnell’s about-face on considering Supreme Court nominees or Democrats using legislative powers to punish Republicans whose speech they don’t like.

Elbridge Gerry is not included in Alan Taylor’s American Republics, but the book is filled with characters such as Gerry is supposed to have been. The subtitle of Taylor’s book is the anodyne A Continental History of the United States, 1783-1850, but the clue to its point of view is his line at the start of the book that Manifest Destiny is “the most misleading phrase ever offered to explain American expansion.”

The early Republic was unconfident about itself and its future. It was riven by political, economic, and social conflict. Many did not think of it as a nation at all. On the opening day of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Benjamin Franklin warned, “Our States are on the point of separation, only to meet hereafter for the purpose of cutting one another’s throats.” The first attorney general, Edmund Randolph, lamented, “The parties in the U.S. are highly inflamed against each other.... As soon as the sword is drawn, nothing will be able to retrain them.”

Settlers moving westward created their own small states. One group sought to carve the state of Franklin out of North Carolina in 1784. There was fear Vermont would join Canada. Some of the Federalists whom Gerry distrusted considered taking all of New England out of the United States. William Augustus Bowles came up with a zany, ill-fated plan for “Muskogee Nation,” a putative country in the South made up of Indians and settlers having a university, an army and navy, and a newspaper. Indicative of his zany personality, Bowles wore Creek Indian clothes and a feathered turban when he approached the British in a failed attempt to secure arms and money. Then, too, we have Aaron Burr. Disgraced after killing Alexander Hamilton in a duel, the former Vice President promoted western secession from the United States.

Jefferson believed that the Louisiana Purchase, which gave westward settlers easier access to foreign markets through New Orleans, saved the nation from “a tornado” of unrest. Meanwhile others worried that the growing nation would be too big to govern. A Federalist said that the purchase would destroy "the whole weight & importance of the eastern states in the scale of politics." Alexander Hamilton feared “dissolution of the Government.”

Similarly, Taylor argues, the “Monroe Doctrine began as a defensive act meant to hold the states together.” In this case, the concern was that European meddling in Latin America would give those foreign powers an easy jumping off point to exploit divisions in the United States. The British, for instance, could send Black troops from the West Indies to encourage American slaves to revolt. “Manifest Destiny,” coined by journalist John O’Sullivan to suggest confident American expansion across the continent, was not that at all, Taylor says. It was really a defensive imperialism undertaken to keep the British at arm’s length—and it was done with ugly brutality by America irregulars against the Mexicans. A disgusted General Winfield Scott said the “Rackensackers,” as they were called, were guilty “of murder, robbery & rape of mothers & daughters, in the presence of the tied up males of their families.”

Taylor sees a perverse connection between the Mexican War and the Civil War. As a result of military incursions into Mexican territory, the South no longer worried so much about British influence and no longer needed to work constructively with the North on national security. When the South seceded from the Union, the generals on both sides of the conflict had mastered their warfighting skills against the Mexicans. “In the Civil War,” Taylor writes, “they applied what they learned in Mexico to lead Americans in killing one another.”

Histories that look at the darker aspects of our nation tend to coincide with periods of self-doubt. To cite one notable example, Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, published in 1980, sought to de-glorify the nation at a time of soul searching over a misbegotten war in Vietnam, heightened concern over race and gender inequities, and an economy roiled by high interest rates and soaring energy prices.

American Republic is squarely in this genre. One of Taylor’s dominant themes is racism. Andrew Jackson brutalized Indians. His motto was, “An Eye for an Eye, Toothe for Toothe, and Scalp for Scalp.” Speaking to the matter of structural racism, laws passed to help Blacks did some good, but were easily circumvented. In 1820, 450 Blacks were free in Illinois; 917 were kept de facto slaves as a result of indentured labor laws. Taylor goes to some length to show how Whites accepted the perverse logic of the Richmond Enquirer, which editorialized, “Freedom is not possible without slavery.”

Fake news finds a place in this history. Most newspapers were party organs, run by party hacks who dished out half-baked information and pure lies. P.T. Barnum, a master fabricator of what are now known as pseudo-events, marveled, “Humbug is an astonishingly wide-spread phenomenon—in fact almost universal.” Taylor marries this point about the gullibility of Americans with other cultural traits such as rowdy, drunken political campaign events that had nothing to do with serious consideration of issues. Churches became like businesses in their competition for worshipers. Pulpits were full of shyster-showmen like Barnum. Many preachers, as one of them confessed, could not “conjugate a verb or parse a sentence.”

Taylor reminds us of the antecedents of the January 6 assault on the Capitol. In the thirty years between 1820 and 1850, mobs were so common that one newspaper coined the term “Mobocracy.” The ubiquity of disturbances was such that in May 1847, a Philadelphia newspaper considered it worth reporting, “No rioting yesterday.”

Every step forward, Taylor tells us, came with costs. A large middle class emerged. These people lived in better homes, received better educations, and lived longer. They also became homogenized and intolerant. They “blamed poverty on bad taste and slack morals,” Taylor writes. “Cultural mediocrity was, most Americans believed, the worthy price paid for a republic of equal rights for white men.”

Taylor, a professor at the University of Virginia, is a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize for history. While he carries the reader along briskly, he has an annoying habit of producing condescending sentences such as this one: “Driven by the intellectual movement known as the Enlightenment, eighteenth-century science was a new mix of ideology and methodology.” Does Taylor really think anyone picking up this hefty tome will not know the Enlightenment was an intellectual movement? Still, he has succeeded in the task he has set out for himself, to reprise the dark, turbulent side of the early American republic. It is a worthy goal. This is an aspect of our history we might like to forget and for that reason shouldn’t.

At the same time, a tendentious quality inevitably creeps into any undertaking that intends to make a monochromatic point about a complex history. While imbibing Taylor we will profit by marveling at how well we have done despite all the shortcomings he details—and by asking why this is so. Here Elbridge Gerry is a more useful figure to us than as the father of partisan redistricting.

Gerry was an independent thinker and fierce fighter. Inundated with lies printed by the Federalist press, he overreacted and prosecuted the offending editors. Yet, he deserves to be remembered for defending individual liberty and the democratic process. At the Constitutional Convention he argued for guarantees of press freedom, for the Congress to publish its proceedings, and for the executive branch to publicly report annual expenditures. These went down to failure, along with other measures that he suggested for limiting and democratizing government.

Dismayed, Gerry refused to sign the new Constitution when the drafting was done. This was painful considering the pride he took in having signed the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation. But following his abstention, he made a concession based on another democratic principle. If the states ratified the document, he said, “I shall think it my duty to support it.” This he did. Elected to the first Congress, he fought for the Bills of Rights, which corrected some of the weaknesses he had seen in the Constitution. When he died in 1814, he was Vice President under James Madison.

We cannot understand or better our nation without celebrating the men and women who, though flawed at times, operated on principles that privileged democratic processes over their own preferred outcomes.

John Maxwell Hamilton is the Hopkins P. Breazeale Professor in Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communication. He is author of Manipulating the Masses: Woodrow Wilson and the Birth of American Propaganda (2020), which recently won the Goldsmith Prize.

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