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The history of the United States is usually taught and written about as if the nation was self-contained, not part of any larger history than itself. Yet history operates across space as well as through time, and the history of the Americas, including the United States, shares world history from its very beginnings.
Because the United States is continental in scale and without threatening neighbors, its history is usually focused inward. The most famous continental interpretation of U.S. history is the frontier thesis of Frederick Jackson Turner, popularized as a story of generations of Europeans moving west. The vision of the United States in Turner’s elegant essay of 1893 is deeply embedded in American mythology. Yet Turner was making the point that this westward movement across the continent was coming to an end; the frontier experience would no longer shape American life and values.
Turner offered his larger reflections on modern history and historical method two years earlier when he explained that “we cannot select a stretch of land and say we will limit our study to this land; for local history can only be understood in the light of the history of the world” (quoted in Bender 2006, 12). He was prompted to make this point in the 1890s because global trade and modern means of communications and transportation meant that all nations were, in his phrase, “inextricably connected.” A hundred years later, in the 1990s, when talk about “globalization” and the “Internet” became pervasive, the same idea dawned upon historians: perhaps American history should be thought about and taught in terms of its global connections and the history it shares with the rest of the planet.
In fact, the modern history of the Americas and global history commence at the same time. Both are the result of the same rapid sequence of events, from the voyages of Christopher Columbus, Vasco da Gama (who established a sea route from Europe to India), and the expedition captained by Ferdinand Magellan that circumnavigated the globe between 1519 and 1521. Within a quarter of a century of the first recorded Atlantic transit, the planet had been encircled by oceanic voyages. The great achievement of this “age of discovery” was not only the discovery of America but, more importantly, what could fairly be called the discovery of the “oceanic world.”
This notion requires some explanation. Before the voyage of Columbus maps had shown the ocean as the outer limit of the world, ringing the Afro-Eurasian landmass that was the known world. The Americas were unknown to the peoples of that world, as the Afro-Eurasian world was unknown to the first peoples of the Western Hemisphere. Jews, Christians, and Muslims shared the Old Testament account of the origins of that world. God had pulled back the ocean to make land for the beginning of the human family, Adam and Eve.
The place that Columbus found and began to explore was first labeled “America” by the German mapmaker Martin Waldseemuller in 1507; his map first showed the hemisphere as separate from Asia. The name, which Waldseemuller wrote over what is today’s northern Brazil, came from Amerigo Vespucci, a Florentine who had explored the mouth of the Amazon River in 1499. He called the hemisphere Mundus Novus or “new world.” Educated in the classics, he recognized that the ancients had known nothing of what he saw. But it was new in a different way as well. The ancient Greeks knew that you could sail west from Iberia (Spain) to Asia, except that the ocean was in the way. The discovery that the ocean was not in the way, that it was in fact the connector of all the continents, transformed understanding of the planet. It extended the world to include the oceans as well as the land of the planet, making history global. Rather quickly the new globality entered the literary imagination. A Spanish scholar and writer in 1540 wrote a fantastic account of a journey to the moon, which included a view of the Earth as a globe, prefiguring by centuries the photographic image of the moon made by U.S. astronauts in 1969. The cities, empires, and nations that would develop from the seventeenth century on would be part of global history; their histories could not be wholly separated from that larger history.
The peoples of the world, including the adventurers who established the first settlements in British North America, were worldlier than we usually assume them to have been. Captain John Smith, who rescued from disaster the Jamestown settlement in Virginia, England’s first continental settlement in 1607, is an example. He had seen a good part of the world before he joined the Jamestown project, perhaps somewhat by accident. The usual colonial narrative seems to suggest that his life “abroad” consisted of his few months in Virginia. In fact, that brief experience was embedded in a longer train of experiences in Europe, Central Asia, and Africa that were remarkable but not unique for European adventurers. Smith, who in his teens had gone to the European continent to fight the Catholics, afterward on his return to England met an aristocrat from the former Byzantine Empire. He mentored Smith, making the son of a yeoman into a gentleman. At the age of twenty, he went forth to see the world and to “trie his fortune against the Turks” of the Ottoman Empire, who had recently conquered parts of the Habsburg Empire (Kupperman 2007, 53). He joined the Austrian and Hungarian resistance to the Ottoman armies, learning the art of war, including a command that resulted in the capture of a Hungarian town that had been held by the Ottomans.
His next military adventure, in the service of a Hungarian prince, dragged on in a stalemate, neither side able to mount an effective attack. The Turkish commander proposed that one Christian soldier compete with him one on one to decide the battle. Smith was selected; he beheaded the leader and two subsequent challengers. The Hungarian prince honored him with a Hungarian coat of arms that displayed three heads. In a subsequent battle he was injured, but villagers rescued him and nursed him to health. Then, however, they then sold him into slavery. The noble who bought Smith gave him to his mistress, who became fond of him. To protect him, she sent him to her brother, an Ottoman military officer stationed in the Black Sea region. The officer turned out to be a cruel master, and Smith rebelled, killing the officer. He then fl ed to North Africa, where he met the king of Morocco, who was at that time in correspondence with Queen Elizabeth of England proposing a joint colonization project in the Americas. Smith might have gotten the idea of an American adventure there. At any event, he returned to England and joined the Jamestown project. Does all of this travel and fighting make any difference for American history? Smith thought it had. “Warres in Europe, Asia, and Africa taught me to subdue wilde salvages in Virginia and New England, in America.” (Barbour 1986, 269)
In examining the question of America in the world, this essay does not address the foreign relations of the United States. That is another topic. Here the aim is to show the participation of the United States in world history as part of the common history of the world. It makes the point that the history of the United States is, as Turner suggested, a local example of a larger history that may be global in extent. So the question is whether these larger histories help explain the development of the United States. In fact, major events of American history—and many others besides—cannot be adequately explained other than in part by locating them in world history. For examples, the American Revolution, the Civil War, and Progressivism and the beginnings of the modern welfare state will serve here.
The American Revolution
We usually think of the American Revolution as a very specific and local event: resistance by the thirteen colonies in the face of unwelcome changes in British colonial policies in North America. It was in fact an episode in the “Great War” between England and France. This war lasted episodically for 126 years, from 1689 to 1815, and after 1753 it was a global war, fought on every continent.
The competition between England and France was costly to royal finances. Governments had to show the taxpayers at home that new taxes were worth it, or they had to find other sources of funds, most obviously from the colonies themselves. Historians refer to the financial and governance squeeze as a “military-fiscal crisis.” The British victory in the Seven Years’ War (1756–1763) was so spectacular that it greatly enlarged the empire, at the expense of the French, who lost Canada and trading centers in Africa and Asia. To meet the costs of the war and to secure the new territories, the British crown and Parliament turned to the colonies for new revenue. This decision led to the sequence of infamous (in America) taxes that triggered the resistance that developed into a successful war for independence. But the high cost of empire and imperial wars affected the Portuguese and Spanish empires as well. And they turned to similar strategies. The fiscal crises both faced, as well as new Enlightenment ideas of rational administration, inspired novel imperial policies that promised more revenue.
Any changes in the rules of the game, however, can unsettle established customs and hierarchies of status and power. That happened in all of the empires. Established elites felt that they were being marginalized, that traditional forms of power formerly available to them were being diminished or taken away entirely. They also felt that they were suddenly being treated as second class, when they thought themselves as equal in rights to those in the home country. There were tensions and forms of resistance throughout the Americas, and in the British case expansions of imperial power in India (by way of the East India Company) produced military conflict in the Bengal region of India. There were major eighteenth-century colonial revolts in Colombia and Argentina, and the Portuguese were confronted with a number of smaller plots and rebellions. The rebellion in Peru and the La Plata region of Spanish America in 1782 that was led by Tupac Amaru, descendant of the last Inca king, almost brought down the empire in today’s Peru, Bolivia, Uruguay, and Argentina.
The Thirteen Colonies would not have succeeded in their rebellion without the financial aid, diplomatic support, and military assistance of France. Why did an absolutist monarchy support the American republicans? Because the French had lost badly in the Seven Years’ War, they wanted revenge on Britain. Even the Marquis de Lafayette, who later became a great friend of the Americans, declared that his initial motive for joining the American cause was simply to battle Britain. It was to damage England rather than to help the Americans that France gave its support.
To understand the American Revolution within the context of the long war between France and England that did not end until 1815 is to revise the chronology as well as the geography of the age of revolution. After the Treaty of Paris (1783), which recognized the independence of the United States, the new nation could not fully exercise control over its territory. Britain still had forts in the Ohio Valley, for example. Nor could the Americans protect their sailors from “impressment,” a form of kidnapping of American sailors by the British for service on their ships. Before the United States could fully exercise its independence, the Great War had to end as it did in 1815, with the defeat of Napoleon by the British.
The intense partisanship in the politics of 1790s and creation of political parties, something not anticipated by the founders or provided for in the Constitution, were also a result of foreign issues, particularly a deep division of opinion about the French Revolution and the wars that followed it. But the first American party system, as political scientists call it, and the passionate political conflict associated with it, dissolved in 1815, when the Great War ended. Historians call this postparty period the “era of good feelings,” but this change was not the product of a sudden desire to be nice in Washington; rather it was a result of the end of the international irritant.
This wider view also opens the way for understanding the importance for American history of the third great eighteenth-century revolution: the extraordinarily wealthy French slave colony of Saint Domingue, or as it was called after independence, Haiti. Federalists and Jeffersonians divided over whether to aid and support Toussaint Louverture, the former slave who led the revolution. John Adams was supportive, with materiel as well as foodstuffs, while Jefferson embargoed the second republic in the Americas, a black republic. This largest slave revolt in history shook planters throughout the Americas, including Jefferson, who was in a panic. Ironically, it also gave him his greatest accomplishment as president. The loss of Haiti prompted Napoleon to sell Louisiana.
The Civil War
The American Civil War is the moral core of American history. Yet it also invites a global framing as part of the nineteenth-century invention of the modern nation-state and the turn against unfree labor— conditions under which people must work against their will, including slavery, debt bondage, serfdom, or prison labor—in the Atlantic world. The immediate transnational context was the European revolutions of 1848. Abraham Lincoln, who had been elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1846, admired the European liberals who were seeking to transform monarchies into parliamentary nation-states. These liberals, as well as Lincoln and the Republican Party, linked nation and freedom, with the nation a vehicle for achieving greater freedom.
Lincoln also absorbed their redefinition of the meaning of national territory, particularly the demand for homogeneity within national borders. In central Europe homogeneity meant linguistic or ethnic homogeneity, but that was not the meaning for Lincoln. He had strongly opposed the anti-immigrant Know Nothing Party of the 1850s; for him homogeneity meant the nation would be all free or all slave. That was the underlying logic and conclusion of the famous “House Divided” speech he delivered in 1858. Of course, the nation had been divided from the beginning. It was a political problem to be compromised, as it was in the 3/5 clause of the Constitution and in subsequent compromises, such as the Missouri Compromise that established a line equally dividing slave and free territories. The new Atlantic-wide understanding of the nation-state made such compromise impossible. The passion of Lincoln and those who supported the Republican Party in 1860 cannot be understood without awareness of this new understanding of the nation that was circulating around the globe.
The United States was also experiencing a federative crisis, arguing over the relation of national and local power. The Republicans were strong nationalizers, while southern politicians embraced decentralization that would allow individual states to protect their “peculiar institution.” This struggle between centralization and decentralization was a global phenomenon, and wars were fought in Europe (Germany and Italy) and Latin America, particularly in Argentina, but also Brazil and Chile. The issue was resolved without war in Japan, with the Meiji Restoration, and in Siam, today’s Thailand, where a modern state structure was established under the leadership of the monarch. Although the nationalist revolution in Hungary against the Habsburg Empire failed in 1848, Hungary achieved self rule in domestic matters in 1867, under what became the Austro-Hungarian “Dual Monarchy.” There were also efforts to strengthen the Russian and Ottoman empires, making then more like modern European states. Equally important, emancipation, or freedom, was part of the process of nation making in the middle of the nineteenth century. While the United States freed four million slaves, another forty million serfs were emancipated in the Habsburg, Russian, and other empires.
Not only did Americans feel themselves part of the liberal movements of 1848, a point made repeatedly by Lincoln—and by common soldiers as well—but the great European liberals, from John Stuart Mill in England to Giuseppe Garibaldi in Italy to Louis Kossuth in Hungary, also understood the American Civil War to be a crucial episode in the history of liberal reform well beyond the United States.
Progressive Reform and the Welfare State
American progressivism was part of a broad transformation of laissez faire liberalism into what was called variously the new liberalism, economic liberalism, or social liberalism. Its beginnings in the United States were in the 1890s and it culminated in the American welfare state in the 1930s established by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. This movement was part of a global response to massive urbanization and industrialization under conditions of unregulated capitalism. A global menu of reform ideas was available to all industrializing nations. Many of the key ideas originated in the economics seminars of German universities; these ideas were particularly important in the United States and Japan. But there was a general circulation of ideas; all industrial nations were borrowing ideas from each other.
Somewhat counter-intuitively, reformers realized that modern urban and industrial society held more daily life risks than did the agricultural era. Modern society is a risk society, no safer than a jungle, and it required novel forms of protection. This was pointed out in the very title of the reform novel published by Upton Sinclair in 1906: although set in a city, Chicago, the title was The Jungle. Risk is best addressed by insurance, and what became the twentieth-century welfare state was a combination of regulation and social insurance.
All urban and industrial nations developed programs of insurance against old age, industrial accidents, illness and injury, and unemployment. If the ideas were in general circulation, the policy outcomes were distinct. While other industrial nations included health insurance in the social liberalism package, the United States did not. On the other hand, the United States moved very fast to protect pure food and drugs, beginning with milk inspection in the 1870s in New York City.
Here is where one must be careful, however. If the policy ideas and examples were available to all, the politics of reform had national distinctions. Why? Local cultural and political traditions, national politics, the balance of interests produced different versions of the new liberalism. For example, opposition to the reforms came from different groups in different nations: in Latin America and Russia it was the landed classes; in the United States and Japan it was big business. This is why a national history in a global context is not global history. It is both global and national, but in the end the point is to explain a national history.
By examining the history of the United States in the larger context of world history, national history is not dissolved but rather its distinctiveness becomes clearer. But the global context also provides fuller explanations of how change has happened, and it becomes easier to understand why U.S. history differs from other histories as well as to better understand how much is shared.
It is often claimed that American history is exceptional; placing American history in a global context undermines this exceptionalist notion of American history. Yet the specific distinctive aspects of the history of the United States, those that make it a unique nation, are clarified and accented. The problem with an exceptionalist interpretation of American history is that is presumes a norm, or a rule, that has one exception, the United States. That implies that the United States does not share a history with other nations, thus putting the United States outside of the common history of humankind, which obviously is not the case. There is a second problem with the argument for exceptionalism. The claim of exceptionalism requires a norm followed by everyone else. But there is in fact no norm. A global perspective reveals a spectrum of unique resolutions of many common or even universal challenges. A global perspective reveals that the United States is unique but not exceptional.
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- Bender, T. (2006). A nation among nations: America’s place in world history. New York: Hill & Wang.
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