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A Reverberating Past

Joshua Matz

americaDavid Reynolds
America, Empire of Liberty: A New History
Allen Lane, 2009
416 pages
ISBN 978-1846140563

In 1990, the American Historical Association gathered its most talented and respected scholars together to author The New American History. Building on the social revolution of the 1960s and borrowing from social scientific methodology, the group of revisionist historians endeavored to rewrite American history “from the bottom up”. Eric Foner, the volume’s editor, described the defining feature of “New History” as “attention to the experience of previously neglected groups—not simply as an addition to a preexisting body of knowledge but as a fundamental redefinition of history itself”.

In his new book America: Empire of Liberty, David Reynolds attempts to bring this revised vision of the American past to a popular audience. Reynolds structures America around tensions inherent to three facets of American history: empire, liberty and religion. Founded in defiance of the British Empire and on the basis of a rhetoric of liberty, the United States has expanded its empire through guile and force in the name of American freedom. Faith in the “empire of liberty” has been challenged repeatedly by US policies themselves—such as those that destroyed Native American cultures, sanctioned human slavery and maintained racial and ethic segregation until the mid-20th century. It is an “empire of liberty” that still hesitates to provide basic civil rights to prisoners, immigrants and homosexuals. For Reynolds, religious faith works as a powerful—and paradoxical—tonic, at once simplifying the tensions within American ideology and framing policy issues “as non-negotiable struggles of good against fundamental evils”.

Reynolds’s thematic “empire, liberty and religion” analysis of the American past, aimed at synthesis and clarity, works against the grain of a New Historical scholarship that often presents a chorus of competing voices at the expense of narrative coherence. Reynolds succeeds admirably in weaving important scholarly threads into an integrated whole. The price of his unified survey, however, is best weighed in absences, in missing links that lead readers to wonder at the exclusion of peoples, religions and stories from Reynolds’s revisionist America.

Women, African Americans and Native Americans all claim a firm stake in Reynolds’s work, which rightly situates the groups’ struggles and successes at the heart of American history. Reynolds counters a glowing and white-washed conception of World War II—the so-called “good war”—with a stinging quote from an African American GI who was denied service at a café in Salina, Kansas: “[We] just stood there inside the door, staring at what we had come to see—the German prisoners of war who were having lunch at the counter.”

Reynolds’s marked emphasis on these groups, however, sits awkwardly with near-silence about other minorities. History “from the bottom-up” should include a larger cast. Hispanics, the most obvious omission, are currently the nation’s largest ethnic minority and a potent electoral force. Their struggles to be accepted as “white”, their historical tension with African-Americans and their efforts to define “ethnic” as a recognised form of legal discrimination are central to the story of American empire and liberty—and to current immigration debates. César Ch√°vez perhaps set the gold standard in what has now become known as “community organising”, when he galvanised the United Farm Workers in his fierce campaigns for Chicano workers rights. Yet Reynolds barely touches the experience of Latin-American peoples in the United States.

Reynolds attends only briefly to American involvement with its hemispheric neighbors. His short discussion of the Spanish-American War, presented as an extension of frontier expansion, skips an engaging pre-history in which US economic interests, heavily reliant upon Latin American consumption and committed to racist beliefs about local “savagery”, precipitated a decades-long struggle for influence in the region. One enterprising filibuster, William Walker, even conquered Nicaragua with a private army and ruled from 1855 to 1857—until Cornelius Vanderbilt arranged his overthrow to protect regional shipping interests. By ignoring this vital background of racist ideology and economic motive, as well as a history of foreign policy shaped by non-state actors, Reynolds is left without an explanation for maltreatment of Cuba and the Philippines within America’s “empire of liberty”.

The history of Japanese and Chinese immigrants constitutes another glaring absence, especially given such logical entry-points as the Gold Rush and Trans-Continental Railroad. Reynolds fails to connect anti-Japanese discrimination during World War II to the preceding history of conflict over labor rights and segregated public schools. Racism was central to these conflicts—Japanese workers, unlike the Chinese, switched legal designations from “yellow” to “white” as the strategic value of US relations with their homelands fluctuated locally and federally. Reynolds also overlooks fierce anti-Chinese sentiment, which illustrated the brutal convergence between labour-based class conflict and racism, as well as hostility among immigrant groups. Manifesting all three trends, Samuel Gompers wrote a pamphlet in 1901 entitled Some Reasons for Chinese Exclusion: Meat vs. Rice, American Manhood Against Asiatic Coolieism, Which Shall Survive?

Reynolds’s effort to broaden the scope of American history is admirable, but his synthesis ultimately ignores many of the stories he should want to tell. Such gaps lead America to disappoint the promise of its own thematic structures. This disappointment is particularly acute because many overlooked topics would fit easily into the book’s narrative. A story of liberty should emphasize courts, law and ethnic minorities; a tale of empire should consider Pacific immigration, racist imperialism and economic motivation; and a glimpse into spiritual life should not exclude Muslims, freethinkers and most of America’s leading theologians and authors.

New American History has challenged conventional beliefs about how to write a national history. Cosmopolitanism, complexity and minority struggle are watchwords of recent historiography, defined partially against the perceived provinciality and insensitivity of popular historical discourse. Minorities are increasingly incorporated into national narratives and, particularly in light of the Iraq War, celebratory tales of America’s unique freedom have fallen into disfavour.

To the extent that scholars wield such power, New Historians would alter not just the Academy, but the character of the nation. In their brilliant book History on Trial, historians Gary Nash, Charlotte Crabtree and Ross Dunn argue that:

The past we choose to remember defines in large measure our national character, transmits the values and self-images we hold dear, and preserves the events, glorious and shameful, extraordinary and mundane, that constitute our legacy from the past and inspire our hopes for the future.

This general claim is especially true in a nation where, as Reynolds tells us, the “past keeps on reverberating in the present”. By rebuilding history from the bottom up, New Historical scholarship urges the country toward a more egalitarian, inclusive United States.

But it also demands new standards from those engaged in the historical endeavour. Against the backdrop of the revisionist movement’s aims, the exclusion or marginalisation of whole groups is both historically unjustified and politically potent. Reynolds’s decision to write important stories out of the American past should weigh heavily upon any reader, who must remain alert to its striking absences. America is a beginning rather than end to historical inquiry. Those who truly wish to explore American history must expand beyond Reynolds to discover the tragic and profoundly human stories lost both to his America and that of “traditional” history.

Joshua Matz is reading for an MSt in the History of the United States at Corpus Christi College, Oxford. He is a Deputy History Editor at the Oxonian Review.