Excerpted from Blessed Among Nations
by Eric Rauchway. Copyright © 2006 by Eric Rauchway. Published in July 2006 by Hill and Wang, a division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.
This book offers a look at American history through the lens of globalization. Like a regular optical lens you might find in a telescope or a microscope, it is meant to help you see something you wouldnt if you were simply looking with your unaided eyes. It directs your attention to the movements of money and people around the globe, and how they influenced American politics and culture.
Also like a regular optical lens, it is better at bringing some kinds of things into focus than others. Just as a telescope is terrific for marveling at the mountains on the moon but pretty poor for peering at paramecia, this book is designed to help you get an appreciation for the effects of powerful global forces, not local ones.
Its not that we dont care about the paramecia of the past. The microscopic view of history, when carefully trained on the right subjecta mad prophet, a frontier speculator, a presidential assassincan tell us a great deal. But if we want to see large features in faraway landscapes, we need to overlook these otherwise compelling close-ups.
There is another way in which I hope this book will work like a lens. Like a lot of people, I need corrective lenses to see properly, and also like a lot of people I dont like to go to the doctor very much. So people like me will wear a pair of glasses for years without seeing an optometrist. And during that time, those glasses, which were perfectly designed to help us see when they were made, get worse and worse at their job. The lenses arent changing, but our eyes are. We just dont notice because it happens so slowly. Then, finally, we get tired of the headaches and the blurry vision and we go to the doctor and get a properly prescribed pair of spectacles. And we put them on, and suddenly we see the world as if it were new, and we realize weve been squinting through outdated lenses for far too long. I think that much of what we see nowadays when we look at American history is like this, a picture as seen through lenses that worked fine for us once, but dont work so well now that weve changed. Theres nothing intrinsically wrong with our old glasses; they were just meant for a different set of eyes, and too much of the world now looks out of focus.
When you put on your new glasses after delaying a visit to the doctor for too long, you suddenly wonder how you could ever have stood to look through the old ones. I hope this book will help us see Americas place in the world with the same freshness, so that we can see the same old story with a new clarity and begin to wonder how we could ever have stood to look at the world through those quaint old spectacles, missing so much of such importance.
Specifically, using globalization as a lens brings into focus the relationship between the United States and the rest of the world in the late nineteenth century, and how this relationship shaped American political development. Capital and labor from overseas pushed American political development in noticeably unusual directions during a particularly important growth spurt. This early formative influence bequeathed the United States some peculiar and lasting habits of government. The effects of globalization helped the country become a powerful nation without developing (in comparative terms) a powerful central government. In the United States, as in some other countries, we often argue over the appropriate size and authority of national government, and usually we argue from principle: a big government is better because it can provide security; a small government is better because it can allow freedom. These arguments from principle have what to a historian seems like an unfortunately timeless quality, as if government were some uniform product, of which you can have too much or too little, but which is always the same thing. If we look at how government grew in the first place, we might remember that it is a set of solutions to a set of problemsnot theoretical problems, but practical problemsand that, in practice, not all peoples face the same problems. During its growth into a powerful nation, the United States faced a set of problems unlike those any other nation has encountered. Americans formed their habits of government by solving a set of problems specific to their circumstances. And we know that habits often outlast the circumstances that justified them, just as we often wear prescription eyeglasses long after our eyes have changed, and sometimes with bad consequences.
The long life of American habits, which outlasted the circumstances to which they were suited, has affected not only the United States but also the rest of the world fairly dramatically. To take up a literally dramatic analogy: the fifty-year period from 1865 through 1914 is, in the history of the Western world, like the play Hamlet. The great actors on the international stage, set at odds by bad faith, misunderstanding, and the fateful entanglement of their interests, come ever closer to catastrophe until finally they clash, and after a gruesome bout of killing none of the major players is left standing. Its terribly moving, and we in the audience feel emotionally drained. Then, somewhat confusingly, a fellow named Fortinbras walks on and says, well, now Im the king of Denmark. And…curtain. Even in Shakespeares full script theres little indication of who Fortinbras is, or what hes been up to.1 His story, whatever it is, must have gone on mostly separate from that of Hamlet and his family, because weve been watching them, and theres been scarcely any mention of Fortinbras. Yet he must have been, in some important way that was taking place offstage or, if you prefer, outside the principal focus of the action, connected to the characters and events of the play, because here he is, king. There is something very wrong with the end of this play; the foreseeable future seems dramatically disconnected from the immediate past as we have learned it.
The worlds people must have felt much this sense of puzzlement and anxiety in 1918, when at wars end the Americans suddenly emerged as the planets great power. Where had these Americans been, what had they been up to, and what did they think were the normal relations among nations? Most of the worlds people knew little more about the United States in 1918 than theatergoers know about Fortinbras at the end of Hamlet, and in significant ways we know little more now than they did then, because we have been telling this history as if weve been restaging Hamlet, without any attention to the important offstage back story. We need now, all of us, to know not only what the American Fortinbras was doing just before he emerged from the wings, but also how his strange tale connects to the main action, if we want to understand why he has gone on to behave as he did and what it means to the world.