Writing about his journey across the young United States, Alexis de Tocqueville remarked that “in America I saw more than America; I sought the image of democracy itself, with its inclinations, its character, its prejudices, and its passions.” From Tocqueville onwards, Americans have struggled to tell the story of American democracy, its triumphs as well as its shortcomings. In his new book, American Republics: A Continental History of the United States, 1783–1850, Alan Taylor studies the character of early American democracy, offering a frank look at its fierce prejudices and violent passions.1
Surveys of the early Republic are plentiful, and so Taylor enters a crowded field. On offer besides American Republics are such acclaimed works as Charles Sellers’s provocative The Market Revolution (1991), Sean Wilentz’s Bancroft Prize–winning The Rise of American Democracy (2005), and Daniel Walker Howe’s Pulitzer Prize–winning What Hath God Wrought (2007). Taylor’s latest volume in his history of the United States (following 2001’s American Colonies and 2016’s American Revolutions) covers most of the same ground as these masterworks, but, unlike the others, he takes a continental approach that spans the surrounding regions.
Taylor’s history incorporates Canadian, Mexican, and Native American perspectives to recount the birth of the early Republic and the rise of American democracy. Taylor’s sources, which also include material from European diplomats and foreign travelers, offer unique insights on episodes routinely covered in similar books. International events loom particularly large in the mind of his antebellum American subjects, such as the establishment of Haiti as a free black republic in 1804, the various Latin American revolutions that erupted throughout the early nineteenth century, and the United Kingdom’s Slavery Abolition Act of 1833. While other works have shown how involved Americans were in regional events and national politics, Taylor demonstrates their keen awareness of foreign events and global changes, too. They were, for instance, angry that Canadians and Britons thought of the United States as a nation of irresponsible drunks, ill-tempered ruffians, and hypocritical slavers.
In his preface, Taylor mentions how a colleague jokingly recommended the subtitle for his book: “Colonize Harder.” Though humorous, the description gets at the heart of Taylor’s study. Much of his story centers on, as Taylor puts it, “a Union committed to expanding slavery and crushing Indians.” Just as American Revolutions revealed the dark side of the American Revolution, American Republics centers on colonialism, racism, sexism, prejudice, and violence. Compared to early studies of the period like Age of Jackson (1945), where “the predicament of women, of blacks, of Indians was shamefully out of mind,” here they are front and center.
But despite recent scholarly trends, Taylor is averse to the term “Manifest Destiny” when explaining the expansionist goals of early Americans. As Taylor explains, there were plenty of Americans who lacked confidence in the Union’s ability to expand beyond its colonial borders, and who were fearful about effects on the delicate balance of political power. Even the Americans who did want to expand the nation’s borders rarely did so out of a national sense of shared destiny, but rather out of regional self-interest. The absence of early American nationalism in this period might surprise readers, who will find more figures proudly willing to call themselves Virginians, Georgians, or New Yorkers than Americans. This regionalism and the issue of slavery made for a young nation full of anxiety and built on fragile alliances, ready to break out into civil war at almost any moment.
Though American mythology depicts Manifest Destiny as integrally westward, Taylor highlights the other options that were considered for expansion, such as northward invasions of Canada and southern expeditions to Cuba, to name just two examples. But land acquisition wasn’t always done on behalf of the United States either; plenty of Americans envisioned breaking away from the United States long before the Confederacy did so during the Civil War. Some are well known, such as Aaron Burr, who supposedly attempted to carve out an empire for himself beyond the Appalachian Mountains, and the Mormon prophet Brigham Young, who tried to move beyond the reach of the United States in Utah. Other cases are less familiar, such as Ira Allen’s plan to combine his home state of Vermont with Canada, and the Scottish-born William Lyon MacKenzie’s plan to overthrow the Canadian government with American aid and establish his own country.
American Republics is anchored in thematically organized chapters but told for the most part chronologically, starting at the conclusion of the American Revolution and ending with the Compromise of 1850, which attempted to defuse tensions surrounding slavery. Though Taylor juggles complex characters and events admirably, there are moments when the timeline becomes difficult to follow. While reading a discussion of slavery, for example, readers might find themselves in the middle of the War of 1812 in one moment, then in the 1840s a few pages later, only to snap back to the 1820s in the next chapter. In another section, Taylor explains the ideological differences between the Democratic and Whig parties before even mentioning the rise of Andrew Jackson or Henry Clay within national politics, instead covering those men in a later chapter on the elections of 1824 and 1828.
Given his geopolitical focus, Taylor’s examinations of American cultural history are brief, though effective. Writers such as Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, Edgar Allan Poe, and Walt Whitman are touched upon fleetingly, as are changes within American architecture. Religious movements such as Millerism and Mormonism, as well as folk magic, receive due notice. Also covered are the numerous social-reform movements of the era, such as the failed socialist utopian New Harmony community. Protests, marches, and rallies are a common theme. Taylor mentions those enraged over the Tariff of Ambitions, the first national antislavery organizations, women’s rights conventions, and others. Apart from these brief asides, though, Taylor’s text emphasizes the struggle for continental dominance more than the cultural changes in the land. Those interested in a synthetic work that tackles the cultural, religious, and economic changes of the era would find other texts more satisfying.
American Republics is a worthy and apt continuation of Taylor’s excellent continental history of the United States. As one has come to expect from Taylor, his prose is excellent and his ability to weave together storytelling and scholarship is truly commendable. But, equally, readers will find in American Republics a familiar tale of domination by white men over blacks, Native Americans, and women, just like the tales found in American Colonies and American Revolutions. American democracy emerges full of shortcomings, hypocrisies, and contradictions. The image of American democracy produced by Taylor is an uncomfortable one, and its shape, much like the nation’s borders, is continually evolving.