This is the first in a two-volume project in
which Kagan lays out his argument that America is not, and never
has been, isolationist. Taking us from the "Pilgrim Fathers" up
to the dawn of the Twentieth Century, Kagan lays out his
position clearly and eloquently. The question is, will his
opinion be a surprise to you? The answer is probably yes if your
knowledge of American history is still grounded in the black and
white history taught in middle-school; but probably no if you're
not American or have read books on similar themes such as Niall
Ferguson's Colossus or Cornel West's Democracy Matters
(both published in 2004).
Kagan breaks down the "pervasive myth" of isolationism starting with the arrival of the Puritans. He points out that the Puritans did not plan to cut themselves off permanently from their roots. On the contrary, in their mind New England and Old England were part of the same spiritual world - America was simply a stopping-off point from which to regroup and grow, so that their descendants would eventually be able to return to the Old Country. He supports this argument with the observation that one of the greatest disappointments for the early settlers came when England's Puritan revolution abandoned rigid Calvinism in the mid-17th century, leaving the Puritans in North America theologically isolated.
In short, the Puritan mission, which lies at the heart of many American's perception of their country, is misunderstood. Added to that, Puritanism was not as great an influence as many imagine because it was not long before the sheer wealth of natural resources available in North America began to undermine the Calvinist theology, so that within a generation or two "the guiding principles were not social stability, order and discipline of the senses but mobility, growth and the enjoyment of life". Thus colonial America was characterized "not by isolationism and utopianism .... but by aggressive expansionism, acquisitive materialism, and an overarching ideology of civilization that encouraged and justified both."
Just like the Greeks and Romans before them, the colonists did not consider themselves aggressors, instead they made their way forward in the conviction that enterprise, trade and the advancement of civilization were inextricably linked. They believed that they had a superior faith and culture to spread, when compared to the beliefs of other groups such as the Native Americans and French Catholics, and saw themselves spreading European civilization in the same way that England had spread civilization to "inferior" races such as the Gaelic Irish and Highland Scots.
Having set us straight on the early settlers, Kagan moves on to the War of Independence, and once again destroys much of what we learned in school. For example, don't we all know that the colonists' break with Britain was about a desire to be independent from a country that taxed them unfairly? According to Kagan, things were a little more complex - the reality is that Britain had just finished a very costly war (the "Seven Years' War, 1756-1763), the most tangible outcome of which was that France's power in the Americas was broken. On the basis that much of this war had been fought to protect colonial interests, the British Parliament thought it not unreasonable that the colonists should pay a portion of the costs, especially considering that at the time the average man in Britain was paying 2 to 3 times as much tax as the average colonist.
Exasperating the situation, the colonists did not always respond in a serious fashion to British efforts to discuss the issues at hand. One of the more absurd responses proved pivotal in shaping American's subsequent self-image: Speaking in London in 1766 Benjamin Franklin declared that the colonists had had no interest in the outcome of the war, saying that it "was really a British war .. a dispute between the two Crowns" of Britain and France in which the colonists had no stake and that the colonists were in "perfect peace with both French and Indians". This would be all well and good if it wasn't for the fact that most in the room remembered Franklin's passionate pleas six years earlier for the conquest and retention of both the Ohio Valley and Canada! However, it is the latter speech that is remembered, and which laid another stone in the foundation of the "American myth of innocence and self-abnegation".
Kagan continues in this vein, describing the Civil War as America's "first experiment in ideological conquest"; and follows on with the 19th century expansion, which saw the United States expand from sea to shining sea, while in the process kicking out the former controlling countries, namely the British, Spanish, French, Russians and Mexicans.
One of the most erudite reviews comes from The Washington Post reviewer, David M Kennedy (winner of the 1999 Pulitzer Prize in History for Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War 1929-1945). Kennedy opines that while Dangerous Nation's prose is sometimes labored, "its systematic dismantling of accepted dogmas is refreshingly provocative -- though not all readers will buy its central thesis that a kind of high-minded pugnacity is encoded in the national DNA."
This review was originally published in December 2006, and has been updated for the November 2007 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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