July 12, 2008


Democracy’s Keeper: a review of ARK OF THE LIBERTIES: America and the World By Ted Widmer (DAVID OSHINSKY, NY Times Book Review)

What made America unique, Widmer says, was the millennial outlook of the Europeans who first settled here. A vast and isolated continent gave them the freedom to save what was precious from the Old World and to seek perfection in the New. From the top of society to the bottom, these colonists “lavished attention on obscure bits of Scripture that seemed to favor the wilderness, the West and the defeat of large powers by small ones.” Their settlements became the fulfillment of a biblical prophecy, guided by divine will.

Widmer is adept at tracing the pull of millennialism over generations, from Puritanism to the Great Awakening to the American Revolution and beyond. And he shows how seamlessly it entered the political realm. Most colonists had welcomed England’s authority so long as it remained distant and ineffective. When that changed in the 18th century, big trouble followed. Political resistance now became a religious duty, a sign of obedience to God. As Widmer makes clear, the ensuing struggle for independence took place against the backdrop of African enslavement. Still, the extraordinary changes it produced — the debunking of monarchy, the insistence on representative government, the catalog of rights for white men — gave the world a glimpse of what the future could be.

“The American Revolution,” Widmer writes, “was also a foreign policy revolution.” Though the infant United States lacked the military muscle to impose its will beyond its own borders, it plunged forward with the moral certainty of a chosen people. (How else can one explain the audacious Monroe Doctrine, which proclaimed an end to European colonization of the entire Western Hemisphere?) Over time, as the nation’s strength began to match its aspirations, Americans expanded their divine mandate to include the acquisition of territory by force. “Manifest Destiny,” a term coined by a New York journalist in 1845, justified expansion on the grounds that God had chosen the United States “to overspread the continent” with its “yearly multiplying millions.”

The result was war with Mexico, which Americans remember (if at all) as an easy land grab and a nice training ground for future Civil War generals. Widmer carefully reminds us of the conflict’s seamy underside — the anti-Catholicism and strident claims of racial superiority. It was, he suggests, a war waged solely to advance America’s “lust for land,” and it aroused furious opposition. Among the critics was Representative Abraham Lincoln, whose world vision for America included tolerance and restraint.

But then Widmer veers off course. He races through the rest of the 19th century, explaining only that “American foreign policy was notably calmer” in these years. He loses the threads of his argument while all but ignoring the forces of immigration and industrial technology, which turned the United States into the New World colossus. When he picks up the story again, around 1900, the narrative is less about tracing the impact of powerful ideas on America’s global vision and more about ranking the foreign policies of modern presidents, ending with George W. Bush.

For Widmer, who worked in the Clinton administration, Democrats outperform Republicans. His heroes include Woodrow Wilson, whom he describes as the guiding spirit behind the United Nations and movements for human rights. Many historians would agree, while also emphasizing the rigid, self-destructive behavior that kept Wilson from achieving his key goals as president, like America’s entry into the League of Nations after World War I.

If there’s a president who doesn’t need further buffing, it’s Franklin D. Roosevelt. No such luck here. In Widmer’s hands, Roosevelt becomes Superman, vanquishing the Great Depression, global fascism and “the colonial system that had governed much of the world.” He might have achieved even greater things — though it’s hard to imagine what was left — had it not been for those annoying conservative Republicans, who pop up periodically in the book to start trouble. “Frankly,” Widmer says, “it is a wonder that he accomplished a tenth of what he did.”

...is that you have to accept that God didn't want us to take Eastern Europeans, Chinese, Africans, etc. aboard the Ark, but to leave them instead in the Gulag.

Posted by Orrin Judd at July 12, 2008 1:22 PM

But then Widmer veers off course.

Huh? More like he starts off in the wrong directions, then gets totally confused.

The Aztlanists and their sympathizers have spread this myth that the dispute with Mexico over the land between it and the US was some sort of "land grab." Instead, it was a dispute over land abandoned by the Spanish Empire and who would get to control it. Mexico's claim was that they inherited it because they were a former Spanish colony. Ask the contemporary Nuevo Mexicano or Californico (or Tejano if they hadn't already escaped Mexican imperialism, and even parts down south) what they thought of the idea. They'd have said that Mexico City had no claim to their territory.

Mexico had control of that land for only about a quarter century, and during that time did little to nothing to develop it or strengthen their claim over it. When it became obvious that a series of buffer states between Mexico and the US wouldn't be viable (or politically acceptable), then it became inevitable that one side would win, and the other lose.

At the beginning of war settlement negotiations, a sizeable part of the US was actually willing to settle for just Mexican recognition of Texas being part of the US and the US getting control of SF Bay, essentially setting the border at the present northern border of Arizona and New Mexico and extending it westward like the 49 degree one to the north. Except along the coast, they'd be giving up land that the Spanish and Mexicans never even explored. But the Mexican oligarchy got greedy, and said no, actually thinking that they could somehow hold on to land they'd never even occupied militarily. There were also those in the US who wanted to claim pretty much everything north of 24degrees, but that actually started to bite into Mexico proper. So the border agreed upon was a compromise, leaving Mexico still with a lot of land never put to good use. (For example, Baja Calif., where its gringo money driving development even now. As the joke goes, the US stole the parts of Mexico with all the good roads and with Disneyland.)

Then there was the attempt by Yucatan to secede and become a US protectorate. Like the northerers, they didn't think of themselves as Mexican, but wanted to be separate like the rest of Central America, but realized that they couldn't do it on their own.

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at July 12, 2008 4:51 PM

If you and your brother both see a dollar on the ground and dive for it, you're no less grabbing it because it was abandoned.

Posted by: oj at July 12, 2008 7:12 PM

"His heroes include Woodrow Wilson, whom he describes as the guiding spirit behind the United Nations and movements for human rights."

Gag me with a spoon.

Posted by: Dan at July 12, 2008 8:09 PM

This post would've been a great opporunity to give an Amazon link to the book that tells the "real" story. D.H.Fisher's "Albion's Seed"!
Just to make it easy to correct, here's the link:
BTW, since you brought up FDR, here's a left of center historian's take on the FDR years, again, should be an Amazon link for this post.
"Freedom From Fear"

Posted by: Mike at July 12, 2008 8:46 PM

My small knowledge of 19th Century American History does not permit to concur with the notion that Texas, Caslifornia and, at last. New Mexico, had been terra nullius at the time of the Mexican War. On the contrary, the pre-independence Texans had made formal submission to the authority of Mexica, and only later seized their independence by revolution.

Without question, Mexico had not been a competent power and had thereby invited conquest, but conquest it was.

We may analogize the situation of Mexico to that of Poland at the time of the partitions, as discussed by Clausewitz in Vom Krieg. Political, economic and, finally, military, incompetence resulted in ultimate downfall.

Posted by: Lou Gots at July 13, 2008 7:52 AM
blog comments powered by Disqus