Reframing American History in a New Book on North America

Image: Detail of “Geometry” (1557), an allegory by Frans Floris. Wikimedia Commons.

In a new book published this January by the University of Missouri Press called, A Big History of North America, from Montezuma to Monroe, I have tried to rewrite the American story by placing it in a continental as well as a transatlantic and transpacific context.  This is not another national narrative on the rise of the early US republic, of which there are many, but a new North American history, inclusive of Mexico, of which there a very few. 

In fact, most histories of North America either explicitly divide the continent by geography and culture between British North America, that is, Canada and the United States—the continent’s Anglosphere—on the one hand, and Mexico or Mexico and Latin America—the continent’s Hispanosphere—on the other.  This history seeks to integrate the histories of these three countries into a single narrative, which sets it sharply apart from older Anglo and Hispanic historiographical traditions. 

This is a story of revolving relationships and reversals of fortune, which reveal a rich as well as tragic North American history, one largely hidden from view by the separate national and conventional histories of Mexico, Canada, and the United States.

What this history is not is what is called “transnational history,” which downplays the nation state in history.  I actually emphasize the origins and evolution of the nation state in the history of North America, in particular in regard to the important issue of security and the building of borders, much as European historians have done in writing the history of Europe.      

This history is a “big history,” if a qualified one. The historian Stephen Pyne once said that the “sciences deal with figures, and the humanities, with figures of speech.”  Big history bridges the divide between the sciences and the humanities by seeking to unite natural and human history.  In my case, I specifically try to tie together the two fields of geography and history.

And while historians have sliced and diced humanity into any number of categories—race, class, gender, and so on—for analysis, the category of analysis in this big history is humanity itself:  a single species—Homo sapiens sapiens—but one differentiated by different levels of social development or stages of cultural evolution, which is not to be confused with organic evolution, a very different thing! I have in mind the classic developmental schemes of Karl Marx, who stressed the role of class struggle and oppression in world history, Herbert Spencer, for whom social evolution was the story of increasing complexity and differentiation of function, and Frederick Jackson Turner who emphasized the significance of an expanding frontier, and opportunity, in shaping American development. 

To put it another way, Thomas Jefferson was quite right to declare the self-evident truth that all men are created equal.  But people are born into societies which, in terms of social development, may be anything but equal.  A good illustration of this point is the Human Development Index or HDI, an international assessment that was pioneered by the Pakistani economist Mahbub ul Haq.  Every year since 1990 the United Nations uses HDI to issue a report card for every country in the world.  Unlike Gross Domestic Product (GDP), which is an index that measures a society’s total output of goods and services, Mahbub ul Haq wanted the HDI to measure a society’s sense of “well-being” or “happiness.”  We might say that HDI is more Jeffersonian in its attempt to attach real metrics to the otherwise subjective pursuit of happiness, while GDP, a measure of raw economic power, is pure Hamilton.

To measure well-being, Mahbub ul Haq identified three measurable traits: longevity, per capita income, and educational attainment, which call to mind Benjamin Franklin’s admonition that we should all strive to be “healthy, wealthy, and wise.” HDI scores are based on a scale of 0 to 1, with 1 being the highest.  According to the United Nations HDI report for 2020, Norway topped the list with a score of 0.957; at the bottom, entry 189, was Niger, with a score of 0.394.  As you can see by these figures, global equity is still a long way off.  But the point of HDI is that it gives us a way to measure progress or to hold governments accountable if there is a lack thereof. In this respect, HDI as well as GDP, the Gini coefficient, and other indexes are crucial tools in helping us to sort out where we are and where we are going.  

As an historian, I’m also interested in how these indexes, backed by other research, especially archaeological and genetic research, as well as past census data, government reports, and private correspondence, might show us where we have been.  For history to have real significance, it needs to plot the past, present, and, I would argue, the future. 

To do that, I drew on the work of the economic historian Leandro Prados de la Escosura who extended Haq’s index as far back as 1870. The work of the specialist in quantitative macro economic history, the late Angus Maddison, who compiled historical statistics for the world economy—based on three traits:  population size, GDP, and per capita GDP—all the way back to the birth of Christ. And the work of Stanford archaeologist and historian Ian Morris who introduced a new historical index that measured four traits:  1) energy capture; 2) social organization (city size); 3) information technology, such as writing systems; and 4) a society’s capacity to make war. In short, he was interested in a measuring a society’s “ability to get things done.”  Morris compared not only the social development of the West with the East, but he also took these comparisons as far as back as the last Ice Age!  

The advantage of using Morris’s index, in conjunction with other indexes, traits, and observations, to measure relative success is that it helps explain why, for instance, Norway, which ranks consistently at the top of HDI reports—ahead of the United States as well as China and Russia— is not otherwise considered a world, or even a regional, power.  Certainly, the policies of Norway’s government, in particular, and Norway’s culture, in general, are key factors in its high social development. But while Norway’s social development is higher than that of the United States, Norway’s social power is much lower. In fact, the Scandinavian country’s high social development is due in no small part to the fact that it enjoys the very real security that the United States and its military allies, which include Norway, provide the entire North Atlantic region (Norway is a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization or NATO, founded in 1949; the U.S. military dwarfs the other militaries in the alliance in terms of its size, firepower, reach, and efficiency).  In short, the argument I make is that a society’s well-being is related either to its own social power or, just as crucially, to the protective extension or the destructive intrusion of the social power of other societies. In this history I found that I needed to replace the concept of social development with what I call social power because societies don’t exist in a vacuum; they influence each other. With this idea, I could now tell the story of North America in terms of the continent’s relation to rising, ruling, and receding powers. 

I should also point out that while big historians open their narratives with the Big Bang and close them with this morning’s breakfast 13.8 billion years later, my big history, or rather my little big history, is much more modest in scale and scope.  My stage or places is not the cosmos but the continent of North America.  By the way, this still leaves me with plenty of elbow room!  And I take as my period the three-century interval which occurred between Europe’s military conquest of North America in 1521 and North America’s rise to parity with Europe in 1823, a major inflection point in modern world history. 

The Monroe Doctrine, which was proclaimed in 1823, was not an instance of the United States asserting a hemispheric hegemony.  This is a common misunderstanding.  The Monroe Doctrine, which was initially proposed by Great Britain, was, I argue, a modus vivendi reached between Great Britain and the United States to share the continent of North America.  And it was a warning to others, especially Spain, to stay out of the way.  In other words, after the War of 1812, Great Britain, an established power, and the United States, a rising power, chose a future of arbitration rather than mutual annihilation; cooperation rather than competition.      

This is the origin of the Special Relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom that would later play such an important role during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. It was made possible only when the United States finally conceded one of the major goals of the American Revolution, namely, the conquest of Canada.  The United States had become a republic.  Canada would remain a monarchy, a dominion, and its political institutions would evolve under the Westminster, not the Washington, system. 

In fact, Great Britain remained in Canada unchallenged. And for the rest of the nineteenth century, the United States, which enjoyed peaceful relations with its northern neighbor as well as free security abroad—courtesy of the Royal Navy—was able to turn all of its energies inward as well westward, setting it on a collision course with Mexico and the continent’s many Native peoples.  Unlike its two continental neighbors, the United States and Mexico, which fought for national independence, Canada achieved national autonomy from Great Britain quite gradually, always cautiously, and largely peacefully.    

The postcolonial history of Anglo-American amity, unfortunately, stands in sharp relief with the postcolonial hostility that existed between Spain and Mexico.  Unlike the United States, which failed to drive Great Britain out of North America, Mexico succeeded in evicting the Spanish from the continent—but not the Caribbean. However, in its triumph Mexico had incurred the enmity of a sullen and vindictive, if declining, power.  As Sparta had with Athens, Spain chose to suppress Mexico’s rise. 

And tragically, Spain, like Sparta, succeeded, leaving North America deeply divided into Anglo- and Hispanospheres with different levels of social development, despite the continent’s shared European civilization, Indigenous past, and geography.  Mexico had traded security and subordination for isolation and vulnerability.  What followed was a century of political turmoil, strife, and foreign invasion by the Spaniards in 1829, the Americans in 1846, and the French in 1862.  Once the richest colony in North America, if not in the world, war-ravaged Mexico became the continent’s poorest nation.

Needless to say, America’s destiny was anything but manifest.  The United States was lucky in finding a guardian in Great Britain—friends in the highest of places, as it were.  This was an outcome brokered, to be sure, by flinty-eyed statesmen from both sides of the St. Lawrence River. Below the Rio Grande, on the other hand, Mexico was left on its own in a mean world that would get only meaner in the next century.  But by that time Mexico had found it, too, enjoyed the blessings of free security, courtesy of Uncle Sam.  With the United States and its military might next door, Mexico was essentially able to cede its foreign policy and the expense of maintaining a national defense to its northern neighbor and, with the Mexican Revolution, concentrate on its internal development. 

The histories of Canada and Mexico could not have been more different.  But they would each produce a similar result—a long peaceful border with their American neighbor.  With perhaps the exception of Great Britain, which at one point had united the British Isles, no power has ever before been able to dominate so thoroughly its own region as the United States.  And with safe borders and security at home, the United States was free to extend its power throughout the world.  

Indeed, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States issued a sweeping post-Cold War statement, the Defense Planning Guidance of 1992, which, in effect, globalized the Monroe Doctrine.  In this Monroe Doctrine 2.0, the United States proclaimed that it would not brook the emergence of any new rival or threat anywhere in the world—either in the Western Hemisphere or the Eastern Hemisphere.  What followed was an unprecedented period of peace and prosperity—a globalization of the world’s economy and culture within an American-led, rules-based order. But it is now clear how long this will last.

Since 1992, an increasingly reckless Russia, a declining power, and a steadily less cautious China, a rising power, both filled with revanchist ambitions and deep-seated grievances, have sought to challenge America’s unique unipolarity.  They may succeed.  To put this moment and challenge into perspective, this book looks at America’s initial rise to power and considers what made its relatively short path to hemispheric dominance possible. 

What I learned was that good relations with the United Kingdom were key then.  They are no less key now. And with Brexit, there are a range of new possibilities for cooperation and engagement to explore. And while we tend to ignore our next-door neighbors, Canada and Mexico, or take them for granted.  We shouldn’t.  They are of fundamental importance to understanding America’s place in the world today.  These lessons are what this book is really about.

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