Assessing the U.S. Experiment

By O'Neill, William L. | The New Leader (Online), May-August 2008 | Go to article overview

Assessing the U.S. Experiment


O'Neill, William L., The New Leader (Online)


Habits of Empire: A History of American Expansion By Wa Iter Nugent Knopf. 387 pp. $30.00.

Ark of the Liberties: America and the World By Ted Widmer Hill and Wang. 355 pp. $25.00.

THESE TWO books complement each other. Together they present a vivid picture of the United States from its inception to its present position in the world.

Walter Nugent has written a comprehensive history of how a handful of largely English-speaking colonists formed what would become a nation of 50 states that acquired numerous overseas territories plus countless foreign military bases. This was accomplished by the usual methods: lies, theft, broken treaties, the invasion of neighboring Mexico, a war that relieved Spain of most of its remaining colonies, etc. To my knowledge, Habits of Empire is the most comprehensive account of the high crimes and misdemeanors committed in the course of building the country we inhabit today. In this respect, of course, the United States is no different than any other great power. Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and others also achieved their status through brutality conquest and assorted forms of violence.

But Nugent begs an important question: Why has the U.S., despite its extensive criminal history, captured the imagination of so many people? This has been true from the beginning, when American civilization amounted to practically nothing, up to - though not including the George W Bush Administration.

The answer, Ted Widmer makes clear in Ark of the Liberties, is that since 1 776 there have been two United States. One is the country detailed at length by Nugent. The second is the country that has always tried to do better, and sometimes does.

We began our national life with the ringing assertion that "all men are created equal." Actually, the Founders only meant all white men, as we know from Abigail Adams writing her husband at the Continental Congress not to forget the women, and then expressing doubt about the "passion for liberty" of those "accustomed to deprive their fellow creatures of theirs." Nonetheless, our little rebellion against the British Empire had what Widmer calls global consequences: "That is one of countless paradoxes stemming from the Big Bang of American history. Just as astronomers measure light emitted by ancient cosmic events, from the beginning of time itself, so we still feel the wind and dust kicked up by the democratic revolution that created the United States."

Becoming the first democratic nation, whatever its imperfections, was a staggering achievement and widely recognized as such from the start. Our political revolution was also a diplomatic revolution. Our Treaty of Alliance with France was published in full. So was the Treaty of Paris that not only ended the war with Great Britain on highly advantageous terms, thanks to the genius and persistence of Benjamin Franklin, but, as Widmer notes, changed everything: "After 1783, the world would never again be able to claim that monarchy was part of the natural order, ordained by God. From that point forward, democracy and liberty were strategic national interests, backed by a state with sovereignty."

WHILE AMERICA'S shining beacon was transforming the world, however, America itself was struggling hard, and not always successfully, to live up to its own principles. Few worried about the long process of dispossessing Native Americans from most of their territories. Whites feared the Indians when they were strong and despised them when they were weak. Not until the 20th century did Americans slowly begin to develop some sense of responsibility for the country's aboriginal inhabitants, who by then had nearly vanished.

Slavery posed another problem from day one. The Founders debated the issue heatedly at the Constitutional Convention, without resolving it. As more new states gained admission to the Union, the fight over whether they should be slave or free became increasingly intense. …

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