A Nation Among Nations: America's Place in World History

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9780809072354: A Nation Among Nations: America's Place in World History

A provocative new book that shows us why we must put American history firmly in a global context--from 1492 to today

Americans like to tell their country's story as if the United States were naturally autonomous and self-sufficient, with characters, ideas, and situations unique to itself. Thomas Bender asks us to rethink this "exceptionalism" and to reconsider the conventional narrative. He proposes that America has grappled with circumstances, doctrines, new developments, and events that other nations, too, have faced, and that we can only benefit from recognizing this.

Bender's exciting argument begins with the discovery of the Americas at a time when peoples everywhere first felt the transforming effects of oceanic travel and trade. He then reconsiders our founding Revolution, occurring in an age of rebellion on many continents; the Civil War, happening when many countries were redefining their core beliefs about the nature of freedom and the meaning of nationhood; and the later imperialism that pitted the United States against Germany, Spain, France, and England. Industrialism and urbanization, laissez-faire economics, capitalism and socialism, and new technologies are other factors that Bender views in the light of global developments.

A Nation Among Nations is a passionate, persuasive book that makes clear what damage is done when we let the old view of America alone in the world falsify our history. Bender boldly challenges us to think beyond our borders.

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About the Author:

Thomas Bender, professor of history and the humanities at New York University, is the author and editor of more than a dozen books. He lives in New York City.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

A Nation Among Nations
1THE OCEAN WORLD AND THE BEGINNINGS OF AMERICAN HISTORY 
 
Until recently the basic narrative of American history began with a chapter on exploration and discovery. That formula has changed--but only slightly. With the belated acknowledgment that earlier migrants, the first American peoples, had already been living in the Western Hemisphere for thousands of years when Christopher Columbus arrived and when the Pilgrims established Plymouth Plantation, the theme of the typical first chapter has been changed to emphasize European "contact" with Americans or, in some versions, the European "invasion of America." These rephrasings offer a truer interpretation of the encounter but do not change the story much. Either way, the extraordinary events of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries are reduced to being a prequel to an American national history. Likewise, to begin with the migration of the first Americans across an Asian-American land bridge, which should change the frame of American history, amounts in practice to no more than a prelude, acknowledged and then dropped. The proto-nationalist and linear narrative persists, shaped and misshaped by its teleological anticipation of the later emergence of the United States. Thus reduced, this early phase of American history loses much of its significance and capacity to explain later developments. And the usual story about "settlement" that follows "discovery," "contact," or "invasion" is not only linear but very narrowly channeled.The event that occurred in 1492, whatever it is called, was about space, oceanic space. Space was redefined, and movement across oceansmade possible entirely new global networks of trade and communication. Recognizing this spatial aspect of American beginnings enlarges our story. The actual "discovery" was greater in significance than the exploration of a landmass unknown to Europeans or even than the beginnings of the United States. The real discovery was of the ocean, which entered history, creating a new world.The consequences of discovering an oceanic world shaped the history of every continent. On every continent a new world emerged, with consequences for each. The story of North America and of the United States is part of that larger, more important history, not vice versa.While all the educated classes of the European Renaissance knew the earth was spherical, the world as they understood it did not include the oceans. It was not yet global. For Christendom, indeed for adherents of the Abrahamic religions more generally, the Afro-Eurasian world that was unified by the Mediterranean Sea was an "island world" inhabited by the descendants of Adam and Eve, the human family. God, it was thought, had on the third day commanded the sea to pull back, exposing a portion of the earth's surface for the use of humans.1 This biblical cosmology was illustrated on the border of one of the most famous surviving maps of the era, that of Fra Mauro of 1459.2 The great fourteenth-century North African Muslim historian and philosopher Ibn-Khaldun made the same point in words: "The water withdrew from certain parts of [the earth] because God wanted to create living beings on it and settle it with the human species."3 Beyond the ocean was an unknown, often terrifying space. It was even regarded as a kind of anti-world. Map borders often showed monstrous beings beyond the ocean, and countless medieval accounts and encyclopedias described them. This "other" located beyond the human world was present in the daily iconography of Christianity, routinely carved into the tympana of European cathedrals, where they still attract our notice.4Meanwhile, the greater part of Afro-Eurasia had been unified by the Mongol Empire in the thirteenth century, and its extent facilitated expansive trade. This vast empire reinforces the point being made here: this was a land empire, limited by the sea, and when the Mongols attempted an invasion of Japan in 1281, the combination of superior Japanese seamanship and a terrific storm resulted in their disastrous defeat.The later significance of Columbus--though he did not grasp it--was that his voyages opened an extraordinary global prospect, first for Europeansand in time for us all. After Columbus, as the Mexican historian Edmundo O'Gorman wrote in 1958, it became possible for humans to see for the first time that "the whole surface of the terraqueous globe, both water and land, ... is a continuous whole."5 The relation of land and water was revolutionized. The world and the earth (or planet) were made one. Human understanding of the world could now grasp its global dimensions, and in 1540 a Spanish humanist, Juan Maldonado, writing in Latin, offered a fantastic account of a flight to the moon, from which he visualized the entire surface of the earth. A dozen years later Francisco López de Gómara-in his Historia General de las Indias (1552)--explained that "the world is only one and not many."6 This vast expansion of the terrain of humanity enlarged the horizon of human ambition.The people of all continents, not only Europe, learned over the next century that "the world is an ocean and all its continents are islands."7 Global awareness and communication, which we may think of as the striking development of our own time, preceded America and made it possible. Within a quarter century of Columbus's final voyage, the world had been encompassed. Centuries later, Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan, friend and adviser to Theodore Roosevelt, succinctly described the significance of this: the ocean ceased to be a barrier and became "a wide common, over which men may pass in all directions."8 Ironically, given this celebration of the human commons, Mahan was architect of the empire that, he believed, should consolidate America's strategic and commercial domination of the ocean.The territory that later became the United States participated in the oceanic revolution, was one of its consequences, and shared its larger implications. Much of the meaning of American history is therefore entangled with this reinvention of the world, entangled in histories it shares with other peoples. Each, however, experienced this common history in its own particular way. Though for centuries what became the United States was marginal to those histories, in time, especially in our own time, not only is it very much at the center, but it is a powerful engine of global historical change. So the history of the United States is not and cannot be a history in and of itself. Its context until well into the twentieth century was the ocean world. And it cannot be appraised except as a part of this revolution in human existence--a revolution comparable in significance to the invention of agriculture or cities.Thinking he had reached the Asian shores of the known world,Columbus did not refer to the "new world," though he occasionally used the phrase "otro mundo," "another world."9 It was the humanist scholar Peter Martyr who--in a letter of 1493--first employed the phrase "novus orbis." 10 More famously, Amerigo Vespucci, another humanist from Florence who was serving as the Medici agent in Lisbon, used the term "Mundus Novus" in an account of a voyage that brought him to the Western Hemisphere--initially a letter written upon his return in 1502 to his Medici patron and subsequently published.11 This earned him recognition on the famous Waldseemüller map of 1507, which showed the hemisphere as a simple, distinct entity. On this map, one finds for the first time the word "America," the letters stretching roughly from today's Central America to Brazil, the area where Vespucci is supposed to have first seen the "New World."Vespucci is fairly credited with recognizing that this new world had large implications for European cosmology. He grasped that he had seen "things that are not found written either by the ancients or modern writers." 12 By 1498, Columbus, too, had an inkling of this idea. The letter in which he used the phrase "another world" bears fuller quotation, for it shows Columbus, no less than the humanist, considering the lands he visited as "another world from that in which the Romans and Alexander and the Greeks labored to gain dominion."13 But neither of them understood the significance of their discovery, which was not in the land they saw, but rather in the ocean that had made it accessible. They both missed the revolutionary transformation of the ocean from a barrier into a connector of continents, a medium for the global movement of people, money, goods, and ideas. By 1519-22, when Ferdinand Magellan (or his crew, since he did not survive the voyage, and one of his five ships, Victoria) circumnavigated the globe, the dimensions of this new ocean world had been fully experienced: the world was global, and it was unified by its oceans.Rather quickly this new world included a novel form of power. Vasco da Gama's actions in South Asia might be seen as pointing quite directly to the foundations of a new kind of imperial power. His arrival in Calicut, on the Malabar Coast of southwestern India, in May 1498 shocked no one. He was greeted there by Moorish traders from Tunis, who knew of Christendom and spoke both Castilian and Genoese. By the end of the summer, da Gama had met there a Jewish merchant from Poland who spoke Hebrew,Venetian, Arabic, German, and a little Spanish.14 Moreover, da Gama had known about Calicut before he embarked; a key entrepôt for the spice trade managed by Muslim merchants, it was his destination.15 And the merchants he met in Calicut knew about Europe. Da Gama found cities and an active commercial and political life in the Indian Ocean region, unlike Columbus in the "new world." This notable point was made by the Portuguese king in a somewhat gloating letter to Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain in 1499: his explorers, the king wrote, found "large cities, large edifices and rivers, and great p...

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