Steven Hahn (Ph.D. Yale) is a professor in the Department of History at the University of Pennsylvania. He is an elected Fellow of the Society of American Historians, among many other distinctions. He is also an OAH Distinguished Lecturer.
Could you briefly describe A Nation without Borders? What’s new about your approach to the familiar story of the Civil War?
A Nation without Borders is a history of the United States roughly between 1830 and 1910. Thematically, it focuses on the relation between nation and empire in American development, and attempts both to cast this history in a broad international context (it begins and ends in Mexico) and to more fully integrate the history of the trans-Mississippi West and of Native populations there into the story. It argues that the United States began as a “union” and empire with a loose center and only became a “nation” as the federal government confronted an assortment of rebellions during the first half of the nineteenth century—of Native Americans, settler colonialists, filibusters, Mormons, and, most prominently, slaveholders—and defeated them. The War of the Rebellion was of course the largest of these but we may also think of “wars of the rebellions” during this period. A Nation without Borders sees what we call “Reconstruction” fundamentally as a state-building project (with important imperial features) linking the South, West, and Northeast and argues that capitalism did not gain a dominant foothold in the United States until the post-Civil War era, with special dynamism in the trans-Mississippi West and international initiatives that the war made possible. The book explores “alternative paths” fueled by anti-monopoly political traditions and the social democratic impulses that emerged out of them and that together helped create a major social crisis by the end of the nineteenth century. A Nation without Borders concludes with a lengthy treatment of several “reconstructions” of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (which we have called progressivism) and with the Mexican Revolution of the 1910s.
One of the new aspects in my approach to the coming of the Civil War is a shift in our focus from sectionalism (North/South) as the main axis of political conflict to a struggle between the Northeast and the Mississippi Valley for continental (and possibly hemispheric) hegemony. I develop this argument by demonstrating that slavery was national, that sectionalism was a “political construct,” and that the alliance among Mississippi Valley Democrats imagined an agro-commercial empire extending into the Caribbean, Mexico, much of Latin America, and of course the trans-Mississippi regions of North America. The crumbling of this alliance paved the road to the slaveholders’ rebellion and the war, while the new Republican party began to craft a language and construct of “nation” and “nation-state” which the War of the Rebellion and Reconstruction brought into being. Continue reading