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.
What initially drew you to your topic?
I was drawn to the topic, first, by an invitation to contribute a nineteenth century volume to the multi-volume Penguin History of the United States but also by a growing interest in putting the South (my field of specialization) and the West into more dynamic relation. I had been thinking about different approaches to the slave emancipation process, taking account of important work on the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and about the coincidental suppression of Native peoples, especially on the Plains and in the Southwest. I had also been increasingly interested in Mexico and especially in the making of the Mexican Revolution, one of the great and transformative events of the twentieth century, which is generally ignored by historians of the United States.
How does a broader geographic context unsettle historians’ narratives about the transformation of the United States during the long nineteenth century?
I’ve wondered for a long time what the history of the United States would look like if it were told as much from the perspective of the South and West—what we have come to call “regions”—instead of from the Northeast, which we generally regard as the “center” or “core.” For one thing, such a project more clearly links the North American continent to other parts of the hemisphere and the world (it was the Northeast, not the South or West that was truly “distinctive” or “different”). It also helps us see a much larger cast of actors and more complex dynamics for the country’s political/economic development, while recognizing the geo-political contingency of that development. It also draws the Atlanticist orientation of much recent historical literature—at least for the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries—into some question, and compels us to take a closer look at the Pacific.
What can your book tell us about American identity in the nineteenth century?
A Nation without Borders doesn’t devote much space to the development of American “identity” per se but does suggest a lengthy process of cultural formation in which what it meant to be American was often deeply contested. Identities having to do with particular geographic/ethnic communities, with social class, with ideas of race and gender, with political dispositions, and with imagined relations to the past and future formed part of this mix and lent great intensity to social and political struggles.
Did anything in particular surprise you while researching or writing this book?
Research and writing usually bring surprises with them, and I was continually struck by how frameworks that have governed the pursuit of American history were regularly confounded by the evidence that was supposed to support them. I struggled with this as I attempted to construct my own account and am left to wonder what sort of traction it will have.
What do you hope the book accomplishes?
My hope for the book is that it will advance a conversation that has been taking place for some time about the dimensions and the significant actors in the history of the United States.