I’m ambivalent about the current polarization here in America. Sometimes, it seems to me that we really are in the middle of an unprecedented crisis, in which two large parties, secular progressives and religious conservatives, truly distrust one another and can find nothing in common. At other times, it seems to me that things aren’t so bad, in historical terms. Early 19th Century America, before the Era of Good Feelings, was pretty rough. Just go back and read some of the campaign literature from 1800. There was a fair amount of political violence at the end of the nineteenth century. Two presidents were assassinated in the space of less than 20 years. There were the 1960s. And of course we did have a Civil War in this country.
History is a good antidote to despair. It teaches us that things have been bad before–and will no doubt be again! A new history of America, A Nation Forged by Crisis: A New American History, from Basic Books, highlights the contingencies of our past. The author is Jay Sexton (University of Missouri). The publisher’s description follows:
A concise new history of the United States revealing that crises–not unlike those of the present day–have determined our nation’s course from the start.
In A Nation Forged by Crisis, historian Jay Sexton contends that our national narrative is not one of halting yet inevitable progress, but of repeated disruptions brought about by shifts in the international system. Sexton shows that the American Revolution was a consequence of the increasing integration of the British and American economies; that a necessary precondition for the Civil War was the absence, for the first time in decades, of foreign threats; and that we cannot understand the New Deal without examining the role of European immigrants and their offspring in transforming the Democratic Party.
A necessary corrective to conventional narratives of American history, A Nation Forged by Crisis argues that we can only prepare for our unpredictable future by first acknowledging the contingencies of our collective past.