Steven Hahn's ambitious synthesis of the history of the United States from 1830 to 1910 is the latest installment in the planned five-volume Penguin History of the United States series edited by Eric Foner. The book has all the hallmarks of a broad interpretive account that spans decades and lacks the scholarly infrastructure of a heavily documented monograph with footnotes drawn from archival collections. At first pass, it might be tempting to regard such a volume as simply a survey text. However, by placing the Civil War in the middle—rather than at the end or the beginning of his account—Hahn provocatively opens up the field to new interpretive perspectives. By employing this chronology, Hahn is able to pivot against the broad narrative of American history that all too often uses the Civil War to tell a familiar and inevitable story of the death and rebirth of the nation.
Employing the theme of "borders" throughout the text, Hahn begins with the expansion of the United States into Mexican territory in the 1830s and ends with an epilogue that analyzes how the dynamic energy unleashed throughout the nineteenth century in political, social, and cultural transformations gave rise to the Mexican Revolution of 1910. The [End Page 351] greatest insights of the book are revealed through Hahn's deft skills in narrating United States expansion into what he collectively labels the "trans-Mississippi West"—a region where the social transformations were most pronounced and that best illustrates the themes his book narrates. For example, rather than telling the familiar story of the "market revolution" in the industrial Northeast, Hahn narrates the story from New Orleans, where the transformations were most rapid, produced greater societal contradictions, and blurred rather than clarified the lines between slavery and freedom. Employing this strategy provides the reader with a sense of familiarity in identifying established historical patterns such as the rise of capitalism and the nation-state, the spread of wage labor, and the emergence of class-based institutions and associations, but a sense of surprise in geographically illustrating where these events are happening.
A Nation without Borders will be of interest to readers of the Journal of the Civil War Era in particular for a couple of interpretive points. First, even for a synthesis, Hahn's approach is in full alignment with recent scholarly trends that place U.S. history within a transnational and global perspective. As a result, the volume is less about a conflict between North and South than about how the West and territories outside the United States were conquered and brought into the nation. Hahn's account often involves his analytical perspective being cast from the Pacific toward the East and from Mexico and the Caribbean toward the North. Second, in analyzing the political and economic history of the United States from 1830 to 1910, Hahn argues that America operated as an empire from the very beginning with expressed imperial ambitions on the continent and in the hemisphere. Consequently, despite all the ideological differences between proslavery and antislavery politicians, they were in agreement about the necessity of empire for their own political and economic plans. This argument skillfully avoids the pitfalls of making the nineteenth century just about the divergent historical patterns shaping the North and the South.
While Hahn avoids the traditional narrative leading up to and following the Civil War, the event still rightfully figures as the main historical topic of the volume. Of the twelve chapters that make up the book, four deal with the Civil War. Hahn employs the term "War of the Rebellion" to place the Civil War in the context of other military and political conflicts of the nineteenth century, but also because he analyzes the Confederacy "as a rogue rather than a legitimate state" (4). From a comparative perspective, one of the "exceptional" aspects of American and southern history has been how much legitimacy has been given to explaining the Confederacy as a...