- The Dominion of War: Empire and Liberty in North America, 1500–2000
Fred Anderson and Andrew Cayton set out to probe the “grand narrative” of American history, in which liberty-loving Americans go to war only to defend themselves against unprovoked threats, in order to explore “the ambiguous and ironic relationship between war and freedom in the making of North America” (xxxiii) and the rise of the United States to global power. They question the social, political, economic, and ethnocultural realities of republicanism, the popular idealization of a stateless advance by settlers, and the racist “Fort Apache” syndrome, so common in Hollywood, in which small bands of heroic Americans turn back faceless hordes of Indians, Vietnamese Communists, or whomever, without serious inquiry into how the Americans got there in the first place. In doing so, the authors provide a historians’ look at American empire, demonstrating its general similarity to other empires, a crucial step in the deconstruction of American exceptionalism. Rejecting “theoretical statements and generalizations” (xxi) in favor of employing individuals representative of the main currents of their eras, the authors’ intended audience appears to be the general reading public, perhaps particularly those who so avidly consume the history of battles and campaigns. The Dominion of War demands evaluation philosophically, historiographically, methodologically, and politically.
Philosophically, the authors present a story historians can all enjoy: full of contingency, agency (though they avoid the term), irony (lots of irony) [End Page 471] , and plenty of unintended consequences. They clearly demonstrate the connections between the causes of American wars, and between wars and postwar political regimes. This may not be new to anyone who teaches the American survey: The Dominion of War is a synthesis that breaks little new ground in research and interpretation within individual chronological periods. Yet the integration of war and peace, war and politics, is something of which historians as well as history buffs need reminding, and The Dominion of War does so without slathering on the operational details that distract buffs and put off historians.
Historiographically, a few points really stand out for the period of the early republic: the emphasis on continuities between British colonial and American republican expansion (also discussed in the plenary at last year’s SHEAR conference), and the argument that the War of 1812 was an “imperialist military adventure” (421) like the war with Mexico and the Spanish–American War. As sympathetic as I am to interpretations emphasizing borderlands and expansion, as much as I agree with the authors that these three wars deserve to escape the shadow of the Revolution, the Civil War, and the World Wars, I doubt that “expansion beyond the Great Lakes into Upper Canada” was the United States’ “most important objective” in 1812 (231). It certainly was not the dominant focus of executive policy, of the congressional vote to declare war, or of military operations. However popular among the public, it was a means to an end—compelling Britain to end its maritime depredations—as J. C. A. Stagg demonstrated a quarter of a century ago. The War of 1812 defeated armed resistance to white expansion in the Old Northwest and the South, but this was not the whole story.
Methodologically, Cayton and Anderson provide a parallel narrative for the nineteenth century, with a chapter on Antonio López de Santa Anna and discussion of Mexico under Benito Juárez and Porfirio Diáz in the chapter that follows. But the reader is usually left to draw his or her own conclusions; apart from observing that the two “nations’ political cultures unfolded in different contexts and produced different outcomes” (247), they present little in the way of signposting. Indeed, apart from demonstrating that war had critical unforeseen effects in Mexico as well as the United States, scholars may wonder what the chapter on Santa Anna is intended to do: Is it a control chapter, to help isolate variables in the U.S. situation? Comparative history requires more explanation of assumptions and intentions in order to reach its...