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Reviews in American History 28.3 (2000) 351-359
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North Atlantic Culture Wars
John L. Brooke
Kevin Phillips. The Cousins' Wars: Religion, Politics, and the Triumph of Anglo-America. New York: Basic Books, 1999. xxviii + 707 pp. Maps, figures, appendices, notes, bibliography, and index. $35.00 (cloth); $16.50 (paper).
In the early summer of 1982 David Nyhan, veteran political columnist for the Boston Globe, described Kevin Phillips as "the E. F. Hutton of American politics." 1 Twenty years on, with a series of powerful critiques of the political economy of contemporary America further reinforcing this reputation for hard political analysis, Phillips has written a big book that will require the close and respectful attention of a new constituency of readers: the historians of the early modern north Atlantic. Untethered by traditional professional boundaries, Phillips has moved out of his usual stomping grounds in contemporary America to write a sweeping ethnocultural synthesis of warfare, religion, and popular politics writ large in North America and Britain from the 1640s to the 1860s, with a closing sketch carrying elements of his analysis to the present. His most fundamental contribution is his careful dissection of--and on-going counterfactual speculation upon--American and British histories and historiographies spanning three centuries. Reading this vast study one has to wonder when Phillips had time to wake us all up on National Public Radio: getting his breakfast, brushing his teeth, and getting to the studio on time. As David Nyhan suggested years ago, and as we all do when his gravelly voice rasps away the gloom on some winter morning after a primary, we should pay close attention to Kevin Phillips's new book, even if we will not all agree with his point of view and interpretive approach. He has made a significant addition to the political history of the Anglo-Atlantic world.
We should pay attention to Phillips because he has paid attention to us. Here we have no swash-buckling neo-conservative, oozing contempt for the academy, but an old-fashioned, American Heritage-reading Main Streeter, eminently respectful of the labors of three generations of historians. Chapter 1 opens with quotes from Bismarck, Tawney, and Rowse, chapter 2 features George Trevalyan, John Adams, and Richard Bushman, chapter 3 gives equal billing to John Shy, Bernard Bailyn, and Alfred Young. And so it goes [End Page 351] throughout the book, as Phillips moves from epigram to careful and considered historiographical commentary embedded in detailed historical analysis. As a political analyst, he is perfectly at home with historical analysis, and makes no claims to narrative history (and throws no stones at "the decline of narrative"). Rather than setting himself up as a superior voice, Phillips has carefully read and absorbed a remarkable array of the recent work of many British and American historians, and has shaped this work into a synthesis that can be situated within the structures of that historiography, while at the same time challenging it. His argument is that Britain and the United States emerged to a shared economic and linguistic world hegemony driven by their common experience of three civil wars: the English Civil War, the American Revolution, and the American Civil War. These wars were the "anvil[s] on which some of the most lasting arrangements of English and American politics have been hammered" and "constitute the central staircase of modern English-speaking history" (p. xiv). Here is a synthesis that perhaps only an informed "outsider" might make; Phillips is too polite to suggest that professional historians have recently--for a variety of reasons--avoided his mode of grand synthesis. He may well suggest some new approaches to an old story. If nothing else, The Cousins' Wars should become an underground cult classic for harried graduate students reading for orals, and for even more harried young assistant professors teaching the survey for the first time, both in search of a unifying story, to critique or to present.
There are of course, some questions about the place of this book in the longer trajectory of Phillips's career. In The Cousins' Wars, Phillips returns...