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The Contours of American History Paperback – February 17, 1989
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“One of the most original home-grown minds in American history. The welcome republication of The Contours of American History should make William Appleman Williams’ stature and foresight as an analyst of the basic patter of US history transparently evident.”—Eric Hobsbawm
“There is still—fifty years after its publication—no better critique of America liberalism and the contradictions of the ideology of individualism, no clearer analysis of the specificities of American empire. Greg Grandin’s preface is a terrific introduction to Williams’ thinking.”—Joan Wallach Scott
“It is hard to capture the impact of The Contours of American History on a generation of young historians in the 1960s, offering a model of history writing that took account of class forces, state power, and the role of ideas. In a way, the study of history has come full circle, back to examining the interconnections between domestic and international history. Back to Williams, in other words.”—Eric Foner
“A very good book indeed ... It is quietly reasoned, beautifully ordered, and spirited as hell ... [It] is not a book for children, nostalgic or otherwise.”—Loren Baritz, The Nation --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
About the Author
A former president of the Organization of American Historians, William Appleman Williams taught for many years at the University of Wisconsin and Oregon State University. His books include The Contours of American History, The Tragedy of American Diplomacy, and Empire as a Way of Life.
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Top customer reviews
I like the book very much and expect to read it again. I was excited by the energy displayed by the characters and it includes many great quotes I've never seen before.
"There is an overweening fondness for representing this country as a scene of liberty, equality fraternity, union, harmony, and benevolence. But let not your sons or mine deceive themselves. This country, like all others, has been a theatre of parties and feuds for near two hundred years." John Adams, 1817
"[a corporation] is, indeed, a mere artificial being, invisible and intangible; yet it is a person, for certain purposes in contemplation of law, and has been recognized as such by the decisions of this court." Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, 1839
He also points out the negative(my word) aspects of American economic and foreign policy, such as "expansion as economic policy." The Louisiana Purchase, the Mexican-American war, the Civil War, the Spanish American War, and . . .it just goes on from there. All were initiated in an effort to expand American territory. Why? Because Americans love wide-open spaces. And the fact American companies can use all the new customers they can get.
I've taken many history courses, but they never brought the people of the times alive like this; the Movers and shakers of the Age of Mercantilism, the Age of Laissez Nous Faire, the Age of Corporation Capitalism. It makes me wonder and hope what the future holds.
_Tragedy_ mostly explains the linkage between long-run expansionary policies of US elites and actual, concrete foreign policies undertaken by the US government. It argues convincingly that both "progressive" and "conservative" political currents contributed to a confrontational, strategic foreign policy. Progressives, in particular, saw expansionism abroad as THE method whereby social goals would be met or paid for. Conservatives mainly rejected idealistic foreign policy aims as bromides, but did favor aggressive pursuit of US business interests as the state's duty to private property. In my view, _Tragedy_ erred in downplaying the conservative role in jingoism, but made a strong case.
In _Contours_, Williams is struggling with a much more ephemeral topic: the philosophical trends that he regards as foundational to the Usonian world view. The central plot is expansionism: the colonies that would later form the early USA were guided by a doctrine of expansion, which was itself the product of perfectionist philosophical doctrines. Most of the first 44 pages is about the life and outlook of the 1st Earl of Shaftesbury (Anthony Ashley Cooper, d.1683), who is credited with the creation not merely of the Whig Party in England, but with the very idea of the the political party itself. In Williams' view, Shaftesbury identified the ideal balance between private initiative and public responsibility. The two concepts were inseparable in his mind, in large measure because of the prevailing mercantilist outlook of the epoch rejected the idea of the "Invisible Hand."(1)
Later, conditions following the partition of Great Britain (AKA the "American Revolution") included an almost single-minded pursuit of access to markets, usually taking the form of territorial control. The sectional conflict that was the Civil War (1861-1865) was stimulated by rival modes of expansion: the Northern section did not recognize the legitimacy of Southern capital because it consisted of enslaved humans. This was unacceptable to the South, which had in fact borne the principal cost of the wars fought for territorial expansion. While philosophy accounted somewhat for the prevailing views of the elites, however, Williams makes a case that the range of outlook was rendered arbitrarily narrow. Put another way, a different philosophical _Weltanschauung_ would have led to an attempt to end to political dependence on endless, reckless expansion. For one seeking evidence in spport of this view, Williams is the place to look.
However, the limited possibilities for concrete policies that Williams implicitly endorses (intensive public investment rather than extensive private investment, or attacking economic injustice rather than mitigating it with pro-growth public policy) were probably a more decisive explanation. Simply put, it was not possible for the USA to get rich the same way Denmark did.
Williams gets into more trouble when he reaches the long crisis (1913-1939). This was a 26-year period of severe depression interrupted by two bubbles (1916-1919 and 1926-1929). Williams seeks to demonstrate the bankruptcy of the progressive movement in the USA by claiming that Pres. Herbert Hoover exhausted the progressive program in his response to the Great Depression. Williams complains that the modalities of the New Deal were "syndicalist" and therefore reliant on overseas economic hegemony. In doing so, he uses embarrassing quotes from progressive leaders, such as FDR and Henry Wallace, to support his claim that the US progressive movement was hopelessly addicted to expansion-based financing for its social justice agenda.
As a result, Republican officials like Pres. Hoover and Sen. William E. Borah are treated as farsighted vanguards of the New Left (2), while the New Dealers are treated as incipient fascists. Williams claims to favor the benefits of "syndicalist" measures like the SSA and the National Labor Relations Act, but wrings his hand over the way they supposedly short-circuit democracy (as if democracy could exist without such things). And he willfully mixes up the "syndicalism" proposed by the Italian Fascists as a smokescreen for their corporatist agenda.(3)
For an historian to mix up these concepts as Williams does is not good faith. Moreover, Williams is so determined to lecture on the failures of US Progressivism that he ignores (a) its accommodationist origins (it favored business hegemony because the defenders of business interests were here to stay), and (b) he refuses to see it as an evolving ideal capable of adapting ends to prevailing conditions, and instead sees it as a few legislative initiatives. Hoover is praised not for any constructive proposals, but because he opposed reforms that Williams regards as philosophically akin to syndicalism. Williams, moreover, makes the spectacular mistake of assuming the conservatives who opposed progressivism did so out of absence of expansionist goals. For Williams, the progressives are the imperialists and the conservatives are their opponents. Hoover and Borah are heroes of the "no."
Central to this book is the "Frontier Thesis" of Frederick Jackson Turner, that the presence of an unsettled continent to conquer was the formative principle in the Usonian world view. Williams argues rightly that we need to learn to live without a frontier; but he fingers progressives as the logical corollary of expansionism; he regards their adversaries as allies, regardless of their motives for being adversaries.
(1) The "Invisible Hand" is a famous simile from Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations. It is commonly (and wrongly) used to refer to the tendency for goods markets to reach equilibrium; it is actually used to refer to the tendency (in Smith's opinion) for capital investments to favor the interests of the country from which they originate. In other words, Smith was arguing with James Steuart that the constrained self-interest of merchants was usually sufficient for optimal trade policy.
(2) Within the context of US history, the "New Left" refers to a political current that arose in the early 1960's in opposition to the social imperialism of traditional progressive Democrats. The progressive wing of the Democratic Party and its allies in the labor movement had mostly favored overseas hegemony and durable alliances in order to secure overseas markets for America's swelling economic surplus. If pursued successfully, this might have allowed very ambitious social welfare programs. The New Left argued that US hegemony of this sort injured the poor overseas, and perpetuated an intrinsically unfair, unsustainable economic system. It also attacked the paternalistic, perfectionist character of social programs.
(3) Syndicalism is the idea that a society is governed by interest groups. Thus, people are organized into labor, management, and agriculture, and allowed to chose their interest-group representatives; and these actually make policy. This was an idea proposed as an alternative to the state by European anarchists in the 1860's; it was surmised back then that the state would become redundant if no one class had hegemonic power over the rest of society. By 1900 or so, anarcho-syndicalism was largely superseded by Marxism (on the European left) and syndicalism was seen as a discarded idea that might be useful to the hard right as an organizing principle. In fact, the Fascist regime did have a governing council that pretended to be syndicalist, but power was of course really held by Benito Mussolini, and of course the state was very much alive.
Corporatism blends socialism and capitalism, not by giving each control of different parts of the economy, but by combining socialism's promise of a government-guaranteed flow of material goods with capitalism's private ownership and management. Management is sheltered from the risk of failure, while the workers are sheltered from massive unemployment. In practice, the total social cost of this arrangement is borne by workers, who become virtual slaves of their direct supervisors. Corporatism has little to do with the corporate form of business organization.